Watching Thunderstorms With My Daughter

lightning

Many years ago after my divorce from my daughter’s father, she and I found ourselves living in a magnificent apartment with soaring ceilings in a fancy-pants complex with a pool, movie room and gym.  It was an incredibly special time for us as we were held in limbo until the next chapter.

At six years-old, she was still a bit fearful of the booms and flashes of sudden and sustained thunderstorms until one night, I had her lay next to me on her stomach as we stared out of the floor to ceiling window in our living room and watched a magnificent storm.  Watching and listening as I “oohed” and “aahed” and grinned my way through it she gradually lost her fear.

Ever since, she loves when a scroll at the bottom of the tv pops-up with severe thunderstorm warnings.  She has a weather app on her phone that alerts her as one gets closer. She’ll beg me to wake up to come watch as it rolls into view.

This past weekend while visiting my brother in Vermont strong thunder and lightning storms were pretty much guaranteed for the night we arrived.  After everyone else had gone to bed she and I sat in anticipation in my brother’s beautiful all-season enclosed porch, me in his perfectly placed armchair and she on a couch.  The lightning became fast and furious, like a monochromatic fireworks display.  We did that oohing and aahing thing in unison and giggled as we listened to ourselves.  While looking at the lightning I said it seemed as if the flashes and bolts were having an argument, a very dramatic call and response.  She complimented me on my interpretation and said I should write it down.

I suggested that we both write two paragraphs describing the shared experience from our own perspectives.  She enthusiastically accepted the challenge and has since forgotten about it.  I’m not up for the inevitable reaction of a 15-year old if I remind her and the excuses she’ll make.  It was a moment in time that I know neither of us will forget.  And even though this is more than two paragraphs, I have lived up to my end of the bargain, quite happily.

 

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FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH DISCOVERED ON THE HOOD OF JEWISH WOMAN’S CAR

tequilashots

 

From the Winsted Register Citizen

A 55-year old reporter from the Winsted Daily Tribune was found this morning in the fetal position in the corner of the old Arts & Crafts shack on the grounds of the former Camp Delaware in Winsted.  He was surrounded by a sandwich bag of gummy bears and brownie crumbs and a half-completed potholder still on that thing where you make potholders.  He was babbling about having stumbled on the scene of a couple of very attractive middle-aged women pouring shots of tequila through a funnel on the hood of a red Subaru. When they weren’t looking he snatched the leftovers that they were saving for later, ran into the shack and managed to jot down the headline you see above. Having landed such a  major story we will surely recruit him away from that daily rag once he gets out of rehab.

 

I don’t usually travel with a funnel.  As a matter fact I’ve only owned a funnel for about a month, purchased as a way to not waste the wine that I never manage to drink from my second glass.  As my friend Beth and I were getting ready for our bi-annual camp reunion we discovered that in order to effectively pour what has now become a tradition of  each of us doing one shot of tequila in the parking lot of camp, we needed to jerry-rig a way to pour it out of a travel mug and into shot glasses.

“Do you have a funnel?”

“As a matter of fact I DO!” and from there, we were off and running.

I’ve written endlessly about these reunions and the rush of happiness they bring to everyone who attends.  The ease and joy of being around people who we’ve known for over thirty years in a place that means so much to all of us is still hard to describe in a way that people who haven’t experienced it can fully understand.  It is what draws us back, every two years.

The atmosphere is loose and fluid as you float from one cluster of people to another.  There is no rushing around, no obligations to be anywhere other than just being together in a very short amount of time that goes way too quickly.  The weekend is a revolving door of people and the only regret is not being able to spend enough time with those who are so worthy of it.  As I said last year in a Facebook post, there is not one person there who is NOT worth knowing.

In these brief snippets of time the mood is light.  There is very little talk about the pressures of work and the demands of every day life.  Everywhere you look people have pipes or joints or those vape things in their mouths. In addition to the old-fashioned way of smoking pot there are “edibles” in gummy bears, brownies, lollipops and a bunch of other things as a cleaner delivery system.  They scare me.

We eat at the pizza place that we’ve eaten since we were six.  We order the same food that we can taste in our sleep, and have it placed on the table for everyone to share.  Feeding eight people costs in the range of $50.

Friday night we manage to scare the locals when close to sixty-five people pour into one of the only restaurants in town.  It’s like a scene from Candid Camera, the looks on their faces wondering what the hell is going on.  I watched as a little girl clung to her mother’s arm for dear life.  When I smiled at her she looked away in horror and fear.

On Saturday night on the basketball court there is a ceremony honoring people who have made a big impact and embody the spirit of camp.  We sit on the same bleachers we sat on as children (getting up on them is not quite as easy as it used to be) and listen to the magnificent tributes paid to lifelong friends.  A band of former campers play their amazing music and we dance and smile and hug long into the night.

Back at the hotel where many of us stay (I use the word “hotel” lightly) we gather in a small gazebo in the parking lot for a sort-of after-party, where those who still have it in them drink from bottles of vodka and tequila (I am one of those who do not have it in them.)  Things tend to get a bit animated and sloppy but they are priceless moments to be retold and retold as memories for years to come.  I watched as my friend Lauren dropped her phone in her cooler and mid-sentence pulled it out, looked at it, and kept talking.  She no longer has a working phone with an endless amount of pictures from the weekend trapped inside.  Somehow, it became 2:30 in the morning.

I have warned my daughter that she can not talk to me when I come practically stumbling through the door of my house on Sunday.  I’ve made the mistake of telling her that the only time I smoke cigarettes (I quit years ago) is at these reunions.  When she later asked if I smoked a cigarette I said yes (In reality, I may or may not have smoked a pack.)

It is now Monday and I have slept for a countless number of hours, have a pounding headache and an aching body.  The tequila elixir has long since left my system, the fountain of youth inside of me slowly drying up a bit.  Maybe in two years I’ll have a different car, with a different color hood, but always, from now on, I will travel with a funnel.

When Your Heart Is Too Big

bigheart

“Happy Mothers Day! Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Have a great day today.”

I received these words via Facebook messenger.  I saw them while my daughter was still asleep and my husband was still out buying me flowers.  I smiled widely while a tear may or may not have been slowly gliding down my cheek.

The message was from a former client in my job as a substance abuse counselor and in many ways, the son I never had.  And, because his mother died when he was very young, who knows, maybe I had become her understudy.  Either way, we have a bond that came out of nowhere and took us both by surprise.

My job has meant the absolute world to me.  It has become part of my identity.  I have thrown myself into it with a bit of uncertainty and a whole lot of faith.  In one year, I have marveled at how I have been able to draw out the men on my caseload in ways that they have admitted that no one else has done before.  It’s an innate skill of mine.  A friend once said to me that I can learn more about someone in 15 minutes than he could in years.

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.  They ask about our days.  There’s no push to get them out.  As a matter fact, it’s those who don’t do this that gets the attention of the house manager.  When he sees one slip into the house without stopping to say hello, he’ll bellow, “What the hell are you hiding from?”

On the flipside, with so many overdoses and deaths, I found myself beginning to have anxiety and panic attacks every time I parked in front of the house.  This has never happened to me in my life.  When I heard over a weekend of the death of a 25-year old on my caseload my husband held me as my body shook. When clients saw me in tears after a death, they would ask me if I’d be okay.  Others would warn that getting too attached was a liability in this field.  When I just saw my doctor she said that the stress was throwing my body out of whack and gently advised that maybe this wasn’t the best environment for me to be in.

Recently under the very watchful eye of a new supervisor, the mood of the wonderful, somewhat fluid boundaries of the house began to change.  It was strongly suggested that the guys don’t come into the office for too long, that they should be redirected when they asked about our days into us saying things like, “It’s not about me.  How was YOUR day?”  When graduates stop by to say hello, instead of greeting them with our customary hugs, it has become this very stilted dance of a non-physical greeting, or I tell them to come outside where I could hug them, as always.  I didn’t care.

As this continued down a path of more and more restriction I would come home and vent to my husband.  A few weeks ago, as we lay in bed and I was getting more angry and upset, he said, “Your heart’s too big for that place.”  And he was right.  It was at that moment that I knew I couldn’t stay.

I’ve been walking around for days mourning the absence of my old identity.  I have part-time writing work lined up and am doing everything in my power to find a volunteer opportunity in the field where I can interact, freely, with those who struggle with substance abuse.  I will continue to fight the good fight in any way I can as this crisis of addiction gets worse every day.

The day after Mother’s Day, I came into work to find a card propped up against the phone on my desk signed by all of the guys in the house.  Front and center was this:

“While we are here, you are a mother to all of us.  Thanks for the love and care.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living The Dream?

cottage

Last weekend my husband and I sat side-by-side as he showed me pictures of a boat that he loved.  It had a lower deck with room to sleep 4, a cool little kitchen with a table to sit at and some other things that as a boat lover, made him slightly giddy.  It was nothing fancy, no crazy yacht, it was gently used and somewhat reasonably priced (or so he tells me).  He talked about renting a slip and taking little trips in it to wherever these types of boats can go.

HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” was playing in the background.  I have become sightly obsessed with wanting a “tiny house”, parked on a magnificent piece of land on water somewhere as a weekend home.  I get real estate listings from a town in the Berkshires with cheap houses for that dream of a second home. I speak about this as though it can actually happen.  And that gorgeous English cottage above?  It’s actually on a street named “Fairy Tale Lane,” somewhere in England.  That is the ultimate dream and I understand that that’s all it really is.  Just a dream.

We live in what I think is a “tiny” house.  It’s under 1,300 square-feet with really low ceilings and small bedrooms.  The fact is, it has absolutely everything we need and has an extraordinarily large backyard.  The previous owners planted beautiful flowers including two of my absolute favorites.  But, I find myself dreaming of higher ceilings with enough room to install ceiling fans in every room .  I want central air and a finished basement.  I want a “she shed” in the backyard so I can go somewhere and write.

Right now, we’re living the reality of cobbling together and doing that shuffle game to cover bills and to uncover places where we can cut back.  We’ve gotten better at this.  In a year there will no longer be a significant monthly payment that will allow us to breathe a big sigh of relief.  My husband is on the fast-track to ongoing promotions of potential significance.  So, we wait, for small and gradual windfalls that may allow us some small luxuries that we’ve worked hard for, for me to stop working at a job that I adore, but creates panic and anxiety that I’ve never had before, and be able to travel with him to cities that I’ve always wanted to go.

I have always worked with underserved populations, the homeless, incarcerated women, and addicts who have lived under bridges.  They DREAM of owning a home and see my life as “living the dream.”  And they are absolutely right.  I know I will never get a $3.7 million book advance that Lena Dunham just got.  I know that I’ll never own a apartment in Manhattan.  But some of those other things I’ve mentioned?  I see high enough ceilings for a ceiling fan.  Central air, easily done.  Pre-fab sheds are not impossible to turn into something that could work as a place to write.  Finishing the basement for my husband’s man cave?  Totally doable.

We all have dreams, they push us forward and if we have to compromise somewhere between a cottage on Fairy Tale Lane and a gently used boat, that’s okay.  We’ve done just fine.

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Friend I Haven’t Met

rickcarl

The above has risen to the top of “Best Picture Ever.”  The guy in the blue sweatshirt is my husband.  The one playing the role of Kate Winslet in “Titanic”is Carl, someone I am so happy to count among my dearest friends.  The thing is, I’ve never met Carl in person.

Five years ago I clicked into a never-ending black hole  of links that took me to a site where bloggers could post their work.  (Interestingly, to prove how completely obscure this site was it no longer exists.)  I posted something and within a few minutes I got a like and a comment from a complete stranger. I instantly cyber-pounced on this poor unsuspecting person, and tried to engage him in conversation.  He took the bait, probably a bit warily wondering why I was so overzealous and probably thinking I had no friends, and we took our conversation offline and into gmail chat.  In looking back on these chats and e-mails from 2011 I can tell by the way he signed off, with a “Cheers,” or a “Take care” or a “I look forward to reading your work,” that he wasn’t nearly excited as I was about this surreal and serendipitous way we found each other.  It wasn’t until I dazzled him with my  humor that he realized, “Oh what the fuck.  She’s not a raving lunatic with no friends.  I’ll give it a go.”

Carl lives in England with his stunning fiance and gorgeous teenage daughter.  He shared some of his writing with me, words that nobody else had seen at that point, and it was truly some of the funniest and most poignant writing I have ever read.  He deflected my compliments onto me and created a Power Point titled “Gayle Saks:  Mission Get Famous.”  He calls me “Jewess.”

Our friendship has evolved into layers on top of layers.  It has turned into Skype drinking sessions, one in which my husband became the drunkest I had ever seen him(with the time difference he and his fiance are troupers in their ability to persevere after a night out in a pub) and now includes an e-mail and social media friendship between our daughters who are the same age.  During one of these Skype sessions Carl held up a piece of paper to the camera letting us know that he was going to propose the following week. And, in the most beautiful gesture I’ve ever been on the receiving end of, a brand new dvd player showed up on our doorstep when he found out ours had broken.  When my husband and I opened the card, we gasped, and got teary eyed.

The simulated love fest on the Titanic happened a little over a month ago when my husband was in Belfast for a month on business.  It was a no-brainer that Carl and family would fly over for the weekend so they could finally meet.  I was very envious, and still am, but that love you see above, that comfort, is very real.  When they met each other it was exactly what we knew it would be–perfect.  My husband called me immediately gushing about them and got off the phone quickly because they had booked a very busy weekend.  They face-timed me from a pub and even though I could barely hear a word it was so incredible to see them in the same place with my husband as opposed to on the opposite sides of a computer screen. When they left to fly back home, my husband called me in tears.

In some of the happiest news I’ve gotten in a long time, Carl and his family have decided to spend a week with us in Boston.  There are no words to describe how excited I am (I’ve been having a recurring dream that they get here and feel like it’s a bait and switch and they hate me.)  We’re getting a cot so our daughters can sleep in the same room, we’ll be hosting a dinner party for them and cramming in as much of New England as we possibly can.  I know I won’t be able to hold it together as I hug them all for the first time.

I’m not sure Carl realizes how special he has become to me.  If you didn’t, you do now.

Love,

Jewess.

 

 

 

 

 

The Man With The Swastika Tattoo

swastika_face

 

Each week when I go to the federal halfway houses where I lead life skills groups I can expect some resident turnover.  Some are released during the seven days between my classes and some new ones are brought in.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that all of them take certain classes while they are serving out the rest of their time, and job readiness, one of my regular groups, is mandatory.

Because so many of these men (in this particular program it is all men) have done some pretty long “bids” in prison, they often don’t know the basics of navigating computers whether it be simple word processing, let alone the Internet.  They’ve never had an e-mail address or conducted an on-line job search. Most have certainly never had a resume.

The men who have sat through my group look forward to seeing me every week despite the fact that they initially resented having to be there.  Most turn out to be extremely humble in admitting their lack of knowledge and are very grateful when they see a resume, the end product of my group, seem to write itself  before their eyes.  I think they are surprised to see the skills that they do in fact have, the things they HAVE accomplished, laid out in such an impressive way.

Last week there were a couple of new guys assigned to my group.  One came right in, sat down, geared up for whatever I had to say.  Another, a rather large and  imposing presence, hung back,  looking a bit apprehensive.  I forget that I look older than I think I do so I assume that a bi-focaled woman carrying binders and paperwork makes me appear like every other teacher or social worker they’ve been forced to sit in front of for years.

“You look terrified,” I said to him.  “Guys, will you tell him he doesn’t need to be terrified?”

Those who knew me smiled and slapped him on the back and told him it wasn’t so bad, like telling a child that a shot will only hurt for a second.

“Come,” I said to the man, patting an empty chair, “Sit next to me.”

I’m still generally awed by the number of tattoos so many of these guys have.  It’s often hard to discern any virgin skin beneath the entire length of their arms,  shoulders and legs.  There are names of girlfriends, portraits of Jesus, Bible verses, gang signs and all manner of symbols and scribbles that mean nothing to me.  When this man sat next to me I did my usual and at this point reflexive  scan of the jumble of colored ink and random drawings on his neck and within that chaos, like a hidden object children have to find in an illustration in a magazine,  there was a swastika, which suddenly, in my eyes, made all the others disappear.

I have written before about having to suspend my judgement of this population in order to do my job.  I’ve laughed with bank robbers, drug dealers and embezzlers.  I had to process when one guy revealed to me, rather casually, that he spent nine years in prison on child pornography charges without denying a thing, and then move on.  Now instead of judging him on that heinous crime, he just gets under my skin because he’s sort of a pain in the ass.

I’ve written endlessly about being the child of a Holocaust survivor and how much that has shaped my identity.  I had to avert my eyes from that particular tattoo which by now had become an image in my head of a neon sign blinking, in red.   It was imperative that I shut down my gut reaction and continue to work with this man who in all actuality was rather gentle and in need of my help.

Obviously, this wasn’t easy.  I couldn’t smack him in the face and call him an ignorant fuck and walk out of the room.  What was even more difficult was not being able to just ask, “Why?  Why?”

 

I Get PAID To Do The Wild Thing: When Suddenly Everything Makes Sense

 

prostitute

“So when the show was finished I took her around the way
And what do you know she was good to go without a word to say
We was all alone and she said, “Tone, let me tell you one thing
I need 50 dollars to make you holler, I get paid to do the wild thing”

–Ton Loc, Wild Thing

 

“WAIT.  She’s a PROSTITUTE?”

This was my 14-yr old daughter’s moment of recognition, an epiphany.  We had listened to this song in the car many times before this, but just last week it all started to make sense to her.  Like me before her, she is now understanding things she didn’t before, and life will never be the same.

When I was 14, (14!), I my father took me to see the movie “Coming Home” starring Jon Voight and Jane Fonda.  Voight’s character is paralyzed from the waist down but Jane Fonda is determined to prove that his “equipment” still functions.  To do this, she gets on her hands and knees and well, you can guess the rest.  It wasn’t until many years later that it clicked what was going on there.  My reaction was, “OMG, I was sitting next to my FATHER!  EWW!!!!”

It was around the same time that my next-door-neighbor and I were doing the “Time Warp,” (again) in her brother’s bedroom and she slipped on something and started to shriek.  It was a used condom.  Again, it occurred to me years later what the contents of a “used” condom was.  Again, it was an OMG moment and another “EWWWWWW.”

 

___________________________

goodbyeyellobrickinside

“So, she lays down beside me again
My sweet painted lady, the one with no name
Many have used her and many still do
There’s a place in the world for a woman like you
Oh, sweet painted lady
Seems it’s always been the same
Getting paid for being laid
Guess that’s the name of the game”
–Elton John, Sweet Painted Lady
Elton John’s double-album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” taught me everything about life that I need to know.  We’ve got suicide by sticking a head in the oven, women, essentially pedophiles who want to sleep with Alice while their husband’s are away, and a guy who sleeps with his landlord so he doesn’t have to pay his rent.  And of course, there’s the sweet painted lady, a prostitute who sleeps with sailors during their short ports of call. On the flipside, I also learned that it was okay to fight on a Saturday night.
I remember finally understanding that a “squeeze box” was not an accordion and that “Stroke Me, stroke me” was about, well, you know.  Finally, I understand that the reference to “a needle and a spoon” in the amazing Stone’s song “Dead Flowers” is about heroin.
My daughter will start to understand the sexual innuendos that are in some of her favorite  television shows.  She will start to understand the lyrics to the unedited versions of horrible modern songs that are so filthy that I can’t even bear to listen to them.
My sweet innocent child, there’s still a lot to learn out there in the world but there are indeed just happy pop songs and family tv and movies that are lovely reflections of the non-underbelly of life.  I can’t shield you from the rest but I hope I can talk you down from some of your “EWW” moments and we can just laugh and laugh, together.

 

Baggage

old-suitcases-in-a-stack

When I was part of the online dating “community” a large percentage of male profiles would say, rather emphatically, “No drama, no baggage.”  These pompous idiots infuriated me because that request alone, shined a light on their intolerance and serious delusions of the real world.  In reading between the not-so-subtle lines they were really just saying, “no psychopaths or crazy ass bitches.”

I don’t subscribe to the concept of us all having “baggage” and bringing it into our relationships.  We are all made up of our pasts, dramatic or not.  Oftentimes our partners are sympathetic to the memories and experiences we carry and will always carry.  If we’re lucky enough, they will want to learn about them and understand the things we bring to the table.  I’m happy to say, that I’m one of the lucky ones.

For my entire adult life I have had several recurring dreams that are so incredibly frustrating because they always end in exactly the same way.  I know that dreams are highly personal and usually not that interesting to other people but the main themes and point are somewhat universal (I think).

In the first I’m desperately trying to catch a train from Boston to New York where I grew up.   The steps go like this:  I go to an information booth where I wait while the agents ignore me as they chat and laugh with each other.  When they finally acknowledge my presence, in a “what the fuck do you want?” haughtiness I ask when the next train is.  Usually I have something like an hour to catch it but it involves taking two subways to get to the right station.  I never have the change to put in a turnstile slot  (old school, I guess?)  and I have to find a place to turn my dollars into coins.  I then clamor to make the subway that is just pulling into the station and off I go.

When I arrive I go to some sort of holding area where about seven or so suitcases, duffle bags, and boxes containing pieces of my life have somehow materialized.  When the train finally pulls in giving the passengers about five minutes to board I seem to have great confidence that I can take several trips to carry them down to the platform little by little.  Some make it on but while I’m going up to get the last of them, the train leaves, along with my boxed possessions.  When I ask an  agent where they’ll eventually end up, he tells me that if I’m lucky they’ll end up in a massive warehouse of lost things or, they’ll get thrown away.  And poof, with that, part of my life is gone forever.

In one other, actually one I’ve had for a bit longer, my collection of books, which in the dream has turned massive, ends up on shelves at my old summer camp, a place I know every inch of and what I consider my “happy place.”  There are enough to fill the equivalent of 4 bookstore-sized shelves and are affixed to the softball field where people can come and buy them.  Inside one of the bunks are racks and racks of clothes I’ve never seen before in sizes I’ve never been.

Most people have a childhood home where they can store things in a basement or garage.  I haven’t had a childhood home since I was 13.  I lived with my mother in an apartment and my father lived in California so I’ve had to move my life with me, FOURTEEN  times since college.  Even though I’ve amassed most of these things post-college, they are my burden to bear, weighing me down, complicating my life.  I’ve forgotten trunks in storage rooms with precious things, never to be seen again.  I’ve had boxes of letters cave in on each other because of moisture in basements of my several houses.  I’ve had to throw away clothes because they’ve spilled over onto basement floors.

For years I’ve attempted to purge the stuff that I’ve lugged around for my entire adult life.  I’ve torn up pictures of people who I have no clue who they are, I’ve tossed several piles of angry, critical letters that I received from my father over the years and just kept the nice ones, and sold some shit I never needed in the first place at yard sales.  In some ways, this seems like a shedding of some sort, relieving myself of useless baggage that has done nothing but weighed and worn me down.  Soon they will stop crowding me.

I recently told my therapist that I dream of a bigger house.  We talked about the shit I’ve amassed and how horrible it makes me feel when I see the clutter of my life.  In response she said “We have to live within the space we have.”  That was profound for me.  To me, it means more than needing a place to put things.  It also means what clutters and takes up space in our  brains, what makes us feel badly about ourselves.

I’m praying that this concept manifests itself in my dreams.  I’m praying that my seven or so massive boxes and suitcases whittle down to what is manageable to get on a train in one trip.  And maybe, just maybe, those things that end up in a massive warehouse of lost possessions will free me of the baggage that is clearly in my head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.