January 16, 1998, is a significant date in my personal history. That date marks a dramatic change in the trajectory of my life story.
Prior to that date, I was on course for disaster. I liked to imagine that the disaster looming on the horizon would be dramatic and sensational, but in reality it was more likely to be simply mediocre and sad.
But I went in a different direction.
Since that time, I recommitted to living life without the use of drugs, and all sorts of new possibilities have arisen. As I look back at the twenty-year journey, it’s convenient to think about it in terms of five-year segments.
In the first five years, I finished high school, left my small hometown of ~5,000 people, and began my post-secondary studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I studied English for Secondary Education, imagining myself becoming a high-school English teacher and having summers off to write. But I found it difficult to be a “normal” college student, and I convinced myself that I needed to live off campus, have a car to drive, and so on. Soon, the life expenses I had outside of school became such a priority to me that I was working more than attending class. I eventually realized, with the help of some guidance from an experienced friend, that it would be wise to leave the expensive private educational institution and consider a more affordable public institution. I moved closer to home–to Champaign, Urbana–and spent a little time repaying some debts that had accumulated during my time in Peoria. I began taking classes at the local community college in order to have enough credits to transfer to the university. I began work at Espresso Royale, which played a pretty significant role in my life over the years to follow.
Shortly after I reached 5 years clean, I transferred to the University of Illinois. I continued in my pattern of working too much to be as successful as possible at school, which meant I spent more time and money at the U of I than I needed to, and my GPA also suffered. But I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2006. I had been involved in service to the organization that helped me remain drug-free, and I learned of a job opening within the organization that was perfectly matched to my skills and experience. I left my coffee-shop job of half a decade and left the Midwest, arriving in Southern California with about 8 years clean and a long-distance relationship with a woman in Illinois. Once I got my feet under me at the new job, I paid off my car, bought a motorcycle, and enrolled in a Master’s program in English at Cal State Northridge (CSUN).
I spent my 10-year anniversary in the hospital. I had crashed the motorcycle: I broke my left wrist, fractured my right elbow, cracked a rib and had a laceration on my liver, and had a few stitches around my right eye. Prior to that date, I’d never broken a bone or had a stitch. I guess I was making up for lost time! It took a few months to fully recover from that accident, as my brain had gone a little soft for a while there. The symptoms of that were pretty scary to those around me, but I thought they were just being dramatic. When I viewed video evidence later–which I still have a hard time viewing–I realized they were right to be worried! I ended up getting back to work and back to my classes at CSUN, and a couple years later I had a Master’s degree, a long-distance marriage, and a divorce under my belt. The belt was also a larger one, as most of the reading and writing I did in support of my master’s degree took place at Denny’s. (For real.) I weighed nearly 250 pounds when I crossed the stage to collect my master’s degree.
Mom came to California to see me walk in my graduation ceremony–she had been losing weight and said it had something to do with cat-scratch fever she got from one of the strays living in her garage or basement. Six months later, we learned that it wasn’t cat-scratch fever. Mom had stage 3 breast cancer. The prognosis was supposed to be reasonably good, but Mom kept acting like her own nurse and ended up with an infection. I had the privilege of bringing my nephews home to Illinois to visit for Christmas that year. She was always happiest when she was spending time with her grandkids. We flew back to California on January 1st, and Mom’s infection ended up spreading to her blood later that week. She passed away on January 7th, 2012.
By the time I reached 15 years clean, I had recently finished working with my brothers and sisters to get the home we grew up in prepared to be sold. Between the sale of the house and a modest life insurance policy, we each got a small inheritance from Mom’s passing. Knowing my own spending habits, I knew that it would be easy to nickel-and-dime that money away very quickly if I didn’t do something smarter with it right away, and so I became a first-time homeowner in 2013 when I bought a condo in Canoga Park, California.
After Mom’s passing, I had also renewed past efforts to get fit, and so I had joined a marathon training group. (I wasn’t sure whether I really intended to run a marathon… I was just tired of stalling out in doing the “Couch to 5k” training on my own.) Around the time I bought the condo, I also completed my first marathon, and then first half marathon, and then second marathon, and then … and then… and then. I also started teaching part-time at the local community college to supplement my earnings from the nonprofit. In the following few years, I served on the board of directors for the running club that made marathons possible for me–the L.A. Leggers. I served as a pace group mentor, as the newsletter editor, and as the club president. I am deeply grateful for the gifts they gave me–and they keep on giving. With some nudging from a fellow Legger who served as a mentor with me, I signed up for an Ironman in 2014. As I had done with the marathon, I signed up first, and I worried about getting ready next. In Cozumel, Mexico, on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, I swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran (and walked) 26.2 miles to collect an Ironman finisher’s medal after 15 hours and 44 minutes of exertion.
By the time I finished my second Ironman in October 2015, I had gone on several dates with an incredibly fascinating woman named Aisha. We took a weekend trip together to Rosarito, Mexico, in early November. As with the marathon and Ironman, I decided to sign up first and worry about getting ready next. We became parents of the most amazing human being I have ever met, Eugene Robert Corning, on August 3rd, 2016.
As fate would have it, I was offered a full-time, tenure-track teaching position at the community college starting the same month Gene was born. After ten years of wonderful, difficult, joyous, challenging, uplifting, and heartbreaking years of work with the nonprofit, I said my good-byes and switched over to full-time teaching.
Gene was just a few months old when my dad called from Illinois to tell me he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Within a few weeks, we were in Illinois for Thanksgiving, and Gene got to meet his Grandpa Corning in the oncology unit at the same hospital where I’d been born. After a few months of intense treatment, Dad appeared to be free of the cancer cells. Then, in May, he called again and said they’d been mistaken. I don’t know whether Dad was optimistic or in denial, but each time I talked to him, it sounded like he had plenty of time to work with. Then, in July 2017, my Aunt Vicki–Dad’s sister–called and told me to come home. Aisha, Gene, and I were able to get home by the next morning, adn I spent the majority of the next several days at the side of Dad’s hospital bed, letting him know that it was okay for him to go. In the early afternoon on the 4th of July, I held my hand on his chest as he took his final breath. My family, once again, was an incredible source of support and strength as we proceeded to bury him and say our good-byes.
Because education seems to factor so much into the thread of the narrative of this 20-year journey, it only makes sense that I enrolled in a doctoral program at CSUN in the fall of 2017. As of the time that I reached the 20-year mark of abstinence from drugs (including alcohol), I am one semester into a 3-year educational doctorate (Ed.D.) program. Just like with the marathon and ironman, and now parenthood, so long as I stay above ground and keep moving forward, everything’s going to be okay.
I didn’t really mean to write this much. And when I stopped using drugs, I really couldn’t imagine being blessed with this much. As a teenager, I was burning every bridge I could find and slamming shut all the doors of opportunity. I had no idea how privileged or fortunate I was, until I stopped shutting out the privilege and fortune. Since getting clean, life has been incredibly good to me. As I continue on to the next 5-year, 10-year, 20-year period of living and enjoying life without the use of drugs, my goal is to continue looking for ways to carry that goodness forward to help others. For all of you who have been a part of this journey, Thank You. For those of you who are not yet part of my journey, how can I help?