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.