Through nearly 40 years of good and bad times, alcohol often served as a crutch for Randy Nitz.
Now, however, at perhaps the most trying of times Nitz has ever known — as he feels more hurt than he’s ever imagined possible — the 50-year-old Sebewaing man won’t even think of taking a sip.
And so he feels that hurt. Hard.
He feels the hurt so hard tears pour from his eyes as he recalls the “outpouring of support” at the funeral of his son, Zachary Nitz, 22, who died in a single-vehicle accident in Tuscola County on Jan. 23.
He feels the hurt so hard that he talks about it anytime he can, to anyone who will listen — grief counselors, fellow attendees of support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), judges, law enforcement officers, anyone.
But as he puts it, feeling that hurt isn’t even the most important thing — it’s the strength to keep feeling that hurt.
It’s a strength Randy Nitz says might not even be possible were it not for his third drunken driving charge and his subsequent participation in the Thumb Regional Sobriety Court (TRSC), which also opened his eyes to other various support services in the area.
“I’m glad that I’m sober at the time that all of this is happening,” Nitz said, speaking of his son’s death. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I were drinking. I probably would’ve taken all of this anger and rage I have inside me, and I would’ve turned it to the alcohol and said things to people I probably didn’t want to say, and done things I probably didn’t want to do.
“And I probably would’ve got caught drinking and driving again and then I’d be going to prison for sure — there is no sobriety court after sobriety court.”
Thumb Regional Sobriety Court
A description from a recent TRSC press release:
“The Thumb Regional Sobriety Court is a specialized treatment court focusing on improving public safety in Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac counties through intensive intervention in the lives of repeat drunken or drugged driving offenders. The court, often referred to as TRSC, has had participants since January 2014 and has had a total of 50 individuals successfully complete the program.” (More information about TRSC can be found here.)
As impressive as that sounds, people like Randy Nitz usually — in the beginning, at least — view it as one last shot at staying out of a jail or prison cell, a kind of Hail Mary pass.
Nitz needed such a “Hail Mary” after getting busted for drunken driving in the village of Sebewaing in 2014. It was his third drunken driving offense, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000.
He had just started a new job. Hunting season had just begun. As Nitz puts it, “life was good.”
That is, until he decided to celebrate just how good life was by getting drunk, behind the wheel of a vehicle, and subsequently arrested.
His plea agreement included participation in TRSC.
“I was scared I was going to prison,” Nitz said. “I was using (TRSC) as a lifeline to keep me here, to help my family.”
Accepted participants in TRSC must complete intensive court supervision combined with individual/group treatment, alcohol/drug testing, and 12-step meeting attendance.
“There’s no way you could possibly take a drink or use drugs without them finding out about it,” Nitz said.
One component is the so-called “90 in 90” — mandatory attendance of 90 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in 90 days. Period.
“It was hard,” Nitz said. “It was really the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s because on top of the intensive program requirements, participants usually face other challenges.
Randy Nitz lost his license for a period before getting a restricted version (he’s still working toward full driving privileges).
For Nitz, that meant relying on others to get rides to AA meetings in places such as Pigeon, Unionville, and Caro.
He stuck with it.
Though he can’t say there was a singularly defining moment, at some point Nitz had a certain kind of epiphany — he began to see the kind of genuine support available to him; he realized he didn’t have to face his demons alone.
TRSC became more than a “lifeline” to stay out of prison.
“Everyone — especially the counselors — does a really good job of making you feel good about yourself,” Nitz said. “And you really get to know all of the people involved.”
Nitz started feeling better. He had more energy to do the things he enjoyed, such as fishing, hunting, and gardening. The hangovers were gone. He wasn’t so angry, or ornery.
“You stay up late drinking all night, the next morning you’re hung over, don’t feel good, and take it out on the people around you. I didn’t realize that until I went to counseling and started talking about it.”
He paid it forward by taking others to their meetings, just as people had helped him.
He fed off the positive reaction from others who were struggling and said they “wanted what I have and that made me feel good because she saw something that I worked hard for.”
His views on AA changed.
“I went to AA before, but I was younger,” Nitz said. “I was just kind of going to get through probation. I really didn’t get into it.
“This time I was more serious about it.”
Retired Judge Patrick Bowler, who served for a Grand Rapids district court, spoke at TRSC’s most recent graduation ceremony (there are two a year).
As one of Michigan’s pioneers in the use of drug treatment and sobriety court programs for felons and misdemeanants, Bowler told The Advertiser programs like TRSC can be more effective than simply locking someone up.
“It’s been pretty well established that these are effective interventions with people who obviously have underlying problems with alcohol and drugs,” Bowler said.
Bowler said the impetus for starting the programs he did were dockets that always seemed to be full of alcohol- and drug-related cases.
“It’s quite obvious our dockets are literally run by the use of alcohol and drugs,” Bowler said.
As recently as Friday, Bowler was sitting as a visiting judge in one of the Kent County courts and said “every case was either a drug problem, or drug offense, or operating under the influence of alcohol.”
“If we could do something effectively with the underlying problem of alcohol or drugs, and hopefully get people to understand and change their behaviors as far as use of alcohol or drugs, then we would be better to control our criminal dockets, but our community life,” Bowler said.
Bowler said the kind of results realized by individuals like Nitz are those of which the program aims.
“I look totally different at drinking now, from all aspects,” Nitz said.
It’s a good thing, too, because it just might be saving his — or someone else’s — life.
Zachary “Thunder” Nitz was born Aug. 5, 1994 and grew up in Sebewaing, where he was well-known and loved by many.
Baptized and confirmed at New Salem Lutheran Church, he attended New Salem Lutheran School through eighth grade. He graduated from Unionville-Sebewaing Area High School in 2012.
Randy Nitz recalls with a great amount of pride how his son put himself through college, earning a two-year degree from Baker College in Owosso — all while living at home with his parents.
Zachary Nitz worked hard as a diesel mechanic at Countryside Transportation Service in Sebewaing. He played hard, too, enjoying activities like fishing, hunting, and driving four-wheelers.
As of press time, his Facebook page was still up and the cover photo at the top simply said “You only live once, but if you do it right once is enough.”
His most recent post — from Jan. 22 — was of a motocross race.
One day after the post, on Jan. 23, Zach Nitz was hanging out with friends — another of his favorite activities — at the Hooter’s in Bay City, according to Randy Nitz.
It’s unclear why, but around 11 p.m. he was driving eastbound on Bay City-Forestville Road near Ashmore Road in Columbia Township when his 2011 Chevrolet Silverado drove off the road and smashed a large tree.
Nitz was the lone occupant and ejected from the truck during the crash. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Initially, police said “fog, wet road surface, speed, and alcohol were all contributing factors to the accident.”
According to information provided by the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Department this week, Zach Nitz had a blood-alcohol content of .18.
To put it in perspective, those arrested for drunken driving in Michigan with a blood-alcohol content of .17 or more could face “enhanced penalties” per the state’s “Super Drunk Law.”
Randy Nitz maintains he didn’t think his son was a big drinker. However, as Zach Nitz was finding his way in the world as a young man, Randy Nitz said he and his son were more often like two ships passing in the night, especially since they worked opposite shifts at their respective jobs.
That’s why Randy Nitz was fast asleep when he was awakened at about 3 a.m. on Jan. 24 to a houseful of police officers informing him and his wife that their son had died a few hours earlier.
It was the culminating moment of a particularly chaotic few days for Nitz and his wife, Christine. An extended family member had died Jan. 22. And one of Randy Nitz’s co-workers died at work after suffering a heart attack on Jan. 23.
Randy Nitz said he even commented to his wife in the early evening hours of Jan. 23 about how deaths always seem to come in threes, wondering if it were true, and who might be next.
He said it was a comment made in jest, and never in a million years thought it would be their son.
“When the police told us she was mad and said to me ‘You and your damn threes!’” Randy Nitz said.
Lost and found
In recounting this story — his own struggles with addiction, the death of his son — Zach Nitz’s funeral is the part where tears surface in the eyes of Randy Nitz as he’s overcome with emotion, and barely able to get the words out.
“Zach was a great kid,” his father said. “I didn’t realize how much he was loved…until his funeral and all his friends…and the outpouring of support…people coming to the funeral home.”
Clearly, Randy Nitz hurts.
He recognizes alcohol is “just waiting there in the dark” and “it wants me to reach out for that bottle.”
But he says he isn’t about to give in and throw away his work nor let down those who have supported him in the last two years.
“I’m not going to let this tragedy put me back in a place that I don’t want to go back to,” Nitz said. “I want my boy to remember me as being sober. I don’t want to dishonor him by drinking.”
That’s why when Nitz recognized he “had to talk to somebody” after the death of his son, he attended as many AA meetings as possible, and reached out to his former counselors.
And on Feb. 3 — about one year to the day after his own graduation — Nitz volunteered to share his story with the graduates of this year’s TRSC class.
“I had to reach out to the sobriety court,” Nitz said. “I thought it was something I could do…say to these people ‘you know, you don’t have to drink if there is a tragedy or death. Whatever it is, you don’t have to drink over it.’”
Gierhart said “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the courtroom.”
And what if he hadn’t taken part in TRSC or become aware of available support in the area?
“I would’ve been a mess…I would’ve been a mess,” Nitz said. “I don’t think I would be here to help my wife…I don’t know. I don’t even want to think of it.”
By sharing his story, Randy Nitz said he hopes others won’t get a visit from police in the middle of the night like he did.
“They always say the worst thing that can happen is a police officer showing up at your doorstep and saying your child didn’t make it,” Nitz said. “I never really knew how hard it was until it really happened, and they were standing here telling me.”
“I didn’t want to believe. I just wanted them to go away. Don’t tell me this,” said Nitz, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“But they told me. It’s real.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]