Category Archives: Addiction

“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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Don’t Dream It, Be It: Imposing My Own Dreams on Substance Abusers

 

dreamit

“I’m a substance abuse counselor.”

When I heard those words come out of my mouth when someone recently asked what I did for work, I said it assertively, as if I had been one for my entire career,  simultaneously thinking to myself, “Oh my God, I’m a SUBSTANCE ABUSE COUNSELOR.”  Those words had become my end-point, I was living my dream.

It wasn’t until about five years ago that this career was even on my radar.  For 20+ years I was a non-profit fundraiser, spending the majority of my time asking rich people for money.  I burned out, got lazy, and found that I really hated the lack of authenticity when I was in front of the wealthy, having to make small talk that had such transparency that they were just waiting for the ask.

When I found myself between jobs I fell into an opportunity to volunteer with newly incarcerated women.  Every Friday for two years I went “behind the wall”  and lead a group on goal-setting, instilling as much hope for women who had none.  About 80% of those women, and later, in a part-time job where I also worked with men newly released from prisons all over the country, were drug addicts or in prison for drug related crimes.  In addition, my best friend at the time was struggling with a 3-year crystal meth addiction, a drug so insidious that he became a completely different person.  It was in my orbit everywhere I looked and it was then that I knew that what I wanted to be was a substance abuse counselor.

I am not an addict but that didn’t stop my wonderful new boss from taking a chance on me, seeing my passion and understanding of the challenges that this population faces every day.  I now have a caseload of 15 men in a sober living residence, a place I look forward to going every day. The cycle of their lives are almost always identical–overdose, detox, halfway house, relapse, overdose, and on and on.  In the process, they’ve lost sight of whatever dreams they’ve had.  They’ve become too clouded, murky, shrouded in despair.

One of the most compelling men on my caseload, a 27-year old rough-around-the-edges but completely soft on the inside, had wonderful and candid conversations with me on Friday afternoons when he’d come home from work, covered in dirt with a single hammer hanging from his tool belt.  He was wise and without delusion about where his life was and where it was going.  He had been through our program before, had achieved almost 2 years of clean time before he was sucked back into the vortex of abuse.  In theory he knew what he had to do to avoid the suck of addiction, how he had to stay away from his ex-girlfriend.  He had helped raise her daughter, now 6 who he absolutely adored.  After 42 days out of the 180 days it would have taken to complete our program, and a day after one of these conversations, he left to go back to her.   Right before he went into detox his probation officer let him call me.  “This was the conversation I was dreading the most,” he said to me.  I’m so sorry.”

During several conversations I told him what I wanted for him.  I wanted him to have a wife, some children, a family to come home to and eat dinner with.  A wife to cuddle up next to on the couch when their children were finally settled.  My dream is to secretly walk by a cute little house with a big tree that I can duck behind in the yard, look in a big picture window, and see him hoisting his child over his head, making faces, and having this be his dream realized.

“Gayle, What Have I Always Told You?”: Tough Love From a Heroin Addict

This past weekend I visited with two past residents of the all-male halfway house where I work.  Both of them had made it through the 6-month program in the past.  Both of them ended up relapsing.

They grew up in very rough and tumble neighborhoods in the Boston area and both were fiercely loyal to the city and their friends.  After both of them recently relapsed and detoxed in places they had been to before, the only open beds where they could start the process all over again was a two hour drive from their beloved city, way out in Western Mass.  Even though they would be a few miles apart they agreed to take the chance that being out there would get them out of their comfort zone and away from the distractions they faced every day.

One of them, “M,” has become like a son to me.  There was something there from the first time we met that silently conveyed “I will protect you,” and from him, “I’ll let you protect me.”

It was him who was the primary draw to take that long drive on a Sunday, but “D” was a wonderful added bonus.  I took them out for lunch in a mall where they were so happy to see a glimmer of civilization that they practically got down on their knees and kissed the ground.  They hadn’t seen each other in over a month so the love they had for each other oozed out of them.  Over lunch we laughed and laughed.  It was one of the best afternoons I have had in a long time.  That was a Sunday.  By Monday morning the news got out that “D” had overdosed and died, out there, in the middle of nowhere, where noone really knew how loved he was back home.

When I walked into the office and my co-worker said “D” died this morning,  I ran back out, sobbing, walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, the neighborhood where he grew up.  I covered my mouth and just sobbed and shook.  This visceral reaction was new to me.  I’ve always envied people who can cry instantly whereas I generally don’t cry, to this day never having sobbed at the loss of my mother almost 30  years ago.  He was in front of me, in a booth, in a mall restaurant, less than 48 hours before.

“D” was a permanent fixture, quite literally, in the house while he was there.  Weighing close to 400 pounds and on disability for other health reasons, he was always the first person the new guys would see on their first day.  He took care of them.  He made them laugh.  He made them feel welcome in his home.  He was enrolled in a culinary arts class and would come home, plop his backpack at my feet, and give me samples of what he had cooked that day, so proud of the results and what he was learning.

He observed how I got attached to the other 29 guys, how when they relapsed and were discharged from the program, I would mourn their absence in the house.

“Gayle, you can’t get too attached, ” is what he would say each time.  He knew this because his friends were dying left and right from overdoses.  He was trying to protect me from the pain.

He made it through the six months, had a wonderful graduation where the other guys in the house said beautiful and funny things about him.  He moved across the street to a sober living program that my agency oversees, and would come back every morning and cook breakfast for whoever was in the house.  When he stopped coming about a week later, it raised some suspicion in the guys who had known him for years.  One day I came in and one of the other guys told me that he had overdosed and his mother and brother were outside about to take him to yet another detox.

I ran outside and wrapped my arms as much of his body as I could fit into a hug.  He was absolutely smashed, eyes practically rolling in the back of his head.  I got very teary.

“Gayle, what have I always told you?”

As well-intentioned as it always was, it was futile advice.  I was with these guys every day.  One gets “attached.”  And I adored “D.”  Everyone did.  A service and funeral will be happening very soon.  There will be the guys who he has been through the struggle with for so many years, hugging each other.  Right now my biggest fear is that “M” will feel so helpless from being out there that he will flee his new program, come home, and stay home.  He’s gotten permission to come back for the service, but I will drag him, after he mourns with his friends, to the next bus back to Western Mass.  I will play that role as “protector” that he has invited me to be.

Band Of Brothers

bandofbrothers

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.