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Road to recovery: ‘There’s life after’

Rick Van Geest is celebrating over 40 years in sobriety and has found his happy place by playing music at Journey North Community Church.

Headshot of Rick Van Geest
After struggling with alcohol addiction in his 20s, Crosby man Rick Van Geest has been sober for the past 40 years.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — When Rick Van Geest began playing music in high school, he knew it was his calling. It was something to distract him from a dysfunctional home life and near-constant bullying.

At 18, he joined a band, moved out and lived the life of a rockstar. He was on the road with his bandmates, making music and soaking it all in.

“All of a sudden, I sort of became somebody,” he said during an interview Monday, Sept. 12.

But he also became somebody who often turned to alcohol, switching from the beer he started consuming legally at 18 to harder liquor.

When the band broke up and it was time to get a different job, Van Geest still tried to live that rockstar life.

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“I was going out to the bars to play, going out to the bars to drink, going out to the bars to pick up chicks, and was getting a very, very high tolerance to the hard stuff,” he said.

Van Geest, who grew up in the Twin Cities but was born in Brainerd and now lives in Crosby, can recall one night out in particular, when he was dancing and taking tequila shots. Sometime after midnight, he remembers, the bartender set a bottle of tequila down on the bar next to him.

“He said, ‘You drink one, you get one,’” Van Geest said. “I had drank a whole bottle of José Cuervo tequila over the counter by myself and then continued on with the rest of my night.”

The writing was certainly on the wall at that point, and Van Geest tried to hide his drinking, but it was getting out of control.

He got his first driving while intoxicated charge in October of 1981 and was pulled over for speeding a few weeks later, ending up with only a ticket instead of an arrest.

The second DWI came shortly after, bringing Van Geest’s total to two DWIs and a speeding ticket within three and a half months.

“Now I didn’t care,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything. I was driving and drinking incredible amounts.”

Then came a night in March 1982, when Van Geest went out to a bar in Excelsior and drank until he blacked out.

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“I was talking to some girl that I went to grade school or junior high with, and the next thing that I remember is being hauled out of my car by a squad when I ran off the road and plowed up onto a snowbank at the end of the driveway of my mom’s townhouse apartment about a dozen miles away from the bar,” he said.

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After weaving his way through back roads in an effort to avoid cops on the highway, he slid through an intersection and up onto a snowbank, taking out a stop sign.

“And I thought I was home, so I just threw it in park, shut it off and stretched out across the front seat of the car,” he said.

Next thing Van Geest knew, he was in a detox center at an undisclosed location in the Twin Cities. He spent 36 hours detoxing before heading to a treatment center when his mom refused to pick him up.

At the young age of 25, he already had minor liver damage from drinking.

“I was literally headed down a very, very, very dark and deadly road,” he said. “And to be honest with you, I was almost waiting, looking for a telephone pole or tree to jump out in the road in front of me because I just didn’t care.”

After 30 days in an in-patient program, he headed to court to face his DWI charges, pled guilty and spent time in jail. The judge handling his case warned him not to mess up again, though.

“He says, ‘I don’t want to ever see your name come across mine or anybody else’s desk — Ever. Because if you do, I will not throw the book at you. It will be the library,’” Van Geest said. “Those were his exact words — ‘I will throw the library at you.’”

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Facilitators at the treatment center warned Van Geest he would have to give up the music part of his life and quit going to bars and other establishments for gigs if he wanted to keep his sobriety.

“And I said, ‘No. I won’t do it,’” he said. “That part of my life is my life. I’ve always been a musician; I will always be a musician.”

So he set out to prove them wrong, working at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge for a time and committing to his recovery.

“I used to go to all of the AA meetings that I could possibly go to, in part, so that I could collect the medallions, and at the same time prove to these counselors that they were wrong,” he said.

And 40 years later, he’s done just that.

Married and now living in Crosby, Van Geest still plays his music but now in the praise and worship band at Journey North Community Church.

“I play like I’m in Rush — I do,” he said. “I came from that three-piece sort of styling, and I’m a very, very forward bass player and sing that way too. I make praise and worship seem like we’re at a rock show.”

He has found happiness in the church and continues to actively work on his sobriety, which he said is a key to staying on track and seeing the sought-after results.

“You can’t stop. You have to keep after it,” he said.

It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, but finding the right people who can help and committing to just saying “no” to the addiction can change a person’s life.

“There’s life after treatment. There’s life after addiction. There’s life after abuse,” he said. “... There’s always life after, and a lot of it just just — how bad do you want it?”

Recovery Month

September is National Recovery Month. As of this year, it is also recognized in Crow Wing County . It’s a time to promote and support treatment and recovery practices and to applaud the efforts of those who’ve recovered from addiction and the people who have helped them on the way.

Throughout the month, the Dispatch will feature stories of community members in recovery.

Editor's note: This story was updated Sept. 14 to clarify Van Geest's charges as DWIs and not DUIs.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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