FORT LEE, Va. (June 1, 2021) – Nothing seems odd about “Jake” … at least not on the surface.
The 56-year-old grew up in the middle class suburbs of Los Angeles; went to Catholic school; married for the first time at age 20, and proudly served for 22 years in the Air Force.
By his own description, Jake is gregarious, encouraging, enthusiastic and optimistic. His ex-wife views him as a generous people-person who brings to mind the oft-cited quote, “There are no strangers, just friends I haven’t met.” Fellow workers give him props as a caring, top-performing guy.
There’s a deeper story, however, that places Douglas Anthony “Jake” Jacobs – executive assistant to the commandant, Office of the Chief of Ordnance at the Sustainment Center of Excellence – outside the realm of normal.
He is a recovering alcoholic.
Most would keep such skeletons secreted in the closet, but Jake discusses it openly believing it will inspire change, hope and healing among those grappling with the worst of life’s circumstances. His retelling of the journey is as raw, unadulterated and unapologetic as a big city tabloid.
Alcohol became a routine part of Jake’s life early in his enlisted years. He joined the military in 1983, married in 1985 and eventually fathered three daughters. Drinking at home never got out of hand because of “self-regulation,” as he put it.
What Jake didn’t know was that he was waging a war in his mind. The scars of an abusive childhood became evident one day when his then-9-year-old daughter Kelli failed to clean up after herself in the kitchen.
“I remember getting so mad at her and shouting, ‘KELLI!’ I lurched toward her – I will never forget – and that girl backed up into the corner, and I saw the fear in her eyes. She knew I was going to hit her. I stopped at that point and said, ‘Kelli, I’m so sorry.’ What my dad did to me … stops here. No more.’”
His close call with child abuse was clearly distressing to recall, but he pushed back the tears and continued the story, again revealing the sensibility of someone determined to openly acknowledge problems and shortcomings rather than hide behind denial. It was a part of “Rational Jake” – his thoughtful and pragmatic alter-ego that would repeatedly come to his rescue.
Around the turn of the century, Jake was an Air Force recruiter in Baltimore. He was in his late-30s, and he was feeling the pressure of being an “outsider white male” saddled with the challenge of engaging and signing up mostly inner-city black youths. The obstacles were plentiful and drinking seemed like a good way to block it out. Rational Jake, however, needed more.
“It became overwhelming, and I was finally able to say, ‘I need help.’ I felt there was nothing wrong with that.”
The behavioral health diagnosis was moderate, reoccurring depression. He received treatment, returned to work with renewed coping skills and excelled as a recruiter, topping quotas for four straight years.
The still-corrupted version of Jake; however, was not about to let him put down the bottle. That became evident at his next duty station in South Korea. The return to his chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist career field was less stressful, but he was without his family and immersed in the drinking culture of “bachelor” military members.
Jake described a near-nightly routine of playing video games and drinking in his dorm – working on one pint while a backup sat in the freezer. One evening after the last shot was poured, he couldn’t remember whether he had that extra bottle. Fearing he would be forced to endure the night without his comforting companion, he became frantic.
“I’ll never forget it because I was like physically anxious, thinking, ‘I hope I have a full bottle.’ When I opened the door and had one, I was like … ‘Whew!’”
With his problem re-exposed, Rational Jake re-emerged to confront him with the truth. He couldn’t make it through his off-duty hours without alcohol. The evidence was undeniable. Something had to be done.
“About a week later … I went to the (base’s alcohol treatment program) and said, ‘Yeah, this has got to stop.’”
One could argue Jake’s humility pushed him to seek help. He agreed and said pride also had a role – a conundrum a lot of individuals face. “I want people to know we can be a mix of things,” he said. “We’re such complex beings. We can know it up here (pointing to his head), but sometimes we don’t know it down here (pointing to his gut).”
Jake could not be fully enrolled in an alcohol treatment program until leaders at his next duty station – Dover Air Force Base, Del. – sent him to the closest available one at Andrews Air Force, Md. The 28-day outpatient regimen he underwent in 2004 gave him some useful tools.
“I learned the basics I would finally practice later on,” he acknowledged. “The program was great. We had groups (in which they shared experiences). We learned how to productively spend our time; what triggers people to drink; etc. There are different reasons, but almost all of them are emotional. Nobody logically takes a drink, for the most part. For me, it was feeling depressed.”
The epiphanies of the outpatient program made him hopeful, but he still doubted there would be a meaningful shift in his behavior moving forward.
“Seventy-five percent of me recognized ‘I did this; I learned something,’” he observed. “A quarter of me said, ‘I think I may drink again.’ I wasn’t being rebellious or anything because I asked to be there. Part of me was doubtful, and I felt like a fraud.”
At Dover, Jake was again a geographical bachelor as his family opted to continue living in Baltimore. He drank throughout the week but self-regulated during weekend home visits.
“I was an educated alcohol abuser,” he said in retrospect, chuckling about the very idea.
For some time, Jake attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a neighbor. He identified with his fellow AA members, but intellectualized he was “not exhibiting signs of alcoholism, yet.”
What makes someone an alcoholic? Answers vary. Jake said he favors AA’s “Big Book” definition.
“It says if you sincerely desire to stop drinking or cannot control the amount consumed once you start, you may be an alcoholic. I love that because it doesn’t say that you are, but it gives you two key things to watch.”
Jake was an alcoholic, albeit, a functional one. When did he know? When did he finally feel it in his heart, mind and gut? It was around 2011. He had been divorced four years and was well into his career as a civil servant in Washington, D.C. He was primarily a beer drinker but eventually moved to wine and liquor as his tolerance level increased. Then, alcohol began to affect him physically. He’d wake up with the shakes and needed a sip to smooth them out.
Soon, there were other indications like blackouts. Jake would get voicemails about conversations with people the night before that he could not recall. He was speeding down the path of destruction his AA sessions had educated him about, but it still did not compel him to seek help.
“I knew I had a problem, but I just didn’t have any reason at that time to break the cycle,” he said. “Earlier in my life I did, but all the sudden I didn’t. I was like, ‘whatever’ and just kept going.”
Jake – the gregarious, encouraging, enthusiastic and optimistic person he was known to be – had descended into a repulsive version of himself.
“I’ve only told one person ‘I hate you,’” he said, recalling the episode around 2013. “I looked him in the eye and said ‘I hate you!’ with such malice and venom.” He was standing before a mirror staring at himself when he uttered those words.
The depth of his downward spiral was described by his second wife LaKaisha Green. She recalled an occasion at the time they were dating when she stopped by his house to check on him after learning he missed several days of work. She became emotional recalling the scene at the door.
“He hadn’t shaved. His hair was a mess. His clothes were stained. … Food was on the floor everywhere (along with) empty bottles of alcohol. … Clothes were (strewn about the townhome), and it smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a while,” she said of the person she knew to be tidy and organized.
Jake was admitted to the hospital later that day, Green said. Because he voiced suicidal ideations, the inpatient care continued for some time.
Reacquainted with his rational persona in 2014, Jake admitted himself into a four-month outpatient rehab program and once again began attending AA meetings. He admitted to sometimes hitting the bottle immediately after a session.
Considering all he had experienced, Jake still wanted to drink because he “hadn’t gone through enough crap,” in his words. The episodes of overnight and multi-day binges returned.
At some point, Jake recognized the trap he was caught in. He had done rehab twice. He had attended AA meetings. He trusted a higher power would guide him. His rational persona questioned, “What have I not done to stop drinking? I checked all the boxes.”
With Rational Jake slowly fading into oblivion, Hopeless Jake started calling the shots, questioning his counterpart’s purpose and existence. He received answers from Suicidal Jake, who abruptly supplanted the former personas with a plan to terminate all of them.
“I was going to work one day, and I was having fantasies about how I was going to kill myself,” he said, noting similarities to the plot hatched by Nicholas Cage’s character in the movie, “Leaving Las Vegas.”
“I started to make plans. I could rent a room – take leave for a week – buy all this liquor and I could drink myself to death.”
The fantasized version never occurred, but Jake was sinking into even darker depths. Suicide was going to happen. It was just a matter of how and when. He eventually came to believe sleeping pills would be easiest.
“One day, I was half drunk. I don’t even remember the date,” he recalled, “It was the point I said tonight is the night. I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.”
Armed with liquor and pills, Suicidal Jake got into his truck and drove out to a parking lot on Woodyard Road in Clinton, Md. It was a spot he had cased. Upon his arrival at dusk, however, his thoughts began to waver. Rational Jake had resurfaced, weakened but fighting to be heard.
“It wasn’t like this is it (where it ends); there was a part of me that still wanted to live, but there was a bigger part of me that said, ‘We’re never going to get sober.’”
A suicidal, more resolute Jake once again gained control. He took a swig of booze, followed it with a handful of pills, repeated the step, then leaned back in his seat and “waited to die.”
Fate fought against the plan. Jake awoke the next morning, groggy. He managed to open the truck door, fell onto the concrete and vomited. He passed out once more only to awake vomiting again. Jake tried to make sense of the failed attempt.
“I thought, ‘Ok, I didn’t die; maybe that’s a sign,’” he said with uncertainty. “There were no clouds parting or (an exclamation of) ‘Oh my goodness! God has saved me!’ At least for me, it didn’t happen that way. It was more like, ‘God doesn’t want me to die, and I feel like crap.’”
A few days later, Jake returned to work. He also resumed drinking in those old familiar binges. During Labor Day weekend in 2014, he was liquored-up to the max, forcing him to seek hospitalization nearby. Jake was later transported to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Released 48 hours later, Green came to pick him up.
“We were walking back (to his car), having no particular conversation,” she recalled, “but then what happened was so beautiful.”
It turned out to be a watershed moment. The beaker of knowledge held by Survivor Jake was upended into the pool of what Rational Jake knew about his problem. “I had all of this knowledge about what I was supposed to do up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “but there was something preventing it from reaching my gut. I have no idea how it busted through, but I literally felt this feeling come down into my midsection. At that point, I knew I had accepted it.
“Like (TV preacher) Joyce Meyers always says, ‘I know what I know that I know’ now that I cannot safely take a drink anymore,” he continued, “and I am at peace with that.”
Indeed, Jake felt clearheaded and far removed from his vice despite the fact he had been poisoning himself just two days earlier, and for that matter, over the course of his entire adult life. Rational Jake wasn’t just making a cameo, he was now in the starring role, ready to guide his character through abstinence and recovery.
“I had my ‘ah-hah’ moment,” he said. “Since then, I never had even a desire to drink because I know I’m doing healthy recovery by staying active and remembering those things.”
“Those things” being all he went through to become sober, and maintaining his sobriety by following the AA and Celebrate Recovery programs, the latter being a Christian-based initiative.
“They’re both 12-step programs and are proven to work,” Jake said. “For me, I’m not going to second guess it or say, ‘Maybe I’m not an alcoholic.’ If I look back, I’m pretty sure (considering) the crap I’ve been through, there’s no question in my mind I am.”
Jake said he prays every morning and goes through his “gratitude list,” which he thinks sets the stage daily for thinking with humility while helping to shield him from sliding back into thoughts leading to relapse.
“It all starts with an attitude of gratitude,” he said. “I don’t say that to sound trite or to use some sort of catchphrase. I know for me and a lot of alcoholics I’ve talked with, we have to maintain an attitude of gratitude. That’s not a passive activity. For me, I have to work at it some days. When I have situations that are sucky, I have to remind myself that somebody else has it worse.”
One could hypothesize that it’s a part of life’s redeeming equation that Jake – the chronic alcoholic who tried to kill himself – now goes out of his was to share his story with others individually or in group settings.
“I can’t go back and change my past,” Jake said with confident acceptance. “For me, when I think about where I have been – I never thought I would say this – I’m actually grateful things turned out this way. I had to deal with alcoholism and suicide. That’s my story, but I’m still here to tell it.”
Jake further recognized that the rational, repulsive, hopeless and suicidal versions of himself are relatable to others, and they give his presentations to those seeking help a life-affirming ring of powerful truth.
“Seven years ago, I felt relief and exhaustion,” he said about becoming sober. “Now, I feel like the bad things that happen to people can actually turn into good. Now, I say I’m really grateful I’ve had these experiences because I’m helping people understand where I am.”
Jake is an alcoholic. One in recovery, who strongly stands in full appreciation of his journey – good and bad – and knows sharing his rather raw, unadulterated and unapologetic message about alcohol use is a godsend; a means of lifting others as well as himself.
“At the end of the day, I really want to help people,” he said. “Even if it’s just a smile or whatever… but it’s more for me; it’s a two-way street.”