Joanna Tebbs Young
CIRCLES OF COMMUNITY
This is the fourth in a series of everyday stories about everyday people in our community.
Gregory Higgins began drinking at age four. Watching his father’s face as he settled in front of the television after work in their Long Island home, seeing the glow rise in his father’s cheeks as his first, second and third whiskey sour went down, little Gregory was convinced that the yellow drink was magic. It made his father, a World War II vet and emotionally silent man, happy.
And Gregory too wanted so much to be happy. The fifth of six children, and with a mother who was always busy, Gregory would play with his best friend, a girl who lived next door named Adrian. One day while his older siblings were at school, the two children, barely out of toddlerhood, were giggling in Gregory’s living room. Suddenly Adrian kissed him. “It was the greatest feeling I have ever felt,” Gregory recalls. “I wanted to feel this way all the time.”
But then, Adrian moved away. “A piece of me left with her,” he says.
One evening, soon after Adrian left, while the family was watching the Ed Sullivan show, Gregory asked his father for a sip of his drink. His father obliged. “I still remember the taste,” says Gregory. “It was sweet, it warmed me up inside my stomach all the way to the top of my head. I wanted to feel that way all the time.”
The next week, Gregory disappeared into the kitchen while the family once again watched television in the living room. Pushing a chair to the counter, he gathered the whiskey, the orange juice, and the other ingredients to make himself a “happy drink.” Glass in hand, he sat next to his father, sipping his own whiskey sour and watching Ed Sullivan, thinking his parents would never know.
When Gregory was nine, he began religious education classes. One day a week, the Catholic kids in the class were pulled out and taken to the local church for instruction. On the first day, while the kids were left unsupervised for a while, Gregory and a female classmate got to giggling in the closet.
Suddenly the door was swung open and the teacher, a livid-faced nun, dragged Gregory out by the ear. That day he experienced the first of many beatings. From that day on, Gregory was used as an example to the class and was physically disciplined on a regular basis.
“She [the nun] told me life was about suffering,” Gregory says, “that I was going to hell, and that God is watching me all the time. I didn’t know I was evil until that time. I was just a little boy having fun.”
Gregory, who had always enjoyed the company of the girls in his class, no longer sat with them at lunchtime. And as he grew older, because he believed he was bad, he began to act accordingly, especially after the family moved to Queens, where, he says, the school was like a prison. By age eleven, he was the “tough kid” in the neighborhood, getting into fights. But, although he “had so much anger,” Gregory explains, he thought of himself as a superhero. “I’d stick up for the younger kids.”
At age 13, after experiencing a heartache over a girl named Nancy, Gregory went home and drank a pint of gin. Coming home to find him incredibly sick, Gregory’s father just laughed at him. The experience turned him temporarily away from alcohol. While he stuck to his promise of no drinking for three years, soon, not finding “comfort from anywhere else,” he turned to drugs instead. Becoming a dealer and throwing big parties in high school, he had instant friends.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Gregory is a dedicated employee as a salesman for a number of lumber yards around New York City. “As long as I showed up, [I told myself] I was all right. That was my belief.” But he was doing heroin by this time, and he wasn’t doing all right. At age 30, after two previous stints in rehab — for which he used his vacation time so as not to break his run of many years without taking one sick day — he realized it wasn’t going to get any better.
“I was in severe emotional pain, but I realized I couldn’t die. But I couldn’t live either. I couldn’t live with the pain anymore.”
Gregory went back to a rehab center in Manhattan and committed himself to sobriety. He went to meetings, saw a therapist, and got involved in his new community of fellow recovering addicts. And it was at a celebration of his first year sober that he discovered he could make people laugh. It was a feeling that made him happy.
Around the same time, Gregory’s therapist asked him what new job he might like to do. Like so many kids of his generation, Gregory was, as he put it, “raised by the TV.” So, enamored by James Bond, he told his therapist he wanted to be Bond. “He’s not real, he’s an actor,” the therapist replied.
“Then I want to be an actor!” Gregory quipped.
And so he did. He began auditing classes at H.B. Studios in the West Village of NYC, then started singing lessons, and soon he was auditioning and taking roles in multiple shows, including the lead in some. Eventually, he didn’t even have to audition, he was asked to play various parts.
By 1998, he was married and making good money as a partner at a lumberyard. His acting went by the wayside, but he was still sober.
Ten years later, the recession hit and business crashed. Having also gone through a divorce, it was a tough time for Gregory, as he struggled to keep the business going, but through it all he stayed sober. In 2014, Gregory moved to Mount Holly to the home to which his parents had retired in 1980. Once here, and looking after his mother, Gregory realized something: “I need to act.”
With his first role in the area as Fagin in “Oliver” with River Theatre in Charlestown, NH, he has since performed multiple times with Gary Meitrott’s Shakespeare on Main Street, and once with Actors’ Repertory Theatre in a play called “Fools.” (As an audience member of this latter one, I can tell you, Gregory’s good! He made me laugh until I was crying.)
Throwing himself completely into the process of learning his lines until they “become part of me,” once on stage, he says, “I do my job to provide the audience with the best performance I am capable of. I watch and listen to every moment closely and react to it. I focus on my objective.
“I act because I need to. It’s what I am supposed to be doing.”
And recalling his experience back in New York when he made his fellow group members laugh, Gregory is now hoping to take a stab at stand-up comedy.
Today, Gregory is 27 years sober. “I don’t have a life without [my sobriety], he says. “The more I put into it, the more I get back.”