Joe Fitzgerald

McNeeley's Struggle Inspires Inmate


There was a column here three weeks ago in which boxer Peter McNeeley spoke with candor about his addictions, calling them "my toughest opponent of all."

It generated many letters and phone calls, as columns often do, but one in particular seemed worthy of exposure here.

Its author was a boxer, too, winner of several local titles, indeed a onetime Olympic hopeful. But today that seems so long ago because today he's behind bars, serving a lengthy hitch for armed robbery.

"I'm writing to congratulate Peter. I, too, am an addict and was once a fighter, but demons took control of my life at an early age and I lost out on a promising career.

"I began using alcohol and drugs at 13 and, through the next 22 years, hit many jackpots before being sentenced for robbing a bank. I was no bank robber; I was just a drunken addict looking for another hit."

He recalled "brief moments of abstinence" along the way, including preparation for a fight that would have been his ticket to that year's Olympic trials.

"One week prior to this golden opportunity I succeeded in getting stoned out of my mind and was defeated in the match. I blamed it on my dad, thinking he lied in telling me I was good enough to go all the way. I felt he was trying to live his life through me, because he was a fighter, too, until alcohol ended his career. From the time I was 13, he was always trying to help me avoid what's now become of my life, a life of pain and misery to myself and those who love me. My answer was always, "This is my life; leave me alone, I'm not hurting anyone."

In sharing his story, a story shared down through the ages by multitudes before him, he explained how it was only after he lost everything, including his freedom, that he finally found himself, once he decided to get honest with himself.

"Instead of going to the gym, hitting as many rounds as I could on the heavy bag, running as many miles as I could, lifting as many weights as I could, I went to jail. My dad, who hasn't had a drink in many years, has continued to be supportive. I got into a substance abuse program here and started to understand the meaning of denial, how it masks this disease.

"This is my fourth adult incarceration due to alcohol and drugs, and I finally realized I had to start doing things differently; as the saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

"I've run from the truth long enough. I sabotaged any good in my life, like employment, boxing and relationships, while always pointing the finger somewhere else. I was always told I could do anything I put my mind to. Before that first joint at 13, I was an honor roll student, the neighborhood newsboy; I swam competitively and won road races."

Just about the time he crossed paths with booze and drugs he also encountered an evil very much in the news today, predators who prey upon kids.

"Those who did what they did to me said they loved me. Being as young as I was, I couldn't completely understand what was happening. Although knowing it was wrong, my thoughts were, `If you love me, why are you doing this? I must be a bad person.' And I grew up with that feeling hidden in my subconscious."

That young man he describes is long gone now and in his place is a wiser con who confesses he has little to offer, other than his own experience, strength and hope.

"I finally came to realize I could no longer use those terrible experiences as an excuse to drink and drug or to commit acts of violence and thievery. There were a million excuses to do the things I did, but only one reason: I chose to. I was a victim, and every time I reached for a drink or drug, dwelling on those experiences, I became a victim again.

"Today I choose not to be a victim any longer."

"If you're reading this letter, whoever you are, know that you have choices, too. It's not about a drink or a drug for me today; it's learning how to live, even behind these walls, so that when I return to society it will be as a productive member."

"Tell Peter I am praying for his recovery, too, one day at a time."

Talk back to Joe Fitzgerald

This story was published in the Boston Herald on 07/05/00.