It’s a spiritual experience when his skin is submerged in the icy water, but it also helps him raise money for his nonprofit, Chucky’s Fight, which funds drug treatment and other programs for people who can’t afford them.
I’d decided that on the first day of winter, I would join Chucky on his daily dip. This time of year — particularly in the pandemic — is especially hard for those struggling with addiction. I know, because I spent two decades addicted to drugs.
Dec. 21 is not only the first day of winter — it marks the 16-year anniversary of my first full day free, after I had served a two-month jail sentence on charges related to my meth addiction.
At 8:30 a.m., the air temperature was 28 degrees, the water 44. A dusting of snow from the previous evening’s squalls coated the surroundings. As I stared down the frosty waters, I thought about my sobriety. Chucky thought about his sons.
“They were bright kids who applied themselves,” he’d told me. “But they were a little too reckless, played a little too hard.”
He was referring to both their prowess as hockey players and their pursuits off the ice. Growing up, the rough-and-tumble brothers engaged in mock battles, flinging each other off sand dunes. Vincent in particular got in more than his share of scuffles in the hockey rink.
Eventually the brothers encountered opponents that would prove too formidable.
“I came home from work one day,” Chucky recalled. “Vincent was getting sick in the bathroom.”
The brothers — at the time in their early teens — admitted they’d been drinking and smoking marijuana.
“Back then, I was uneducated,” Chucky said. “I just started screaming at them.”
He yelled stern warnings about how booze and pot lead to harder drugs.
“Dad, are you crazy?” Domenic replied, assuring his father that neither he nor Vincent would ever dream of using hard drugs.
Chucky accepted his sons’ assurances. His dining table was often the setting for hockey team dinners. When his sons brought home high marks from school, Chucky was proud.
“But,” Chucky said, expressing regret, “I never told them I loved them. Kids need to hear that.”
After high school, Vincent went to college, while Domenic worked for a moving company. Their love of hard play followed them. They drifted into pills, and, in Domenic’s case, intravenous drug use.
Vincent was 20 when he died of an overdose in 2002.
At the time, Domenic lived in California. He’d been clean from drugs, and even helping to manage a sober living house.
Domenic returned to New England, and lapsed back into addiction. “I got the call about a year after Vincent passed away.” Domenic had died of an overdose, too.
Chucky’s own battles with alcohol had begun after high school.
These days, Chucky has to drive past the liquor store every day. “It’s my choice not to stop there,” he told me. He’s made this same choice for many years now.
Chucky scattered his sons’ ashes in the Atlantic on July 11, 2005 — Vincent’s birthday. Later that day, Chucky went for a dip, never planning for it to be a daily routine.
“But I kept going in every day,” said Chucky, who is also a boxer and martial artist.
As the waters closed over him, he prayed for the strength to make good choices. As July turned to August and eventually into the winter months, he found answers in the salty depths.
He started Chucky’s Fight in 2006. The money he raises — often from people who have lost loved ones to addiction — in part funds Chucky’s speaking appearances at schools, where he carries a strong message about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
The organization also provides scholarships for people to enroll in residential drug treatment programs and enables Chucky to mentor people who come to him from the criminal justice system. Parole officers refer individuals to Chucky for mentoring, so they learn how to serve their communities, rather than serve time.
Under Chucky’s mentorship, they help him prepare meals for the Community Table at Trinity Church in Seabrook, and he also leads people on beach cleanups.
“People will tell me that an afternoon of picking trash off the beach was the best day of their lives,” he said.
He said that sometimes all it takes is a few hours of love and attention to inspire people to keep making good choices.
His philosophy is he doesn’t turn his back on anyone. “But we don’t coddle people, either,” he said.
He requires scholarship recipients to complete a detox program before Chucky’s Fight pays for any of their residential treatment.
“We’ve had a lot of small miracles,” he said. “Some big miracles, too.”
He’s received letters from women whose kids were taken away by the courts, then returned after the mothers, with Chucky’s help, got clean.
People in recovery, like me, often join Chucky for a dip to celebrate sobriety milestones. I’m 13 years drug-free, and ready for the icy challenge.
I’d quit drugs because my alternatives had boiled down to a mere few: incarceration, long-term homelessness, death. But I stay clean to live a meaningful life. Thanks in large part to my family and people like Chucky, I’ve transformed from being a drain on society to being a community servant.
As I stared at the 44-degree water and wished the sun would emerge from the clouds, I shed my perfectly good, toasty warm flannel and hat. I glanced at Chucky, and he has persevered like the fighter he is, rarely missing a day of plunging into the punishingly cold water.
I took a deep breath, made my choice, and followed Chucky into the sea.
The water felt oddly inviting. It might’ve been adrenaline — yet I like to think the spirits of Domenic and Vincent were guiding me, too.
We took about three dozen strides into the medium tide, and Chucky counted down. On his signal, we dove into the drink.
We emerged, fists pumping, the sense of elation drowning the cold.
Chucky’s wife Mary, who helps run Chucky’s Fight, records Chucky’s dips and was there with her camera. She asked me what I wanted to say.
I dedicated my dip to those who struggle, their families and the possibilities for redemption.
Soon after, I waved goodbye to the coast and set my sights on a hot cup of coffee. As I drove away, I reflected on my gratitude for life, freedom of choices and the warmth that comes from family on a winter’s day.
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