Dad, I want you to know this is how my life turned out after going to rehab 38 years ago

To: My dad

From: Dee Gee (Don Fertman) (As told to Lauren Brill)

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Dear Dad, 

 Two months before you died, which was 38 years ago, I called you up, and you told me, “Dee, you did the right thing.”

It’s only now, looking back, that I realize what you meant. At that moment, you knew I had an opportunity that you never got in life.  Alcohol was always in your way. And until age 29, it was in my way as well. 

My earliest memory in life is of a babysitter holding me and saying with a thick New York accent, “You poor, poor kid.” 

I must have been only three years old. 

She kept saying it over and over: “You poor, poor kid.”

In the next room, you and mom were drunk and screaming at each other. Mom hit you in the face. Both of you were alcoholics, and alcohol fueled many arguments between you. While there were some good moments in my childhood, most were overlaid with this constant feeling of dread. I never knew when you’d start to throw the dishes or hit each other or toss aside the kitchen table. Many nights, I’d go to bed holding my pillow over my head to try to block out the screaming so I could fall asleep. 

Growing up, I didn’t invite any kids to our house because I worried you two would start going off at each other. Instead, I kept to myself. I always felt alone, like I didn’t quite fit in. Uncomfortable in my own skin, I developed this nagging feeling that something wasn’t right about me. Every day, I would get that feeling. It was terrible, and I so badly wanted it to go away. 

Then, one day, like magic, it did go away. 

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I didn’t expect it to happen this way – especially since my experiences in high school with drugs and alcohol were not good. In high school, I accidentally ate strawberries that contained alcohol. I got drunk, and it was terrible. Then, I started smoking pot, and I loved it. But after getting caught by the police and spending a night in jail, I became paranoid and couldn’t enjoy it anymore. 

Truly, I never wanted to drink because I saw how miserable it made you. However, one day when I was in college, I was walking past the student center at The University of New Haven, and there was a sign asking for volunteers to help build the radio station at the school. I always loved music, so I decided to help. I walked in, and they handed me a hammer. After that day, I continued to come back, and one night these guys who were also building the radio station invited me out for pizza. 

Introverted and quiet, I didn’t have much of a social life, so I said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”

They all ordered a round of beer. I wanted to fit in, so I ordered a Miller. 

I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty good. I think I’ll have another one.”

So, I drank a second Miller, and that was even better. 

 I said, “Give me a third one.”

About halfway through that third Miller, the magic happened. All of a sudden, I felt free. That terrible nagging feeling was gone. I felt great – like I was good-looking, intelligent, and I could talk to anybody, which I did. That night I talked and talked and talked as I drank more beers. It was one of the best nights of my life. 

For the next ten years, all I wanted to do was get that third Miller feeling again and again and again. From that third Miller, I became an active alcoholic. 

From that third Miller, I became an alcoholic.

Once we finished the radio station, I became a disc jockey, and after college, I became a professional musician. Our band became pretty successful. The lifestyle of a musician allowed me to drink and snort all I wanted. I lived in a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. 

The problem was I kept chasing that third Miller – to the point that I would go so far beyond it. I would get sloppy drunk, and I started getting sloppy on stage and missing practices. After five years, they kicked me out of the band. I was devastated. As far as I was concerned, my life was over. I was done. 

Don, bottom left, with his former band The Crayons

The guy who promoted our band was the head of advertising for a local startup company in the fast-food industry. It was a small company. He offered me a job doing public relations and sales, among other tasks.  

This wasn’t supposed to be my life. I was going to be a rockstar. 

All I could think was, “This sucks.”

 Not to mention, in the band, I didn’t have to hide my drinking. At a 9-5 job, I couldn’t exactly keep my beer on my desk. 

Two years later, while still working for that startup company, I reached my rock bottom. I was 29 years old, and I went to the 10-year reunion for the radio station I helped build. To get to the reunion, I needed a few drinks. I was supposed to be famous. Instead, I was this guy sitting at a desk just like you. 

Miserable and embarrassed, I drank a lot at that reunion. My last memory from that night is going into the bathroom and snorting a line of coke off the back of the toilet and throwing up while thinking, “Oh God, I better go back and get another drink.”

Someone told me years later he fought with me for my keys. When I wouldn’t give them to him, he tried to follow me home, but I was going 70 mph down Route 1 in New Haven, a street with a lot of traffic lights. 

I don’t remember any of that. The day after the reunion, I woke up and went through my usual morning routine. I went down the hallway to the kitchen, poured orange juice, brought it back to my room, and filled the rest of the glass with the vodka. After I got it down, I brushed my teeth and went to work. 

 When I left for work, I was hungover and had this terrible feeling of impending doom. 

At work, a secretary left jelly donuts for everyone. Just looking at the donut made me nauseous. Then, according to everyone in the room, my boss, the one who got me the job, walked over to me and asked me a question – just a simple question. But in my mind, I thought he screamed at me. So, I stood up and threw the jelly donut against the wall. 

In front of everyone, I screamed, “You’re right. I am a f*** up.”

And I turned around and walked out. 

 That was my rock bottom. And that vodka I had that morning of June 6, 1983, was my last drink. 

 I finally admitted that I drank about a quart-and-a-half of Scotch vodka every day and snorted cocaine whenever I could afford it. That day, I decided to go to rehab. 

In rehab, I was so hopeless that I was willing to listen. And as I am sure you know, willingness is not willpower. Willpower doesn’t work. I needed the willingness to listen and learn. 

 It was in rehab that I made that call to you, and you told me, “You did the right thing.”

 I began going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. I still remember the first time I said, “My name is Don, and I am an alcoholic.”

As soon as I said it out loud, that feeling of impending doom went away, and it truly opened the door for my recovery. I followed the 12 steps, and spirituality helped me feel comfortable in my own skin. 

Meanwhile, I assumed I had lost my job. But while I was in rehab, I got a call from human resources. They told me to come back whenever I was ready. The head of the company wanted to give me a second chance. 

Two months later, you passed away from esophageal cancer because of the years and years of drinking. You died an active alcoholic, eating a diet of chickpeas and vodka and wasting away to practically nothing.

While you knew that I went to rehab and I got sober, you never got to see the way my life turned out. Dad, I spent 38 years at that small startup called Subway, which ended up not being so small. When I started, we had 166 franchises, and when I retired, we had more than 40,000 locations around the globe. I had a tremendous career, holding many positions, including chief development officer. For many years, I was one of the top executives at the company.

In my personal life, I married a great woman, and we have two wonderful children. Your grandson, my son, just graduated from college and your granddaughter, my daughter, is away at a university now. 

Don with his wife and their two children

For 10 long years, alcohol came between me and life. But since the day I said, “My name is Don, and I am an alcoholic,” I have been able to experience and appreciate life’s precious moments – moments of joy and moments of sadness. The day my son was born, I held him in my arms and felt the joy of being a dad. When my wife was pregnant with my daughter, we were hoping for a girl and had only chosen a girl’s name, but we didn’t know. 

When she emerged, I said to my wife, “It’s Caroline!”

Your addiction and alcoholism showed me just how bad it could get. As a result, I stopped before it got any worse. 

 Dad, I love you, and I knew you loved me as best you could. 

You never got sober.  You never “did the right thing.” So, you never got the opportunity to feel the true joy of living. Not only did I get the chance, but I want you to know that I made the most of it. 

I am living a very blessed life. 

I miss and love you, Dad. 

Your son, 

Dee Gee
Dee Gee (Don Fertman)
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