On Nov. 1, 2003, I was involved in a drinking and driving accident. I cost six people their lives ― six good people. I seriously injured two others. I didn’t even think I was drunk, which I know sounds ridiculous, but I was drinking a lot in those days. I’d spent most of that day in bars, but I honestly believed I was taking it easy ― a beer here, a beer there, a couple of mixed drinks throughout the day. For me, back then, that was “taking it easy.”
I was tired that night. The evening before had been Halloween, and I’d stayed up late. I lived in a crummy, run-down apartment about three miles from the last bar I left that evening. Not wanting to get too carried away again, I climbed into a white Econoline van and headed for home. I took the highway because I knew it was less likely I’d be pulled over there than on the local roads. What I didn’t know was that there had already been an accident on that very highway that night.
I wasn’t speeding. I wasn’t weaving. My van crested a hill and there was a crowd of people standing in front of me. I tried to stop, but I was too slow ― too intoxicated ― to react appropriately. What happened next was a horror show. What happened next was absolutely devastating ― nothing short of a living nightmare. What happened next became my own personal hell.
By the time the police arrived I was sitting on the side of the road holding my knees, rocking. I was arrested and taken to the local county jail. Many months later, I was sent to a state prison. I was charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injuries. I spent most of my 30s in a state prison. They could have locked me up forever ― there was really nothing I could say.
That was over 15 years ago. I still think about it every day. I am sure I always will.
When I laugh, which is often, I wonder if I have earned the right to feel joy. When I hurt, sometimes I simply think I deserve it. I believe I always will.
By the time I reached a point in my life where prison had become even a remote possibility, I was already pretty prepared for it ― maybe even expecting it a little. I wasn’t a bad person ― very few of the thousands of men who I met during my incarceration were. But due to the long-term effects of my then daily consumption of drugs and alcohol, prison came as almost a relief.
I was charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious bodily injuries. I spent most of my 30s in a state prison.
Prison was the easy part for me ― although that’s not to say prison is easy. Prisons are scary, often dangerous places. I once watched two grown men get in a knife fight, using razor blades tied to pencils, because of a pillow. I once had someone stick his finger in my face and swear that he would kill me over an apple. I’ve never looked at apples the same way since. But those things were just part of being there, part of having to exist in that environment. Most of the time, prison was not that exciting. There was a lot of staring at the ceiling, a lot of walking circles around the yard.
The hard part about prison for me was that my choices ― the decisions I had made that got me locked away ― had cost six innocent people their lives. Nothing I could do ― and nothing I do now or any day going forward ― can ever take that back.
Prison was a routine. That’s how I survived. I believe that is how many of us survive. I read incessantly and wrote letters like a man on fire. When they offered classes, I went. It didn’t matter what they were about. Anger management, “Thinking for a Change,” culinary or horticulture classes, 12-step meetings, religious services ― I was there. If they had offered basket weaving, I would have taken it. I needed something, anything, that could give me some reprieve from the ghosts haunting me.
I was suicidal at first. I suspect almost any reasonable person would be. I cried so much and for so long that my eyes stung constantly from the tears. That continued for several years. I constantly thought about ending my life. If I hadn’t had the support of so many kind, loving, forgiving people, I am certain I would not be here today. I woke up every day wishing I hadn’t ― wishing death would come for me in my sleep. “I cannot be this person,” I remember telling a friend, as tears streamed down my face. “There is not enough of me. I just don’t think I can be this person.” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the terrible loss.
I can remember almost the exact moment when I finally gave up the sadness that consumed my life in prison. One day it just seemed to disappear. It was like someone hit a switch and something in me moved. I went from wallowing in an abyss of despair and self-pity to a stark realization that I needed to get to work. I needed to give back.
Prison isn’t good for much, but there are a couple of things it gets right. One of them was that it gave me a lot of time to reflect ― to really think things over. One thing I thought a lot about was how much I regretted not joining the track team in high school. That might sound random, but I couldn’t help wondering if my life would have turned out differently.
When I was in high school I was required to take a sport, something I absolutely resented. I joined the track team, but only as the team manager. That way I didn’t have to run, or compete, or do anything, really, other than set up and take down the equipment during track meets. The rest of the time I’d just sit on the bleachers. If I was lucky, I’d get to flirt with girls.
One hot summer day, right after setting up the hurdles, I decided to give them a try. I scanned the field and saw nobody was watching. I blasted out of the gate and was suddenly like a torch burning up the track. I felt fast and brilliant and alive.
Later that day the coach cornered me in the hall. He’d seen me run the hurdles and he wanted me to join the team. But I was young and resented the “joiners” with what I believed to be their naive goodness. So I told him no.
Prison isn’t good for much, but there are a couple of things it gets right. One of them was that it gave me a lot of time to reflect ― to really think things over.
I relived that moment a lot when I was locked up. I must have mentally run those hurdles a thousand times from the back-aching discomfort of my four-inch mattress atop cold steel, staring at that concrete ceiling, wondering where my life might have ended up if I had just joined something ― anything. What if I had just said “yes”?
The mail stopped coming after about a year. That was an especially lonely time. I wasn’t dead. It was almost worse: I was forgotten. Based on a friend’s recommendation I started sending off for junk mail from magazines. Travel catalogs, mostly. That way I could hear my name during the daily mail call and then lie on my bunk, smoke cigarettes and peruse the pages full of places that existed out there ― somewhere else. Somewhere that forest, that ocean, that castle was real, I told myself. I found hope in their beauty. I would pace my cell endlessly and think of the waves crashing at that very moment... somewhere.
During the holidays, I spent my time in the custody office wrapping toys under the supervision of a guard, since as an inmate I couldn’t be trusted with scissors or tape. This became my holiday tradition in prison. It was one of the duties I was honored with as part of the prison’s “Men’s Club,” a kind of service organization that provides inmates with volunteer opportunities. There wasn’t much to it, really. We would take pictures of inmates standing awkwardly with their families during the weekend visitations when some poor father got to see his son for two hours. We’d collect $2 per photo. We used to be allowed to take photos of ourselves with other inmates ― friends we’d made over the years ― but sometimes guys would get caught throwing gang signs, so they took that privilege away.
The money we collected throughout the year typically went to paying for small occasional treats for the prison population, like ice cream on the Fourth of July or the Christmas presents for underprivileged children that I wrapped. I don’t actually know where the toys went. I just liked that I had been given a way, however small, to give back. It gave me the chance to be a part of ― and help out ― the community, something I truly craved and something I’d never really done before.
I continued to do whatever small gestures I could in prison. I had hurt so many people through my addictions, my isolation and loneliness, and my disregard for anyone but myself.
Now I knew what I needed to do: I needed to give back. I needed to start saying “yes.”
But I couldn’t, really.
I was locked up, and when you’re locked up, you aren’t allowed to give back. When you’re locked up, you don’t have a voice. That’s part of the punishment. You’re seen as bad, and they won’t let you be good.
I was released on Jan. 11, 2012, and placed on post-release supervision ― a nicer way of saying “parole” ― for nine months. I’d quit smoking cigarettes in prison, and I started running. At first it was just a lap around the fence, but over time those laps turned into hours. Those hours turned into miles. Three days after I was released I ran the Charleston marathon. I didn’t break any land-speed records that day, but I can promise you I was the happiest person in the race. Five days after I was released, I attended my first college class in the outside world. I was shaking, I was so nervous. I didn’t know how anything worked.
When I first got locked up, the most technologically savvy of my friends had cameras on their flip phones. When I walked out years later, almost everyone had the internet in their pocket. I came home from school on the first day and burst into tears because my professor had instructed me to submit my homework through D2L on Dropbox. I had no idea what he was even saying. What’s a D2L? I wondered. What’s a Dropbox?
I am sober today. I have not used alcohol or drugs for over 15 years. I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in health science with a concentration in substance abuse counseling. I graduated summa cum laude from the State University of New York at Brockport (I had to do a Google search on what exactly “summa cum laude” meant).
I will carry the weight of my guilt forever. I never get to put that down. But I will continue to fight to redeem myself even though I know I never truly can. I refuse to squander the opportunities ― the incredible gifts ― that I have been given.
I am now employed full-time as an addiction therapist. I’ll proudly claim that I am the therapist you want because I am deeply passionate about my job. I have been there; this is my life’s work. For me, this is a kind of priesthood.
I want people to know that not only is there life after sobriety ― there is a great life after sobriety. I know this because I am living it.
I have a wife with whom I am madly in love. I have a 5-year-old daughter who thinks I am magic, and I think she is made of star-stuff and faerie-dust and grandmother’s kisses and love. I have a life that I now always cherish.
I never stop thinking about the accident or the horrible suffering I have caused. I carry that with me always. I have never forgotten the dark places that my addiction ― my disease ― has taken me. But I am not that person anymore. I have changed and grown, and I work daily to try to make my amends. I now have a beautiful life with a twist of sorrow running through it. It cost too much ― my sobriety, my joy, my family. It all cost so much.
Ultimately, I hope the message people take from my story ― from my life ― is never to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I know, I know ― it sounds so cliché. We hear that warning all our lives and it just gets washed away into noise. I once believed the reason drinking and driving is illegal was to protect the driver. And I foolishly believed I was “good” at driving while drunk. I thought that because I’d done it for years without getting hurt, it meant I had a talent for it. I’ve read that the average drunk driver gets away with driving under the influence of alcohol 80 times before they’re finally pulled over.
But I didn’t get away with it. And my victims and their loved ones and their friends ― none of them got away from what I did to them. If I hadn’t done what I did, those six people would still be alive today. I will carry the weight of that guilt forever. I never get to put that down. But I will continue to fight to redeem myself even though I know I never truly can. I refuse to squander the opportunities ― the incredible gifts ― that I have been given. I am committed to waking up every day and saying “yes.” It’s the very least I can do.
Robert Veeder celebrated his 15th year of sustained remission from substance use and dependence on Nov. 1, 2018. He holds a health science degree with a concentration in substance abuse counseling from Brockport College, and works as an addiction therapist at a local outpatient facility. Robert is happily married and madly in love with his wife, has a 5-year old daughter named Story, and is a prolific writer, juggler and musician who plays banjo, piano, accordion, ukulele and occasionally a djembe. He is passionate about the recovery community and excited about the opportunity to help people not only achieve abstinence, but more importantly, find lasting peace and happiness.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.