Even so, the West Virginia University alumnus and former WVU men’s basketball captain isn't complaining. He was at the bottom of a pit after the loss of just about everything he ever owned or valued, and found that many of those materialistic things weren't important at all. In his still-rebuilding life, the one-time basketball star and physician has found what really matters -- and what he hopes will lead him to a better future -- helping others who suffer from the disease of addiction.
Allara seemed to have it all. A three-year letterman in basketball at West Virginia University, the native of Iaeger, W. Va., parlayed his time at WVU into a Pharmacy degree and eventually his M.D. degree. Upon completion of a residency in Ophthalmology, he started and built a thriving medical and surgical practice in the state capital of Charleston in 1987. Over the next 20 years, with no shortage of boon companionship, Allara seemed to be living a life that most West Virginians could only dream of. However, one dark cloud on the horizon loomed – fueled by deep seated personal issues that eventually cost him everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
“It pretty much started in March of 2004 on a golf trip with 40 guys to Myrtle Beach,” says Allara, who held nothing back in several lengthy interview sessions. “I was a social drinker, and probably a functional alcoholic, but that was when it went catastrophic. I was re-introduced to powdered cocaine, and that was the beginning of my downfall.”
It's not an unfamiliar tale. Hundreds of thousands of addicts, in this case a highly intelligent and functioning one, have progressed along a similar path. What is intriguing in Allara's story is his identification of the root causes of his addictive behavior, his acceptance of the consequences, and his brave, yet unnoticed, fight to recover what is now more important to him than material possessions.
“I felt a sense of justified entitlement to the good things,” Allara admits, noting that he wasn't always the most gracious person in terms of dealing with others. “I felt like I had worked my way through college to become a doctor, and that others were beneath me. I had forgotten where I had come from. My ego was delusionally inflated beyond belief. I thought, 'I'm a doctor, and I'm above the law.' I had a hole in the soul, and I had to have a way to fill that. Materialistic thing – fast cars, boats, young women and peer groups – along with drinking and drugging – were the answer to my madness and distorted thinking. I lost sight of my family values and morals and integrity.”
Of course, those self-medicating behaviors weren't the root cause of Allara's long slide down into the pit. Long term situational depression, along with doubts of self-worth that went all the way back to his childhood, were the internal motivators for both his outwardly harsh and sometimes slashing behavior, along with his drug use.
“I think I inherited some of those depressive and anxiety traits from my mother,” he recalls. “We never really talked about it, but I could see that she let people walk over her, and that kind of rolled over to me. I was very introverted growing up, and I had a great fear of not proving myself. I needed to prove myself to feel good about myself. I wanted to be the best athlete, the best student, the best doctor. I just felt inadequate and empty. So, I excelled to feel adequate and successful.”
Allara doesn't offer those items as an excuse for what happened next, or for his behavior over the years, but he does think it was important to identify them, because without that analysis any other fix that he attempted would be just as fruitless as the last drink or drug that he consumed in an attempt to squelch those feelings.
That first descent into harder drugs began a familiar downward cycle. He fired his office manager early in the year of 2007, (“That was the worst time with the cocaine”, he notes) and made efforts to stop his drinking and drug use He was able to kick the cocaine habit in March of 2007 on his own, but that was too late to prevent the disintegration of his professional career. The West Virginia Board of Medicine had received a complaint alleging his illegal behaviors and poor moral decisions, which led to an intensive investigation. That kicked off a hellish period for the one-time state favorite, who had turned a walk-on opportunity at WVU into a scholarship and a medical degree.
The Board of Medicine investigation and legal process was long and drawn out, eventually leading to the involvement by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the assistant U.S Prosecuting Attorney's office of the Southern District of West Virginia. A forensic psychiatric evaluation and testing, as well as special drug testing, led to a diagnosis of drug addiction with moderate to significant impairment. As a result of these findings, and its investigation, the Board recommended a suspension of his license to practice medicine with a consent order to attend a board-approved treatment facility.
The Board also uncovered the fact that Allara had written some prescriptions for some narcotics, mainly Lortab or Hydocodone, for “friends” that were not within his scope of practice, a felony charge in the first degree. That led to the DEA and federal prosecuting attorney involvement, and ended up with federal charges. Allara signed a guilty plea agreement on those charges before going to rehab, and received a sentence of five months in federal prison camp, which he served from Sept. 2008 to Feb. 2009 in Ashland, Ky. To his credit, Allara admits the charges were true and offers no excuse.
“That was illegal—a felony,” he says of the prescription writing. “I wanted people to like me, and that was just delusional thinking on my part. It was all intertwined with the drinking and drug use. There was depression, and I just got in deeper. I tried to fill that hole with materialistic things, with fast living and young women, and none of that worked.”
During the investigations, Allara finally came to the realization that he needed help. Just after surrendering his medical license in July of 2007, he began a 12-step program modeled on one used by the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and spent 3 1/2 months in a Williamsburg, Va., treatment facility. While there, he faced his issues for the first time, and made the breakthroughs that allowed him to take the first steps toward long-term recovery. Perhaps the toughest step for the proud Allara was admitting that he had a problem that he was powerless to resolve on his own, and that he would never really defeat.
“I have a disease of the mind,” he says in describing those initial stages of recovery. “You never graduate from the disease of addiction. It is silent and insidious. In order to make it work, I had to deflate my ego and admit the problem.”
Dave Allara scores in a home game at the WVU Coliseum
It's at this point that some begin to look for that Hollywood ending. The subject cleans up, reclaims his job and his relationships, and rides off into the sunset. Unfortunately, this isn't a movie, and such clean endings rarely occur, and never quickly. For Allara, life stressors continued to put pressure on him, even after he apparently hit the bottom of that addiction pit.
First was the loss of his medical license in July 2007. After completing his rehabilitation and prison sentences, he met with the Board of Medicine for a hearing on its reinstatement in May of 2009, but that was denied, and further rulings have kept him from its return. He was also ruled ineligible to work in the direct care medical field by order of the Federal Office of the Inspector General, which closed off almost every avenue of employment for him in the health care field.
A second, and even tougher ruling, came that dealt him a five-year exclusion from working for any facility or employer that receives federal money. That second blow, which came in 2010, was even more damaging, as almost every health facility receives grants or appropriations of one form or another. It closed off many more employment options, and nearly bankrupted him.
Next, and most importantly, was the estrangement of his two daughters. A four-year bitter divorce battle ranging from 1997-2001 had sowed initial seeds of discord in those relationships, but his personal descent led to an almost total loss of contact with both, severing that most important of family ties. While other family members continued to support him throughout the ordeal, the absence of his daughters was a crippling emotional stressor and another direct blow to his self-esteem.
Finally, in an attempt to make a clean start, he moved to Florida, but his first job there turned out to be a bad one, and left him again looking for a new start. That search began at the bottom of the ladder, and started out with a job that included no benefits or insurance. Faced with such setbacks and challenges, Allara relied on everything he learned in his recovery program. While he strongly disagrees with the severity of some of the catastrophic penalties he received, he isn't bitter about them, and accepts that his actions led to that lowest of low points.
“I had to have a higher power kick me upside the head to get me out of the lifestyle I was in,” he says. “No doubt, the negative consequences on my life were severe. But now I can understand that what I was thinking was incorrect then, and how to cope with it and how to act now. Without that, I have no doubt I would be dead now. It was a divine intervention that led to my spiritual awakening.”
That outlook, and his reliance on a spirituality (“Religion is for people afraid of going to hell – spirituality is for those that have been there and don't want to go back”, is another of his favorite quotes) have totally changed his whole attitude and outlook on life, even though he restarted from next to nothing.
Fortunately, Allara's story doesn't have a black ending either. It's more like the end of the film version of Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler departs into a gray mist, meant to signify a future that is uncertain. Allara believes he is on the right path, but acknowledges that there is still so much more to accomplish.
“I know I can live a healthy, helping life. I have a job now in recovery, where I can help others find and get the help that I did. I know I burned a lot of bridges, and I have to keep working to prove that I can live a clean life.” he says. “I respect others' feelings more, and I have a spirituality that helps me with that. Helping other people is one of my ways now in making amends for my past. Paying it forward with what God gave to me is a definite result of letting go and letting God do his handiwork.”
Not everyone may respond to that outlook. Those who believe that addiction is not a disease probably won't, and may believe that Allara deserves what he got. Allara acknowledges that, and wants to make sure everyone knows he isn't looking for sympathy or trying to blame his problems on anyone or anything else. He understands that he will spend the rest of his life trying to repair what he can, and that some people may never believe that he has truly changed. He strikes a very matter-of-fact note in his approach to that challenge.
“I can't be resentful if people don't accept what I'm doing and have done, or if they don't accept my apologies or amends. I have to just accept that and keep working. Being positive and optimistic will lead to improvement in my personal and professional life.”
While Allara has found that approach a workable one with critics and doubters, it becomes much tougher in his personal life, especially in the matter of his daughters. With one, he is beginning to reestablish a relationship, while the other still remains distant, with only indirect contact. Still he isn't forcing anything, and remains patient – another change in his personality. With his continual and ongoing recovery he is optimistic that this personal estrangement will reverse, and that he will, in time, rekindle a healthy and loving connection with both.
“This has to come in God's time, not my time,” he says openly of what is the most painful of subjects. “There are some positives with my daughters but it's still definitely a work in progress. In time, I hope they both understand that I love them, and that I want to have a relationship with them as their father.”
Those unfinished tasks, and the regret over time lost, contrast with Allara's sunny outlook about his current life and future. He says he has never been happier, and his recent eight-year anniversary of sobriety (which coincides with his younger daughter's birthday) is another milestone on the journey. He is now cleared of the onerous five-year exclusion on health-related work, and his job now includes health insurance, which will allow him to address his ailing knees and hips, which may require replacement. (He suffers from avascular necrosis of the femoral head, the same ailment that ended Bo Jackson's career.) He has a Presidential pardon request pending with the federal government, and also has the support of many others in his quest for redemption.
"It's all about having an attitude of gratitude,” says Allara, repeating one of the many catchphrases and mantras that sprinkle his conversations. “I have had a lot of support from the WVU fan base. They've given me a sense of being accepted, and being a part of them. And incidentally, I've also gotten calls from a few who've needed help and have been able to assist them in getting it.”
Allara has also gotten support from WVU head basketball coach Bob Huggins, who he remains in touch with, as well as with teammates from his career. He feels that connection most acutely at basketball reunions at the Coliseum each year, which allows him moments to reflect, especially when walking down the carpet while being introduced.
“Last year, I thought how lucky I am to be here,” he recalls. “I'm so thankful for my WVU education. I wasn't the greatest player, but I was dependable, and was able to earn that scholarship, and I made a lot of lifelong friends.”
Contrast that, then, with the overriding sense of failure, depression and despair that dogged Allara through much of his life. How many people can make such massive changes, keep on the path through continuing adversity, and come out with an outlook on life that is so optimistic? Again, Allara isn't looking for kudos, credit or plaudits for his battle. For him, the reward is now in using his training and negative consequences of his incorrect decisions and behaviors to help others, to reconnecting with his family, and to enjoying every day no matter what happens.
“I am as happy now as I have ever been,” Allara confirms. “I feel joyous and free of the things that kept me in my own delusional personal prison. I'm not obsessing over lost possessions or what happened in the past. The past is just a reminder – I can't dwell on it. I have a sense of perseverance, of not giving up, and I'll go to any length to remain clean. It's allowed me to evolve into a genuine, caring person. I don't need accolades for that – it's just a part of my recovery.
“Some people define success in life based upon their financial and personal wealth in society – their perceived importance in their business ventures and all the awards and accolades they have acquired. I used to do that. Now, however, I look at success in a totally different view. I truly feel that my life is successful if I can live each day with a positive outlook, have a feeling of contentment with my circumstances, have balance in all the important areas of my life, and have the time and resources to pursue what I am passionate about. My passion now is helping other unfortunates who suffer from the disease of addiction. I've been able to fill that 'hole in the soul' with love, compassion, tolerance and patience. I am so lucky that his divine intervention brought me to where I always knew I needed to be. This spiritual awakening afforded me through the 12-step fellowship has given me a blessed feeling of serenity and peace without fear of the future.”
Dave Allara (#55) in a WVU team photo