‘The only thing I had to change was everything’

Bill Douglas, of Fort Dodge, is a survivor

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Bill Douglas, of Fort Dodge, is working to overcome his lifelong addiction. For addicts, putting their lives back together is a long, difficult process.

Bill Douglas, of Fort Dodge, is a survivor.

At the age of 49, he’s three decades past the life expectancy of the people in he grew up with in the Detroit area.

“It was a high crime area,” he said. “Life expectancy was 16 to 24 in my neighborhood. I lost plenty of friends and a brother and sister.”

His life in Detroit took much the same track as those around him.

“I was running for the bookie when I was 8. I started dealing heroin when I was 14. At 16 I started meth. At this time, I was dealing. At 21, I got curious, I started experimenting with cocaine. I progressed up to crack.”

Douglas moved to Iowa when he was 24 after the deaths of his sister and brother.

“They were both murdered.”

Like many other addicts, Douglas found out that changing environments — it’s called a geographic cure in recovery circles — simply doesn’t work.

“I figured I’d stay here because the crime rate was lower. I kept doing drugs and eventually got in trouble.”

That trouble, a theft conviction in 2011, found him incarcerated.

While there, he worked to get clean.

“I attempted to use prison as rehab. It gave me time to think about my right and wrong.”

It didn’t work.

“I didn’t accept the fact it’s a disease,” he said. “I just didn’t realize it’s much more than just not drinking and not using.

He came to the realization that the problem wasn’t external.

It was internal.

“I was my problem.”

Early in his efforts to get clean, Douglas attended meetings of several recovery groups.

“I went to just listen.”

As is common with addicts, he tried to keep the true extent of the problem well under wraps.

“I continued the charade for a number of years,” he said. “I tried to hide my addiction, fool the law.”

But eventually, he began to hear what was being said.

“I finally started to listen to the people that were trying to tell me how to walk,” he said.

“I had to change my demeanor, thought process, the way I was acting. If I hadn’t, I’d be in prison or dead now.”

Douglas is enrolled in the outpatient program at Community and Family Resources.

He continues to work on his recovery.

Once an addict, always an addict is a common mantra. No matter how long Douglas or other addicts stay clean, the disease is always there. Waiting. Active addiction is only one pill, hit or snort away.

Along the way, he is still learning that to handle normal emotions without being able to suppress them with drugs can be difficult.

“Just sorting out my emotions. We haven’t used them for so many years. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

“I knew what not to do.”

One characteristic of addictive behavior is the inability to learn from the results of the last binge.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, then expecting different results. I did that for a number of years.”

Many people who are in recovery find strength in spirituality, as does Douglas.

“I work with my higher power,” he said.

“It’s whatever works for them. They have to seek God as they understand him.”

Everyone seeks that spiritual relationship in their own way.

“I read the books. I try to pray. I meditate. I use classical music, Bach, Beethoven. I love them all.”

An extension of that spiritually is working to help other addicts in their struggles.

“My goal is to help the next addict or alcoholic,” he said. “If I can help just one addict I’ve done what I’m here to do.”

He particularly wants to reach out to members of the African-American community.

“There’s only a handful of blacks in recovery,” he said. “Maybe if I go it’ll help. They don’t know the other side. It was the only side I knew for years. We don’t know what we have in the community.”

Again, Douglas stresses that the problem is more than just using.

“It’s not just getting drunk or high. There’s an underlying issue we’re trying to address. We have to get to that underlying issue.”

And, yes, he has also had to deal with several other issues in his life besides addiction.

“Back in the ’80s I was diagnosed as manic depressive. I also had a head injury. I had a brain abscess due to cocaine use.”

He’s also diabetic. He uses that as an example of why recovery has to be ongoing.

“I used to go to the doctor for my foot and my eyes. When I started taking shots, those other symptoms improved. Meetings, to my addiction, is like an insulin shot to my diabetes.”

Douglas is now a student, working on a human services degree at Iowa Central Community College with the goal of eventually entering the counseling field.

Until then, he tries to meet life on a day-to-day basis.

“The only thing I had to change was everything,” he said.

“Change ain’t easy.”