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

Thousands of words have been used to describe what the life of an addict feels like at its lowest point. But perhaps no one sums up the last days of active addiction with a particular phrase from the recovery literature: pathetic and incomprehensible demoralization.

There is no checklist for what that means. No minimum or maximum for drunk driving, separations or overdoses. There may be three of each type or none. It just has to be the most broken person you’ve ever felt.

In CC’s new documentary, Sabathia Under the Grapefruit Tree (currently showing on HBO Max), he describes the apparent low point of his addiction to alcohol: He left the 2015 season to rehab in early October while his team, the Yankees, finished their final series of the season in Baltimore before entering the playoffs a few days later.

He got a lot of support from his teammates and the organization, but you can imagine how some people reacted. Doc Ellis can throw nose balls, but CC Sabathia can’t play the playoffs with a hangover? Remember when men were men? One of Barstool’s sponsors tweeted.

He went to rehab anyway, and that may have saved his life. Now you’re going to feel bad, his friend, fellow pitcher Chris Young, told him. But you come out of rehab a hero.

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But pathetic and incomprehensible demoralization is not easy. It’s not just a decision or a moment. It is often a succession of crumbs that lead to the ultimate realization that the addict has only two choices: pain or sobriety. It was a terrible announcement. But perhaps Sabathia’s real low was a few hours after he revealed his deepest secret to the world with the press release.

When he returned from Baltimore to pack his bags for rehab, he knew that friends, family and his agent had gathered at his home to join him. Not everyone was happy with this decision. Some thought he might have to hold out until the end of the season, a few more weeks, and then be treated.

Not that anyone doesn’t think there’s a problem. Although Sabathia hid his alcohol addiction well, everyone around him had at least a few clues over the years that the 35-year-old man had a problem. Some thought it could wait a week or two?

But rehab can be like a demoralizing flash in an empty vodka bottle. People reach their limits and have to leave…. …and leave now… before they start digging again. Sabathia’s head was there.

But on the way home, Sabathia thought: Who cares? I’m going to rehab anyway. Why don’t we go get drunk again? He took two bottles of his favorite drink, U Hennessy, from a liquor store and blew himself up on the way home. When he walked through the front door, barely able to speak, there was no doubt. The fact that I arrived drunk made it a lot easier for everyone, Sabathia says.

It’s a difficult story, isn’t it? A man who desperately needed help, who otherwise would have died, who was now secretly at the head of every tabloid in New York City, who has publicly pledged to go to rehab and get sober, who is going to and is going to rehab? Who does that?

Well, CC Sabathia.

And me.

Sabathia received widespread support for his decision to go into rehab, although some foreigners questioned why he had left so abruptly. But Sabathia, like many others, realized that he urgently needed to do something. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The first time I drank, I was 14 or 15. I drank two Coors Extra Golds and liked it so much that I opened the next two beers at the same time. I wanted them to be ready. My whole body was hot and my brain was numb. I didn’t stumble upon something fun and enlightening, as the occasional drinker would describe it; I found my solution. Sometimes I forget my age, but I can remember every detail of that night in a way that only an alcoholic and a drug addict can.

I was out with some friends and I ran across a bag of honey mustard onion pretzels while drinking. For the next eight hours I passed out, threw up, threw up again, threw up again. When I woke up the next morning, someone said to me My God, you really went too far last night. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.

I’ve learned my lesson. And that lesson was: Next time, don’t eat pretzels with onion and honey mustard. Because I’d probably start drinking again as soon as I could.

Sabathia also remembers her first drinks. It’s a common theme for people like us – we don’t care about the lower leagues. We’re going straight to the pros. I remember in my first year of orientation in college, I repeatedly asked the instructor to explain the difference between drinking and binge drinking. I couldn’t tell the difference. Do people drink a glass of wine or a couple of beers? What? I never liked the taste of alcohol, Sabathia says. Whether it was wine or something similar, I always drank to cheer me up. I never drank to enjoy the drink. I don’t even know who’s doing this. Alcohol is so disgusting to me. I don’t get it at all.

My drinking increased when I went to college, and when I got bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for a week, I woke up with a new drug to choose from: For the next ten years I always had a bag of opiates with me because I had several leg amputations. Bacterial meningitis first eats away at your limbs and then moves to your vital organs until you die, usually within 24 hours. The doctors heroically prevented her from reaching my heart, but instead she took my soul. Painkillers and alcohol kept me at a ten-year low, and as I wrote, my low was reached in October 2008. I ate 40 painkillers at my daughter’s birthday party and puked in the sink while the party raged outside the bathroom. I looked in the sink, my breakfast and the last ten pills not digested properly, and I took the pills out of the sink and ate them again. I would also take the pills in your vomit. I couldn’t stop myself.

I went on for a few more weeks, but I knew what CC Sabathia knew in October 2015. I used up to 60 Vicodin or Percocet a day, mixed with beer and Ambien in the evening. I was scum, and I could have died or killed someone else every day I was high. I went on for a few more weeks, but finally confessed it to my wife and my colleagues at ESPN. I needed help and on the 8th. November 2008 I went to rehab or I would die.

И… I’m high as usual and I’m driving. He faked an injury to his leg, went to the emergency room, got a prescription for 30 painkillers, took it to the pharmacy and went to a rehab center. They wanted to find out if I needed to fully register for rehab under medical supervision, or if I could follow their intensive outpatient program instead. In less than an hour, I was honest about my addiction for the first time. It made me cry. I certainly knew what I was saying, but I never said it out loud. For years the shame hammered in my head and then I drank and drugged myself to stop it for the night.

Sabathia describes her journey in Under the Grapefruit Tree on HBO Max. HBO

The thing is, what drugs and alcohol have done to me… to me, to be honest. They forced me out of the game. You got me out of this, I can go. Here I was supposed to feel something, to know that I was a bad husband, an unreliable worker and a crazy brother. Here, the mortgage was late, my daughter had teeth and the right front tire had an air leak. There was real life here. It’s heavy. I couldn’t stand it.

But there the hardest was wiped out for the biggest, a daily fix of pills and alcohol, a near-death experience that wiped my hard drive every night. I can try to get back to it tomorrow. Maybe it will be better in the morning.

Then morning came and my house was thrown to the curb, more guilt than I could bear. There was only one place I could go to feel better, and I would go back. In October 2008, I was high almost every minute. I’ve been here before. I was an empty shell.

I threw up on a rehab nurse and told him everything. My tears were real. My pathetic and incomprehensible demoralization came to light, and she suggested I start a new life with a clean slate. It was great.

And I still drank all 30 pills on the hour drive home. I cried all the time, but I couldn’t stop taking the pills. But these are the last 30 painkillers I have taken since that day, just as these two bottles of Henny are the last two CC Sabathia.

I could understand Sabathia’s life and her attitude towards drinking. Sure, I’m a guy who once went to the Hall of Fame and got a plaque as a pitcher with 251 wins and over 3,000 outs. But it is not the details of our lives, but the nature of our illness that resemble addiction.

We were both alcoholics before we started drinking, and then there was this funny scene where we were just happy drunks at every party, and then we realized we were so drunk on each other that the only way to move on was to drink in the shadows, alone. The cellars and bottles have become our games home. We both went through detox and loved the break and new start it gave us after ten years of addiction.

But we both loved rehab, like you only want to do it once. There were guys in rehab who wouldn’t stop drinking, Sabathia says. There was an old man who was rich, but his family abandoned him. He called the kids every day and they wouldn’t answer the phone. I realized I had a chance to make amends now, to never get to that point. I thought I was doing myself a disservice by not getting clean.

But our sober journey began from there, and that’s a good thing. This is one of the great qualities of healing – there are so many ways to get 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 they have a predetermined criteria that determines whether you need help or not. They say I don’t drink every day or I never drink and drive, or I’m married and have a good job, so I don’t know if that’s a big deal. Then they ask me what I think. I always say the same thing, deep down: Only you can determine if you need help. So if you think alcohol or drugs are not a problem in your life, I wish you luck, but it’s not for me to say.

Sabathia receives the same request for an out-of-state diagnosis. I always tell people that if you think you have a problem, you probably do.

Sabathia celebrated 1st. October 2015, when he helped the Yankees win a Wild Card spot. A few days later, he announced he was heading to rehab. AP Photo/Katie Willens

Sabathia and I were both doing well on paper – work, marriage, children, long prison sentences didn’t weigh on us, but we felt exhausted inside because we knew how bad it was. So we asked for help with rehab, even though the back of our baseball cards still looked normal to a casual observer. I will never forget a man in my treatment center who got drunk and tried to get off an Amtrak train before he was arrested. Well, I never stole a train, I thought. Maybe I don’t belong here. But the way things were going, was I really convinced that stealing Amtrak was completely out of the question? I’ve decided that maybe I should stay.

Sabathia sought treatment, had some breakthroughs in individual therapy, was reunited with her family and devoted herself to her fitness during the pandemic. He has lost 10 pounds and his heart is in good shape since undergoing surgery in 2019 that removed 90% of the blockage in one of his arteries. He celebrates the fifth. of October as his sobriety date, meaning he ended the year 2020 with more than five years without drinking. And, in this writer’s humble opinion, it’s a bloody miracle. I never thought I could go five days without alcohol, Sabathia says. And yet here I am.

My sobriety trip has changed a bit. They say recovery is like an escalator, that if you stop, you go backwards. I have to work very hard to keep up with my illness – even when I’m sober, the working conditions in the factory make me want to get out of here and back in – and during the pandemic I had to work very hard in my sober mind. Because when the private meetings were over, I was shocked at how quickly I slipped on the escalator. Apparently, I wasn’t alone: A recent NPR report cites research showing that overdose deaths have increased 20% since March.

Just before the pandemic broke out in the United States, I went to a 12-step meeting and saw a friend of mine there (I’ll call him Steve, but that’s not his real name). Steve was a fun guy who I enjoyed seeing at meetings and around town. He was tall and awkward, and when he hugged me, it was like I had thrown a big warm coat at him. But he couldn’t stay sober. He worked for 60 days and then disappeared. I kissed him that night and he told me I was fine.

About a month later, a sober friend asked me if I wanted to attend Steve Zoom’s memorial service. Wait, is Steve dead? I asked. He’s gotten stupid in four weeks. As I sat there a few days later with about 50 other bereaved families, I made the same vow I always make when we lose someone to addiction : I’m not gonna let Steve die for nothing. I’m going to be more level-headed today than I was yesterday, because someone may need help just like me, and I want to be ready for that.

For the next month or two, I fought. Being in quarantine is too much like an active addiction – staying indoors, avoiding others, keeping the circle very small, not sleeping well …. That was my life when I was drinking and doing drugs, and that’s what the CDC recommended we do every day.

So I got into a rut with lots of Zoom meetings, sporadic meetings away from home, a few sober book clubs and lots of phone calls. Recovery is hard, that’s for sure, and that’s why I can never guarantee anyone sobriety, and I can’t promise I’ll be sober tomorrow, let alone next month, or when my kids get married, or at any other time than now.

But recovery is also on our doorstep, if that’s what you really want. I’ve noticed that my tolerance for sobriety has increased over the last ten months or so, which made me laugh a bit because it’s similar to the way I used to drink and do drugs. I started taking two painkillers at once, but in the end the effect was minimal. So the number went to three, then to four, and so on until I was in the double digits. It’s the same with recovery… I need to pursue sobriety like I pursued opioids and beer. I realized that I needed to spend at least 30-60 minutes a day on something sober.

For Sabathia, however, retirement was the perfect antidote. Most of the time he leads a quiet, detached life. He doesn’t feel the need to pursue a career as an announcer or become a pitching coach. I don’t want to show up for work every day, he says.

Sabathia focused on his family while he recovered and devoted himself to his fitness during the pandemic. AP Photo/Lynn Sladki

In the last two years of his baseball career, he says, he was surprised at how much he began to hate the Pack and the Jets. He just wanted to be home with his family. It was his here and now he gets it every day. He says he’s content with simple things that don’t involve supporting Toronto and Anaheim. He loves cycling and exercise, and therapy is a weekly main activity for him. He crafts Legos with his kids, plays baseball with his oldest son, CC III, a promising 17-year-old first baseman who hits first. Under the grapefruit, he looks like any other father: He throws a lawn chair and curses when his child comes to the plate. He says I know all about my father.

At the end of our conversation, I ask him about his thought process on the documentary. He does a weekly podcast, and during his career as a pitcher he has always given good interviews. But he said more than once that he spent 20 years in the spotlight as a baseball player and that he actually considers himself a very private person.

So why make a 60-minute documentary like this? It must have taken you a long time, I say.

His Wi-Fi had already gone down a few times during our zoom, so we switched to the phone and it took long enough for me to think I might have lost him again. But he was just thinking. In the end, he said, it was hard to get over that part of our lives. But it might help someone, so we published it. You never know when someone’s going to turn their life around. The hardest part of dealing with addiction and alcoholism is facing the situation and telling someone you need help. The last five years of my life were amazing when I confessed and said I needed help. Life was beautiful. People always talk about sobriety and saying everything is better, but I can confirm that it really is.

A few minutes after I hung up the phone with Sabathia, I went downstairs and the kitchen was busy. My wife and three daughters were in there doing something. It was noisy and chaotic there, so one day I broke down and decided to go back upstairs and focus on important work emails and reading sports articles.

A little later they called and asked me if I wanted to bring a piece of cake. The afternoon pies are a little unusual for us, but out of courtesy and curiosity I interrupted work and met them in the dining room.

They made a delicious red velvet cake with white icing and a thin layer of candy on top. They explained to me what I hadn’t noticed: It was the 20th. January, inauguration day, and the four of them celebrated Kamala Harris together. It’s a piece of cake to break through the glass ceiling, my wife said.

The fall of the glass ceiling on opening day had a special meaning in Hockensmith’s house this year. Thanks to Ryan Hockensmith.

My kindergarten teacher leaned over and said: Dad, this means we have our first female vice president.

They took turns breaking the candy with a spoon, and I was chosen as the guinea pig to try to chew the broken pieces. My wife told me the glass was made of cornstarch and a few other ingredients, but it could have been the windshield of my Honda CR-V. I stopped chewing after a few seconds of agony, and everyone laughed and refused to try a windbreak of their own.

We were all on the cake, so I took my share and sat down next to the two chairs.

Dad, do you want to sit here? Or is it here? my kindergarten teacher asked.

There, I said it. I want to sit here.

Go to or call the Addiction and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP for free, confidential help. They’re worth it.

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