EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of National Recovery Month, we’re spotlighting employees of Cornerstone of Recovery who found a way out of addiction and alcoholism at our facility, and have returned as employees who now do the same for those who follow in their footsteps.
The first time Chris Brewster got drunk, he made a deal with alcohol:
“I remember thinking, I don’t like the way you taste … but I can’t wait to taste you again,” Chris says. “When people talk about that love affair with drugs and alcohol, that’s exactly it. I remember thinking that I didn’t know when I would get the chance to drink again, because I was a minor at the time, but I sort of made a deal with the beer that we would connect again. I remember that, plain as day.”
He was 13 years old, a boy from rural Loudon County, Tennessee, who found his calling as an alcoholic at a post-football game party with friends. Booze, it turns out, was the balm for his troubled mind, and by the time he graduated from high school, he was well on his way to alcoholism.
“I remember there were times I would take liquor to school and hide it in Coke cans or water bottles, but I never got confronted or in trouble,” he said. “That was back in the ’70s, though, and people didn’t know how to approach it anyway. Teachers, family members — even if they had known, nobody would have ever said a word.”
Chris Brewster: Circling the drain
By his mid-20s, his love affair with alcohol had taken a dark turn. He lost jobs due to his drinking, and by the time he was 30, it was a daily habit. Weed, Quaaludes and other substances were around, but it was the bottle that called to him during those dark nights of the soul, when he longed for nothing more than to fill the yawning maw of emptiness inside. In 2002, he went to jail for four months after three DUI arrests in a year and a half, he says, and it was there he was introduced to 12 Step recovery for the first time.
“I only went to this program to occupy my time and get out of that cell, but I remember identifying then with what the lady was telling us, that I was an alcoholic,” he says. “Her name was Teresa Bragg, and she was an amazing woman who planted the seed.”
As soon as he was released, however, he started drinking again, and he stayed drunk for the next three years, until once again, in May 2005, he found himself terminated from a job because of alcohol. By that point, he was tired, and so he stopped by the liquor store on the way home and bought a case of vodka.
“I went home to drink myself to death, like Nicolas Cage in ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’” he says. “That was my mission, to die. I went home and started drinking, and in that process I ran out of vodka and went into (withdrawal).”
A neighbor found him in his yard, in full-blown delirium tremens. He was taken to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his mother and brother were summoned to his beside. Doctors told them that it was unlikely Chris Brewster would survive, and for the next week, he remained in the hospital’s Critical Care Unit.
“I don’t remember any of that,” he said. “After they detoxed me, they didn’t really know what to do with me, so I was discharged. But the physical part of it was still pretty scary, so my mother called Cornerstone of Recovery. They didn’t have any beds, so they put me on a waiting list.”
Out of the darkness and into the light
In the meantime, Peninsula Hospital, a nearby facility that cares for both addicts and alcoholics and psychiatric patients, admitted him for stabilization. After five days, Cornerstone called with an opening. His mother drove him to the drug and alcohol treatment center, and one of the first people he met was Janet Hicks, Director of Cornerstone’s Professionals Program who at the time worked as an Admissions counselor.
He tears up, his voice husky with emotion, as he recalls that day.
“I don’t remember much at Erlanger, and I don’t remember a whole lot at Peninsula, except that both facilities fed me and cared for me,” he says. “But when I got here to Cornerstone, it was Janet Hicks who soothed me and told me everything was going to be alright. She was the first person who gave me hope.”
It was, he adds, divine intervention. She held his wrist while he signed his intake papers because his hands were shaking so bad. He was so weak he could barely walk, and for the first several weeks, he was unable to take part in any sort of demanding physical activity.
“I shook terribly for six months,” he says. “I think I weighed about 150 pounds, and I looked terrible. I was a shell of a man — just absolutely broken. I had no job, no car, no driver’s license, no money. I had absolutely nothing.”
But he had his life, and he was in treatment, which is more of a chance than many alcoholics get. As part of National Recovery Month, advocates like Chris Brewster, who have found a new way to live, are calling attention to some grim statistics, such as:
- According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health , 6.6 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 and older reported heavy alcohol use in the previous month.
- The same survey revealed  that 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older fit the clinical definition of alcohol use disorder — the scientific/medical term for alcoholism.
- Of that number, only 4.6 percent of them — about 686,000 people — received treatment at a specialty facility in the previous year. 
- "Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 93,000 deaths in the United States each year," according to the Centers for Disease Control .
None of those statistics were any comfort, however, when Chris Brewster first arrived at Cornerstone of Recovery. Like most addicts and alcoholics, he knew only two things: That he wanted the pain to stop, and when he looked in the mirror, he loathed what he saw. At Cornerstone, however, he learned to trust what others could see that he did not.
Keeping what he has by giving it away
“Janet loved me anyway, even though I was a wreck, and she told me that here at Cornerstone, they were going to love me and love me and love me, until I could love myself,” he says. “She took me to nursing, and they told me the same thing there, that it was going to be OK. Wallace Smith gave me my (drug screen), and he told me the same thing.
“After I met Janet, everywhere I went, I kept getting the same message — that they were going to love me until I could love myself. Everybody said the same thing, but it came from the heart. It wasn’t fake, and there was nothing disingenuous about what these people were saying. That’s when I realized, if all of these people were saying the same thing, there had to be something to this.”
After completing residential treatment, he transitioned into Cornerstone’s Intensive Outpatient Program, and after completing that, he remained in the center’s Sober Living Facility for a full year. When it became time to move out on his own, Smith — director of the Adult Residential Program at the time — offered him a position as a part-time counselor, and Chris immediately accepted. He’s been a part of the Cornerstone family ever since.
From there, he became the program’s full-time weekend coordinator, and after six years, he moved over to work as a recovery coach for the Aftercare program. Five years later, he was promoted to Assistant Director of Extended Care, the position he holds today. He’s a fixture in Cornerstone’s Polly Bales Building, where his mischievous sense of humor and gregarious personality are matched only by the gravity of his steadfast belief in recovery — because he’s living proof of the new way to live that’s promised to those willing to do the work.
“What Janet said, her first words, are exactly what happened for me,” he says, getting emotional again. “If you love yourself, it doesn’t matter what else happens. That’s exactly what she said, and she didn’t lie. Throughout the whole process, so many people have just said the smallest things that probably meant nothing to them, but when you put all of that together collectively, it just changes people’s lives.
“I’m the same way. I’m sure I’ve said something small that to me sounded dumb or insignificant, but it really impacted the person I said it to. And that’s the beauty of recovery and what we do. It’s about hanging in there together and getting better together.”