Each day, Brent Clark carries five index cards in his back pocket as a reminder of where he’s been and where he could be headed.
The cards were a gift of sorts from his mother, “who never gave up on me,” the 31-year-old said, even though drinking and drug use in his early adulthood led him to lose his job, spend time in jail, and damage his relationship with all those around him, including his wife and young daughter. “My mom’s a very list-oriented person,” Clark said, “so one day she brought these over and she told me, ‘These are the options that you have left.’” On the first card was written that Clark’s wife and daughter finally decide they can’t take it anymore and leave him. The second was that he gets arrested for DUI or vehicular homicide and goes to jail. The third was he gets arrested for child endangerment due to drinking around his child. The fourth was that he dies from cirrhosis. “And then the last card she pulled out was ‘I admit for the rest of my life that I am an alcoholic and I cannot touch alcohol ever again, not even one drop.’”
At that moment, for the first time, Clark knew it was true. “And once I admitted that, the problem stopped. I don’t want to say that I don’t have cravings, and I don’t want to say that the desire is gone. But that is always in the front of my mind — that I can’t go back to drinking because if I do, I know I will go right back down that same road.”
First Steps Toward Trouble
Anyone looking at Clark’s early years for clues to his later substance use problems wouldn’t come away with much. He was raised in a loving family in a religious Wyoming community where drinking and drugs simply weren’t part of the culture. To top it off, his father was a respected police officer, and Clark wanted nothing more than to follow in his footsteps. But there was always a curiosity about substance use, and when he went off for training to become a military police officer in the Air Force, where everyone seemed to be drinking, he indulged it. His naiveté was on full display, however, in his first attempt at age 21. “I’d heard about mixed drinks as a way of making alcohol not as disgusting. So I went out and bought myself a Mountain Dew and a Heineken, and I mixed it. And it was absolutely disgusting. I only drank a few sips and threw up.” But he soon got the hang of it, quickly progressing to heavy drinking. “It just goes to show you,” he said, “you don’t have to be surrounded with alcohol all your life or have knowledge of alcohol to become an alcoholic.”
Chaos and New Careers
Back home from training, Clark became a secret drinker, and the amount he consumed grew steadily. In 2006, after a bicycle crash that left him with two broken arms and a broken collarbone, Clark was prescribed Vicodin and OxyContin, two painkillers whose addictive potential is now much better understood than it was at that time and which have helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic. He was instantly smitten. “I loved the feeling it gave me. I loved that swimmingness. I loved that high,” Clark said. “And I quickly became addicted.” At first, it was easy to keep the supply of painkillers coming. “But toward the end when I was starting to recover, I would make up stories that I was still in pain to get more.” When Clark could finally wring no more from his doctor, “that fueled the alcohol use even more, because I was trying to get to that same feeling and that same high.” A year or so later, Clark landed a job as a corrections officer at a jail in the northeastern part of the state. For the first time, he was really on his own, freed from the Air Force and from the watchful eyes of his family and community. “I hung out with the people who would drink. And eventually that led into hanging out with the people who did drugs as well. And that was the first time that I tried marijuana and cocaine.” He also found ways to get the prescription drugs he missed so much, whether it was buying them off the streets or stealing them. “I got to the point where if I went over to someone’s house, I made it a point to excuse myself to the bathroom to go through their medicine cabinets.” About a year later, despite the growing chaos in his life, he was hired as a police officer and became a road cop. He was ecstatic. “My goal in life had been obtained.” But just a month after his hire, he was hanging out with a young woman who wanted some marijuana. Clark knew where he could get it — from his father’s patrol car. “My dad had a K9 dog, and I knew that to train the dog, he kept marijuana in the car.” When his father discovered the theft, Clark feigned ignorance. But not long after, the woman, who was on probation, was caught drinking by her parole officer. In an attempt to make a deal, she told the story.
Behind Bars but Still in Denial
Clark was fired from the police department and received two felony charges of marijuana possession and conspiracy to deliver. “At this point, I was still trying to blame everyone else,” Clark said. “It wasn’t my fault. She was the snitch. And throughout this whole time, in my mind, I didn’t have a problem. I’m not addicted. I just like the way it feels, so I choose to use.” Clark worked with the prosecution for a plea deal that would allow him to avoid prison time and went to his sentencing in 2008 confident he had beaten the system. “At the very last minute, the judge makes a decision that he’s going to give me two to four years on each count. So I end up going right into custody.” He was then 24. Fortunately for Clark, he was granted the option to serve six months in a military style boot camp for youthful offenders and then be eligible for probation. Addiction treatment was part of the process and Clark was at last able to recognize that he was addicted to drugs and learned skills for dealing with it. “But it never crossed my mind at this point that the alcohol was a problem at all.” When he was released, he felt strong, neither using drugs nor drinking. But because he had never faced up to his alcohol use, he eventually decided he could handle it. “And that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned over this whole process: If you don’t realize you’ve got a problem, you’ll never quit. If, in the back of your mind, you feel that one day you can handle it, you’ll go back to doing it again. And eventually that’s what happened. I started drinking again.”
Dangerous Patterns of Alcohol Use
Before long, Clark was married and the father of a daughter. “My wife was OK with me drinking as long as I was responsible. But that was the problem. One or two drinks was never enough. She obviously didn’t like the fact that I would get drunk, so that led right back into hiding it.” There were days when he would go through as much as a gallon of vodka, he said. “She knew what was going on, but in my mind, I was still smarter than the system. I could lie about it, tell her I wasn’t drinking or hadn’t had that much.” He would try to quit, sometimes going a month or two but always falling back into the old patterns. “This went on for years. I couldn’t tell you what made her stick around because there were so many opportunities when she could have left me,” he said. “At one point she did leave me for about a month and then came back, but always holding on to the thought that this time would be different.” It was during a period when his wife had again caught him drinking and wasn’t speaking to him that his mother came over. And with her were the index cards that would finally spell out for Clark the reality he’d been avoiding so long.
Helping Others as He Moves On
Now, two years sober, Clark has regained the enthusiasm for life that had gone missing during his addiction. He is back in school studying business and addiction specialization, he and his wife are expecting their second child, and he’s sharing his story with anyone he can, not only to help others who may be following in his footsteps, but to bolster his sobriety and his well-being. “Right after this all happened, I hated to look back on it because it brought back those feelings of anxiety and those feelings of fear.” It was tough to come to terms with the fact that he’d not only hurt others but that now, as a convicted felon, he has lost any hope of becoming a police officer. “But I found the more I share my story, the more I move on. The more I do positive things in my life, the less the past hurts.” With his mother’s index cards in hand, he speaks to community groups, churches and schools, always stressing key things: You have to admit you have a problem before you can tackle it, a game plan is essential for maintaining sobriety, and everyone needs support, so reach out for what you need. (Clark can be contacted to set up speaking engagements at brentclarkspeaking.com.) He also believes strongly that you don’t just give up an addiction, you have to replace it with something else. “And if you can find something you love doing — for me, it’s going around and speaking to people — then your life will turn around that much quicker and you’ll find that you’re a happy person again.” Clark also shares his thoughts and encouragement on a website called taoalgg.blogspot.com. The acronym is his slogan of sorts, standing for “the aftermath of a life gone good.” Through his outreach, he hopes his story will help people become aware of what they risk through substance use and just how quickly life can be derailed. “I went from being a police officer to sitting behind bars within a two-week period of time. And in those two weeks, I’d lost everything I’d ever worked for in life.” Falling happens fast; climbing back up takes much longer. Preventing the fall, he said, “that’s the No. 1 goal — reaching people before they have to hit that point.” By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal on Twitter at @kendalpatterson