Second chance at life: Sober for 23 years, Bill Butler thankful he didn’t pull trigger

Bill Butler pointed a gun at himself.

Finger on the trigger, it was time.

Now.

Now.

No.

Butler had thought about killing himself before, but this was the closest he ever came to going through with it.

The close call landed him in Central State Hospital in Norman.

Butler, after sobering up a bit, was asked by a doctor if he still wanted to kill himself.

“I wasn’t really wanting to die,” he said during a recent interview.

“I was just sick of living the way I was living.”

Butler, unable to escape the bottle, had been drinking for 28 years.

That was 1994.

Butler has been sober for 23 years and he’s paying it forward as a staffer at 12 & 12, an addiction recovery center in Tulsa. He refers to it as the place that saved his life. He is comfortable sharing his story because it’s part of his recovery and — bonus — maybe others can gain hope from his climb to sobriety.

“For me, I’ve never tried to hide it because I’m proud of being in recovery,” he said. “It’s the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever had.”

‘Harder than I thought’

Butler was ready to tell his whole story. He sent a document to the printer when a reporter visited his office at 12 & 12. The document was two full pages of Butler baring details about his life and his battle with alcoholism. He handed his story to the reporter, then he fielded questions.

Among comments that stuck out: Butler said it was a miracle he never got a DUI. And he said he was lucky he never hurt anybody.

“I know people that have had to live with stuff like that,” he said.

A former truck driver, Butler said he tried to do most of his drinking at home. But there were times when he was in no shape to be behind the wheel. He once got a reprieve because he was pulled over only a block from his destination. He averted jail time on another occasion because the driver of another vehicle ran a checkpoint and wrested away the attention of law enforcement.

“I drove drunk way more than I ever should have,” he said.

Beer was the addiction-starter. Butler said he carried beer around with him most of the time because he liked the taste of it.

“I drank it like iced tea,” he said.

He progressed from drinking beer on weekends to drinking every night, and he said he drank whiskey to get drunk.

“There was also an assortment of drugs along the way,” he wrote. “The two most regularly used were marijuana and amphetamines.”

Butler decided to try to drink himself to death after a divorce, “but that turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. I kept passing out before I got alcohol poisoning,” he said.

At one point in the spiral, Butler was unable to hold down a job. He was living with a woman he met in rehab.

“I was picking up trash on the grounds of the apartment complex I was living in, and the woman was sweeping and mopping the breezeways,” he said. “That was paying the rent, and food stamps and church donations were feeding us.”

Butler said his mental health was not good. Once upon a time, drinking made him feel good. That changed. He became angry (“I didn’t even know what I was mad at half the time”) and depressed when drinking.

“Back when I was driving, I had a lot of anger issues — road rage,” he said. “I was irritable all the time.”

Before hitting rock bottom and checking into 12 & 12, Butler said he had been through treatment four times and detox at least two additional times. His longest period of sobriety after his first treatment was 78 days. He was ready to give up on trying to be sober. He was ready to give up on life.

“There are a lot of people that come through here that get to that point at one level or another,” he said.

“You don’t start out wanting to be an addict or an alcoholic, but it just gets to a point that it’s so hard to get out of it that you don’t know if you have got any other alternatives.”

‘One day at a time’

After Butler considered pulling the trigger, he realized it was now or never. He didn’t know if he could stop himself again if he wound up in a similar situation.

Butler called around in search of rehab centers. He was living in the Oklahoma City area at the time, but someone gave him the number for 12 & 12 in Tulsa. He had never heard of 12 & 12 but chose to go there because the wait time to be admitted was shorter than the wait time for other facilities. He wanted to be in the express lane.

Though previous efforts to get sober failed, Butler said everything felt different this time. He was finally ready to “surrender” to the recovery process. Maybe some people are capable of getting sober by themselves, but Butler needed the support and the tools for recovery he found at 12 & 12. The facility offers a full continuum of care, including detox, treatment, transitional living, “halfway” living and sober living.

Butler was stunned when he got to 12 & 12 and a counselor suggested he stay a year. Now he understands.

“The longer you stay, the better your chances are of staying sober,” he said.

Phrases like “one day at a time” and “this too shall pass” began to make more sense to Butler during his stay. After nine months, someone commented on how much he had changed. Never underestimate the value of words. The comment motivated him to work harder for continued change.

Butler was inspired by a halfway counselor who always seemed to be even-tempered. And he tried to be a sponge around people who had achieved sobriety, soaking up whatever tips he could.

During a period when Butler had a driving job for the last time, co-workers knew he was in a recovery program. They asked him to go to a bar with them, and they offered to drink only soft drinks or tea. He declined.

“That might work a time or two,” he said. “But I know me, and it’s not going to last forever. I will have a bad day and go ‘to hell with it.’ It’s like this expression: You keep going into a barber shop, sooner or later you are going to get a haircut. So I don’t go to bars.”

Butler said a recovery tool that has contributed the most to staying sober is learning how to have faith in a higher power.

“I had gone to church a lot, but I had never learned how to have any faith,” he said. “I went through the motions, praying every night on my knees, until I finally started making a connection and seeing things happen and made a decision to not think of it as a coincidence.”

Butler no longer gets on his knees to pray (blame a motorcycle accident), but he still prays every night before he goes to bed.

“It’s almost like I’m afraid if I miss a night that something might happen,” he said.

‘Grateful’

Because Butler didn’t pull the trigger, he lived long enough to turn 65 this month. He has worked in various capacities at 12 & 12 since 2000 and now is an admissions clerk.

“This has been the best job I have ever had,” he said. “I know what the clients are feeling. Most of them appreciate the fact that a lot of people that work here are in recovery, and they can identify with each other.”

It’s gratifying for Butler to see others change their lives the way he changed his life. He said the person who first walked into 12 & 12 and the person he is now are as different as night and day.

Butler feels great. His attitude is usually good. He rarely loses his temper anymore and, when he does, it’s for short periods of time, he said.

Asked if he is as happy as he has ever been, Butler said, “Yes because I went around angry so much. And now I’ve got peace of mind, and I have got friends and family that I care about and they care about me. I’ve got money problems and other problems just like everybody else, but I can deal with them now. I didn’t know how to deal with them back in the past. They taught me a lot about acceptance and about letting things that I can’t control rule how I feel and how I think. It’s a load off your mind when you can do that.”

Butler, who has 15 grandchildren, hung photos of them on the walls of his office. He is thankful that, with the exception of older relatives, many family members have never seen him drunk or high.

“It’s like I’ve been given the chance to live two times,” he wrote.

“I came here wanting to learn how not to drink and I got so much more than I ever dreamed of. And I haven’t wanted to die in 23 years. I value my life now and I can never express how grateful I am. And on top of that, I get to see it happen for others while working here.”

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