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Published April 02, 2014, 09:08 PM

Robin Huebner Reports: 'It was life or death': Confessions of an 'everyday alcoholic'

FARGO - Kevin Michael Formo wears his battle with alcoholism on his sleeve and, sometimes, on a cardboard sign waved at passing cars.

By: Robin Huebner, INFORUM

FARGO - Kevin Michael Formo wears his battle with alcoholism on his sleeve and, sometimes, on a cardboard sign waved at passing cars.

The man who calls himself an “everyday alcoholic” speaks openly about drinking an entire 1.75-liter jug of vodka most nights.

He talks about falling over on stage with his band, sending cymbals crashing, and about purposely pouring a drink in his lap on a first date to hide the fact he'd urinated on himself.

He details the time in November 2005 when he blacked out at the wheel and drove his car into a slough, escaping through a window before the car sank.

He came away with broken bones, hypothermia and a drunken driving arrest for having a 0.22 percent blood alcohol level.

“I chose drinking over everything,” said Formo, 32, of Fargo. “It’s not an excuse, but it’s what I chose.”

Genetics, however, also played a part. His father is a now-sober alcoholic and his paternal grandfather died at age 42 of liver cirrhosis caused by years of heavy drinking.

Formo is determined to have a better fate. He began treatment a year and a half ago and, after several relapses, recently marked six months of sobriety.

It’s the longest he’s gone without a drink since he was a teenager.

“It was life or death,” Formo said, “I was gonna die if something didn’t happen.”

He hopes staying sober will allow him to fix the relationships he ruined with alcohol, perhaps even reuniting with a young daughter he’s never really known.

Alcoholism takes hold

Formo is an only child, born and raised in Fergus Falls, Minn., where he took an early interest in music while watching his father on the drums.

In high school, he played drums in the concert and pep bands and played in a Christian rock band.

After graduating, he moved to Fargo to start a three-piece rock band called Jersey Avenue.

The band did shows in the area almost every weekend and in that setting, his drinking escalated.

While sitting at the drums, he’d be surrounded by shot glasses and empty beer bottles.

“I could barely walk, but I could still play,” he said.

After his drunken behavior disrupted several shows, bandmates gave him an ultimatum: Get sober, or you’re out.

“Again, I chose drinking,” Formo said.

“They even gave me a second chance and the same thing happened.”

First casualty

Formo’s first relationship casualty due to drinking came a few months after his 2005 brush with death in the slough.

He met a woman, married her, and she became pregnant, all in the span of a few months. Their baby was born one year to the day after his car accident.

It should have been a sign – a wakeup call for him to get his life together. But it wasn’t.

“Even when our daughter was born, he came to the hospital once,” said Formo’s ex-wife, Sarah Jensen, “then he left and didn’t come back.”

Jensen, who is remarried and living in Milnor, N.D., said Formo’s drinking destroyed their relationship.

“You don’t ever know what to expect, what kind of mood they’ll be in,” she said.

The now-31-year-old stay-at-home mom said she couldn’t trust him.

“They say one thing and you want to believe them, but then they completely forget what they said,” Jensen said.

She said Formo was always either drunk or hung over.

“He would drink, start throwing up and drink some more,” Jensen said.

She tried to get him into rehab, but he refused. They separated, then divorced.

“I loved him,” Jensen said, “but we were both very young.”

For Formo, hindsight is 20/20.

“I didn’t realize at the time how much I hurt these people until I look back at it now,” he said.

Barely functioning

As time passed, Formo went from being a regular at the bars to drinking behind closed doors, at home.

“At home, I could drink as much as I wanted to,” he said, adding, “At a bar, you get cut off.”

He began drinking heavy amounts of straight vodka, and would get “blackout drunk” nearly every night.

Somehow, he managed to hold down a full-time job for a while at a PVC pipe-fitting company – an employer that supported his efforts to get clean.

His first stint in rehab came as a result of a hard night of partying with a friend, when he became very ill.

“I said, ‘Bring me somewhere, I can’t take it anymore,’ ” Formo said.

He ended up at Prairie St. John’s in Fargo, where he spent two weeks detoxing and in treatment.

As he sobered up, he became suicidal. When it was determined he needed more intensive treatment, he was transferred to the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown, where he spent another two weeks receiving psychiatric care.

The experience was eye-opening. Formo saw people from all walks of life seeking alcohol treatment.

“I’ve seen judges, lawyers, doctors – even at the state hospital,” he said.

It was there Formo was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder – surprising to him, because he’d never been treated for mental health issues in the past.

It was also there that Formo experienced what he calls “the blessing of a lifetime.”

While sitting in a video conference room, he looked up to see a woman on the screen, who simply said, “I’m from Southeast Human Services and I’m here to help you.”

Those words resonated with him.

Formo was transferred to the 24-hour care of that center and placed as an inpatient at a crisis-bed facility.

He slept there each night and was bused each morning to Southeast Human Service Center in Fargo for treatment with a team of addiction and mental health professionals.

Rehab doesn’t stick

After more than seven months in treatment and thinking he had the problem licked, Formo checked himself out of rehab, against the advice of his doctors and counselors.

“They told me not to leave, and I should have listened,” he said.

He also stopped going to counseling, which he said was another big mistake.

Sobriety didn’t last long, and he went right back to the heavy drinking.

The cycle of rehab and relapse would repeat itself, landing Formo in the hospital emergency room a couple of times. Each time, he said, someone from Southeast Human Services came to the hospital to accept him back.

“They really cared about me,” he said, adding “they didn’t give up.”

Formo said the last time he came out of rehab, he did so with the blessing of his counselors.

While out on a pass on one of his final days of treatment, he saw a man at an intersection holding a cardboard sign, begging for money.

Something clicked, and he returned to the center to make a sign of his own.

It read, in part: “Hi, I’m Kevin and I’m an alcoholic. I want to pay back the FM area facilities that saved my life.”

The sign asked for donations, and he said he gave 100 percent went to the cause. He went out in the cold and wind in the Osgood area of West Fargo that day, holding the sign and drawing looks from drivers.

He managed to collect about $40.

“I’m definitely going to do it again,” he said.

A new sober identity

The focus now for Formo is building a new identity that doesn’t involve alcohol.

He said medical tests show his liver enzymes have returned to normal, and he feels the best he’s felt since he was 18.

“I feel clean, I wake up rested. I don’t have feelings of guilt or shame,” he said.

He’s taking prescribed medications diligently to keep his mental health in check.

He has his own place to live and has what he calls “a very rewarding” job with Adult Life Programs in Moorhead, assisting vulnerable adults.

And he’s trying to find humor in his situation through open mic nights at the Red Raven Espresso Parlor in Fargo.

He recently shared the story of his unfortunate accident on that drunken first date, joking that “peeing your pants is not a good way to impress someone.”

His top priority, however, is rebuilding relationships he lost to alcohol.

Most importantly, he wants to get to know his now 7-year-old daughter, Summer.

When she was a baby, Formo didn’t spend time with her because it meant less time to drink.

“I feel horrible about that,” he said. “It’s time I can’t get back.”

He hopes to build up trust so that Summer’s mother will allow the two to spend time together.

But it will be difficult.

“It’s hard for me to believe him because I only know the past,” Jensen said.

“It’s going to take time for him to prove himself,” she added.

Formo is focused on not giving up, just like the folks at Southeast Human Services didn’t give up on him.

“I just want to show that no matter what, there is a little bit of hope,” he said.

Readers can reach Robin Huebner at rhuebner@forumcomm.com.

Huebner is also a 5 p.m. news anchor on WDAY-TV