George Gatski has been sober for 31 years and continues to take his recovery one day at a time. After many stops and starts, followed by a decades-long career in addiction medicine, he understands the struggle of addiction better than most. Here, Gatski reflects on what it took to get him to more than three decades of sobriety.

I started using at a pretty young age, probably 11 or 12 years old. I was drinking and smoking pot. When I was a teenager, I started going to parties and using more and more. It was the ‘80s, right? So, stimulants were my drug of choice. I got into cocaine, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine. I used so heavily that I was unable to hold a job; I could not go eight hours in a day without using. I’d go seven or eight days in a row without sleeping and just pass out, exhausted.

I started getting into some criminal activity and was stealing from my family; eventually, the law stepped in. Three months after my 18th birthday, I was a convicted felon (for burglary). I was on probation, but I couldn’t stop using. I kept testing positive every time my PO [probation officer] would test me, leading to multiple violations.

At one point, I got into a physical altercation with my 67-year-old father. He was okay, but that was kind of the end of my rope. I went to my probation officer and said, “I can’t stop using; I need help.”

Talk about a surrender, right? He could have locked me up and thrown me in jail if he wanted to.

But I was just done. I was so tired of hurting my family and others that it was time for me to surrender and let go.

I got clean at 22 years old. I’d been to three or four treatment centers prior to that and was unable to get clean. So, my PO put me in a state-funded 6-month treatment program in Las Vegas. That’s how my journey started.

I was so beat up, so mentally and emotionally exhausted. I would sit in there, and people started sharing about their feelings, what they were going through. And for the first time I started to connect with that. I really related to how other people felt.

I believe timing’s everything, which is why treatment is so important. Because once you get in, that’s the time. It’s almost like jump-starting your battery when your car breaks down.

I followed everything that was told to me. I really understood I was the problem—not the world, not my family, not all the traumatic things I went through. It was more about me and how my head lies to me, how my head would tell me things and—this is where I truly believe in the disease of addiction—I would listen to it. That’s why I ended up always relapsing or not staying clean.

But the last time was a surrender. I finished that whole six months of treatment and was in outpatient treatment for almost a full year after that. I was in a work therapy program and attended Narcotics Anonymous and other 12-Step meetings.

It requires a full surrender of just following the next step, the next day, and then the next step and the next day after that, following the guidance of the staff and just going all in. And that’s how I truly believe I’ve stayed clean.

To this day, I still go to meetings weekly. It’s been 31 years and I’ve never stopped.

By 23 or 24 years old, I was really ingrained in sponsorship and working the 12-Step program. I still sponsor individuals, and I have a sponsor that has 40-some years clean. I’m still really connected to the program, and I think that’s helped me maintain my recovery.

Journaling & Meditation
Journaling is a big one for me—mentally getting something out of my head and just putting it on paper. Whether it’s 12-Step work that I’m writing or a gratitude list, I’m always writing all the time.
I also like to touch on spirituality as well. I do prayer meditation. It’s not about a specific religion; it’s about spirituality as a whole. In the mornings, I take a moment to stop when I start my car. I’ll keep the radio off for five or 10 minutes, just being calm and taking deep breaths.

I have anywhere from six to 10 people—my sponsor, my recovery friends, my wife (who is 25 years clean)—that I can call on at any given moment, whenever there’s something in my life that is big or heavy, such as a death, a difficult situation, or even just decisions I have to make.

I have those connections with me, so I don’t make any heavy decisions or go through anything difficult that somebody else doesn’t know about. I don’t keep it inside. Whether I’m at home, in a group, or in a meeting, I’m sharing openly about it.

I’m known for being honest and very transparent. I just don’t like to hold onto that stuff. And I think that keeps me going forward.

Giving Back
I had been clean for five years when I first got into the healthcare field, which was 25 years ago now. And I’ve always been about giving back. Giving back is such a big deal for me. I get such joy and meaning when I do this. Whether it’s somebody that I sponsor, a newcomer I meet at a meeting, a family member or friend, or someone I encounter in my day-to-day job at work. I like to do groups, even though I’m the CEO of the treatment center. I’m ingrained in the process, and the patients really respond to me. I tell them about my story, and it impacts them.

Because if I can do it, anybody can do it. I was a person that had no structure, no discipline, unhealthy boundaries and could not keep a job to save my life.
Today, I bring such joy and passion to the work environment. This field is tough, so it’s about loving what you do.

A former boss of mine once said, “George’s passion is infectious.” He would say that, and I didn’t believe it back then. But now I see it—now I see how I can bring that to the table.

Gratitude. Always.
I’m so grateful because I shouldn’t be sitting here. With the route I was taking before I got clean, I should have been in prison for a long time or dead or… And gratitude has helped me with being selfless. People who know me know that I’m always giving back.

Recovery is about more than just getting over the obsession to use. That was lifted for me a long time ago. It’s about gratitude, the gratitude of being in recovery. It’s about being a better person. Over these past 30 years, I’ve grown as an individual and continue to work on myself on a daily basis, and it’s given me a life that I can only dream of.

—George Gatski is CEO of Desert Hope Treatment Center, an evidence-based drug and alcohol rehab facility in Las Vegas