When You Just Know – with Rob Schwarz

I sat down with Rob Schwarz to talk with him about his life; and by sat down with him, I mean I was cross legged on a gray cushioned chair in my dining room while he enjoyed a quick vacation to Maryland, though, if he had it his way, he would’ve been in Vegas. “I’m actually sitting at this beach where I almost got a DUI at 17,” he started laughing and I imagined that comforting rosy-cheeked smile. “I was a summer camp counselor and I was driving my dad’s TR-7 when I saw the cops behind me. I sped up, ran through the beach and hid under the raft,” he recalled with amusement. His life looks a little different these days. Rob was born in Jersey City, NJ in 1964. His dad was an OBGYN and his mom was a school teacher. His sister, Gwenn, was born in Washington, DC – she’s two years older, and his younger brother (by three years), Kent, was born in Oklahoma. He immediately saw the synchronicity in his brother’s name, as he would end up going to rehab in Kent, Connecticut many, many years later. But this is not exactly a story about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. No, this is a story about someone who, despite everything they went through, always saw the light at the end of the tunnel – always thought their life would be one worth living. Reader’s note – I’ve known Rob for a little over five years now, I talk to him just about every single day, and he never runs out of things to chat about… also, he’s ALWAYS in a good mood – even when he’s in a bad mood, it’s as short lived as the fidget spinner fad was. “Tell me about life for young Rob,” I began, imagining some of the stories I was about to hear. “Well, after my dad completed his service in the Army, he followed a friend to Chatsworth, California to work for Kaiser hospital. We actually didn’t live too far from the Manson house – and we were there when the murders took place,” he sprinkled in, knowing I would respond with fascination. “Wait, really?” I asked, remembering the scene from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – cue Leo’s flamethrower… “did you ever see him?”

“Yeah, I actually went trick-or-treating at the Manson’s, but we never engaged in conversation. Then in 1972, our house burnt down in a forest fire. The government put us up in a rental, but then there was a big earthquake,” he continued. Umm… clearly the universe was kicking them out of California. “So, then my dad wrote his old friend from med school who lived in New Jersey and that’s where we went,” he said. I sort of envied that childhood – being able to experience life in completely opposite sides of the country, though, I would definitey not fair well in cold weather. “How did you like school?” I asked, straightening my posture while considering a move to the couch. “I loved school, actually, but the systems were different; it was a lot more difficult and I was never very good at English to begin with. In second grade, I had a Chinese teacher teaching English,” I could hear him smiling through the phone, “she was writing in cursive and I literally thought she was teaching Chinese,” I joined in with a smirk and thought of Ms. Ballistreri – my second grade teacher that taught us cursive, and about the humuhumunukunukuapuaa fish that I still think about with surprising consistency.

“What about friends, Rob? You must’ve been popular,” I surmised, knowing his easy ability to speak with people. “I did have a lot of friends, actually, but one of the neighborhood kids picked on me,” I let out a small gasp, as if that sort of behavior was unheard of, especially for young boys, especially in the 70’s, in Jersey. He continued, “then one day he beat me up, so my dad signed me up for boxing lessons. He told me I was never going to lose a fight again, and I didn’t…” he paused, “I wasn’t a bully or anything – I only got in one fight in high school and one in college!” I tried to imagine Rob as a bully and it just wouldn’t compute. “Did you play any sports growing up?” I asked, eagerly anticipating the return of baseball, just so I could have sports mulling in the background while I meal prepped my tofu, broccoli, and veggie rice for the week. I know – don’t everyone hunt me down for the recipe at once. “I played baseball, football, and basketball but I didn’t really like my coaches, so I didn’t take it too seriously… plus, I started drinking in the woods by our house in eighth grade, and by freshman year, I would regularly drink regularly with the baseball team, sometimes to a black out,” I could sense he was not smiling through the phone at this particular moment.

He continued. “By senior year, I was drinking every single day,” the thought made my stomach turn as I somehow felt cherry flavored Smirnoff burn my throat. “We’d go out until 2 or 3 in the morning,” he said casually. “We?” I asked, “so you weren’t the weird alcoholic dude that drank all the time? This was normal for you and your friends?” I tried to pinpoint “that guy” from high school and no one popped up in my brain. “Yeah, everyone was drinking heavily back then – my friends came out every night and my father drank constantly. It was a lot more acceptable once upon a time,” he remembered, before telling me a story about his economics teacher that would somehow get his hands on pictures of them all at parties and post them to his bulletin board to talk about…

‘ooh, look how much fun Rob’s having puking!’ he did what I assume was a killer impression. “Also, before my summer camp job at 17, I was a lifeguard and my parents were divorced for a few years at this point; I went to work super hungover, and, you remember I’m colorblind?” he asked… I didn’t remember… “yeah, so I was trying to puke but I couldn’t, so I put my finger down my throat and was vomiting blood, but I couldn’t tell… it just seemed like normal dark throw up,” he explained. Right… just your run of the mill dark throw up… “So, I went back into my mom’s house and fainted as I took a shower. I somehow managed to get out and lay down on the bed. I knew something was wrong and kept calling for my mom but she just brushed it off thinking I was hungover like usual, so I called my dad and I got to the hospital after losing a quart of blood. Apparently, I’d ripped something when I pressed my finger down my throat; it was so bad I had to get surgery,” he remembered, “yeah, the doctor said if I’d gotten there 30 minutes later, I would likely have died.” WOW “So, at what point were your parents concerned for you? Or were they ever?” I genuinely worried about young Rob’s well-being, as if I don’t already know what comes to be. “Well my dad dated around a lot, dodging DUI’s consistently, which was easier since he was a doctor,” he recalled with a sort of admiration before continuing. “My mom finally called him my senior year and said I was out of control so he came and waited for me to get home after a long night of drinking but I was so bombed I just remember telling him to leave – that he didn’t live there anymore.” I pictured him shouting at his dad to get out, still with that signature smile on his face… I swear, if there’s anyone that needs to deliver bad news to me, I want it to be Rob. I asked him what a typical night consisted of for him and his fellow senior friends, understanding it would not be hanging out in Walmart parking lots or sitting in someone’s car listening to music.

“Someone’s parents were always out of town, so we’d go to their house party after playing quarters for a couple hours… even on the week nights, there’d usually be 40 to 50 people there,” I turned my lips down and raised my eyebrows with amazement… every week night?! “I imagine college was just as bad then?” I asked as I carried my computer to living room. “Yep,” he laughed again, “I went to the University of Richmond and joined a fraternity right away where I would become the Social Chairman. I was drinking heavily, smoking weed, doing cocaine, shrooms, ecstasy – you name it.” He recalled a time when him and his friends almost got expelled from school for trashing the frat house one night.

“So no arrests in college then?” my shock bled through our iPhones. “Well, not exactly,” the infectious grin took over my face as he explained. “I think it was the summer of ’83… we had a house at the lake where we partied every night. One night, we took my mom’s car into the city… completely out of our minds, of course. We were walking to the bars when this cabbie pulled up and came to a screeching halt. The driver came for one friend and the passenger started coming after me, so I cocked back and hit him, then jumped on him before he pulled out his badge and told me he was an undercover police officer,” I clenched my teeth as if to say ‘yikes’ as he went on with the story. “They were stopping to ticket us for illegally crossing the street, but I ended up getting handcuffed and arrested… I remember my wrists were actually bleeding and I still wasn’t bothered; turns out I didn’t need to be because our baseball coach’s wife was an attorney and she got us out of almost everything. “Seriously, Rob, I’ve never known anyone luckier than you,” I shake my head and think of some of our previous conversations. He laughs and I ask him about his work life after college, still disturbed and amazed by his ability to skate by for nine years straight at this point.

“I worked at Solomon Brothers on Wall Street which was ripe for drug use. I didn’t really like the job, but I was able to buy a condo with a friend and partied for 2.5 years before leaving to sell cars, which is when I got my first DUI,” he offered. Okay – real consequences!

I ask him to retell the story he told me a couple years ago about escaping his second DUI.

“Oh, yes, that one’s my favorite,” he half joked. “I was speeding home from the bar around 2am and I went down this desolate road… I passed a parked car and I knew it was a cop. A few seconds later, I saw the lights flash in my rearview mirror… I was shitting myself but I was almost home so I sped up and screeched into my driveway,” I could sense his heart racing as he rehashed the story.

I shake my head and urge him to continue.

“As soon as I got out of the car, he demanded to see my license… he was sure I didn’t live there and I was so smug when I handed it to him, proving it was my address, and then when I realized I could still get a DUI, I shouted about knowing a guy on the force that I played softball with. ‘Oh, we’re really good friends, you should call him,’ I said… he walked back to his car to call and I saw my life pass before my eyes, but then he turned back to me and said I was a lucky son of a bitch and to have a good night,” he let out a deep breath. “It was just so easy to live that lifestyle,” he pleaded, “four of my high school friends were bartenders, our condo had a big bar in the basement and we always seemed to have roommates that bartended…” he paused before considering, “I just think I was supposed to live that way… I had to live that way and continued to even after my girlfriend of five years gave me an ultimatum – I chose drinking and drugs over her.”

I imagined myself in my party phase and envisioned it lasting over a decade… not a pretty picture. “Tell me about your second DUI,” I said. “I got that one two years later… I was 32 and I stumbled out of a bar at 2:30 only to be pulled over and arrested after failing the alphabet test. As we were driving back to the station, I told the officer I thought I was having a heart attack… he definitely didn’t believe me, but he had no choice but to call an ambulance and bring me to the hospital. My sister worked there as an ER doctor and she was ready to show me the police report right when I woke up the next day. Apparently, I was cursing out the officers for telling me my blood would warrant the DUI… ‘fuck you, this is inadmissible’ I screamed.” “I went to court and it didn’t exactly go my way, but in Jersey, there’s no incarceration, you lose your license for two years. Losing my license meant I couldn’t work in the car business, though, so I got a license in New York and moved to Bayside Queens thinking my problem wasn’t my drinking… it was my driving,” we both laughed at the self-indulging naivety. “I got my third DUI in New York which I got out of pretty unscathed… I just lost my license for six months,” I could sense his shrug as he sat at the beach in Maryland, reminiscing about his less than pristine decisions. “What did your parents say about all of this?” I demanded, knowing my family would’ve thrown me right the hell into treatment. “They didn’t really intervene actually, but later on when I was 38 or 39, my brother came to visit and convinced me to move back in with our mom. I wasn’t working at the time, so I sold the condo and obliged. I immediately started drinking around the clock. I’d get four half gallons of vodka and drink one each day. I’d go down to the liquor store in the morning when I thought I couldn’t get a DUI, and then one day at 10am, I drove over, walked in, and requested the usual. The guy working said he wouldn’t sell to me unless I gave him my keys, so I gave him my keys and walked home, thinking I wouldn’t be drinking this much if I had a job or a girlfriend… I kept trying to justify my shitty behavior,” he almost sounded sad, recalling this version of himself.

“I’m sure at this point, you need the alcohol to even function…” I trailed off, allowing him to answer. “Oh yeah. I’d wake up in the morning, have a little left on the nightstand… I’d take it to quell the shakes, get up, make a drink, and go back to bed for thirty minutes,” he responded, carrying out a specific memory. “My brother came over one day around 8 in the morning saying, ‘it’s your lucky

day – I’m taking you to detox!’ which I laughed off, telling him I was fine. Of course, I wasn’t. A month later, I got another DUI. I lost my license and was sentenced to six months in jail…” this time he trailed off, telling me that wasn’t the end of the story… suggesting he would get lucky, yet again. “My brother got this lawyer and tried to make a deal, but they didn’t want to budge. The lawyer said he didn’t know any rehab that would agree to take me for a 90-day court ordered stay so they would have to fight the case. They ended up making it the last case of the day, though, and the prosecutor had to postpone due to a prior engagement… it was put off for two months, during which time I was introduced to a place called High Watch, that would take me for the 90 days so I ended up not having to serve any jail time,” he was still amazed at the outcome all these years later. “What was your headspace like at that point?” I almost projected mine onto him. “For a long time, I would think I would just live until I was forty… that I’d party with my friends and let the unacceptable become acceptable and that would be it. But that changed. I knew I’d become a failure and two months into treatment, I really started to understand that I didn’t want to live that way anymore and shortly thereafter, I came to accept that I’m an alcoholic. I applied for extended care at High Watch and ended up staying for another 10 months… I’ve been sober ever since… 15 years clean.” Now that’s something to smile about. Knowing he’s worked at the extremely reputable recovery center for years (they actually started AA there back in 1939 – BIG DEAL), I asked about his progression within the company, to where he’s at today – the Senior Vice President of Admissions.

“I actually didn’t start working there right away,” he said, “I worked at a deli downtown that I biked to for nine months… eventually, I quit because it was just the worst. I supplemented my income by playing online poker. I got the job at High Watch through a friend and started out as an administrator, doing anything and everything. I was promoted to work in the admissions department, then within a few years, I was given an opportunity to run it, and I significantly increased our numbers. I just love my job – I love coming to work and I love the business of it all,” I could feel the passion in his voice.

“What would you say to people who claim AA doesn’t work?” I ask, remembering recently hearing that and brushing it off as blasphemy. “I would say it works for anyone willing to do it. You need a support group. It gets a lot easier, but you have to be vigilant.  I go to two meetings a week; I have a sponsor, and I sponsor people.  I get my self-esteem by helping families and showing people how worthy their lives can be. Also, all my friends are in the program, so I have that support system.” “Tell me something you’ve learned from your sponsor or from working a program,” I pressed. “I’ve learned not to control outcomes. A lot of people in addiction have control issues and that just doesn’t help anything. I do the best I can, I accept it’s the best I can do, and I move on… I cannot control the result and that realization has benefited me in so many ways. I also always make the best of every situation and deeply understand the value of positive thinking. Of keeping a healthy mindset. Throughout the years, even as I was destroying my life, I just knew things would work out as they were supposed to – that eventually, everything would be okay somehow. I just knew…” he took a breath.

I took a breath with him and smiled. Everything will always be okay if you have the right mindset.

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