Choose Life. Choose Sobriety. Choose Hope.

by Donavon L Riley


The legacy of Vietnam was not confined to that country, but seeped into our home, leaving its indelible mark on my father’s soul. The horrors he tried to bury in the dark recesses of his mind were carved onto the horizon by his piercing, far-away stare. And against this skyline, beneath the clouds of guilt and mourning my father attempted to numb his pain with alcohol and drugs. The false gods of war had taken their blood-sacrifice from him and sent him home, but not all of him. His family and new wife greeted a hollowed out man at the airport. And for the rest of his life, he was a man who, to a greater and lesser degree, fought not only against external enemies but against his own inner-despair.  

Growing up in his presence was a harrowing experience, a relentless cycle of rage, fear, and uncertainty. Our home was not a sanctuary. It had been invaded by the unclean spirits that followed him home, haunting him, leaving me in a constant state of vigilance. As a child, I found myself developing the survival skills, out of necessity, so I could navigate the volatile landscape of his moods, never knowing when the storm of rage or despair would break over us.  

My father’s captivity to addiction felt like a sucking void between us. A slow drip of self-destruction that seemed impossible to stop. As I witnessed him drowning in alcohol’s embrace, I was forced at a very young age to confront the stark reality of addiction’s power. It was not only a battle against external substances but a war within, a war that eroded his self-worth and stole his ability to see a way out, or want a way out. 

Yet, even in the most violent, rage-fueled moments when he hit me, I absorbed his rage, the screaming, the beatings, the turgid days when he wouldn’t speak to me, and I stored it up as hope. It was hope wrapped in seething bitterness and heart-break, but it was hope nonetheless. I made up my mind when I was nine or ten years old, that I would not be a passive observer to my own future, enslaved by the chains of my father’s struggles. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. I started drinking heavily when I was sixteen years old. And by the time I was nineteen or twenty, I was a drug addict. I knew that violence and addiction did not have to be my destiny, but I had no road map. I traveled the path of violence and addiction with ease. But, sobriety and peace were elusive avenues I could not find. Then, at twenty-three, with a bench-warrant issued for my arrest, drug dealers hunting me, and a sundry list of ruined relationships, I begged God with the urgency of a trapped animal to rescue me from the spiritual disease that had ensnared my family for at least three generations.   


The Path to Sobreity

The path to sobriety was not an easy one. It was a violent conflict of its own, where I faced the demons of withdrawal, the allure of relapse, and the open wounds of my own past. But with each relapse, each frustrated prayer, and each step closer to full and complete sobriety, I saw the first signs of victory on the horizon. The legacy of Vietnam would not define me the way it had my father. It was a battle against my upbringing and my own impulses, a struggle to rewrite the narrative that war and addiction had written for me.  

In this fight to secure sobriety, I found solace in the camaraderie and brotherhood of others who had walked the same treacherous path. The fellowship of recovery became my refuge and fortress, a place where stories of redemption replaced tales of despair. Together, we faced our past, our addictions, and the future, armed with the power of shared experience and the conviction that we were not defined by the choices we made while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  


Called into Service 

As I emerged from the prison cell of my addiction, I received a calling to extend a hand of hope to others who were still ensnared. I was called to serve as a beacon of encouragement, a living testament to the fact that recovery is possible, that the cycle of addiction can be broken, even for those torn apart by the horrors of war. My path to sobriety was not just about personal triumph; it was about breaking the cycle of generational struggle, of proving that the legacy of addiction could be rewritten. 

In serving others, I found purpose for my pain, extracting meaning from my struggles. Just as my father’s legacy had affected me, so too could my path of recovery affect others. By sharing my strength, experience, and help with others who struggled, I aimed to be a voice of hope in a world that often feels devoid of it. I wanted to be the living embodiment of the fact that even the darkest of nights a ray of light can pierce the veil.  

The path from the abyss of addiction to the shores of sobriety was not a solitary one. It was a path walked with the camaraderie of others who had been in the trenches, who understood the battles I had fought. And now, I stand as a testament to the fact that hope can be rekindled, that healing is possible, and that the legacy of addiction can be shattered.


Choose Hope 

So for all those reading this, who’ve convinced themselves that they can’t climb out of the pit of guilt, remorse, and addiction, I pray my story can serve as one, small example that you’re never out of the fight. You can overcome the odds, and you can rewrite the narrative that addiction had etched into you and your family’s life. The legacy of war and addiction is not an inescapable fate. Through determination, the support of my brothers, and the power of personal choice, I have emerged from the shadows of my past and into the light of a future that is defined by sobriety, hope, and the unwavering belief that change is possible. And so, in my sobriety I honor my father, my family, and myself, and I live for all those who lost their fight with the enemy, with addiction, and with themselves. And I invite you to do the same. Choose life. Choose sobriety. Choose hope.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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