I’ve played in sold out stadiums. I’ve undergone numerous surgeries. And I’ve even pitched in the World Series.
But nothing scared me more than saying these three words: “I need help.”
Well, it’s not even the words, really. Words are easy to say, particularly when you don’t believe them. I was fine saying that I needed help well before I actually believed it. When my wife and close friends started telling me they thought I had a problem, I’d always have the right response. I’d say what I thought they wanted to hear so that they could feel better in that moment. But it was never actually coming from my heart. I never actually wanted to stop drinking. And I didn’t think I needed to. I thought I had everything under control.
But last October, while sitting all alone in a hotel room, I finally accepted the reality that I had been avoiding for so long.
“I need help.”
I was in Baltimore at the time. It was the last Sunday of the regular season and we were about to start the playoffs. We’d gotten rained out on Friday, and I’d spent most of the weekend alone in my hotel room clearing out the minibar.
We had a game that day, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to help my teammates if they needed me. I was struggling to function physically, but I also felt awful in so many other ways. It struck me how tired I was of feeling sick. And how exhausted I was after keeping this secret for so long. Then it finally hit me:
You don’t have to live like this.
After years of struggling, it’s important to me to share my story in my own words. For a long time, I thought I was in this alone. But I want the world to know that there’s always people out there who understand. It’s possible to get better.
This is my 18th spring training. In a lot of ways, it feels like I grew up in baseball.
It’s been a long time since I was a shy 20-year-old kid who somehow stuck on the Indians roster. I was the youngest guy in the majors in 2001. I wasn’t even old enough to go out with my teammates, but the guys would always include me in team dinners and other activities. I always appreciated that they went out of their way to do that because I would otherwise have been too nervous to tag along.
That was such an exciting time, but it was also challenging in its own way because I really had to figure out how to be a professional on the fly. A lot of kids who come into the majors that early in their life usually struggle and often fizzle out. But I think my personality and the way I was raised were what helped me stick around. I was taught to be very humble growing up. My mom wouldn’t have it any other way. I didn’t really speak to people unless spoken to. So I never thought I was “the man” because I made it to the Show. I just tried to be respectful. Come in early, keep my head down and get my work done.
I came up in a generation when guys would get hazed really badly. But the vets on the Indians were never that hard on me. They recognized that I was kind of reserved and always respectful. That was my saving grace. The other rookies weren’t so lucky.
Of course when you’re a young guy making good money, you go out at night and hit up the club. On the surface it’s always light and fun, but really a lot of what you’re doing there is about insecurity. What I really wanted was for people to like me, to get that validation. But because I wasn’t naturally outgoing, I turned to alcohol to try to bring my personality out. I mean, that’s why a lot of people use alcohol. But to me it always felt like I really needed it. Every drink I had would push that anxiety out of my mind more and more until I didn’t have a worry in the world.
Looking back now, I didn’t need to do that. People liked me just fine. But alcohol was just a crutch to cover up for how worried I was about people judging me. I figured I’d have a couple of drinks, loosen up and then, Hey, I’m the life of the party. But in fact, after a while the people around me weren’t having fun when I was drunk. I just was too intoxicated to pick up on it.
Eventually, I wasn’t drinking because I wanted to be fun around other people. I was taking a bottle somewhere quiet so I could drink it by myself, just me with my thoughts and after awhile, me with no thoughts.
The thing that makes alcoholism difficult to identify is that it generally emerges slowly. It’s spurred on by easy answers to simple questions:
“Another bottle of wine?”
“Want me to top you off?”
“One more round?”
Eventually it’s just part of your lifestyle and seems completely normal. Some nights I’d go out to dinner with my wife and I’d be on my second bottle of wine while she was still on her first glass. Looking back, I realize that’s a problem. But for a long time, it was just the way things were.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I really thought there was something wrong. But I also learned how big the divide is between having a problem and asking for help. I didn’t seek out professional help initially for a number of reasons. One of the biggest things was pride. I thought this was something I could control. I never thought that I actually had an addiction or a disease. I figured I just needed better judgment when I drank, whether it was just sticking to beer or saying I’d only have a couple of drinks (which would turn into 10).
Like I said, I never really wanted to stop drinking. So I would start going through cycles where I’d try to stop cold turkey while knowing in the back of my mind that I’d drink again eventually. It would always be two or three months sober, then a relapse. Three more weeks sober, then another relapse. I wasn’t getting better.
And that’s why I finally made the decision in October to get help.
Honestly, it would have been easier in a lot of ways if I had waited — I would have drawn much less attention to myself. But if I didn’t enter rehab right away, I knew I wouldn’t go through with it. With addictions, it takes so much effort to convince yourself to do something to fix the problem, but it’s very easy to talk yourself out of going through with it.
Of course, the timing wasn’t the best for the Yankees and the fans, but that wasn’t my main concern. When I decided to get help, I wasn’t scared anymore of what people would think of me. I was scared of drinking again. So many of the major choices in my life, going back to when I was just a kid, have been baseball decisions. But this was a life decision.
That Sunday, when I went into Joe Girardi’s office and told him I needed help, I was definitely worried. Here we were about to go to the playoffs, where arms are everything, and I was telling my boss that I physically and mentally couldn’t be a part of it.
“We’re with you. 100 percent.”
When Joe said that, it felt like this tremendous weight had been lifted off of me. I didn’t need to lie anymore. It was a blessing, really.
I spent 29 days in rehab.
And the main way I occupied my time was by thinking. Truly thinking with clarity for the first time in a long time.
I thought about my family, I thought about how I’d gotten to this point and I thought about my dad.
He passed away when I was 23 years old, but I’d never taken time to really reflect on the pain his death caused me. I kind of pushed it down, like I was going to deal with it later.
My dad and I were always very close. I think I got many of my best qualities from him. But he struggled with drug addiction. I didn’t even put it all together until I was older, because he would never be around me while he was using. And it struck me that he dealt with his problem the way I did for so long: By trying to isolate himself so he could hide it.
The day I was named to my first All-Star team, I found out that my dad had cancer and had six weeks to live. That had a big effect on my outlook on life that I never really came to terms with. It made me believe that everything good that ever happened to me would be balanced out by something bad. So even when I was experiencing good times, it was difficult to fully appreciate them.
But when I was drunk, I didn’t think about the other shoe dropping. I didn’t worry about feeling pain or regret. I drank because it made me feel nothing at all. And that was a lot easier than really dealing with my issues.
I started reading a lot while I was in rehab.
The first book I read was called Five O’Clock Comes Early. It’s by a former major league pitcher named Bob Welch, and it hit so incredibly close to home. Bob became a professional when he was only 21 years old and dealt with a lot of the same anxieties that I had felt, so he’d turn to alcohol for confidence. He ended up checking into a rehab facility, and when he came out on the other side of treatment he was a changed man. He ended up going on to have a great career after he got help.
Bob was a source of inspiration for me, and I met a lot of other people in treatment who also made me feel like addiction was something I could beat. We attended meetings every day where we would hear from speakers who had stayed sober for years, even decades. Just hearing their stories and knowing I wasn’t alone gave me hope that I could do the same thing.
I was in rehab when the news about Lamar Odom broke. That really hit me hard. We’re about the same age, and both of us entered professional sports when we were really young. Watching how he struggled was terrible because we have so much in common. And it also made me confident that I’d really made the right decision.
If I could go back, I wish I could have told myself not to be so scared of being judged for asking for help. I wish I understood that this situation wasn’t like a pitch that felt off. I couldn’t just try to work it out on my own until it was fixed.
But now that I’m on the other side of things, I feel at peace. I feel good about myself. I feel good about my body. And I’m really looking forward to coming into this season with a new frame of mind.
Of course, I understand that I can relapse. And that’s why I’ve tried to be as open and public about this situation as I can. I want to be held accountable. If someone sees me with a drink, or in a bad situation, I want them to say something — because I really don’t want to drink anymore. I don’t want any part of it.
Now, on the heels of starting the 2016 MLB season, I feel physically and mentally stronger than ever. I’m excited to approach the mound in shape, in focus and with an even greater appreciation for my team and the sport.
I’ve been blessed to get support from those around me. There aren’t any words to describe how amazing my wife, Amber, has been throughout this process, and all of my extended friends and family have been incredibly supportive, as well.
I’m very thankful for how my baseball family has picked me up. The Yankees have done everything they can to accommodate me. I’ve also gotten a lot of kind messages from guys around the league wishing me the best. Big Papi, Torii Hunter, David Price and many others have all reached out to offer their support and ask how they can help.
Now I’m looking forward to living life. I want to be more involved with the team. I’m excited to mentor all the great young guys we have in the organization. I’ve been friends with Dellin Betances since he was in the minors, and now that he’s with the big club we’re closer than ever. It’s been great watching these kids grow up. Time flies, man.
When I was hiding all of this, it was isolating. I was worried nobody would understand. But now that it’s out there, I don’t have to live with that fear anymore. And that alone has really rejuvenated me.
I have four young kids, all under the age of 12, and I want to be an amazing father to them. I want to be healthy for them. I never want to miss another event in their lives because I can’t get out of bed. I want to be around to see them grow up. I want to be around to watch them grow old.
More than anything else — more than contracts, Cy Young awards and World Series trophies — that’s what’s most important to me.
If you’re having trouble coming to grips with your own issues related to alcohol, I want you to understand that you’re not alone. This isn’t anything to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. It’s a disease. And there’s a support system out there to help you control it.
Once you do go through the process, you’ll be you again — the real you. And you’ll realize that that’s good enough.