This recovering addict shares the story of his personal struggles, set against the backdrop of the horse world.
I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I’ve also been involved with horses my whole life. One of the big phrases you hear in recovery is that you must avoid “people, places and things” associated with alcohol and drugs in order to avoid relapsing, and for a long time I had to step away from the animals and world I loved in order to focus on my sobriety. Getting sober is never easy, and leaving the horse world isn’t either, but it’s the best thing I ever did, and eventually I found my way back.
I grew up in Southampton, Pa., not too far from Philadelphia. As a young person in the ’70s I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure what that meant, which definitely caused some stress. Early on, there were warning signs of my addiction problems: Anytime I drank or did a drug was to excess. At that time drugs and alcohol were readily available and accepted on the show circuit, and as teenagers we were unsupervised most of the time. We’d go to Devon (Pa.) and go to the Devon Club, and I’d get wasted. The parents of the people I was around were all OK with it. They’d just say, “Don’t drive home with Bill; he’s been to the Devon Club.”
I started by smoking pot and doing uppers, and by the mid-70s things started to go downhill. In the mornings I’d get jazzed up on diet pills and cocaine, then nighttime would roll around, and I’d grab the Valium and Quaaludes to wind down. I’d go to McDonalds, get a vanilla shake, pour some out, and fill it up with Chambord.
It was a bad time. I was reckless. I had car accidents. I remember doing coke before my 7 a.m. lessons. There were times when my trainer Jack Trainor would tell me I couldn’t show.
I remember one time I was so high on some kind of mushrooms he said to me, “Forget it, you’re not getting on.”
Addicts are cunning, and I went to great lengths to feed my addiction.I was preppy, and I used that to my advantage to get drugs. Years after I became sober I gave talks to physicians’ colleges to teach them how addicts take advantage of them.
Once I got addicted to heroin, I would get prescriptions for other opioids, like a drug called Dilaudid, which I’d crush up and inject. I read the Merck manual to learn which diseases call for certain prescriptions. I’d drive hundreds of miles, then pretend to be visiting my grandmother from out of town and suffering from a kidney stone. After my physical examination I told them I couldn’t get an X-ray because I was allergic to iodine, so they’d do a urine test, and I’d prick my finger and get a few drops of blood in the urine, so they’d assume I did indeed have the kidney stone and give me a script. I learned Latin so I could write my own scripts. I put so much effort into the addiction; it was a job.
The first time I did heroin all I did was hold my arm out and look the other way. Then I spent four hours throwing up. But it got me, hook, line and sinker, and I spent the next 10 years chasing that high. I went from doing it on weekends to every day. I went through a ton of money and hit the depths of despair. I was miserable. I spent 10 years of my life wishing to God that I’d never wake up the next day.
Eventually it got to the point where I’d lost everything. Luckily, in a way, everyone turned their backs on me and showed me tough love. I’d been in 21 different rehab facilities, some of them two or three times apiece. The last time I was in Northeast Philadelphia, and I called a really old friend. She came and picked me up, and everything I owned in the world was in two trash bags. I was jaundiced, desperate and 150 lbs.
On July 26, 1983, my friend took me to Eugenia Hospital in Lafayette Hill, Pa., where they wouldn’t admit me, but I begged until they did. Really, I had no intention of getting my life together. I just needed “three hots and a cot,” that is, three meals and somewhere to sleep.
My friend pulled away as soon as I got there. Standing there, I had to beg them to take me in.
I was in a bad place. They’d let us go out on hiking trails, and one night I decided I was going to go on a walk and dive in a bees nest—I was highly allergic to bees—so they’d have to load me up with Benadryl. A nurse saw what I was about to do and said, “Bill, what the hell are you doing?” Not that I hadn’t heard that 500 times in my life, but I actually heard it for the first time. That did it. I said, “Just tell me what to do. I can’t do this anymore.”
This was the point when I realized I couldn’t do this by myself, and I surrendered to a power greater than myself. I was in rehab for 40 days, and then I went to a halfway house for two months. I had lots of encouragement, and I got involved in self-help and recovery programs.
Everyone told me that I’d have to attack recovery as seriously as I did my addiction. I had to go to 90 [Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous] meetings in 90 days. Well, I did that, and I kept doing it for five years straight. I got involved in any way I could at meetings, as one addict helping another, or one alcoholic helping another. I surrounded myself with recovering people and listened to everything they said and did everything they told me do. I would chair meetings, speak at them, make the coffee, clean up, whatever they needed.
I was very lucky that I had a grandmother who helped support me in my recovery. I started doing drugs at 16 and stopped at 26. When I re-entered the world at 26 I was basically a 16-year-old, jumping around jobs, doing this and doing that. My grandmother wanted me to focus on going to meetings and my sobriety, so I made that my focus for a while.
Eventually I found a job through a friend at a collection agency. I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take the early train to work, then took the train home every night. Little by little things started to come together. After six months at the job I’d saved some money, and my mother agreed to co-sign on a car. I had done a favor for the lady who worked for the financing department, so she helped me with the financing. After I held that job at the call center for a while I went to work at another company, where I wound up becoming the general manager and running call centers all over the world.
I missed the horses. It was good for me to step away and focus on my recovery, but I missed being around horses and with my friends at shows. Eventually my partner, Joe Miraglia, suggested that I get back into it, but he had no idea what a can of worms he’d opened. I started with Barbara McGinnis, who has Three Diamonds Stables, in Collegeville, Pa., and soon I was leasing a horse and then buying one. I was still going to my meetings and doing volunteer work, helping however I could because, as they say in AA, you can’t keep what you have if you don’t give it away.
Getting into the show ring was nerve wracking and became a trigger for me. It made me think, “Well maybe I could just take something to calm my nerves.” So I started working with a sports psychologist, and we figured out my triggers. For example, putting on my boots sent my stomach into knots, so I started putting my boots on at home hours before. With the help of meetings and recovering people I found a workaround.
An Ongoing Process
AA and NA helped me grow up. In my opinion, the only way to recover is to go to meetings. I did a lot of research about different opinions, but for me meetings are essential for staying clean and sober. I’m so glad I took the time away to focus on myself and on my sobriety, because when I came back horse shows weren’t as much of a trigger for me.
When I see kids trying to get clean and sober at horse shows without the willingness to give up certain things to pursue their recovery—say, staying on the circuit full time—I think it makes their path harder. When you’re new there are so many people, places and things that you associate with your addiction.
There’s a lot of talk in AA about “your higher power.” Now, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. I don’t know why, but God wants me here, because by all accounts I should be dead. I was a gay, intravenous drug addict in the ’80s, and I never got HIV or AIDS. I lost so many friends to that tragic epidemic.
But in 1995 I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C—which is transmitted intravenously—and when I started having symptoms four years later my doctor put me on interferon treatments. I remember I’d just gotten a new horse, and after I started treatments I was so sick I couldn’t ride, which made things that much worse. Turns out I was so allergic to the drug; it almost killed me. I tried holistic remedies, but those didn’t work either. There were lots of studies, and I just figured something would come along that would help.
By 2012 the doctors told me to get my affairs in order, that I was Stage 4, and I had two years to live. But two years later, as luck would have it, there were two new drugs, and lo and behold they worked. I went from Stage 4 to virus-free in three months, and it hasn’t been back since.
After the doctors gave me the news in 2012, I lived life to the fullest and didn’t worry about my bank account—huge mistake. After I realized I was healthy, I wanted to work to live, not the other way around, and I wanted to pay it forward. That’s when I decided to work for the USHJA Foundation.
All the while I was constantly working on my recovery. The recovery process is an ongoing, daily thing. I talk to a recovering person every single day to keep it real. I don’t go to meetings as frequently as I used to, but it helps me when I talk to people who reach out. I’m really open about my struggle, and lots of young people in the horse world who are dealing with addiction or alcoholism reach out. And it always helps to have a supporting and loving partner in your life, and I’m lucky to have that in my husband.
When I came back to the show world in the early ’90s I was amazed at how many helping hands I received. There were so many trainers, riders and horse show staff who welcomed me back. It felt really good to hear Rachel Kennedy, who I’ve known forever, joke and say, “I’ve known Bill through every phase of his life: fat, skinny, had hair, didn’t have hair, drunk, high, crazy, sober.”
When I came back to the horse shows, I could still see the culture of partying that I used to be a part of. After the show, there are cocktail parties or dinners or exhibitor parties, and it’s as intense as I’ve ever seen it in the last four or five years. None of that had changed, and I knew I couldn’t be a part of it at first. As time went by things changed. Thanks to my strong foundation from AA and NA, now I can go into a bar and not want to drink.
I don’t think there’s a problem with having a cocktail party after a show; I can’t impose my lifestyle on others. It’s not just horse shows, after all; everything ends in a cocktail party. It’s up to the individual whether or not he or she chooses to attend. This disease is baffling and cunning; you have to be smarter.
When I was using, I was so unhappy, so confused. I was addicted, alone, and I wished I was dead. I didn’t know there was a way out. Now I have control over my life, but it doesn’t mean things are great all the time.
I’m not blaming my addiction on the horse shows, and I wasn’t an addict because I was involved with horses. Even if I wasn’t at a show partying, I was drinking at the bar. On the contrary, a horse always puts a warm feeling in my belly and always makes me feel good.
Years ago a very good friend’s daughter was teetering on the edge of addiction. My friend asked what to do, and I said, “Buy her a horse, because she’ll have that connection, and see what it does.” Years later that woman thanked me for that advice. That’s why I’m so interested in programs that focus on the connection with the horse and the whole experience of being a horseman. That’s going to help you in so many parts of your life.
I’m writing about my experience because I want to send a message of strength and hope. I’m not trying to pontificate and say, “Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink.” But when people see me as an example, whether they’re in distress or recovering, I want them to know that even if things are really bad, there is a way out, and they’re not alone.
Bill Rube has been involved in the hunter/ jumper world most of his life. He and his husband Joe Miraglia live in Merchantville, N.J., and Rube works as the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Foundation’s Funds Development Director. He celebrated 34 years of sobriety on July 26 of this year.
IN THE FORUM, horsemen are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.
Do you have a story to tell about drug or alcohol abuse or rehabilitation affecting your life on the horse show circuit or at your barn? We’re working on a broader story on this issue. Please email email@example.com with “addiction” in the subject line. You can also read Mollie Bailey’s commentary on this issue.
This is a Horseman’s Forum article “Finding The Strength To Step Back For Sobriety” by Bill Rube, which appears in the Oct. 23 & 30 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read more great content like this, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.
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