Last week one of the residents of the all-male sober residence where I work came into the main office, shut the door behind him and began to weep. Still a few years from thirty, he grew up in one of the toughest, whitest projects in Boston, using drugs and committing crimes since the age of 14, so, seeing him in this vulnerable moment was a bit jarring.
At moments like these my coworkers and I are generally waiting for a confession of relapse. Instead, he told us that he had just found out that his father, diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, had three weeks to live.
This resident was not used to having these sorts of feelings. His impulse, and the impulse of almost all of the men in the residence, was to inject, drink, snort, smoke and swallow their feelings away. That lure is always there, everywhere. The immediate goal for their lives, is to resist that desire to be numb. They have to learn what it’s like to “sit with their feelings.”
The first thing we made sure was that he wouldn’t use.
“I can’t do that to my father. He has watched me my whole life as an addict. Out of respect for him, I won’t.”
His vulnerability was so innocent, so childlike in a way. He is well-loved in the house but doesn’t want the other guys to know what’s going on. I’ve urged him to talk to a select few, but he hasn’t. We as staff, though, continue to check-in on him, see how he’s doing and know that the worst is yet to come.
The past few weeks have been heartbreaking at the house. One of the young men I got very close to, relapsed a day after graduating the program, after 180 days clean. Another, only weeks from graduating was found with a needle in his arm, fresh blood drops on the floor of the bathroom, so fucked up he couldn’t stand up straight. And then, the worst of them all, one of the guys on my caseload who got discharged for using less than a month ago, was found dead at his girlfriend’s house.
Coming into work the day after this young man’s death I talked to a lot of the guys to see how they were processing the information. Each one, many who had known him and liked him, said that they had gotten so used to this, yeah, it sucks, but it’s the nature of the beast. One went through the contacts on his phone and ticked off at least 15 names of people he knew who had overdosed in the last six months. Many said that their Facebook feeds has become their version of an obituary, being their source of information like this. The overarching theme was “Better him than me.”
Death shouldn’t be the norm for twenty and 30 year-olds. People in their seventies and eighties are the ones who should be scanning obituaries, sighing and feeling a pang of sadness when they learn that someone they know has died.
I knew this job would be tough, but I couldn’t have possibly imagined how tough. Death and relapse will be a part of my life. I look at the thirty names of the guys left in the house and wonder how many will make it the 180 days. I fear for them, for those who can’t resist the numb, the ones who need to escape the pain of feelings, feelings that most of us know how to process, sober, or with one glass of wine, with people who will listen and help to take that pain away.