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“Hello. My name is Poncho and I am an alcoholic and an addict.”
My friend Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez, Jr. is not running for re-election to the Texas legislature, where he has represented a district larger than most states since 2013. He has been a colorful character in Austin, as famous for his Austin apartment full of electric guitars as when he allegedly threatened and admittedly put his hands on a Republican state lawmaker for calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people protesting an anti-immigration bill. After the last session, Texas Monthly called him “hotheaded, assertive, mischievous, and prone to brawling,” which could be read as a compliment but was intended differently.
Lately, he’s been most famous for accidentally dropping an official state house envelope at the Austin airport. There are two things about this envelope that matter to his story: inside were two grams of cocaine, and on the outside of the envelop was his name. When the news broke, I texted him one word, “Damn.” He replied that needed to deal with his stuff and, “It was time to come home.”
I am grateful to have people like Poncho in my life. I used to say that because he knew how to throw a punch. Now, it’s because he is learning how to handle his business.
by Poncho Nevarez
“Hello. My name is Poncho and I am an alcoholic and an addict.”
I remember the first time I said those words out loud in my first AA/NA meeting. It was scary but cathartic. I had been thinking those words in my mind for a while, but to get them to come out of my throat was a different proposition.
By this point in my life I had been many things, a son, a brother, a friend, a teammate, a husband, a father, a lawyer, a rancher, a sometime musician and songwriter, and a member of the Texas Legislature. It might be that last thing making this interesting to you. Regardless, I have learned that if my trash can be your treasure it is here for you.
Being an elected official, and, in particular, a member of the Texas House, requires some hubris. Whether you are obliging enough to admit, it requires an outsized sense of yourself and a lack of humility. Most of us come from being big-man-on-campus types. We mask that lack of humility in the sort of confidence people generally identify with success. The job, if you are doing it at a high level, almost demands it. The expectations from what I believe are the three main constituencies are constant and almost always conflicting. Those constituencies start with the folks sending you to Austin, the people advocating on behalf of issues and clients, and your fellow legislators. They all form part of what goes into informing and making decisions.
As I made my way through my first session, I became aware that a lot of what makes a high-functioning legislator is a talent for coloring outside the lines. I had that in spades. Guys like me tend to float through a lot of things because people perceive a potential in us, and they make allowances. Bodies like the legislature reward that, especially during the session.
As I made my way through my first session, I became aware that a lot of what makes a high-functioning legislator is a talent for coloring outside the lines. Guys like me tend to float through a lot of things because people perceive a potential in us, and they make allowances.
The other thing I became acutely aware of was that keeping score was hard especially when in the minority. Wins were not marked in legislative triumphs but in what you were allowed to achieve when the majority let you. It can be a frustrating and somewhat dehumanizing slog through what is expected of you and what you can actually achieve. Your notion of what should happen gets stuck in a series of potholes the process creates by design. Stated or otherwise, there is always opposition, and unless you water down your expectations, what starts as a grand march in the beginning can and usually ends crumpled in the waste basket under your desk. Some of that is good, because it separates wheat from chaff, but it also stifles real change and steady effort.
You lose a lot of control over how things go in the legislative process. I cannot stress this enough. It becomes a tornado. Out of control. For a perfectionist thriving on control it can be maddening. My lack of patience hampered me. My ego pounded me. I became unable to manage defects in my character. My path towards full-blown alcoholism and addiction was pretty well set once I lost perspective. Some of my colleagues could manage that part of it well. I know many that did. Some people just were not looped in enough to understand what was going on around them or care about it. They were just happy to be there. That was never enough for me. My desire to see things through, to be in the mix and to effect change overwhelmed my ability to understand what could be achieved and what could not. I used to be really good at calling the next play and running it, but I just couldn’t anymore. Most of my colleagues it seemed could do it. Me? I just kept drinking more and then later using more and more cocaine to manage what became unbearable sadness at letting the process pile drive me and trying to shield myself from the real pain of living, and of living without people whom I had loved dearly. What else could it be, right? I mean who sets out to be an alcoholic and/or an addict? Nobody. Certainly not me.
You lose a lot of control over how things go in the legislative process. My path towards full-blown alcoholism and addiction was pretty well set once I lost perspective.
I had been drinking for the better part of thirty-two years. I messed around with drugs some in my late twenties and just kind of stopped because I was busy in my practice, my family and then my political career, first as a school board member and then as a legislator. I was busy at what I thought my life should be. I never stopped drinking but for bouts or attempts at abstinence for the sake of proving to myself that I had will power. I did not have it then, nor do I have it now.
As I marched through session after session, I became convinced the place was not good for me. Most of us would joke about it, but for me it was the truth. Yet the shot of adrenaline it gives you sometimes and the good on good, as I call it, are like the Sirens, calling you back.
Anyone that says the place won’t change them has not been there. It will. It becomes a question to what degree and how you deal with the change. By the time the 86th Legislature came I was roiling in depression and addictions. I lost my sister and best friend in 2017 within a span of six months just crushed me. I could not handle the grief. Worse, it became an excuse to continue on a very destructive path. It was never fair to their memories or to people who cared about me. Even though in the 86th I became a more influential figure, the weight and the bitter disappointment at not being able to deliver what I felt people around me expected was heavy. When the session ended, a big part of me knew I would not be back.
I had a front row seat at what our democracy was becoming as we watched things trickle down from Washington to Austin. Colleagues I had tremendous respect for abandoned decency by waving away all the bullshit making our country crazy. Truth is that should have never bothered me to the extent it did. That was more about me than them. I knew I could not be a part of it anymore. especially not the way I was headed. Summer came, and I could not decide what I wanted to do. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to clean myself up. I just did not know where to start. Who would I be if I wasn’t this? I was terrified of the answer.
Colleagues I had tremendous respect for abandoned decency by waving away all the bullshit making our country crazy. Truth is that should have never bothered me to the extent it did. That was more about me than them.
Then on September 6, 2019, an envelope with about two grams of cocaine fell out of my back pocket at the state FBO in Austin. I really did not give it much thought, but it impacted my life in ways I never would have guessed. First week of October, I got a call the envelope had been found and that there was an investigation. I went back and forth about it with myself. An addict/alcoholic will try to rationalize what is happening and seek how to prevent the fall out. We tend to be self-centered, and I was no different. I came to realize that whether or not I was ready to end all this, it was coming. It calmed me. I no longer just needed help. Now, I wanted it.
On October 14, 2019, I used and drank for the last time. I talked to my wife about all of it. I remember her telling me she didn’t know what else could help me see what I had become and this was a blessing in disguise. She told me I needed to be the person she married. She was right. It literally saved my life. By the time the news broke a month later I was working my way through things and moving on. Publicity of the charges and my arrest were somewhat of an afterthought to me, but it turned out to be harder than I could have imagined because I had to tell to my children. It hurt to see the damage I caused. Children are resilient, but I knew that I had a long road back to earning what gets blown away immediately for people that have addictions: trust.
Needless to say, I hurt a lot of people along the way. I disappointed a lot of people. Part of my process is making amends where I can. I also made good friends in and around the legislature, and I worked alongside some very good and decent people from both sides of the aisle. I will never forget their kindness. I value their love and friendship. I see now that what needed to change was me. I work on that every day and I am grateful for the chance to do so.
I see now that what needed to change was me. I work on that every day and I am grateful for the chance to do so.
I have no illusions that our country is in a dark place, that there is rot, and it is time to change things. I also believe this will happen, and that people are tired of being tired. I know I was. I also know my time as someone whose counsel or opinion about the state of things is sought after is almost up. It doesn’t mean I don’t care or that I can’t be part of a solution. I am just doing it from a different place, and I am good with that.
As I write this, I have been clean and sober for 292 days. I feel I can use the words clean and sober now because initially it was just sheer abstinence from alcohol and drugs. I was still fighting my emotions, my defects in character and not understanding that those were the things deciding whether I could or would continue alcohol and drug free. After joining AA/NA and going to an in-patient clinic, I started picking up tools to manage all that. I employ them every day, and I am better for it.
Today I do a little bit of everything. I tend to myself, to my family, to those around me, I check in with my friends, I work on our ranch, and work on an album of my music, my law practice, and the things the make me happy and fill my day. I am not in a hurry anymore. I want to feel all of my life, the good and the bad. Oh, and I still allow myself to bitch and moan about some things. I just don’t dwell on them after that. I vent, and I move on.
Today, feeling good requires me to take stock of myself in ways I never did before. It is letting go of things I cannot or should not want to control. It is allowing a force greater than me to determine things for me. That does not mean I sit on my ass and wait for a thunderclap of instructions. It means I allow myself to be guided in ways that I never allowed before. It is being honest with myself about myself. It means really being grateful and humble. I could always tell the truth about everything except how I felt and how I was dealing with things. I am not afraid of that truth anymore. It set me free.
I wrote earlier that my will was no good, but what I have today is goodwill to allow myself to make mistakes and grow. People not understanding alcoholics, addicts or addiction want to know if I am “alright.” They want to know how I will be doing in six months or a year. It doesn’t work that way. All I can tell them is I feel good today, and every day for the last 292 I have been building on that. I know that a bad today in sobriety is better than any good day I had before. And it’s not that I don’t think about the future. I believe the things I do today will decide my future, but I don’t live in the future or the past. I live here. Today.
The control freak lawyer in me understands what you went through a lot better. The Texan in me hopes you keep adding your voice to the mix. Now that it’s so readily apparent that partisan, dysfunctional governing kills, I believe there are a lot of folks who are ready for change and want leadership toward that change.
Beautifully stated, sir. More people need to know and understand the realities of addiction and how it is so intricately interwoven with mental illness. The more we can shine a light on it the less it can survive. Nothing good grows in darkness. Thank you for sharing your light and your story. You have my respect and admiration. I wish you all the best in health and happiness as you move forward.