From Prisoner To Ph.D.: How I Stopped Drinking And Started Succeeding

One man’s journey up from a criminal record and history of addiction to a Stanford Ph.D. and inspiration for others.

I recall the first time that I made a personal commitment. It was in 1970 at the corner of Schuylkill Avenue and Buttonwood Street in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the press of an existential crisis. Trying to mute the pain of my failed commitment to military service, I had been drinking and getting drunk every day for about six months. I was physically sick, emotionally drained, and mentally tired. As I sat on that corner in deep despair, I felt moved to contemplate my wretched life: I was a poor black high school dropout with a prison record, I had failed to complete my term of military service, I was a drunk, and I had no place to call home. Needless to say, I was in a deep existential crisis: did I want to live or die? I had to make a choice because my condition left no doubt that I was at death's door. After ten years of drinking, going to prison, and lying to myself, I finally had to admit that alcohol had gotten the best of me.

Having undergone alcohol rehab seven years before, when I was eighteen, sitting on that corner, I understood that I had reached what people in AA call the bottom. Almost relieved that I had finally reached the point where I could fall no further, I decided that very moment that I wanted to live and thus could not ever drink again. Although it took me many years after to achieve sobriety, that very day in 1970, I made a personal commitment to stop drinking and have remained alcohol-free from that day to this. After I made my commitment, an interesting thing happened, an event that confirms my belief that when you reach for the stars, the stars reach back — or what Carl Jung (1969, 1973) characterizes as synchronicity.

My best friend, Russ, whom I had not seen for more than two years, showed up. Call it synchronicity, chance, coincidence, or whatever, but the minute I decided that I wanted to live, I looked up and saw Russ passing by in his white VW station wagon. I did not think that he saw me at first. He rolled by, stopped, and backed up to where I was sitting.

"Tony Baxter!" Russ exclaimed. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, man," I uttered weakly. "It's me."

"Damn, you look bad. I almost didn't recognize you," Russ flatly stated.

"I know, Russ. I decided to stop drinking," I said truthfully.

Perhaps picking up the sincerity in my voice, Russ said, "Thank God. You look like you're dying, man. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yeah," I retorted, "take me to my sister's house in Glenside."

Having become friends during the 1960–61 school year when I was released from the boys' home, we laughed about our days as high school students, matriculating in the college preparatory track at Reading High School, hardly a place for poor black males but precisely the circumstance that formed the basis for our lifelong friendship. Kindred spirits, Russ and I were both young intellectual black males who valued knowledge and independent thinking and hailed from the same disadvantaged neighborhood, the Southside of Reading, the Reading Iron Playground area. Although Russ was a year ahead of me in school, with affection as the basis for our chumship (Sullivan 1953), we came of age together during the turbulent sixties. Billing ourselves as "heavy street brothers" from the Southside of Reading, we walked the streets and drank wine together, trying to show our manhood by engaging in maladaptive acts.

Arriving at my sister's house, I explained to Russ that Anita had gotten sober and would help me get into a detox program that was necessary to help me withdraw from my physical dependence on alcohol without risking convulsions. Pulling away and reinforcing me by telling me that he knew that I could do it, Russ turned his car back toward town and left.

I knew that it would be hard to stay sober, but a part of me, perhaps my spirit or will, knew that I was done with drinking. I had made a commitment and thereby began marshaling my psychological resources for the long and arduous process of keeping it. Thus I was prepared to do battle with my most formidable opponent, an equally powerful part of me, one living in the dark recesses of myself who had no intention of giving up intoxication. During this turning point, I was about to learn that making a commitment is quite different than keeping the commitment.

Keeping My Commitment to Stop Drinking

I started detox the next day and, after waiting ten days, went into rehab at the same therapeutic community where probation officials had committed me seven years before, when I was eighteen. Now twenty-five and self-directed, my attitude and motivation the second time around were different. Having voluntarily committed myself, I felt obliged to use the therapeutic community's resources to help me keep my commitment to stop drinking.

During my involuntary commitment to the treatment facility seven years before, the therapy consisted of work and AA. The residents were assigned various tasks to keep the facility running and attended AA meetings and information sessions three times a day. My job the first time around was cutting grass and caring for the horses. In between my chores and the AA meetings, I played table tennis, shot the basketball, played horseshoes, and rode the horses. Something of a novelty to the community's much older and affluent white residents, they regarded me, a young black inner-city kid, as a kind of mascot. Dismissing me because of my age, one lady referred to me as "that cute little colored kid who runs around here playing with everything."

Although I did not realize it, my most important accomplishment during my involuntary commitment the first time around was reading the Big Book and memorizing the twelve steps and twelve traditions that constitute the core of AA's philosophy and time-honored methodology. The first time around, I was not ready to make a commitment to stop drinking. Despite having been arrested for public drunkenness and underage drinking and being convicted of burglary, a crime that I committed while drunk, astoundingly, I still believed that I was not an alcoholic. Because of my belief, I could not accept step 1 — that is, I could not admit "that [I] was powerless over alcohol and that [my] life had become unmanageable." Hence, when I completed the requisite thirty-day program, it was not long before I returned to drinking, violated my probation, and was remanded to prison to serve my suspended nine-to-twenty-three-month sentence.

Even though I was not emotionally ready to accept step 1 the first time around, I nonetheless remembered what I read. By the time Russ rolled up, stopped, and delivered me to my sister's, I had, in the wake of my existential crisis, finally accepted step 1: In 1970, on an inner-city street corner in the heart of the ghetto of a hard-scrabble, blue-collar town, "that cute little colored kid who runs around here playing with everything" finally confessed that he was "powerless over alcohol and that [his] life had become unmanageable." In so doing, he took the first step toward saving his life.

I had been in rehab at this facility before, but my second time around, not only was I more receptive and humble, but also because the treatment agenda had changed, I was treated with individual and group therapy. In the interim between my first and second time around, the facility had hired a brilliant young psychologist who incorporated gestalt therapy (Perls and Andreas 1969) and the techniques of Fritz and Laura Perls into the community's therapeutic program. Emphasizing personal responsibility, self-control, and change within the context of my personhood, gestalt therapy was perfectly relevant to the issues of a young black man coming of age under adverse personal and social circumstances. I had never in my short life taken responsibility, felt in control, or committed myself to changing my personal or social circumstances. Although I found the gestalt-based group therapy quite challenging, I also found it absolutely essential in helping me to understand the existential crisis that brought me back to rehab.

Heavy alcohol use has a negative impact on the adolescent's normal developmental process (Baumrind 1987). Heavy alcohol use during the course of identity formation stops the integration of the experiences that makes up the gestalt, the self as a whole (Erickson 1968, 1980). Speaking developmentally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but if the parts are not summed (i.e., integrated), there can be no whole. Thus, the existential crisis that drove me back to rehab was not typical.

As a young adolescent, my addiction to alcohol did not cause me to lose my soul. As in a typical existential crisis, it prevented me from developing one in the first place. The therapies for young recovering addicts must regard the fact that recovering one's soul is not the same as discovering it. Becoming addicted when I was a teenager in the midst of identity formation, I had not lost my soul. How can you lose something that you never had?

Excerpted from From Prisoner to PhD: Reflections on My Pathway to Desistance from Crime and Addiction, Anthony Baxter, Xlibris Books, 2016, pp. 67-72.  All Rights Reserved