“While we are here, you are a mother to all of us. Thanks for the love and care.”
The above words were written on a Mother’s Day card, signed by the 30 residents of the all-male halfway house for men in recovery where I work as a substance abuse counselor and propped against a vase of tulips on my desk. It has since become a permanent fixture on the bulletin board directly in my line of sight so I can be reminded, every day, of why I do what I do.
I am not in recovery myself, but after years of watching my best friend struggle with a crystal meth addiction and a few years of working with inmates who were either dealers, addicts or some combination of the two, I found myself in a field that I know I was always meant to be. It has become part of my identity.
The halfway house is an incredibly welcoming place. When the guys come home from work they come into the office and sit and chat about their day and ask about mine. On the weekend days when I’ve worked, they pad into the office, still in pajamas, mugs of coffee in their hands while one of them will cook eggs to order for me in the kitchen.
The majority of the men I counsel have been surrounded and immersed in a nuclear and extended family of addicts. There have been their fathers who have murdered their mothers, drunk driving deaths and life sentences for one thing or another. 90% of the time their siblings and parents are all addicts, some with long-term sobriety under their belts, others enduring the same agonizing cycle of detox and relapse.
This is just one example of a story of the type I hear day after day after day:
“In 10th grade, I was having a hard time staying awake studying for a history test. My father came in, saw that I was struggling, left the room for a minute, and came back with a few lines of coke on a mirror and said, “Here son, try this.” He showed me what to do, and the rest is history.”
How can those of us who have not experienced something like the above expect that a person can go on and lead a “normal” life? When I see or hear people who deride and judge those struggling with the enormous monster of addiction, I often feel the need to remind them that no one says, “I want to be a drug addict when I grow up.” I am surrounded and reminded every day of the anguish and helplessness it creates. It doesn’t come from nowhere.
When I hear labels being flung around by people who have no idea of the shame addicts feel over what they’ve done to the people who have loved and supported them the most, from the jewelry they’ve stolen from grandparents, mothers, friends in order to support their raging habit, when they call substance abusers “junkies” or “crack heads,” I don’t keep quiet. Oftentimes my attempt at educating falls on deaf ears, but other times, I can see that slight pause and attempt to understand what I have said. My friends have thanked me for educating them on the insider’s look I feel privileged to have.
When I hear people say that it’s a “choice,” I push back and ask if they really think that the superstar high school athlete who tears a muscle somewhere and is prescribed a painkiller “chooses” to become addicted to them? I try to explain that there is some sort of switch that gets activated in some of us, but not in others. If those people could only sit with “my guys” and hear their stories, each one different in their own right, cutting across all socioeconomic statuses, maybe they would judge a little less. These guys make me laugh every single day. Some are the smartest people I have ever met.
The past few months 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.
The guys 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 version of the obituaries. Death shouldn’t be the norm for 20 and 30 year-olds. People in their 70s and 80s 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 fear for those who can’t resist the 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. And, if I can be the person who takes what I have learned from being privileged enough to have men like these welcome me into their fold, and educate those who are confused, who judge, who ignore, I really couldn’t ask for much more.