Episode 134: Wes B.

This episode features a talk by Wes B., who attends meetings at the Freethinkers and We Agnostics groups in Kansas City, Missouri. Addiction to drugs and alcohol brought Wes close to death several times, and as a self-described strident atheist, he had difficulty with the overly religious language that he was confronted with during treatment and at the AA meetings he attended early in his recovery. Today, Wes plays an important role in the secular AA community in Kansas City, and his service to both the Freethinkers and We Agnostics groups in that city has been invaluable. He is content and happy with his sobriety, and he enjoys working with newcomers.   

Transcript

Hi guys, my name is Wes. I am a drug-addicted, alcoholic, obsessive-compulsive, bipolar, kleptomaniac. I think I left some stuff out there too, but that’s all true. First, I would like to thank Simon for holding the meeting, for creating the meeting, John for recording and for John’s fine podcast, and I’d like to thank my sponsor, Kevin. Kevin has been an enormous help to me in my recovery, and most of the people in this room are essentially mentors to me. I look up to you guys, big time. Not you, Douglas. But that’s a joke, I look up to you, too. I wanted to tell you guys my story and how I ended up here with you all. First of all, I am an atheist, I have always been an atheist. I was very happy to find a secular group in Kansas City when I needed it most, and I’m very proud of Kansas City’s strong groups that… The secular groups and their development. It seems like we’re in a sort of infancy of secular AA, and I think 10, 20 years down the road, it will be far more common. And that’s a good thing because there is no God.

[laughter]

I don’t know of anything that’s more patently obvious. But anyhow, I come from an alcoholic family. I refer to myself as a purebred alcoholic or an heirloom alcoholic.

 [laughter]

I grew up in a household that was pretty chaotic, a lot of arguing. I was scared to death of my father, who is now my best friend, but when I was young, he was still drinking, and my mother took my sister and me away and said, “If you don’t stop drinking, you won’t see them again.” So that compelled my father to stop drinking. He’s been sober 32 years now. So I had a… I was always a sensitive guy, and growing up in such chaos was really quite difficult. I began drinking at a pretty average age, I guess, 14 or something like that, and quickly discovered that alcohol was, of course, a magic potion. It was medicine and made me feel better in every imaginable way. 

It was about the same time that I discovered pain pills, due to breaking an arm. I’m absolutely riddled with scars. I’ve had a major operation on my left femoral artery from a soccer, major, major soccer injury. $80,000 worth of surgery on my left femoral artery, some major surgeries that I’ll be discussing here in a minute. But I have had legal access to pain pills for a large portion of my life, because of injury, after injury, after injury. That sort of legal access to pain pills, because you have a legitimate injury, is the gateway for most… Not most, many people. That’s how they end up discovering opiates. And the government has cracked down on the dispensing of opiates, but they did it about 15 years too late. It used to be easy to walk into a doctor and say, “My back hurts,” and you walk out with a prescription for Vicodin, or hydrocodone, or their big brother, oxycodone. 

I drank a lot during high school, but I was also very, very active. I was a soccer player, I was involved in journalism and all sorts of things. But my drinking was pretty average. I drank with my friends and there weren’t many penalties for it. I think I got a minor in possession, an MIP, once when I was young, but I went on from high school to undergrad at KU, where I joined a fraternity. My options were basically playing soccer and stay sober, or join a fraternity and party all the time, so nothing could be clearer. I went the fraternity route. 

In the fraternity, I discovered Adderall. Adderall is a really common stimulant. It’s basically a pill of cocaine, but better. So in the fraternity, I had the freedom to drink, basically every day. I was kicked out of school because my grades dropped so far down, but I was able to remain in the fraternity. And, in fact, I kept going to classes. [chuckle] So for two years at KU, I was un-enrolled, but going to classes, participating in the fraternity, and even drawing for the school newspaper, and they didn’t even know I wasn’t a student. But I basically didn’t… I didn’t exist on fucking paper anywhere, because I wasn’t enrolled in the school, and Fiji, the fraternity, they just pretended like I didn’t exist so that I didn’t lower the fraternity’s overall GPA.

[laughter]

So I was dropped from their list. I wasn’t on the school’s list, I didn’t exist on paper anywhere, but I lived in a sort of fancy hotel that is a KU fraternity. They have a big Greek system there, so I had absolute freedom to take drugs and drink 24/7. Now with the Adderall… So typically, when you’re drinking hard liquor the way I was, your body will tell you “no” at a certain point, which means you’ll either pass out, or you’ll throw up. Your body will reject it. When you’re on Adderall, your body won’t do that, you can just keep going and going and going, and that’s how I ended up getting pancreatitis. My pancreas finally started shutting down, and it was unbelievably painful. I describe it as swallowing a hand grenade. It was just unreal. So I was hospitalized for that, and actually stopped drinking for about six months, but then started up again and ended up with pancreatitis two other times. So even in a fraternity, I was labeled an alcoholic. [chuckle] Which is a hard thing to do.

I went on to grad school in New York City and kind of kept my shit together, but that’s because I had a real sort of strict routine, I had classes I had to go to. I showed up the very first day of class in New York, hands trembling, just withdrawing like crazy, because I had spent four days right before the first day of class in the Hamptons, drinking red wine on the beach. So I was sunburned and withdrawing like hell. I was that guy, the very first day of class. But I continued drinking and I was able to kind of keep things together, but it was when I found a way to get opiates in New York that sort of started changing everything. I found a drug dealer, so then I had total access to opiates, and opiates are very, very, very expensive. But I was siphoning money out of student loans, I was siphoning money out of my family. I had a really high paying job for a while as a gondolier in Central Park. I would walk away with $500 some nights, so I had a lot of… I had a lot of money to spend on drugs. 

So I was sort of living the high life. Then I graduated two years later with a master’s degree in illustration and moved into an apartment in Brooklyn. And that’s where probably the most pivotal, transformative, scary thing that ever happened in my life occurred and that is, one night, when I was walking my dog, Wrigley, my best friend. I was attacked by four guys in and beaten almost to death. I was being hit on the head with a 2×4, I was being kicked in the face. It was absolutely brutal, and then I was stabbed with a knife that went six inches, many of you have heard this before, went six inches into my kidney area. So thanks to the screaming of my then-girlfriend, neighbors came out and pulled these guys off of me. 

So I lost two liters of blood by the time I got to the hospital, so I lost 40% of my blood. When I went in, I looked in the mirror, and my left pupil was a thin vertical oval because I’d been kicked in the eye, I couldn’t see out of it. There’s blood absolutely everywhere. It was just a bloodbath. Picture a 2-liter bottle of Coke poured out all over the halls and floors and… Anyways, there was snow outside at the time, so there’s just, there’s blood just absolutely everywhere. We finally figured out where it was coming from, and it was coming from that stab wound. It was just gushing blood. 

So I made it to the hospital. They took me to a hospital that specialized in knife wounds, they had another one in Brooklyn that specialized in gunshot wounds, but they took me to the level one trauma center that was a little bit farther away, but better with this type of wound. I knew in the ambulance that this was probably it, and I said bye to everyone. I said bye to my dog, I was just crying. I made a conscious effort in the ambulance to try and slow my breathing because I knew if I slowed my heart, I wouldn’t lose as much blood. They were blown away when I arrived, I was even conscious, but I was. I was also under the influence, by the way, I had huge quantities of painkillers in me, which, in retrospect, might have actually been a really good thing, and I was drunk, so the blood was even thinner because of all the alcohol in me. 

So anyhow, we make it to the hospital and there are all these people waiting, they’re ready because this thing has been called in, these ambulance drivers were just like angels, they came in, they picked me up and they fucking hauled ass. There’s snow on the ground, right? So this ambulance is sliding around turns, and I can feel, just from the vibration and the way the car is moving and the way my weight is shifting around, I can tell how fast we’re going. And got to the hospital, and they rushed me into the OR, it was nuts. And I was in so much pain once the adrenaline wore off, I was crying and begging and begging for them to put me out, to put me under, and finally, they did. 

So I woke up in the ICU, where I spent quite a portion of my 17 days in the hospital, and I was visited by detectives and they said it was a gang initiation. That’s what had happened. In other words, these gang members were instructed to kill someone. Go kill that guy, and you’re in. In the same neighborhood, the same night, they said another guy was stabbed, and a girl was raped, and they think it was the same people. They didn’t end up catching anyone, but I did get to listen to some Brooklyn cops, detectives with strong Brooklyn accents, and it seemed like right out of a TV show, these guys. But I could go on for hours and hours about all the horrifying things that occurred in the hospital, but just a couple of them. 

I was supposed to be released the next morning to go home after about a week, week and a half in the hospital. And at 3:00 in the morning, blood started spraying out of my wound, so they raced to get a doctor, and they got a hold of the Chief of Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, like the main surgeon, the big dog. And he came in, he rolled me over, he didn’t even warn me, but he poked me with his scalpel and blood sprayed out, and he goes, “Now, he has to go now.” And so they raced me down to the OR and I cut in line in front of all the people who were waiting to get operated on, because he’s like, “He’s about to die, he’s bleeding internally.” So that’s when they opened me up, from my belly button to the middle of my back, and pulled all my intestines out, and they found what was wrong, and they fixed it, but it was roughly $200,000 worth of surgery. Luckily, I had amazing insurance at the time, but it was fucking scary, it was really, really scary. 

A lot of people tell me or say to me… Well, first of all, the doctors even told me, once I was stabilized and better after all this. Well, first they said, “We put your intestines back in and they’re not in the arrangement you were born with, so it’ll take you a while to have a bowel movement, your body is going to have to get used to the new routing of the plumbing.” They also said, “Not one of us thought you were going to make it.” They told me that after they… After they knew for sure I was alive, then they told me because by then, I’d made good friends with many of the nurses and doctors and that they said, “Yeah, we did not think you were going to make it.” But people will say to me, back to my point, people will say to me, “Do you believe in God now?” Or I was receiving letters from certain people, they would say things like, “We knew you would pull through because we were praying for you.” 

And I was like, “Fuck you. I was saved by modern science, modern medicine, modern medicine, some brilliant, brilliant surgeons.” Not to say their sentiments were completely rejected, all I mean is that science prevailed. Had this happened to me 100 years ago, I would have been toast. Some amazing surgeons did some brilliant work to put me back together. My colon was severed, my kidney was cut. I was told by the doctors, “The knife went in the one place it could have gone in that deep without killing you within minutes.” It’s luck. It’s luck, man. So that was a very, very big deal, and I do suffer PTSD from that event. 

Years after that, my dog Wrigley died. I had Wrigley from the time he was a puppy, until 12 years later, he fell over dead one day. And that began a year-long descent of just non-stop drinking. I just wanted to die, really. Non-stop drinking and over-the-top opiate use, which increased and increased and increased, to the point where I was taking 200 milligrams average, a day, of oxycodone, sometimes 300. And at $1 a milligram, that’s not really a sustainable habit. So I was siphoning money out of my family, I was stealing money from my family. I ended up going to rehab after an intervention, my family intervened and sent me to rehab in Florida. I had gone to several other rehabs near Kansas City, but I always escaped, so they had to send me far away so I literally had no way to get home. When you get to rehab, they take your cell phone, your ID, your money, your everything. And I even tried to escape from there, and damn near did. I swindled this nice couple into buying me bus tickets and, anyway, it fell apart. But I spent 51 days in rehab and I went through the steps. It was a very traditional, conservative, red, Trump-loving, Florida fucking group of meetings, and they always said there, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” And they also would not allow people to speak in meetings unless they had six months of sobriety. You can’t say a fucking word, unless… Are we going to have to edit out the F-bombs? 

[laughter] 

You can’t say a word unless you have six months of sobriety, which I find so absurd. I think it’s valuable to hear from the newcomers. Here’s why: They’re closer to hell. I think it’s that simple. Shouldn’t we be concerned with what new people have to say? They’re closer to hell. I feel so much stronger now, at about a year and a half… I’m over a year and a half in, then I did when I first arrived. When I first arrived, first of all, the first three meetings, I was drunk. I was very, very tan because I came from Florida, which Carmen liked to laugh at. She’s like, “Who is this preppy tan guy who went to a fancy Florida rehab?” But yeah, I was intoxicated the first few meetings, but I was just weak, just weak and scared. Greg kind of welcomed me. I’ll never forget that, but I Googled AA meetings in Kansas City, and We Agnostics popped up. Now, I thought We Agnostics was just the name of it, but I assumed it was going to be a traditional group. Lo and behold, it’s actually a secular group. So, I had stumbled into my home. And thank you, John, for starting the meeting. Thank you once again. 

We Agnostics is, it’s the best meeting I’ve ever been to, the best group of people. You guys are all family to me. I know all of you, for the most part, here, and I do consider you family, and that’s so different than what I had imagined when I first came in. I had no idea it could be this good, I had no idea recovery could actually be enjoyable. When I was younger and I heard about AA, I pictured like two old guys, a bottle of whiskey inside of a bag, chain-smoking in a small room with one light bulb hanging. Just sad, sorry sons of bitches, that’s what I pictured AA as. And it’s not like that, not like that in our group. Again, I have found so many friends here, and it’s a pleasure coming to meetings. I want to go to meetings. That’s something that, when I first started recovery, “No, fuck AA. Fuck recovery, fuck this, fuck that. I don’t… ” I was just resisting, resisting, resisting. 

Well, I fell into a group where I don’t have to resist anything, I want to be here. I want to be around you all. My buddy Nate, my best friend in the world, said to me one time, “I don’t know anyone who has come close to death more times than you.” One of the times I had pancreatitis, I was on a morphine drip, because it’s excruciatingly painful, and they didn’t know that I had pneumonia in one of my lungs. So a nurse who was walking by my room looked in and I was blue, so they called, “He’s coding,” or whatever they say, and they came in and were barely able to revive me. There have been so many close brushes with death, there have been some other ones. There have been a couple of times that I overdosed on opiates and barely came back. I’ve had many grand mal seizures that were unlike anything I can really explain. 

I like to think that, in AA, we are the winners. We’re the ones trying to make a difference. We’re trying to change our life for the better, we’re embracing recovery. So as I speak, there are individuals throughout Kansas City who are getting arrested for DUIs, who are cheating on their spouses, who are throwing up in bathtubs or toilets or all over themselves or withdrawing on the floor. I think it’s really important that we should be proud of being members of AA. Just for the record, my name is Wes Benson. I do not care about my anonymity being broken, and that’s specifically because I am so proud to be in AA. I know that in years past, in decades past, it was sort of a scarlet letter to be in AA. It could hurt your career, years ago. Well, things are slowly changing, and I know that I’ve worked with people who had addiction problems. And it was an art school I taught at, they weren’t able to fire him specifically because he was an addict. That’s sort of how the laws and rules are changing. You have a lot of protections now if you are an alcoholic or an addict. 

For me, small, incremental steps have saved my life. The way I look at recovery is truly just these tiny little steps forward. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but it is a race, from death, basically. But small incremental steps in the right direction do eventually get you there, it’s just a matter of time. I work on my house, I do a lot of work on my house, I paint and do construction work, and I like to find, “Oh, I can make that look better. Oh, I can make this work better.” As long as every day I accomplish something, “Oh, today, I brushed my teeth. Oh, today I did whatever.” 

I’d like to say, really fast, my father, who is not here at the moment, he is also one I would have to thank big time. My sweet, sweet father who, you all know, has put up with more of my bullshit than you could imagine. And I did a few rough calculations, and I think he has spent on the order of $150,000 trying to keep me alive. I don’t know if any of you feel this way, but my self-sabotage shit, it’s like I’m trying everything I can possibly do to kill myself. That was the mentality, is that everything was self-defeating, everything was self-destructive, like what’s the most effective way I can just boil my organs and end this all? I did go through suicidal periods. I did go through a period of cutting, even. 

I am an artist, that’s what I do. There’s a lot of substance abuse in the art fields, particularly in music, actually, but I’m not, I’m not a… Well, in the performance art realm. Luckily, I’m not one of those. I’m a visual artist, meaning I paint, I draw, I work in Photoshop, commercial illustration, that sort of thing. But separating alcohol, separating drugs from my work has been a real struggle and has been an interesting journey. I used to use drugs and alcohol to be more creative. I do play guitar, I’ve written a lot of songs, and that kind of thing just came naturally with alcohol in my system, and painting came naturally with… The lowered inhibitions made the act of being creative easier, so I’ve had to learn how to do that sober. Now I’m getting to a point where I’ve gotten even better, sober, at accomplishing those very things. So I know a lot of artists who are in AA and they say, “How am I ever going to be creative again? How am I ever going to be creative again?” And I assure them, it will be even better if you trust the process. You will get better, you will learn how to be creative, you will learn how to laugh again, you’ll learn how to write better. I spend a lot of time writing and reading. 

I know I’m an addict, I will always be an addict, I’ve stopped trying to fight that. What I’ve tried to do is channel my addiction, or refocus my addiction to running, reading, painting. Let’s get addicted to these things. Let’s get addicted to positive things, and it works. I guess I should say another thing that just came to mind: In AA, we’re always talking about, specifically in traditional AA, your higher power, you have to have a higher power. Well, I copied my higher power from my wife Katie, who in a meeting, said her higher power was science and love, and science and love absolutely qualify as my higher power. 

We spoke today, in the noon meeting, about how you find strength when you’re at your absolute weakest. It’s ironic that the time we need help the most is when we’re least able to provide it for ourselves. Like when you’re on a piss-stained couch with empty vodka bottles underneath it, like me, withdrawing from opiates, that’s when I needed help the most. Or when the ambulance came and they couldn’t revive me, they couldn’t figure out… I was too sedated, they couldn’t even wake me up. That’s when I needed help the most, but I wasn’t able to do it, so you have to rely on others. That’s the point of intervention. But I was talking about powerful things today, sources of power, and I came up with this that I thought was sort of interesting. I wrote a list of a powerful thing. Car wrecks, collisions, it’s a powerful thing. Guns, guns are powerful. Airplanes are powerful, they get us up into the sky. And then addiction is powerful. The moment a glass lifts from a surface, that’s a powerful moment, that’s where the rubber meets the road. The moment that glass separates from the table, that’s right when you’ve made your decision to drink that. 

So when you see someone pick up a drink, that’s a really powerful thing. It can be if it’s the right person. They shouldn’t be separating those two objects. I could ramble on and on about my life and stuff like that, but I’m not sure if you want to hear that. I guess… Here, let me say one more thing. Kevin and I are both strident atheists. We were sitting at Starbucks and these two bright-eyed college-age boys came over us and they said, “Hey, can we sit down and talk to you for a while about Jesus?” And I just laughed and I said, “Boy, did you pick the wrong two people for this.” And we had a very interesting conversation. Paleontology happens to be a hobby of mine, so I care a lot about geology, the age of the Earth, the age of certain animals, and millions of years versus billions of years. And I know a lot about dinosaurs, and I’ve done digging with KU in Montana, digging up dinosaurs. And so, these two young guys were telling us that the earth is 6000 years old, and it’s well-documented. It’s well documented that it’s 6000 years old. Anyhow, Kevin and I had fun with that. We were actually quite civil with them. 

This morning, I was running late to lead the noon meeting, and there was a knock on my door, which sent my dog into a barking spree, and I opened up the door and it was two women, and I said, “Hi.” And I look down, and in their hands is a Bible, I said, “Oh hell no.” And I slammed the door in their face. And then I thought about it, I thought, “Well, what if I had just said, ‘Okay well, let me just talk to them.’ If I would have talked to them for a while, and they would have learned that I’m an atheist and I think everything they’re saying is horseshit, maybe they would have preferred I just shut the door in their face, over what I probably would have said to them.” I’m an atheist, but I’m not going to come to knock on your door and try and convince you to be an atheist. If you’re religious, more power to you, but I love that we do not evangelize. Thank you guys again for coming.

[applause] 

[music]


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