By Hank Center
I had just dropped off a client at her hotel and was taking a left turn to the interstate when I caught a glimpse of him, literally in the shadows. After nearly two years and almost unrecognizable, Willie re-entered my life. I turned the car around, stopped in front of him, and asked him if he was done yet and wanted help. He was dirty, his face shrunken, and his glazed eyes betrayed the overwhelming sadness that was his life. He didn’t say anything, but he did take my card when I offered it to him. It was a place to start and I hoped he would call me before he was no longer able to.
Twenty years ago, I was in active addiction and surviving (barely) in the South Bronx. My daily search for relief and comfort took me to some of the worst parts of New York; the people I interacted with also on the fringes. Their occupations included panhandling, running cons and scams, robbery, pimping, and prostitution. Life was hard enough for me, but it did not compare with how hard it was for them. Even in my darkest day, I recognized the value of every human life and wanted to help them, but my own circumstances disallowed any of that. I was teetering on homelessness at that point and could not help myself.
Early one morning, after a weeks-long binge, I was again in the projects trying to get another “one last” hit. I recognized one of the “girls” and she walked over to me, looked me up and down, and said, “honey, where are you from”? I told her I was from South Carolina. She looked me dead in the eyes and said “Go home. You don’t belong here in this mess. You got a real problem and the fix ain’t here”. Even in my desperate state, the irony was glaring.
It took another four years for me to get sober but when the stars aligned, I was aware of the miracle as it was happening. And from that moment, I have nurtured and protected my recovery and sought to help others. Most of the people I tried to help didn’t get sober and some of them died. I loved every one of them and the ones I couldn’t help I learned to give back to God, hoping that at the very least I had made their lives a little better for even a moment.
When I first met Willie, he was smiling and polite but his eyes told a story of pain and self-loathing, and that is what I identified with and the connection that formed the base of our friendship. He was also funny and shy and afraid. Every action, every decision, every known and unknown thing would cause him to panic, and every day he maneuvered through these fears just to function and survive. From his silence, I could always tell when he was struggling. And I always knew when he was in a really good place because he would laugh and smile and call me “Big Daddy” I learned a lot about my own fears from him and more about courage than probably anyone I’ve ever known.
Alcoholism (addiction) has been described as “cunning, baffling, and powerful” It is patient and deadly and will wait for the very moment where we are at our most vulnerable to hit us with the urge to quieten or enhance any event, celebration, or loss. I have heard described many times in meetings and with conversations with friends and fellows in recovery the moment of relapse and what led up to that moment. Very often it was an impulse: a moment that was not thought through. A “one won’t hurt” flash of thought that seemingly comes out of nowhere but in reality has been there all along, festering and waiting and watching; the kryptonite to our joy, well-being, and usefulness as human beings.
A few days later, Willie called and told me he had hung on to that card because he knew he was going to need it. He asked if he could come home. I questioned again if he was done and wanted help as I drove over to pick him up. He had lived with me on and off for several years and I was as comfortable bringing him to my home as I would be with any family member. What I was not prepared for was the horrific detox that comes with opiate withdrawal. I was also not prepared for the raw addiction that had progressed rapidly since I last saw him and then how it made me feel. I started thinking things like “heroin is lovely” and “one little bit won’t hurt a thing and no-one will ever know” and “it really wasn’t my drug of choice so it won’t hurt me” I had been here before and knew how that line of thinking usually ends. I called my sponsor and was immediately snapped back into reality. Relapse can happen just like that. Thank God I learned to “play the tape through” and use the tools in real life as I was taught.
Finding detox in South Carolina is a nightmare. There are only two facilities in the Lowcountry and one of them only admits from its county. Which left one. I gave him the number and he started calling. The next two weeks were dope sick, call detox, no beds, pandemic, not open, more dope sick, call detox again. I knew he was going out to buy dope. I also knew he did not want to. He wanted to be sober but could not get over that initial hurdle. I get it. I never could either. My calls to friends in the program were met with various antidotes and no real solution. One guy laughed and said he had never heard of opiate detox; he would just put them on the sofa for a few days. Wow.
Finally, he got some help in the form of a scholarship at a sober living community that I am familiar with and have a lot of respect for. But no detox. Willie had made all the calls, his own arrangements, and asked me to drive him there, about four hours away. I was delighted. He was willing to move far away from the drugs and face a horrific detox because he wanted to get sober. The very least I can do is drive him there.
A couple of days later, I got a call from a friend who was familiar with this situation telling me that Willie had walked out of rehab. Less than an hour later he called and asked me to pick him up. I declined as I did the cash request that came next. I was equally angry and heartbroken and told him he was on his own.
Addiction takes its turns, for sure. So does recovery. My sobriety is contingent on my fit spiritual condition and I must make decisions every day to support my recovery. My spiritual journey has not been easy or smooth. I have fought almost everything that was suggested I do until I was mentally harangued into submission because of insisting my way was better. I had to learn that it is not and learning to follow suggestions is part of my journey. I also had to learn, again the hard way, that I can’t get anyone else sober and some of them will die. What I can do is “fit myself to be of maximum service to God and the people about us”. I can be a good example of good recovery, stay sober, and be of service to others. And I can go about this with happiness and the knowledge that inner peace and all things good and joyful can only happen when my will is in alignment with God’s will. This I seek in my daily practice and sometimes, I am shown a miracle.
Willie called me last night. He landed in a half-way house in the city where I had dropped him off and has been sober for two weeks. “Don’t worry Big Daddy.” he told me “I’m doing good”.