My name is Devon White. And I am an alcoholic.
My sobriety date is November 8, 2003. I mention that first because that date is the impetus for my journey to understand myself, inside and out, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually.
As far back as I can remember, I can remember anxiety. I remember going to a visitation day for pre-school and being petrified to even leave my mothers side. I remember having a panic attack on the bus in first grade when there was a substitute bus driver that did not know the route and the other kids on the bus were knowingly trying to send him in the wrong direction. I remember playing baseball and having four hits, but striking out in my fifth at bat and having a full fledged meltdown. I remember wishing I could explain to my classmates that if I were measuring on a scale of 1-10 on how close I was to falling apart, I was perpetually at 9.5. I remember the envy I felt for my friends that did not have…this. And the shame and confusion that came along with it.
My father was a functional alcoholic (though I didn’t know that at the time), and all I had seen growing up about alcohol was positive; parties, laughing, singing. At 12, I had my first drink. Up until that point, I did not know what being drunk felt like. Had I known, I may not have waited as long as I did. It transformed me into all the things I wished I was.
Even as a child, I knew I possessed positive attributes –there was just a huge cloud blocking them out. Alcohol made it all go away. From the very beginning, I knew I drank more and unlike other people.
By 8th grade, the anxiety started to manifest itself differently as puberty took hold of me. What used to be panic and crying slowly became anger and depression. Now in middle school, sports had always been my release, my sanctuary, my playground. But my depression crippled me to the point that it took every last bit of energy to get through the day the way “normal” kids did, which basically meant without crisis. So the idea of staying AFTER school was so incredibly daunting that I couldn’t even imagine it.
Though I had legitimate talent in sports, especially baseball, I didn’t get the chance to flourish and elevate my game to the next level. And this would make me more depressed. The anxiety and depression seeped into my social life as well. I had trouble making and keeping friends because of my unpredictable and undependable behavior. All through this time, drinking was the magic elixir. For brief fleeting moments I was… normal. And this is all I ever strived to be. Normal. And I couldn’t do it unless I was drunk. And I hated myself for it.
When I was a junior in high school, I was desperate. I had enough self awareness to know I was in somewhat serious emotional trouble. I had watched my younger sister excel at cross country and track after trying and ultimately leaving numerous other sports. I saw a difference in her whole essence. She had arrived. So I decided to give track a try. After a brief venture into sprinting, a few boys I knew from my town had witnessed first hand the striking resemblance of my sprinting form to a wounded gazelle, and thankfully and mercilessly guided me into distance running. It was hard. But not impossible. Which was new for me. It seemed like I could do it. I could excel. As long as I worked hard. And despite all my flaws, I wasn’t afraid of hard work.
The members of the team were special. They welcomed and accepted me without a second thought. As always, I had my fair share of anxieties about competitions. But they were all eradicated before they had any chance to grow. I remember before my first race I had expressed concern about how I didn’t have racing spikes. One teammate said to me, “Please don’t stress. It’s the first meet of the season. You’ll most likely see a kid wearing Timberland boots in a race.”
I had finally found a purpose. I was part of something. My depression still lurked in the shadows, but it was less prevalent. I finally gained some confidence. I enjoyed school. I was invited to parties that used to elude me. I started dating a cheerleader. Now, I want to make sure you don’t miss that last fact. I was a cross country runner. Dating a cheerleader. Anyway moving on…
It was the first time I could ever remember feeling comfortable in my own skin.
As a senior in high school, I made it my mission to run at the next level. I knew I needed a team environment to support me through the task ahead of going away to college. But, I knew it was going to be extremely difficult to duplicate the experience I had in high school. But I found it in an eccentric and bombastic, yet extremely caring and thoughtful character from Chicago, (accent included) Coach Tomascivicz. The family, tight knit atmosphere was preached by the coach and practiced by the team. My teammates were guys I went to battle with at practice and races, but laughed with at meals and at each others’ dorms.
My running career was largely positive but there were times of isolation and loneliness that I had never experienced. So there were a whole new set of challenges to confront. So in a lot of these times, my drinking definitely graduated to the next level.
Overall, my two years at SUNY Cobleskill were two of the most significant years of my life. And by the end of May of 1998, I had a circle of friends that I had been searching for for most of my life, a team and coaching staff that I referred to as family, and a girlfriend that I was crazy about. I was happy. I was home.
But then, it was all over. I had to start all over. Again. From here, I knew for absolute certainty that I was in deep trouble.
One of the things about Cobleskill, and more specifically running, is that it had eradicated my feeling of being a literal alien. I had worked so hard to get past it.
When I got to Salisbury State University, I had all those feelings all over again. My team was 20 individual athletes, not a unit. And my coach… just wasn’t my coach at Cobleskill. I felt left out. Ostracized. Lost. I began to drink during the week. Most weeks. Mondays. Wednesdays. Afternoons. My running career had become a distant thought. I didn’t want to be there. I argued with my team. I argued with my coaches. I was toxic.
Then, I started blacking out. I was faced with the mortifying task of having to ask about the incidents of the night before. Incidents I was involved in. And when I drank more, more problems came. And I got more depressed. So I drank more. And so on. At the end, when I drank, I blacked out. And the blackness was more than just my memory. It was how I felt. Only by switching majors was I able to graduate.
For the next two years, my drinking escalated the way I knew it would but had always held out hope that it wouldn’t.
On the night of November 8, 2003, I had continued to drink and made the horrendous decision to keep driving from place to place. I distinctly remember thinking to myself how catastrophically bad these decisions were. But I couldn’t stop. I compared myself to a zombie. It turns out foreshadowing exists in reality.
When leaving a bar, I had turned the wrong way up a one way road, was pulled over and subsequently arrested for DWI. I was released and woke up and could not figure out how I got to where I was.
I had seen it coming in some ways. I was beaten. Defeated. I waved the white flag. I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting two days later. And I am still on my journey.
Since then I have completed five full marathons, six half marathons, and many other road races. I started coaching cross country and track & field in 2010. In fall of 2010, I was a one to one for a student with Autism and I shadowed her on the cross country team. In addition to helping the student, I also assisted in some coaching duties for the team. I formed bonds with runners on both teams, boys and girls. After the season was over and there was a coaching vacancy, the parents had recommended that I become head coach. I happily accepted and since then have coached cross country and track at a number of schools.
Most recently in 2017, I was offered the job as head girls cross country coach at Clarkstown High School North, my alma mater. I started coaching for the very simple reason that it just takes one person to believe in you. One person to invest in you. Really. Just one. I know what it meant to me when I finally found that person. As cliche as it may be, I have an obligation to honor that. As I enter my 12th year coaching, my mission statement is exactly the same.
About six years ago, an athlete I coached moved to another district. He was a talented 800m runner. Never going to win a state title or anything like that, but maximized every last bit of his talent. He was a bit of a jokester, and when he left, that was what I missed the most. The school he transferred to was in our section, so we saw him at a meet. Right before the 800m finals he runs over to me, wearing another school uniform, and nervously says “Coach, what do I do?”
I initially believed he was joking, so I sarcastically started to explain how running works, but as I looked closer at him, I saw his eyes were welling up. So I switched modes: “Tell me exactly what is causing you the most distress.” This was the tactic that worked for him. He would tell me what was causing him panic, and I would break it down and explain why the whole notion is ludicrous. This isn’t effective for all athletes. All athletes are different. But it’s what he needed. Then he started to officially cry. “This is what I need every time I step on the track for competition. I don’t get that here. I miss it.” I talked a little more, made a joke ,and he smiled and ran to the start. I was floored. He was a great kid. It was easy to provide him with what he needed. But he appreciated it. All of it. It was an unbelievable moment. Four years after I coached him, I was the person he called when he got in trouble at college and was having destructive thoughts.
My anxiety and depression always linger on the periphery, but my recovery and experiences overcoming obstacles in sports provide me with the tools to keep them at bay. I have two daughters 12 and 9, who are both athletes. My older daughter is currently in a treatment center for anorexia. The isolation of quarantine had a profound effect on her emotional well-being. It’s nothing short of heart-wrenching having her struggle. But she is nearing the completion of her program and is showing improvement on a daily basis. Using my personal experiences to bond with her has had a significant effect on her in a positive way. She will be ok. More than ok. She will be unstoppable. Because this makes you strong.
Life breaks everyone. Some are stronger in those broken places. I know for I have lived it.
There haven’t been many positives to come from the chaos and division of the last four plus years, but one was being forced to take stands on important issues. Standing by idly is not an option any more. I have always been an advocate. An advocate for people with special needs, for the LGBTQ community, for people who have been stigmatized. There is still a stigma attached to mental health. But, as in most stigmas they stem from lack of understanding. In Alcoholics Anonymous, we talk about how we may be the only version of the Big Book (of Alcoholics Anonymous) that a person hears that day. Make every opportunity count. And I will continue to take every opportunity, every time, to shed light on the darkness of this stigma.