'Ask for help and do the work' gets friend out of alcohol's grasp

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I've known Steve Lenz but a couple of years, yet on some days it seems I've seen his pleasant smile my whole life. It's always there when I pass by him on a near-daily basis, a vague kindness silently directed my way.

Steve is that kind of guy - reserved on the surface, but a wealth of all kinds of information under a calm exterior. He loves to travel, for example, and shoot the kind of photos that sometimes make me cry. He lives with creatures like his mouse, "Holmes," which he raised from a tiny dot of fur. He also parents a "Mali Uromastyx" - an ancient species of lizard. Naturally.

And a scorpion. And a couple of ant colonies. He used to have a colony of snakes, so ants are nothing.

Had we met in high school, I might have considered him nerdy but adorable. The grown-up Sheila has just flat-out admired Steve's scope of skills.

Upon reading a recent Facebook post of his, however, I realized I had a far-from-complete picture.

"Four years ago today I would have been nursing my health from poor choices the day before. Cursing the world and myself for a miserable existence and scraping rock bottom in Portland, not sure if I could make it out. In November of 2008 I escaped a self-made hell to recover with family. Feeling lucky to be alive, but with little else to feel lucky about," Steve wrote.

"Today I sat in the Presidents board room of a notable college around a table seated with community leaders as a team member of theirs to work on social issues in our area. Feeling healthy, alert, and capable. Something that I would have said was impossible four years ago."

I distinctly remember sitting back in my chair, thinking "This is my Steve Lenz?" The road-to-hell paved with bad choices Steve Lenz, I meant.

Nope. Not the one I see and interact with. Not the guy who nurtures baby spiders and ticks and offers up kind words. Who grows a bamboo plant in a Mountain Dew can on his desk, for goodness' sake.

So, being me, I asked Steve if he'd like to talk about his Facebook statement.

Yes, he would, it turned out.

Steve believes issues began in childhood for him. He was raised in a "very" traditional religion within a nontraditional childhood. His parents grieved for an older brother who died before Steve was born. In their sadness - and gratitude for another living child - my friend's mom and dad allowed their bright boy who had plenty of charm to manipulate life around him.

"I wasn't evil or mean spirited, so I got my way," he said. "I wasn't harmful ... I really didn't take advantage of it. I've always been a fairly caring and sensitive person. But rather than doing the work, I would use my words."

A kind of laziness, Steve now supposes.

What that also meant, unfortunately, is he faced no real consequences as a child. Church-based school, however, provided plenty of angst and pain, he recalled. He was socially awkward at best and not helped by a case of mononucleosis that sidelined him in fourth grade and again a few years later. Steve felt out of place and distrusted by the school system at large, he said.

"About the time my desire to be socially accepted was at its peak and I was being socially rejected, I convinced my parents I should drop out of high school."

Steve estimates his true education level was at eighth grade by then.

Dropping out began a domino fall of epic proportion. He got a GED in one day, scoring exceptionally high, but turned to manual labor and entry-level jobs.

Then came the drinking and drugs. Having not yet reached age 20, a guy with a binging personality had found the ultimate ammunition to annihilate his ragged life. Depression and other mental un-health added to the caliber of the bullets, he said.

"My mission was to get out of reality as much as I could and in as short amount of time as I could."

Steve moved to Portland, where he found an abundance of like company, at a time when society was conveniently looking the other way on such behavior.

That Portland lifestyle had answered another need, he found. In the city, with drugs as the buffer and currency, Steve could gain social acceptance. Being treated as a VIP in the clubs, running with musicians and models, turned out to be as addictive as anything else.

It was also the scene of his lowest point. "I was drinking on a regular basis, being out all night and sleeping all day. Losing a ton of money. My fiance left me and I was reduced to couch surfing. And still not getting in my head what the source of the problem was."

One day he did. Steve realized he had to choose, right then, whether to live or die. He quit substance use "cold turkey" and returned to Walla Walla. It was November of 2008.

A great ending. If only it were so.

Back home, rediscovering life, rebuilding relationships and holding down a job, Steve believed he could have a drink on occasion and be fine. "So I went out on some weekends. And I don't have an ‘off' switch."

What seemed destined to happen finally did. Steve was pulled over by city police while driving drunk.

He calls it his "aha" moment. "I was being my crazy, outgoing (accomplished with alcohol) self, joking with the cops. Up until the handcuffs went on my wrists."

With that metallic clink came Steve's first physical consequence for his behavior, he explained. He remembers how powerless that felt.

But he still had a choice - have a DUI on his record and do a few days in jail, or enter a two-year outpatient treatment program.

He chose the latter.

For 24 months, give or take, Steve did his new "job." He attended the program like he used to attend church, but even more so. Each meeting - required - lasted three hours a night, three nights a week for six weeks. Then monthly check ins. Those were in addition a 12-step program, consisting of twice a week meetings at one hour each.

There was time for little else, he said, "but to contemplate my position in life, and what got me there."

He saw some people there who were determined to copy his old way of making an end run around the requirements, but Steve was ready to tackle the work he needed to do, he told me.

Still, it stung. In addition to the three grand he had to pay for treatment, Steve had the sobering humiliation of being ordered to have a Breathalyzer device installed in his car, at a cost of $100 a month.

"So that's about $5,000 just in the consequences," he said.

Then he got to drive to Harold Electric to get equipped, bearing a certain amount of shame and discomfort in exposing his underbelly to those there. Not without merit, Steve noted. "I was ready to take it as a lesson."

The device was a nearly-constant torment. "You have to blow in it to start the car, then it goes off in a few minutes and you have to blow in it again."

It's a machine the size of a "very large" TV remote control on a long cord, making a loud, squawking noise when the car is in operation, Steve said. The mouthpiece is attached and requires a solid, continuous puff of air.

"And the alarm is going the whole time. Right at the end there is a click and you have to inhale sharply to prove to the machine you're a human and not a machine with compressed air," he added. "There's no way to hide it. After the first start-up period, it goes off every 10 to 20 minutes."

Mess up the procedure too many times and you land back in court, facing an unhappy judge.

When he drove any distance, the breath monitor was there, reminding him of his sin. "Never ending for two years - ‘Hey! You have to prove you're sober to drive.'"

Steve barricaded himself against bitterness and focused on the luxury of being able to drive at all. "The whole process of getting a DUI, had I understood it better ... I was completely surprised at how severe it is now. Everything changes."

And yet, on this journey, my friend found something every single soul yearns for, the understanding of others. "People within the treatment community were very supportive. I never felt like I was a criminal, they treated me as a patient."

It was a precious gift at a time Steve could use every good thing. He returned the favor by working his plan and taking responsibility for his action.

Steve was released from treatment - and the hated auto device - in September. He plans to never need either again. And from his perspective, it's time for even more changes.

First things first - the overall problem with too much drinking in our culture relates specifically to mental health and not enough people are talking about that match made in hell. "Alcohol, when abused, is used as a coping mechanism for suffering," Steve said.

It's that buffer effect, but children can be given other tools for coping at an early age, he pointed out. Add in "a healthy sense of self so that the fear of vulnerability isn't at a phobic level. We put so much emphasis on sports and physical fitness, but little on mental fitness. We need to address this in our system for dealing with addiction."

Treatment centers teach this, but are only reaching a small audience and only after damage of one sort or another is done.

Second, let's change the accepted picture of substance use, Steve cautioned. "As a whole, our system treats addiction as a criminal issue, not a medical issue. We are locking sick people up in jail where they only learn more maladaptive coping mechanisms. And increase their suffering."

Casting judgement, a time-honored tradition here and elsewhere, gets everyone nowhere, he pointed out. Not only does it lead to more suffering, more self-medication, but it puts up a blind that keeps addicts from peering into the future. And just maybe seeing a picture of what their life could be like.

So stop condemning and start being proactive, beginning with your own family. Maybe with yourself. Walla Walla already lacks enough treatment options to make a good fit for all offenders and the wait list for inpatient treatment in untenable, Steve said. "A lot of people in my group had to go to Tri-Cities to get that level of care."

And third comes a lesson for this very spot on the map, he summarized. "The drinking culture in this town is pretty prevalent. It's a lifestyle and they are not about to give up their lifestyle. They're more interested in going around the system. Tricking it. A lot of people treat it as a joke."

Drowning in an alcohol-infused existence is no joke, not to Steve and countless others. But there are life preservers, he said.

"If you are struggling in life, in your own hell, have faith. If you want more of life, ask for help and do the work. You will get out. There is always hope. Not only to survive, but to have something to give back."

And that's the Steve I've come to know. Giving back in so many ways. With this column, he's doing it again.

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