Tag Archives: relapse

Resisting The Numb

heroin (1)

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.

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“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

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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.