When I began my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male residential program, the group of men were a pretty hardened bunch. Their flesh peaked out from under tattooed murals on their arms, legs, chests and backs. They were pumped up with six-pack abs and chiseled muscled arms that they teasingly showed off every once in a while, to each other and to staff.
The program is a revolving door of 30-men, some who make it through the 6-months and some who relapse within a week. When I started here there were mini-reunions of friends who had shared needles on the streets and alleys, guys who had served time together, others who had detoxed and been in endless other amounts of programs together. These are their trenches, drugs their landmines.
I love it when a guy comes through the door to discover old friends sitting in the kitchen or watching tv in the living room. They greet each other in the way that men do, those quick hugs with double fist thumps on the back. They begin to unravel their recent set-backs, catch up on mutual friends, and launch into the “did you hear about so-and-so? He overdosed last week.” Woven into these catch-ups are the “Fuck, I’m so pumped to see you, dude.”
My first few weeks in the house these seasoned bunch of guys were a bit skeptical of my presence. They tested me in group, stopped talking when I was around and when I had to take three of their passes away for a particular incident, they ignored me for weeks. Some other guys, the newer and still somewhat innocent ones told me that they were talking about me to the other guys. Of those three, one is now dead and the other two have both relapsed and detoxed 5 times between them.
They have become numb to the frequent deaths of their friends and acquaintances. Most of the time they learn about these deaths on Facebook, seeing in their feeds “RIP” with a familiar face and name. They’ve told me endlessly that Facebook is their obituary. They have also told me that they can tell when a friend is high by the times they are posting. “What the fuck was he doing posting random shit at 3 in the morning?”
There are certain deaths that hit them harder than others. You can tell by the length of their pauses, the moment of processing. I attended my first funeral with a bunch of these core guys, the warriors on the front lines. This one was a really hard death for them. They hovered in the background vaping and smoking until the priest started speaking the generic, scripted words in front of him. The guys inched forward, taking it all in, watching his mother and father weeping. After this very brief, insultingly brief in my opinion, they shuffled back to the cars that they came in as they contemplated the dwindling of the friends that made up their shared history.
The stream of new guys coming into the house are often novices at this life. They are younger and needier and look to me and to my other female co-worker as mother figures. They aren’t tattooed or pumped up. Their egos are more easily bruised when a girl isn’t interested in them. Their focus tends to be spent on everything but their recovery.
One of the toughest of the original group lives in a sober house around the corner. He comes around almost every day and the new guys follow him around, like the Pied Piper as he shows them how to get to certain places around the city. He tells it like it is to them, never mincing words about how real the certainty of death is if they go out and inject the new poisonous strain of heroin. They hang on his every word.
The numbers of the naive will continue to grow, while the tougher die off, one by one. These newer guys may or not form a new core group, going through programs and jail together, maybe relapsing together. Maybe they’ll get the joys of sobriety sooner, find the girls who won’t break their hearts and start living a “normal” life. It’s a stretch but I’d love to believe that it’s possible for them and for those hardened ones who remain standing.