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After Decades, a Weight Is Lifted

5-minute read

After Decades, a Weight Is Lifted

5-minute read

Read Stories > After Decades, a Weight Is Lifted

After witnessing a grisly murder scene. After hiding his drinking for years. After learning that his wife wanted a divorce and a doctor told him he had maybe five years to live.

Bill, a former forensic photographer in the U.S. Navy, worked Super Bowl XXII in San Diego, California
Bill worked Super Bowl XXII in San Diego, California.

Bill finally sat across from a therapist at the Veterans Village of San Diego. He had nothing to say. He had no interest in talking — not at first. But this therapist was onto something: She had begun digging down to the root of it all.

“I fought them for six weeks, a month, you know, two months — until I got a therapist who recognized that I was the victim of child sexual trauma, molestation,” Bill recalls.

“She would say, ‘Bill, do you want to talk about it?’ I’d sit there and just stare at her. And, ‘I ain’t got a thing to say to you. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Slowly, but surely, we dealt with those issues.”

A Downward Spiral

Years ago, Bill specialized in forensic photography for the Navy, drinking heavily to cope with the crime scenes he witnessed. After leaving the military, he became what he terms a “closet alcoholic.” He drove camera carts for the NFL until they began hiring more local crews and the flow of work began to slow.

Then a downward spiral began: “As the work dried up, I drank more,” Bill says. “The more I drank, the more the work just went away, because people wouldn’t hire me.”

He began to bicker with his wife. He picked fights with friends on social media. He withdrew. Finally, two years ago, it all came to a head: He and his wife were headed for a divorce. 

Bill’s wife was out of town for the holidays, and he wanted her to come home and find him. He took a bottle of pills, chased them with wine, and went to sleep.

“You need help.”

Bill came to in the hospital, with his wife by his side. He remembers what she told him: “We’re getting a divorce, but I’m here to help you. I don’t wish this on anybody, and you need help.”

He was released from the hospital and went to VA, and he might just have bottomed out there. “The doctor at the VA said, ‘Bill, I don’t often get to say this to a person who doesn’t have a terminal disease, but you’ve got four, maybe five years to live,’” he recalls. His doctors were worried about his organs — his kidneys, his liver, his lungs. But he needed to get sober to get on a transplant list.

That’s how Bill ended up at the Veterans Village of San Diego, sitting across from a therapist who just happened to have decades of experience treating survivors of sexual abuse. Together, they began to confront his past.

“She said, ‘Bill, the minute you can talk about your childhood trauma with a matter-of-fact attitude, you’ll have turned all three corners down the back stretch for recovery,’” he explains, “‘because then you’ll realize it wasn’t your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.’”

Bill didn’t believe his therapist, but slowly he started to open up about abuse that had happened at childcare when he was 8 and 9 years old. The conversation changed the course of his treatment.

Suicide would've been a very terrible permanent solution to what now was a temporary problem — albeit 50 years, but not permanent. Bill, U.S. Navy Veteran

Bill began sharing his story with more people.

“The first time I announced it at a 12-step meeting, nobody looked down at me,” he says. “And that was very cathartic. I mean, I could literally physically feel like a weight being lifted off my chest, like a rush of air.”

Bill began to realize he wasn’t alone. He began to embrace the support of a community that would never judge him for his story. “I’ve got my Veteran buddies who, surprisingly, just put their arms around me and said, ‘That’s OK. You’re still one of us.’”

“We pick each other up.”

“It’s possible to get help.” That’s the message Bill wants to pass on, along with “You’re not alone.” He knows this. He’s been there. He has felt like the only one.

So, Bill shares his story. He tells people about the tools that worked for him. He tries to make himself available for others. “My best friends, and … Veteran friends, we pick each other up when the going’s rough,” he says. “And we don’t care why. We don’t care how. You’re down, I got you. That’s it.”

When people ask: How many months sober do you have? How many weeks sober do you have? Bill just answers, “Today.” That’s all he cares about. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. One goal: “Go to bed tonight without a drink.”

And today, Bill can sit and smile. He and his ex-wife get along better than they did in the last eight years of their marriage. He’s reconnected with friends. He volunteers at the Veterans Village on Mondays and attends relapse prevention on Thursdays. He serves as a chaplain at a monthly memorial service for Veterans who have recently died.

“I follow one simple philosophy every single day of my life, and that is: Grateful doesn’t relapse. And even if I’m having a bad day, as long as I can find something to be grateful for, then I have a really good shot at the end of the day — of going to sleep, not passing out,” Bill says. “And that’s the end game. That’s the long game.”

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