Marco man overcomes alcoholism, homelessness
John McHugh never thought he’d be an author, mostly because he never thought he’d live long enough to write a book; he thought his drinking was going to kill him. Jamie Stoddard/Staff
Editor's note: This is the latest story in the #SWFLstrong series, profiling individuals making a positive difference in the community. These articles will be featured on a regular basis in the Collier Citizen, Marco Eagle and The Banner.
John McHugh never thought he’d be an author, mostly because he never thought he’d live long enough to write a book; he thought his drinking was going to kill him.
“I was hard core,” he said. “My rock bottom was death. I had doctors tell me many times, ‘If you don’t stop, you’re going to be dead in two months.’”
McHugh was born and raised in Long Island, New York. In 1994, after going through a divorce, he moved to California, leaving behind his friends, family and everything he’s ever known.
“My mother always says if I hadn’t hit an ocean I would’ve been in Fiji,” he said with a laugh. “I liked (California) a lot, but I was also away from everybody I knew, so that’s when my drinking really, really took off because I didn’t have anybody around to say, ‘Don’t do this.’”
Soon McHugh was drinking instead of going to work, which eventually cost him both his job and his apartment. For the next six years he lived on the streets, recycling bottles and cans to finance his alcohol addiction.
“There was help available, but the help was always waiting lists,” he said, “and when you’re living in the park or on the street, there is no such thing as a waiting list; you’ve got to get through the day. You don’t even think about what’s going to happen down the road.”
Although he did occasionally check himself into rehab programs, McHugh was never able to quit drinking.
“At that point my drinking had become so bad that I couldn’t physically stop on my own,” he said. “After awhile it was like, what’s the point? I’m never going to be able to beat this; it’s got me, I can’t let it go. It felt like there was no way out.”
McHugh’s family tried to convince him to move back to New York so they could help him overcome his addiction, but his pride prevented him from doing so.
“I couldn’t go back to them and wreck their lives as well as my own,” he said. “So I had this idea that I was staying out in California because I was noble, I was sparing everybody from dealing with me. But the reason I was staying out there is because there was nobody to tell me not to drink.”
Around that time, doctors discovered that McHugh had three serious heart conditions: cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation and mitral valve prolapse. That’s when they warned him that he was going to die if he didn’t stop drinking.
He didn’t listen.
Instead, he used birthday money from his parents to go get drunk with his friends.
“We were downtown in San Francisco (and) we ate at a real restaurant and had some drinks,” he said. “Then we had more drinks at the park and the next day I literally couldn’t walk 100 yards on a flat surface.”
He was having a heart attack.
An ambulance came and transported him to the hospital. He hasn’t had a sip of alcohol since that day.
"The reason it took this last time is because it was about acceptance," he said. "In my mind I had never accepted it before."
After being released from the hospital, McHugh went to Maple Street Shelter, a unique six-month transitional housing facility that requires its boarders to get a job and save half of every paycheck so they'll be able to afford a place to live once they leave.
“I thought it was great because at all the other shelters … it was ‘We’re going to get you sober and then your life is going to work itself out,’ and a lot of times that wasn’t what happened,” he said.
Rather than getting a job, however, McHugh decided to go back to school. He enrolled at Cañada College and after two semesters there he transferred to City College of San Francisco. After earning his associates degree, he applied to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona where he joined the civil engineering program.
In 2012 he earned his bachelor's degree in civil engineering and two years later he earned his master’s degree in civil engineering management.
Shortly after graduating, McHugh moved to Marco Island to help take care of his parents, both of whom had Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although he had originally planned on staying with them for just a few months, the circumstances soon changed.
“It was a lot worse than anybody in the family had anticipated,” he said. “They were very good at hiding the fact that their world was pretty much a wreck.”
When McHugh’s dad died in June, his mom moved back to New York to be close to McHugh's two sisters and brother. He chose to stay, and got a job as an engineering intern at American Engineering Consultants of Marco Island. Most recently, McHugh worked on the Island Plaza renovation project.
"None of this would have happened if I had kept drinking," he said. "The stuff that has happened to me is absolutely 10 times what I would have imagined back then to be the greatest thing in the world that could have happened. It's incredible how things change."
But despite the fact that he’s now going on 13 years sober, McHugh still has to fight the urge to drink.
“Sometimes I go out with my friends ... and I think … ‘Man I wish I could do that’,” he said with a laugh. “But then (I think), 'Well, if I did that, then tomorrow morning I probably wouldn’t feel so good, so I might have a couple more tomorrow morning,’ and then I’d just be back out on a run. I have a good, strong recovery now; I don’t think I have another one in me. I think if I went out on a run, I’d be running until they put me in the grave.”
Now McHugh is sharing his story with others in the hopes that it will inspire those who are struggling with addiction to become sober and, more importantly, stay sober. In December he published his book “Memoirs of a Miracle,” which chronicles his time in San Francisco and his long, bumpy journey to recovery.
“You’ve got to really want it in your heart,” he said of recovery. "And you have to sometimes say to people, ‘You’re not that bad. It’s not that bad.’ Look at my story (or) other people’s stories. It might not be the exact same story, but you say, ‘Geeze, that guy was worse than me' or 'That girl was this, and they made it back. Now they’re up here smiling.' And when you see that, it affirms that you can do it, too.”