Category Archives: alcoholism

“Here Son, Try This.”

cocaine

Part of my job as a case manager in a residential program for recovering addicts is conducting an intake within hours of them walking through the front door.  I always apologize for the litany of questions I’m required to go through because I know, as they’ve been shuffled from detox to other residential programs, they’ve been asked the same hundred or so questions upwards of ten, twenty times before.

The first page or two of the intake form consists of fairly standard demographic questions from “What ethnicity are you?,” to “What is your primary language?” to  “Do you have any sources of income?”  Without much of the equivalent of a “transitional” sentence, the questions abruptly move onto a checklist of substance of choice, everything from pot to alcohol, to opiates to crack to “club drugs.”  I record if they’ve ever tried a particular substance on the list, their age at first use, and the frequency of use.   I’ve become so used to hearing that these men have often begun their road to a serious opiate addiction at around the age of 14 or 15, that when they tell me that they first injected heroin at 19 I’m surprised at how late that seems.

Oftentimes the men will be eager to share their back story, the origins of their drug dependence.  Many are somewhat “standard—“ a prescription for pain meds due to a legitimate injury that snowballs into heroin addiction, raiding their parent’s liquor cabinet, flipping a dormant switch into full-on alcohol abuse.  Other stories go something like this:

“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.”

The first time I heard something equally as appalling was as a volunteer at a local women’s correctional facility.  A woman, clearly beaten down and defeated shared with the class I lead that her mother injected her with heroin when she was 10-years old.  At that time, my daughter was ten.  I felt heartsick for this woman and intense rage against her mother.

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.

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.

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“WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS?”

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?”