It was November 1988. Deer season was in full swing and the whitetail rut was on. What should have been the best three weeks of that year had become a dim reminder of what deer season used to be. I was on a three week drinking and drugging binge that left me physically exhausted and mentally low. Up to that point in my young life, when things were not going well, the forest would bring me solace and healing; it grounded me. In the good times, it brought me joy and, in the darkest of times, it had kept me alive. But in this season, I didn’t feel anything; I was numb, dead inside. As the season wore on, I became acutely aware that something was deeply wrong with me. Even the woods that were a sacred place to me, the very woods I walked since I was 6 years old, looked grey and solemn. Logically, I knew the forest hadn’t changed – I had. I was severely depressed, was filled with near constant anxiety, and was physically struggling. I was 18 years old and I felt like my life was ending before it had a real chance to even start. I knew I needed to slow down on the drinking and drugging, but I just could not seem to get my act together.
I remember that morning like it was yesterday. I had to get in the shower to sober up a bit before I handled my lever gun, as I had only stopped drinking a few hours earlier. In a pathetic hung over stupor, I got out of the bathroom, got dressed in my hunting clothes, and walked with my best friend and hunting buddy, Bob, out to a well known deer run we’d worked since we were small children. On a steep ravine about a half-mile in, I sat down in the dark, my back against a large white pine. As soon as I got comfortable, I proceeded to pass out for a few more hours, my 30/30 lying by my side. Bob had continued on to hunt further in the forest, closer to the neighboring field edges a quarter mile off – he was sober and in a much better mental state than I.
I awoke at dawn with a pounding headache and painful stomach cramps. The noise from turkeys flying down from their roost above me and landing all around me, had startled me from my hazy slumber. Some were so close that I could have touched them if I’d reached out. They made me smile; it felt good to be in the presence of life. I watched as the turkeys clucked and communicated in their bizarre and goofy way, got in a haphazard formation, and walked off in a line, disappearing into the brush that lay at the bottom of the valley below me. I felt horribly sick, my head reeling from severe dehydration – a bad month of hard boozing and drugging will do that to you. I needed to get up and stretch a bit and collect myself. Luckily, I had grabbed a couple of water bottles when we left the house in the morning and, as I leaned over to pick one up to quench my incessant thirst, I noticed for the first time that my hands were shaking. That was the first moment I realized I was in alcohol withdrawal. Up to that point, I’d get the sweats at night and had panic attacks, but I never physically shook when I was sobering up. I’d heard stories about people that shook from DT’s, but I never thought that would happen to me, especially so young. It was at that moment that I became determined to quit drinking.
Over the next couple of weeks, I struggled to stop. Usually I’d start drinking beers at about 10AM to keep from physically getting shaky and panicky. It was demoralizing and I found myself hiding my habit from those around me both at college and at home. This just fueled my shame.
On the last day of deer season in early December, I went out with some friends and drank all night and was snorting cocaine to keep the party going. The party kept going all right…right into a jail cell. As the driver in a drunk driving accident, my freedom, my license and my relationship with family and friends were now gone. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I was extremely lucky not to have killed me or my two passengers in my failed attempt to outrun the state troopers. I detoxed myself over the following four days and made the determination to change my life for good, which I did. That was thirty years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Quiet People
Today, stories like mine are not all that uncommon. We hear accounts like this all the time on news channels, documentaries, and exposés. What has changed since the late eighties is the fact that there are more outdoorsmen who are experiencing issues with substances than ever before. But, unlike in the past, they are now becoming more vocal and open about their challenges. Back in my time, my story of struggling was simply not discussed openly. I certainly knew plenty of hunters, fishermen, and outdoorswomen who also struggled with booze and drugs, but this was kept quiet and ignored to a great extent. In general, hunters and country folk are, by their nature, a private lot. It’s just a part of our culture. This is especially true of the North Country whitetail tracking fraternity I am a part of.
Not So Silent Anymore
But now, we see something that has these people talking and, while it’s an uncomfortable topic, they seem ready to discuss it: overdose rates and the resultant tragedies in our rural communities have taken center stage. Drugs like heroin are now an unfortunate part of the fabric of rural life in places where historically it had never existed. For example, the state of New Hampshire saw a 1,110% increase in overdose deaths from 2013 to 2016, many of them in rural communities. Most of these overdoses are a product of the use of opiates (including heroin) laced with illicitly manufactured fentanyl. This rate is the second highest in the nation, only behind the state of West Virginia for the highest rate of opiate overdose deaths in America. Maine, the land of the giant whitetail and home base for many of the best whitetail hunters in the nation, has also seen a similar increase in rural drug related deaths. It ranked 11th in the nation for opiate overdose rates in 2016. While not all of these tragedies occur in rural communities, portions of them are from those smaller communities where, in the past, none existed. That’s the difference here. Heavy drinking rates have always been a consistent part of rural culture in America, but unlike the familiarity of booze, the latest trends that include these “hard drugs” have got people scared and talking. To a certain degree, it’s a new conversation for the average hunter.
Over the past 29 years, I’ve worked with thousands of heavy drinkers and users at the retreat I founded and run in Upstate New York. As an addiction expert and researcher, I am well aware of the rural drug creep that is spreading nationwide. But, what has surprised even me is the realization that the vast majority of hunters I come into contact with are just as interested and dedicated to finding solutions for the unfortunate current trend as I am. They are not unaware of what is happening to our young sportsmen and the new challenges many of them face today, and they are willing to get vocal and find solutions for them. I had became acutely aware of just how attuned my fellow outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen have become to the tragedy of heavy drinking and drug use when I attended the Yankee Sportsman Classic Outdoor Show in Essex Junction, Vermont earlier this year.
I give seminars on the tracker’s rifle for our organization (Big Woods Bucks) at various outdoor shows on the circuit. Because I have made it known on social media that I am an addictions expert and author, in addition to being a whitetail tracker and overall whitetail enthusiast, I had complete strangers coming up to me to discuss their personal issues with alcohol and drugs after my seminars at the show. Some wanted to discuss their loved ones who were “shooting up”. Another described a marriage on the rocks from a wife who was struggling with a fairly severe wine and Xanax® habit. Another stated they were tired of missing deer camp because they’d used up all their sick time at work because they’d been “hitting the bottle so damn hard.” When I went to the show, I had a dozen of my new books, The Freedom Model for Addictions, sitting in the back seat of my truck, along with a bunch of business cards. I always carry a small supply just in case I have a discussion serendipitously in my travels. With that said, I had no intention of giving any of these out at the outdoor show. Never did I think that the rural population would be so in need of this information. However, without any promotion, I ran out of books and business cards in the two days I was there. People want answers, and I’ve come to find that the hunting community is desperate for them.
Historically, the addiction help industry has completely ignored the outdoorsman or woman who is struggling with addiction issues. That stops today. My experience at the outdoor shows has exposed the need out there, and I have made it a part of my mission to help these people. They, like me, can move past addiction and find the love of the outdoors again. There is literally nothing better than going from a feeling of being hopelessly trapped and desperate to becoming free, healthy, happy, and powerful. If nothing else, this article is to say, “We hear you. Yes, we are here to help you. Yes, you too can be free of your addictions.”
Mark Scheeren is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and is the Chairman of The Freedom Model Retreat. His book, Learning to Track and Hunt Wilderness Whitetails: One Man’s Tale of Understanding and Applying the Ancient Art from the Masters will be available in mid 2019. For more information about addiction help, you can go to www.thefreedommodel.org or www.soberforever.net or for more information on Mark and Bob’s hunting adventures you can go to www.whitetailtrackers.com. For more information about The Freedom Model Retreat, Mark can be reached personally for a confidential free consultation at 888-424-2626.