Recovering alcoholic uses court-ordered sanctions to pursue her dreams in comedy

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julia Ramos tries out her comedy act at the Funhouse Lounge in Southeast Portland at a recent open-mic night. A participant in Beaverton's B-SOBR diversion court program, Ramos is achieving a goal she set for herself when she was younger before alcohol came to dominate her life. For the past year and a half, Julia Ramos has pursued her dream of becoming a stand-up comic.

Writing and conceiving ideas in down time away from her job at Godfather’s Pizza, the 2002 Aloha High School graduate trolls open mics, mostly at Southeast Portland clubs such as Helium on Hawthorne Boulevard or Fun House on 12th Avenue and tries out a few minutes of her latest material. Much of it touches, directly or indirectly, on what the 29-year-old hopes is her former life as a functioning alcoholic.

“I used to drink. I don’t drink anymore,” she says in one of her regular bits. “I knew I had a problem when I turned watching the show ‘Intervention’ into a drinking game. Apparently that’s not the outcome the creators were going for. How was I to know? I was drunk all the time.”

Less than two years ago, Ramos’ life left little to laugh about.

At the peak of her consumption, she would plan a typical day so she would have alcohol — usually via straight shots of vodka — in her system before, during and immediately after work.

“Probably four or five years ago now was when I would drink before I would go out to drink,” she recalls. “Not with other people. Definitely within my last two years of drinking, I knew I was an alcoholic.”

The otherwise rational, mild-mannered 20-something — who didn’t start socially drinking until she was 19, but escalated her intake after a relationship went south — knew something would have to change. She just didn’t know exactly how or when.

“I thought I would come to a point where I’d be able to fix it myself, and at some point I’d go back to drinking like a normal person,” she says. “I don’t think I saw myself as stopping altogether.”

It wasn’t regular bouts of the shakes, her bewildered parents’ growing concern or even hospitalization after a withdrawal-related seizure — which led to drinking more to avoid another episode — that led to a game changer.

That didn’t happen until April 30, 2012, after her car hit a pole near the intersection of Barnes Road and Highway 217. Her injuries were minor, but the implications were profound when her blood-alcohol concentration test came in at .396, nearly five times the legal limit of .08. In her first DUII arrest, after sideswiping another car in early 2010, Ramos registered a relatively tame BAC of .24.

“I was actually more coherent than I was the first time,” she says of her more drunken second arrest.

The first-offense diversion program she went through didn’t take.

“It was kind of like being in a class where you’re doing busywork. You get bored with it. It wasn’t what I needed for the amount of help I needed at that point,” she recalls.

By the time of her second offense, the city of Beaverton’s Sobriety Opportunity for Beginning Recovery, or B-SOBR was in place — and Ramos was a prime, if initially reluctant, TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julia Ramos, who is a participant in Beaverton's BSOBR diversion court program, is achieving her goal that she set for herself when she was younger before becoming addicted to alcohol.

A second chance

Funded by a $125,000 Oregon Department of Transportation grant, B-SOBR is designed to treat individuals whose drinking and drug use is beyond their control but who continue to drive motor vehicles. The three-year grant, which extends to 2015, covers Case Manager Jennifer Rivas’ salary, home visits from Beaverton police officers and other related costs.

Participants agree to strict conditions in exchange for remaining out of jail: ongoing sobriety and urine tests, wearing an alcohol monitoring bracelet, committing to Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar program, a search for employment and surprise check-ins from a police officer.

With a BAC as high as Ramos’, jail time — at least six months’ worth — was all but inevitable. Still, the requirements of B-SOBR at first seemed more than she’d care to handle.

“I was a little overwhelmed,” she says. “I don’t even know if I made it through the whole packet.”

Ramos did know there was something better waiting for her down the line.

“I wanted any other life than I had. They offered me an opportunity to get sober.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julia Ramos is a participant in Beaverton's BSOBR diversion court program.

Prayer power

With the guidance of the court, in which participants report to Judge Les Rink in two monthly sessions at Beaverton Municipal City Hall, a short period on antidepressants and channeling her energies into work and comedy writing, Ramos has been sober for 415 straight days, as of Monday.

“It was hard. For two or three months it was minute by minute,” she says of her sudden sobriety. “It would take a long time for me to go without thinking about it. I didn’t know how to do anything without it at the time.”

Admitting the AA meetings took some getting used to, she eventually used the organization’s emphasis on a higher power to her advantage.

“I prayed every night when I was drinking, but that was because of my fear that I wasn’t going to live through the night,” she admits. “I use prayer now moreso for gratitude. Before it was out of desperation.”

Ramos also was grateful to her B-SOBR peers and mentors, including Judge Rink and Rivas, her case manager. Even when sentenced to community service for a minor infraction, she admired how Rink handled matters.

“I like him a lot,” she says. “He’s very fair. For someone to hold the title of judge and you feel less judged by them, it throws you for a loop. I can’t say enough to thank them. They’re there to help you, and that’s huge.”

Making them laugh

Rivas observes that Ramos, in her pursuit of a comedy career, is a prime example of a B-SOBR participant who’s honesty with herself helps reignite the spark within that addiction threatened to extinguish.

“Most participants have been in their alcoholic turmoil too long to come out of the fog actually knowing who they are and what they love to do,” Rivas says. “So once participants are stable in their recovery, they are encouraged by their peers to discover who they are. Part of that for Julia is her TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julia Ramos tries out her comedy act at the Funhouse Lounge in Southeast Portland at a recent open-mic night. A participant in Beaverton's B-SOBR diversion court program, Ramos is achieving a goal she set for herself when she was younger before alcohol came to dominate her life.

“If she is being truly honest with herself and others regarding the atmosphere it takes her in,” she adds, referring to drink-serving comedy clubs, “then she will be able to protect her sobriety while fulfilling her passion.”

Ramos, who lives in a self-directed Oxford House addiction recovery residence in Northeast Portland, says she can’t say enough about the support she’s received from her parents, who live in Aloha, as well as the court. With plans to keep her restaurant job and hone her comedy writing and performance skills, Ramos has her sights set on the future.

“If I can go through this and at the end say I’ve been sober for three years, that’s such a gift,” she says. “To have this accountability (in the program) is the best head start I can get.

“I’ll take anything they throw at me, if it keeps me sober.”

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