Monthly Archives: March 2016

“Hi, I’m Gayle”: Two Hours in a Church Basement

churchbasement

Last week I attended my first AA meeting.  I was told by the men in my halfway house who go to this particular meeting regularly to get there early if I wanted a seat.  They all knew that I was attending to hear “Bryce,” the very first client on my caseload as a substance abuse counselor, who would be sharing his story in celebration of his one year clean from alcohol and drugs.

The guys were so excited that I’d  be there, as if I had RSVP’d ‘yes’ to their version of a party.  They were also very moved by my wanting to be there to hear Bryce, a favorite graduate among staff and the other residents.  I told them not to tell him because I wanted it to be surprise, and when I got there early positioned myself right in front of where he would be speaking so I’d be within his direct line of vision, beaming with pride, kind of like watching your child in the lead of an elementary school play.

I watched as people walked down the stairs into the drab and vast basement in the bowels of a beautiful church.  I didn’t like that it was so unwelcoming but as people started spotting their friends, hugging each other as if they were family, it became the most welcoming place in the world.

There were at least 70 metal chairs set in a wide circle of three rows.  When my guys rolled in in small batches and spotted me, they surrounded me, their queen bee.  The ones who came in a bit later stood around in groups, some who had never even met Bryce but who were there to represent the house.  It moved me beyond words to see at least six who were on my current caseload, one who had just gotten to the house that day.  Five former clients, all with clean time of their own, sat on the periphery and my heart swelled a little bit at the people they had become in their sobriety.

When Bryce saw me he smiled a wide smile and came over to give me a hug.  He told those around him who I was and the role I had played in his recent life.  As he began to share, rather nervously, he’d look at me every once in a while for my silent encouragement.  I know his story of struggle and I wanted to mouth some of the critical things he had forgotten but he held his own hitting some major highlights of his trajectory into heroin abuse.

When he finished people who knew him from the meeting paid tribute to him with beautiful words.  One burly man, clearly a regular at this meeting commented on how on the surface of things he and Bryce had nothing in common (Bryce has pink and blue hair and random piercings) but after hearing his story, they had everything in common.

I knew all day that I would speak and when I raised my hand and said, “Hi I’m Gayle,” a chorus of men and women joyfully said, “Hi Gayle,” as I know is customary in all AA and NA meetings.  I said that I wasn’t in recovery and glanced around the room to make sure they weren’t hissing and pointing at me, silently banishing me to get the hell out of their sacred place.  I went on to say, “Bryce was my very first client as a substance abuse counselor,” and continued on in praise and pride.  When other guys in the house said beautiful words to him, I was reminded, yet again, of the bonds that will never be broken between them.

I had to leave the meeting a bit early and as I quietly gathered my things and walked towards the door Bryce yelled out, in front of a crowd that had swelled to ninety or so, “I love you Gayle!”  “I love you too honey,” I said back, knowing that this was an uncustomary occurrence, loving every second of it.

The next day at work the guys asked me what I thought of the meeting.  I told them how moved I was to have been there.  One of them came up to me and said how it proved to all of the thirty guys in the house how dedicated I am to all of them and how they all were talking about it after the meeting and back in the house.  I told him that his words, when he shared his own tribute to Bryce were magnificent and meaningful.  I answered that most of all I am honored to be welcomed into their fold every single day and at how they allow me these glimpses into their own unique world and unbreakable bonds.

 

 

 

 

 

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Recognizing My Talents: How I Discovered What I Was Meant to Do

therapysession

When I began a new career as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male residential program, I had no idea what I was walking into (other than a really cool turn-of-the century former Governor’s mansion.)  I had absolutely zero experience but had clearly dazzled my now boss into taking a leap of faith when offering me the job.

For 20 years I was a pretty high-level non-profit fundraiser.  I worked as a sort of “matchmaker” between the very rich and the very poor.  The populations I raised money for consisted of homeless women and their children, children who nobody wanted and young people from the poorest cities in the state.   My passion for these people translated into substantial gifts from local philanthropists, but in the end, I became much more interested in the disenfranchised than in actually raising money.

While between jobs I networked my way into an opportunity to volunteer with incarcerated women in the local House of Corrections.  I threw together a creative writing curriculum and after observing just one group, found myself standing in front of 25 or so women in prison jumpsuits.  I fumbled my way through my first week and then for the next  2 ½ years, having gained enough confidence to make these women laugh, and often cry, I knew that there was no turning back in what eventually led me to where I am today.

The large majority of these women were in for drug-related crimes.  They were mostly addicts who would do absolutely whatever it took to support their raging drug habits. They dealt drugs, sold their bodies and stole from wherever there was money.  They never once denied their intense shame and the endless amount of pain they had caused others in the process.

I had addicts and alcoholics in my orbit.  My best friend had developed a fierce crystal meth habit that scrambled his brain, never to be repaired.

I successfully parlayed all of this into a pretty impressive resume and 9 months ago began what has become the most meaningful and unexpected journey into a world that many would be afraid to dip their toe into.

Most of the men I counsel are heroin addicts having run through the very common trajectory of childhood trauma to an addiction to opiates in the form of pills, and onto the cheaper and easier to find heroin.  Most tell me that never in a million years would they be sticking needles in their arms, sleeping on the streets, stealing from their parents and grandparents not only money but precious jewelry to pawn, breaking into houses and robbing people at gunpoint to get the money for their next fix.  When they talk about it they are disgusted and even though they say they never wanted or want to be that person again, they know that there is the looming risk (unfortunately often an inevitability) that they will be.

What I see every day is an intense loyalty that these men have towards each other.  Phone numbers get entered into smartphones right away, and even the most disparate of men will call each other if they sense that something is wrong.  Guys with barely anything will whip out a ten dollar bill when another resident is desperate for a pack of cigarettes.  If a guy who has come from a homeless shelter or jail comes in with nothing, a resident with a job will take them shopping.  They get it.  They’ve been there.

They cycle in and out of the 6-month program, sadly, much more due to relapse than to completion.  I have been with these men who make me laugh until I cry who are dead less than 24-hours later.  Unfortunately the surviving men have become inured to these deaths, having experience countless numbers of them, and after they get quiet for a few seconds, they quickly move on.  This is their lives.

I’m the only staff member who isn’t in recovery.  The only thing I’m even close to being “addicted” to is coffee.  They don’t judge me for this and never once has one of my clients doubted that I can help them.  They adore my quirkiness and my loyalty to them.  They sense my compassion and lack of judgement.   Even without training I have seen their vulnerability as they break into tears with me in front of them, peeling away at layers they’ve never known were there.

There is more laughter than tears but every day when I pull up to the house I brace myself for something horrible, a relapse or a death.  It’s the one occupational hazard of this career but as long as I keep on learning from these incredible men, I’m in it for the long haul.