pint of vodka

Yesterday at the men’s sober living program where I am a case manager, I witnessed the implosion of one of our residents.  To me, he was always the most intriguing and one who I knew the least.  He wasn’t on my caseload but I had read his file and learned about his ongoing struggles.  He is very tall, very handsome, very articulate, is (was) a lawyer.  He is also an alcoholic, one of the few in the program who isn’t a heroin addict.  When I would do rounds, part of the job to essentially make sure none of they guys has overdosed in their beds, I noticed that he was reading Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” a book that has been on my list for years.

The men in the program are required to find a job after 45 days of their admittance and he had taken a job at a Jiffy Lube, a far cry from practicing law.  Most of the men are just happy to actually FIND a job and are humbled, not necessarily bitter about their new reality.  On days off, they can do whatever they want–go to the beach, movies, whatever, as long as they’re back in the house at a certain time.  There are random urine checks and the knowledge that our eagle-eyed staff, all in recovery except for me, can pick out a relapse from a mile away.

Yesterday, at around 4 in the afternoon, this resident was a bit wobbly going up the stairs to the house.  He apparently reeked of alcohol and was immediately given a breathalyzer.  His levels were off the charts.  He LOOKED so different, his face sort of doughy, his eyes red.  He came into the office that I share with my two coworkers and sunk to his knees.  We gave him the obvious space he needed to process how his life had just changed dramatically, knowing that he would be discharged from the program immediately.  For the other guys in the house, seeing someone in that state could be a real trigger.

With his head in his hands he repeatedly shook his head, and asked to none of us in particular, “Why do I keep doing this?  What am I going to do NOW?” He had begun to sob.  It was excruciating and tragic for me to watch. His case manager, clean for 15 years from a raging heroin addiction, just let him ask the questions.  He suggested that he immediately go to a detox, which had become a never-ending cycle for him.  The resident chose not to do that, asked for his savings that all residents are required to pay, and said that it was inevitable that he would buy more vodka, and check into a downtown hostel for the night.  He’d make the bigger decisions the next day.  His case manager tried to talk him out of that, but there’s nothing we can do.  He couldn’t stay and as painful as it was for him, my coworker handed over his money.

After he was allowed to take a shower he came back down to the office and asked for another chance, fully knowing that that couldn’t happen.  He shook my hand last, a strong powerful shake, and said “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”

I pray that he has made it through the night.  I pray that his helplessness hasn’t lead to something even more tragic.  I pray that he can eventually end this cycle of pain and walk past a liquor store like it was just another Subway or dry cleaners. This will not be the last time I witness this.  I know that the odds of most of these guys making it through this six month program are pretty low.  I look at my caseload and try to guess who will be next, who might be seen by another guy in a heroin haze.  I hope that I will never become inured to the horrors of addiction, that I will always pray for each and every one to stay clean who will never have to ask again, “WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS?”



  1. As an intelligent person in recovery, I can imagine that your client felt it was such a small step down from working in Jiffy Lube and lving in a house full of addicts to drinking vodka all day and staying in a hostel… When he has a past filled with success as a lawyer and probably enjoying the “high life”… His colleagues from his past life are probably drinking “with impunity” (as are many of the paid staff in recovery programs) while he is sweating in the heat changing the oil in their luxury vehicles. Recovery preaches “humility” but often offers only “humiliation.” I pray for all of us that we can each find a way out of the pain. Thanks for the post.

  2. Apple Bay Design

    This is wonderful, Gayle. Great story and beautifully told.

    How is Amelia doing at camp? I’ve lost track of time…is it about time for her to be coming home already?

    I spent all of last week in the hospital….an intestinal blockage that came out of nowhere. I feel pretty lucky, though, as it resolved itself with the help of treatment. Otherwise, I would have had to have surgery.

    The summer is flying by, Yikes.

    I miss you. Love to all,



  3. Your question is the question that haunts all of us who do this work. That unanswerable question is the one that keeps us working to help people improve their lives. It’s so hard not to be attached to outcomes, heresy maybe to some policymakers, but the only thing that is true in this work. “You never know” is the only answer that I give myself. “You never know” who just might overcome incredible odds because of the caring and support people like you give. “You never know” what will ring true to this man as he dives into his addiction–some word, some gesture, one of those smiles you are famous for or maybe the fact that as bad as things get with your clients you don’t give up: that’s a gift of hope.

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