Bill Mitchell still remembers the night he took his three sons to an Islanders’ game at Nassau Coliseum. He remembers bringing them to the suite. He remembers the hostess handing him his first double Scotch. But that’s all he remembers.
The next morning he woke with no recollection of the night. He jumped out of bed and raced down the hall, going from room to room to make sure his sons were OK. Then, he checked the garage to see if the car was there. Did the Islanders win or lose? How did he get home? Who put him to bed?
It was just another day in the life of an alcoholic. Just another terrifying day.
Over 25 years, his drinking had progressed from two cocktails in the evening to daily maintenance drinking and regular blackouts. He needed to drink to get through the day. He needed to get drunk … and it had disastrous results.
“I was slowly losing my wife and my children,” he recalled.
His life and his relationships with his family, friends and business associates were unraveling, but it wasn’t until an intervention by his family members and a fellow in Alcoholics Anonymous, that he started on the road to recovery at age 47.
On June 22, Sacred Heart University will honor Bill Mitchell at the 29th annual Discovery Gala — two days after his 28th anniversary in recovery. A member of the Board of Trustees since 2002 and Vice Chairman of Mitchell Family Stores, Mitchell will receive Sacred Heart’s Discovery Award.
Dr. John J. Petillo, President of the university, described Mitchell as a “true friend of Sacred Heart and a tireless advocate for recovery-related causes.”
“Bill is the personification of who we are as a university community,” Petillo said. “He is a passionate, caring, pay-it-forward type of guy. And that is the kind of culture we want to grow here.”
He said that Mitchell had made a substantial gift to the school for the creation of a collegiate recovery program. “It was 100 percent his idea, and he didn’t have to sell me on it because this is one thing I am very passionate about,” Petillo said. “Other universities are dealing with this, and we intend to make it a priority.”
Proceeds from the gala will support housing and programs for students facing addiction and provide help for them in recovery. The school will either build or buy a place to turn into a sober house.
“We have an obligation to be there for them,” Petillo said. “And unless we’re willing to say this is an important issue, people will not know they can get help.”
“I’m honored to be selected for Sacred Heart’s Discovery Award but, more importantly, I am thrilled to be part of a fundraiser that will support students in recovery,” Mitchell said. “There are more than 250,000 college students in this country who at some time have received treatment for alcohol or drug use. Providing these services on college campuses must be a priority.”
An estimated 37 percent of college students binge drink and almost 1 million are alcohol or drug dependent. Each year, some 1,825 die from alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents.
During his sobriety, Bill Mitchell has helped countless individuals in their recovery and has been a friend and mentor to several Sacred Heart students striving to live clean and sober. His own path to sobriety is a horrifying and inspiring story that he readily shares in the hope it will encourage another person suffering from substance abuse to seek help.
He described himself as “a successful functioning alcoholic,” who always kept a bottle of wine under the seat of his car.
“I would stop off for a few drinks when I left work at 5,” he recalled. “Then, I started leaving at 4:30 and pretty soon at 3. I’d buy a few nips and a bottle of wine to drink on the way home.” Or he’d drive down to the beach and sit in his car and drink.
His wife kept telling him, “You’re drinking too much, you have a problem.” But Bill would reply, “I don’t have a drinking problem — you’ve got the problem.” Alcoholism, he says, is known as the disease of denial.
As his drinking progressed, he suffered from blackouts and daily hangovers. He perspired so much that he would have to change his shirt at work. He routinely lied to cover up his drinking, but worst of all, he became verbally abusive to his family members.
“I would look in the mirror and pray, ‘God, please help me stop.’ But I couldn’t stop,” he said. “The disease had taken over my life.”
His wife, Sue, realized the only hope was to arrange an intervention, and when Bill walked into the room unknowingly, everyone was there, including a clergyman in AA who would help him in his sobriety.
As they went around the room, everyone told a personal story about how Bill’s drinking affected their lives — and each person ended by asking, “Will you get help?” He broke down in tears. He knew they were right. His life had become unmanageable, and he agreed to enter a program of recovery.
A day at a time, his life changed.
“I got the respect and love of my family back,” he says. “I got myself back, and I became the person I always wanted to be,”
Every year on his anniversary, he text-messages them all with the simple expression of gratitude: “Thank you for June 20, 1990.”
Today, Bill says he’s a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world — there are no dues or fees, but you pay with your life to get into the 12-step program.
A lifelong resident of Westport, he has served on the boards of St. Vincent’s Medical Center, the Jewish Home for the Elderly and the Inner City Foundation for Charity and Education. He and his wife, Sue, of 47 years have three sons, Scott, Chris and Tyler.
Sobriety gave him a new lease on life. Bill says: “Today when I’m asked how I want to be remembered, I respond, ‘People don’t really care what Bill Mitchell knows — they want to know I care.’”
Jim Nantz, a sports commentator for CBS and good friend of Mitchell, will serve as master of ceremonies at the gala, which will be held at SHU’s West Campus, the former GE corporate headquarters. There will also be a performance by the Midtown Men, who are the four original cast members of the Broadway hit “The Jersey Boys.” (For more information, contact William Reidy, Vice President for University Advancement, at 203-396-8086 or firstname.lastname@example.org)