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Chicago John

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December Share 2020

If Santa Claus were a recovering alcoholic, he would be named Chicago John. They seem to have a lot in common; always optimistic and driven to do the next right thing. Since he wanted to remain anonymous, we thought how fitting to deck his page with the Christmas spirit. Let’s just start by saying, this Santa has been in the recovery realm for quite a while now. We can tell you for certain his journey is like no other, but it eventually turned into “It’s a Beautiful Life.”  You may want to warm up to a glass of milk and baked cookies before you go on to read this unbelievable story.


My name is John, and I am an alcoholic. I am one drink away from a drunk. I did not come that way, but I discovered very early that alcohol enabled me to magically distort my perception of reality so that I could move comfortably and safely through a childhood and adolescence filled with lies, cruelty, madness and violence.

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What was it like?

The couple who adopted me from The Chicago Foundlings Home when I was a year old were denied adoption rights three times. But while the authorities had determined that their backgrounds and psychological profiles excluded them from being eligible to adopt children, their parents used their considerable financial and political clout to ensure they were able to adopt me. My adoptive father was a World War II combat infantryman subject to frequent and violent rage attacks, and my adoptive mother was a manic-depressive, bipolar schizophrenic who experienced frequent psychotic breaks.

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My grandparents hosted a family Thanksgiving Dinner every year at a private Chicago Social Club, and at the annual dinner before my 12th  birthday I grabbed a vodka screwdriver from a drink tray and drank it. Within minutes my chronic feeling that I was “a part of but did not belong to” my family had disappeared and was replaced with incredible sensations of warmth, self-confidence, calm and well-being.  That evening alcohol became my trusted aide, ally and friend, and remained so for the next 12 years.

When I was 14 years old the viciousness of my father’s beatings intensified, and after he broke my jaw one night I left home. For a year or so I hustled on the North Side of Chicago and rented a squalid room in the Lawson YMCA on Chicago Avenue.  One night while I was in a blackout and throwing quart beer bottles full of my urine out of my 11th floor window onto pedestrians below, the police were called and the management learned I was a minor:  they immediately threw me out, and I wound up living in a dumpster and peddling my ass in an alley off of Rush Street.  I had plenty of epiphanies about drinking, hustling and living on the street … I was raped three times, stabbed twice but only shot once … and when I turned 17 ½ I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for 16 weeks of Basic Training followed by 16 weeks of Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I was then sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for Airborne Training.

After completing Airborne School and while I was waiting for orders sending me to an Airborne Infantry unit in Italy, the Army gave me a foreign language aptitude test and determined that I had the aptitude for learning a foreign language. I was promptly sent to The Defense Language Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey, California. I spent three years on that college-like campus, drinking heavily and learning Russian, Polish and German. Then I was shipped off to Germany, where I was assigned as an enlisted interpreter at a General Staff Headquarters. 

My drinking took on an entirely different complexion once I arrived in Germany, where consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol was deeply ingrained and widely accepted both in the U.S. Military and in German culture.  The occasional blackouts I had experienced drinking back in the U.S. became almost daily occurrences, and I became terrified of 3-day weekends. I could control two days of normal weekend drinking and make it to work on Monday mornings reasonably sober, but invariably I would be found drunk in my office every morning following a 3-day weekend.

What Happened?

One Monday morning in early September, 1983, still drunk after a weekend of blackout drinking, I called my office and told my Sergeant Major that I had a dental appointment. I then disappeared from my installation and went on a bender that lasted almost three weeks until it ended when I tried to kill myself one night in a blackout.  I had a unique perspective in that last blackout: it was like watching a black and white movie of myself as I tried desperately to open the doors of the high speed Trans-European Express train in which I was traveling. Passengers were screaming at me, and an enormous German man grabbed me and tried to sit on me to keep me from throwing myself out of the train. I wriggled out from beneath him and attacked the doors again. He grabbed me again, threw me into a seat and sat on me.  I came out of the blackout briefly and then, looking down at the perforated metal floor at the top of the exit stairs and weeping, I cried aloud the first erstwhile prayer I ever uttered in my life: “God, please save me, please save me. I don’t want to die” … and then blacked out.

I came out of that blackout as I was looking down and watching my right foot move from the bottom of the train car step and down to touch a cobblestone train platform.  I looked up at the station clock … it was 10:05 p.m. and the sign above the clock told me that I was in my hometown train station. I looked up and, though it was nighttime, it was as bright as day. I had the very real and profound sensation of huge weights being instantly removed from the inside of my chest. I threw my arms into the air and I shouted aloud “Okay! I got the message.”  I walked out of the train station, crossed the street and ducked into a pub and ordered my last drink. It was 10:10pm, Sep. 19, 1983.

The following day I was admitted to the Psychiatric Ward at Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center for detoxification. I weighed 104 pounds, I had jaundice, I could not speak in complete sentences, I could not eat solid food, and I was diagnosed with significant clinical cognitive impairment. I was 25 years old. The medical staff put me on Thorazine for 5 days and, on my 6th day on the ward a man came with an Air Force Security Officer and escorted me to an A.A. Meeting in the basement of a guard shack at the back entrance to the hospital compound.  During that meeting I met my first A.A. Sponsor. His name was Philadelphia Bill Robinson, he had 28 years of sobriety, and he had arrived in Germany the day before for a 2 week visit with his son, who was an airman stationed at nearby Ramstein Air Force Base.  At the end of the meeting, Philly Bill grabbed me by the lapels of my hospital robe and stuck his nose right into my face, almost shouting, and he said: “Kid, you don’t ever have to drink again as long as you live, because you’re in Alcoholics Anonymous now! If you go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, if you read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, if you get a sponsor and work the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and if you don’t drink, EVEN IF YOUR BALLS FALL OFF, things will happen to you beyond your wildest imagination, and all of your dreams will come true!”

The following day I was transferred from the Psychiatric Ward to a medical ward, where I spent another 6 months convalescing while the doctors and medical staff nursed me back to health. Philly Bill picked me up and took me to meetings every single day during my hospitalization.  His two week visit with his son lasted more than six months, and every day he infused me with his experience, strength and hope.

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What it's like today?

I left the Army and returned to the United States with 19 months of sobriety under my belt in April, 1985. I began to attend University and earned a degree in Medieval German Literature. I earned a second degree in Political Science. Then I went to Graduate School, where I received joint Master’s Degrees in European History and Philosophy. I went to law school and obtained my Juris Doctor Degree, after which I enjoyed a successful career practicing law. I retired from my law practice 16 years ago and started a business that my wife and I built into an internationally recognized brand. I retired again when we sold that business 8 years ago. We immediately started yet another business which we continue to expand and grow with the intention of turning it over to our children in a couple of years, after which we plan to retire to our other home in the Bradshaw Mountains of Arizona (where I have plans to start another business).

The life I have today is a life I would never have dared to imagine for myself. I have been happily married to the same woman for more than 30 years. We have 5 wonderful children, one grandchild and another grandchild on the way … and none of these people have ever seen me take a drink. 

Philly Bill would tell me over and over: “Johnny, anything is possible in sobriety! You can do ANYTHING you put your mind to if you’re sober” and I believed him. I thank my Higher Power on a daily basis for inserting Bill, and my second sponsor Ramstein Charlie, into my life early on in sobriety.  Those men showed me by their conduct of their daily affairs that Alcoholics Anonymous works, and their example persuaded me that Alcoholics Anonymous could work for me too.  Each wore his sobriety like a Crown, and together with the Fellowship they gave me a life that has exceeded my wildest expectations, and all of my dreams have indeed come true.

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3 years ago

Wow John!!!

2 years ago

What a testimony to the success of AA and its members.
Extending a visit 6 months to help another alcoholic…God Bless Philly Bill, you & your family? Thank you for sharing your journey.

1 year ago

Just what I needed to see. Incredible story.Thanks for the 12th step.