CC Sabathia and the painful but all-too-relatable path to sobriety

CC Sabathia's battle with alcoholism came into the public spotlight in 2015, when he left the Yankees in early October to go to rehab. Rich Schultz/Getty Images

There have been many thousands of words used to describe what life feels like for an addict at the very bottom. But perhaps none captures the last days of active addiction quite like one particular phrase from recovery literature: pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.

No checklist exists for what that entails. There are no minimums or maximums on DUIs, or divorces, or overdoses. It can be three of each, or none of the above. It just has to be the most broken a person has ever felt.

In CC Sabathia's new documentary, "Under the Grapefruit Tree" (streaming now on HBO Max), he describes the obvious low point of his alcoholism: bowing out of the 2015 season to go to rehab in early October, just as his team, the Yankees, was wrapping up its final series of the season in Baltimore before starting its playoff run a few days later.

He received widespread support from his teammates and the organization, but you can imagine how some people responded. "Dock Ellis can throw no-nos tripping balls back in the day yet CC Sabathia can't pitch in the playoffs hungover? Remember when men were men?" one Barstool contributor tweeted.

He went to rehab anyway, and it just may have saved his life. "You'll feel bad now," his friend, fellow pitcher Chris Young, told him. "But you'll come out of rehab a hero."

But pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization isn't simple. It's not just one decision, or one moment. It's often a string of crumbs leading to the ultimate realization that an addict has only two choices, pain or sobriety, in front of them. The announcement stung. But Sabathia's true bottom may have actually been a few hours after he told the world his deepest secret with a news release.

As he drove home from Baltimore to pack for rehab, he knew friends, family and his agent had gathered at his house to see him off. Not everybody loved the decision. Some thought maybe he should have just hung on until after the season, just a few more weeks, then sought treatment.

It wasn't that anybody thought he didn't have a problem. As good as Sabathia was at hiding his alcoholism, everybody around him had at least a few data points over the years to support the idea that the 35-year-old had a problem. Some just thought maybe it could wait a week or two?

But going to rehab can be like catching demoralization lightning in an empty vodka bottle. People crash into their bottom and need to go -- and go now -- before they start digging again. That's where Sabathia's head was.

And yet, on the drive home, Sabathia thought, Screw it, I am going to rehab anyway. Why not get drunk one last time? He grabbed two bottles of his drink of choice, Hennessy's, at a liquor store and got blasted on the way home as he drove. When he walked in the front door barely able to speak, there were no more doubters. "Me showing up drunk actually made it a lot easier for everybody to see," Sabathia says now.

That's a hard story to process, isn't it? The man who desperately needed help, who was going to die otherwise, who now had his secret headlining every New York City tabloid, who publicly committed to rehab and getting sober, who ... goes and gets blasted on the way to rehab? Who does that?

Well, CC Sabathia.

And me.

The first time I drank, I was 14 or 15. I pounded down two Coors Extra Golds, and I loved it so much that I opened the next two beers at the same time. I wanted them to be ready. My whole body was warm, and my brain went numb. I hadn't stumbled onto something fun and relieving to do sometimes, like a casual drinker might describe; I had found my solution. I forget my age sometimes, but I can recall every detail of that night the way only an alcoholic and drug addict can.

I partied with friends and crushed a bag of honey mustard and onion pretzels as I drank. I spent the next eight hours passing out, puking, passing out again, puking again, passing out again. When I woke up the next morning, somebody said to me, "Geez, you really overdid it last night. Hope you learned your lesson."

I had learned my lesson. And that lesson was: Don't eat honey mustard and onion pretzels next time. Because I was definitely going to drink again, as soon as I could.

Sabathia remembers his first drinks too. It's a common theme for people like us -- we don't bother with the minor leagues. We go right to the pros. In a freshman orientation course in college, I remember asking the instructor repeatedly to explain the difference between drinking and binge drinking. I couldn't understand the difference. There are people who drink a glass of wine or two beers? What? "I never enjoyed the taste of alcohol," Sabathia says. "Whether it was wine or whatever, I was always drinking to get f---ed up. I was never drinking to enjoy alcohol. I don't even know who does that. Alcohol is so nasty to me. I don't even understand it."

My drinking increased when I got to college, and when I contracted bacterial meningitis and spent a week in a coma, I woke up to a new drug of choice: For the next 10 years, I had a bag of opioids at my disposal at all times as I endured multiple amputation surgeries on my ravaged feet. Bacterial meningitis devours your limbs first and works its way toward essential organs 'til you're dead, usually in less than 24 hours. Doctors heroically kept it from getting to my heart, but it claimed my soul instead. Painkillers and booze took ahold of me for a decade, and, as I have written before, my low point came in October of 2008. I ate 40 painkillers during my daughter's birthday party, and I threw up in the sink as the party roared on outside the bathroom door. I looked in the sink, at my breakfast and the last 10 pills that weren't fully digested, and I picked the pills out of the sink and ate them again. I'd have picked pills out of your puke too. I could not stop.

I kept going for a few more weeks, but I knew what CC Sabathia knew in October of 2015. I was consuming up to 60 Vicodin or Percocet a day, mixed with beer and Ambien at night. I was a dumpster, and I could have died or killed someone else on any given day as I drove around high. I kept going for a few more weeks, but I eventually came clean to my wife and my ESPN colleagues. I needed help, and on Nov. 8, 2008, I drove to rehab, or else I was going to die.

And ... I got as high as ever on the drive. I faked a foot injury and hit an urgent care on the way, got a prescription for 30 painkillers, dropped it off at a pharmacy and went to the rehab. They wanted to evaluate whether I needed a full check-in for a medically guided withdrawal or if I could do their intensive outpatient program instead. For an hour, I was honest about my addiction for the first time. It made me cry. I knew everything I was saying, of course, but I'd never said it out loud. For years, the shame had just rattled around inside my own head, and then I drank and drugged to make it stop for the night.

That's the thing about what drugs and alcohol did to me -- for me, actually. They made me not have to be present. They helped me not be here; I could go over there. In here, I had to feel stuff, to know I was a bad husband and an unreliable worker and a flaky brother. In here, the mortgage was overdue and my daughter was teething and my right front tire was leaking air. Here was real life. The hard stuff. I couldn't handle here.

But over there, that difficult big-boy crap got swept away, a daily solution of pills and booze, a near-death experience that wiped my hard drive clean every night. I could try to deal with here again tomorrow. Maybe it'll be better in the morning.

Then tomorrow came, and my here was another day thrown away, more guilt than I could handle. I could go only one place to make it feel better, and so I would go there again. By October of 2008, I was high almost every minute of the day. My there was my here. I was a husk.

I emptied out my guts to the counselor at rehab, confessing to it all. My tears were real. My pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization was all out in the open, and she offered me a new start at living a clean life. It felt awesome.

And I still slammed down all 30 pills in the hour drive home. I sobbed the whole time, but I couldn't not take the pills. But those are the last 30 painkillers I have taken since that day, same as those two bottles of Henny are the last two CC Sabathia has had.

I identified with so much of Sabathia's life story and relationship to booze. Sure, I am a guy who visited the Hall of Fame once and he's going to have a plaque there as a pitcher with 251 wins and 3,000-plus strikeouts. But with addiction, it's not the details of our lives that are similar; it's the nature of our disease.

We both were alcoholics before we ever picked up a drink, then had that fun stage where we were just the happy drunk at every party, and then we realized we got so drunk around others that the only way to keep going was to drink in the shadows, alone. Basements and bottles became our home games. We both went to rehab and loved the clean break and fresh start it gives you after a 10-year losing streak against your addiction.

But we both loved rehab in the way where you only want to do it once. "In rehab, there were certain guys that I knew they just weren't done drinking," Sabathia says. "There was an older guy who was wealthy but his family had written him off. He'd call his kids every day and they wouldn't pick up. It hit me that I had an opportunity right now to correct this thing, to never get to that point. I thought I'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't dive deep into rehab."

Our sober journeys veered off from there, though, and that's OK. That's one of the beautiful things about recovery -- there are so many ways to get sober and stay sober. I can't tell you how many people I've met over the years who think they might have a problem but have some predetermined metric that defines whether you need help or not. They say, "Well, I don't drink every day," or, "I've never gotten a DUI," or, "I'm married and have a good job, so I don't know if it's that bad." Then they ask me what I think. I always say basically the same thing: Only you can determine whether you need help, so if you don't think alcohol or drugs is a problem in your life, I wish you well, but it's not for me to say.

Sabathia gets the same request for a freelance diagnosis. "I always tell people, if you think you might have a problem, you probably have a problem."

Sabathia and I both had success on paper -- jobs, marriage, kids, no lengthy prison sentences hanging over our heads -- but felt tortured internally because we knew how bad it was. So we sought help at rehab, even if the backs of our baseball cards still looked OK to a casual observer. At my treatment facility, I'll never forget there was a guy who'd gotten blackout drunk and tried driving off with an Amtrak train before he got arrested. "Well, I never robbed a train," I thought. "Maybe I don't belong here?" But with the way things were going, was I really confident saying that stealing an Amtrak was completely out of the realm of possibility? I decided maybe I should stay.

Sabathia went to treatment, experienced some breakthroughs in individual therapy, reconnected with his family and has devoted himself to physical fitness during the pandemic. He's down 30 pounds, and his heart feels terrific after a 2019 surgery that relieved a 90% blockage in one of his arteries. He celebrates Oct. 5 as his sobriety date, which means he ended 2020 with five-plus years without a drink. And, in this writer's humble opinion, he's a goddamn miracle. "I never thought I could go five days without a drink," Sabathia says. "And yet, here I am."

My sober path has been a little different. They say recovery is like walking up a down escalator, that if you stand still, you're going backward. I have to work very hard at keeping up with my disease -- even in sobriety, I am finding that my factory settings push me to reach for something, anything, to get out of here and go there again -- and I've had to double my sober efforts during the pandemic. Because when in-person gatherings got shut down, I was shocked at how quickly I slid down the escalator. I apparently wasn't alone: A recent NPR story quoted studies showing a 20% increase since March in overdose deaths, and about 60% of countries worldwide have seen a spike in alcohol and drug deaths since mid-March.

Right before the pandemic began in the U.S., I went to a 12-step meeting and saw a friend of mine (I'll call him Steve, but that's not his real name). Steve was a gregarious guy I loved to see at meetings or around town. He was tall and gangly, so when he hugged me, it was like I'd thrown on a big, warm coat. But he couldn't stay sober. He'd work hard for 60 days and then disappear. I gave him a hug that night, and he told me things were going well.

About a month later, a sober friend asked me if I was going to Steve's Zoom memorial. "Wait, Steve died?" I asked. In four weeks, he had drunk himself to death. As I sat there with 50 or so other sober mourners a few days later, I made the same vow I always do after we lose somebody to addiction: I will not let Steve die in vain. I will be more sober today than I was yesterday, because somebody might need help the way I needed help, and I want to be ready for that.

Over the next month or two, I struggled. Being in quarantine too closely resembled active addiction -- staying indoors, avoiding others, keeping your circle very small, bad sleeping habits ... that was my life when I was drinking and drugging, and that's what the CDC was recommending we all do every day.

So I settled into a groove with lots of Zoom meetings, sporadic outdoor gatherings, some sober book clubs and a lot of phone calls. Recovery is hard, to be sure, and that's why I can never vouch for somebody else's sobriety, and I can't promise you I'll be sober tomorrow, let alone next month or when my kids get married or any other time than right now.

But recovery is also right around the corner from you if you really want it. I did find that my sober tolerance has increased for the past 10 months or so, which made me laugh a bit because that resembles the way I drank and drugged. I started out taking two painkillers at a time, but eventually the effects were minimal. So that number went to three, and then four, and so on until I was in the double digits. Same thing with recovery -- I need to chase sobriety as hard as I chased opioids and beer. I realized I need to spend at least 30 to 60 minutes every single day devoted to something sobriety-related.

Sabathia, meanwhile, has found retirement to be the perfect antidote. He mostly lives a calm, serene life. He doesn't feel the itch to get a broadcasting career going, or to become a pitching coach. "I don't really want to show up and be at a job every day," he says.

By the last two years of his baseball career, he says, he was stunned at how much he had begun to hate packing and boarding airplanes. He just wanted to be at home with his family. That was his here, and now he has it every day. He says he feels fulfilled by simple things that don't involve back-to-backs to Toronto and Anaheim. He likes to bike and work out, and therapy is a weekly staple for him. He does Legos with his kids, plays catch with his oldest son, CC III, a promising 17-year-old slugging first baseman. In "Under the Grapefruit Tree," he just looks like the rest of us dads out there, throwing down a lawn chair and fidgeting as his kid steps to the plate. "I'm all-in on the dad stuff," he says.

As our conversation winds down, I ask him about his thought process on the documentary. He does a weekly podcast, and he was always a good interview during his pitching career when he did them. But he mentioned more than once that he spent 20 years in the spotlight as a baseball player and that he actually considers himself an intensely private person.

"So why do a 60-minute documentary like that? It must have really taken a piece out of you," I say.

His Wi-Fi had gone out several times earlier during our Zoom, so we had switched over to the phone, and he paused long enough that I thought maybe I'd lost him again. But he was just thinking. "Reliving that part of our lives was hard," he finally says. "But it might help somebody, so we put it out there. You never know when somebody could turn their lives around. The hardest part about facing addiction and alcoholism is actually facing it and telling somebody you need help. The last five years of my life have been great once I fessed up and said I needed help. Life has been really good. People always talk about sobriety and say everything is better, but I can attest that it really is."

A few minutes after I got off the phone with Sabathia, I went downstairs and there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen. My wife and three daughters were all crammed in there making something. It was loud and messy, so I breezed through once and decided to go back upstairs and stay focused on Important Work Emails and Reading About Sports.

They yelled up a little later and asked if I'd come have a piece of cake with them. Midday cakes are a little out of the norm for us, but out of courtesy and curiosity, I stopped working and met them in the dining room.

They'd made a delicious-looking red velvet cake with white icing and a thin sheet of candy on top. They explained what I had been too busy to notice earlier: It was Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, and the four of them were celebrating Kamala Harris together. "It's a 'break the glass ceiling' cake," my wife said.

My kindergartner leaned over and said, "Dad, that means we have the first girl vice president."

They each took turns cracking the candy with spoons, and I was chosen to be the guinea pig to try to chew up the shards. My wife said the "glass" was cornstarch and some other ingredients, but it's entirely possible it was the windshield of my Honda CR-V. I stopped chewing after a few seconds of agony, and everybody laughed and opted out of trying any windshield themselves.

We'd all been standing above the cake, so I got my piece and stood near two chairs.

"Dad, do you want to sit here? Or there?" my kindergartner asked.

"Here," I said. "I want to sit right here."

Go to SAMHSA.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP for free, confidential help. You're worth it.