Dowagiac man shares story of recovery
On a brisk January afternoon, a tall, slender man in his thirties enters the Baker’s Rhapsody in downtown Dowagiac, his glasses fogged as the winter air follows him into the warm coffee shop.
He waves hello to a woman sipping a cup of tea and walks confidently to the front counter, offering a warm smile to the clerk as he orders a hazelnut latte. The two chat like old friends as the man pays and waits for his drink. He nods farewell and makes his way to a cluster of couches nearby.
There is a casualness in his demeanor that suggests this is habit, a procedure he follows regularly in a familiar place. In the last 823 days, the Dowagiac man has found comfort in routine, depending on the structure of repetition as a lifeline.
Two years and three months earlier, the same man was as much a fixture in another Dowagiac establishment, only instead of warming his hands on a cup of joe on a coffee shop couch, he was more apt to be warming his insides with a cold one — or 10 — on a barstool a few blocks up the street.
The man settles on the couch at the coffee shop, his elbows propped on his knees, nursing his latte. He sips the steaming beverage, pauses briefly, and begins to share his story.
“My name is Dave Comstock,” he says. “And I am an alcoholic.”
Facing his demons
Walking up the steps of St. Paul Episcopal Church, Comstock’s heartbeat echoes in his ears. The massive white structure looming before him symbolizes the enormity of the battle he is about to fight, the first step of many just on the other side of the door.
“My thought the first time I walked up those stairs was, ‘this is Dowagiac. Who’s going to know? Who’s going to see?’” he said. “I was almost ashamed to walk in there.”
This was not the first time Comstock had attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but it was the first time in his hometown. In 2012, Comstock attempted to face his addiction after crashing into a guard rail and stop sign with a full fifth of rum coursing through his veins.
“It scared me. I lost my job. My career was gone,” he said. “I was basically 35 years old and starting over.”
Frightened by his circumstances, Comstock began attending AA meetings with his father, also an alcoholic, in Eau Claire.
“I’d go to a meeting and go right to the bar afterwards and start drinking,” he said. “I realize now that I wasn’t ready to quit then. I was just scared of what happened to me.”
Comstock describes his alcoholism as a habit he could control — until he started drinking.
“Everybody’s different,” he said. “There are people who have to have a drink when they first wake up. My main problem is once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
At the time, Comstock worked three days a week for an ambulance service, and drank the other four.
“One drink led to two, two led to four, four led to closing down the bar and asking for three for the road,” he said. “I didn’t drink every single day of the week 365 days of the year, but I drank more than I didn’t.”
Then, in 2015, Comstock was asked to leave Four Winds Casino in Dowagiac when security guards felt he was being disorderly. Barely out of the parking lot, Comstock was stopped by the Pokagon Tribal Police.
“I blew a .232 and that was that,” he said. “I went to jail. I got sentenced to Sobriety Court.”
Road to recovery
Twelve Fridays in a row, Comstock stood before Judge Stacey Rentfrow, who presides over Cass County’s Sobriety Court and various other adult treatment courts.
When his name was called, he would stand in front of the judge, who kindly asked how his week had been and what projects he had been working on.
“You have been sober 20 days,” she said, two weeks into the program. A round of applause filled the courtroom, encouragement for another week of willpower. “See you next week.”
After being accepted to the county’s sobriety court, Comstock’s case manager tailored a program specifically to him, like he had for dozens of other Cass County residents facing addiction.
“It’s hard,” he said. “The first step in the 12-step program is ‘admit that you’re powerless over alcohol,’ and you have to do that. If you don’t surrender to your powerlessness over alcohol, you can’t continue.”
In the first 90 days, Comstock attended 90 meetings. Three to four times a week, a case aid would show up randomly at his apartment to test him for drug and alcohol use. He was required to undergo intensive outpatient therapy at Woodlands Behavioral Center in Cassopolis, and attend various other meetings.
He was not allowed to visit anywhere that served or sold alcohol. At one point in his treatment, he was prohibited from speaking to any women at all because his case manager found a correlation between Comstock’s relapse and his relationships with women.
“Everyone’s program is different,” he said. “For example, I didn’t have to go through as many classes as others did. But the root of the program, like the rules, drug and alcohol testing, checking in with case managers and ultimately living a productive, healthy and sober life is the same. The programs give you a ‘jump start’ in recovery under close supervision.”
For 16 months, Comstock was told where he could and could not go and who he could and could not talk to. Meetings and counseling sessions consumed most of his schedule. Although he was not in jail, in many ways, his freedom had been revoked. Nonetheless, Comstock believes Sobriety Court saved his life.
“Had I not had that court program, I am 99 percent sure I would not be sitting right here,” he said. “For all I know, I’d be sitting in jail or prison.”
A higher power
On a night once reserved for house parties and football tailgates in a past life, Comstock finds a new way to celebrate — the occasion, his sobriety.
Inside the walls of Federated Covenant Church, Comstock feels at home, surrounded by accepting, understanding peers with their own demons to chase, and a higher power to keep him on track.
Depending on the week, he may lead a discussion, share testimony, or simply bend an ear to a fellow addict as one of the leaders at Celebrate Recovery, a program established by two former meth addicts designed to help people overcome abusive habits. Many of the people who attend Celebrate Recovery battle drug addictions that have caused them to commit serious crimes or lose their families.
“Two years ago, some of the people I’ve met in this program, I never would have batted an eye at,” he said. “Call me judgmental, but I never would have befriended them. Now, some of the great friends I’ve made have spent a greater part of their life in prison. … It made me open my eyes to realize they’re people just like me. Hearing their stories helps me. It shows me where I could end up.”
Comstock said he is happier now than he has ever been in his life. He feels surrounded by a strong support system, and though he has been sober for more than two years, he knows every day for the rest of his life will be a battle.
“Everything in my life is a big ‘yet,’” he said. “I haven’t relapsed yet. I haven’t done drugs yet.”
Comstock said all he can do is take it one day at a time.
“It does take some strength to walk into a restaurant and order a Diet Coke to eat with my steak and not drink alcohol,” he said. “It’s easier now than I’m sure it would’ve been two years ago, but I didn’t have that opportunity two years ago to do it, because I didn’t have that court program. But tomorrow, who knows where I’ll be?”
For now, he will sip his hazelnut latte in a coffee shop on Front Street, comforted by the warmth of his community, and 823 days conquered behind him.
Photography by Emily Sobecki
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