As part of a unified effort, I, along with hundreds of other bloggers, pledged to devote one post on February 20th to the concept of compassion. You can read all the blog posts by going to the blog 1000 Speak for Compassion. It took about 20 minutes of thought for me to determine what my post would be about. In the last three years, I have been in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. One man held my hand as I made the transition from one life to the other, just as he has for countless other men for almost ten years. That man will ever be on my gratitude list of people that knew that I, along with every other person who struggles with this disease, have so much to bring to life’s table of abundance if only I could rid myself of my addiction and shed my shroud of guilt, shame, and transgression.
We’ll call that man “Mitch”. Mitch owns and manages properties in my area of the world. I never asked him about whether he owns commercial or residential properties. I do know he owns and manages four “3/4” houses for men in recovery from substance abuse. In my case, Before I went to treatment, I had been flopping with a friend after being evicted from my rental house. I wasn’t evicted out of malice, though. Rather, necessity on the part of my landlord dictated that I find a new domicile along with my girlfriend and her two children. After about a month when I was at my absolute alcoholic worst, my girlfriend proceeded to kick me out of the temporary housing. More bluntly, after a knock-down-drag-out fight in which I was most likely at fault, she took all my belongings, dropped them off on my parents’ porch and told me we were done. That night, my parents essentially told me I had two options. I could go to substance abuse treatment or I was on my own. After inexplicably thinking about that for a minute, I agreed to go to treatment.
A month later after I graduated from treatment, I moved into one of Mitch’s houses. It was on the other side of town as my parents’ house and I knew a couple guys from my treatment program who also moved to that house. My motivation was that after I graduated, my only other option for a living arrangement was my parents’ basement. The old adage “Home is where you go and they can’t turn you away” was certainly true in my case, but the prospect of living in the room that my father had converted into his office and under the same roof as my parents and my sister, who has autism, was about a half-step more appealing than checking into a homeless shelter. I mean, I was 36, newly sober and newly single at the time. How many single 36 year-olds do you know who pack their little black book with phone numbers? Exactly.
Life in the sober-living house was fairly regimented but not overly so. You had to have a job and if you didn’t, you had to volunteer every weekday. That way it didn’t feel like a flop house as you weren’t sitting around watching TV all day and feeling sorry for your sober ass. Residents had to go to 5 Anonymous meetings per week (Alcoholics Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) in their first month, four in the second month and three every month after that. More than half of those meetings had to be with other residents of that house. Mitch knew the importance of building community in sobriety as he had been sober himself for a pretty long time. I have been to many AA meetings in my short stretch of sobriety and I can tell you that strength is found in numbers and the more sober people you surround yourself with, the easier it is to believe that you are doing the right thing and that living a life free of drugs and alcohol is not only possible but rewarding in ways you cannot even fathom when you are at your bottom. It’s why AA sponsors so many events and community gatherings for its members. On the macro level, it’s seen at the annual AA fireworks display and picnic on a member’s multi-acre spread every July 4th weekend. On the micro level, it’s me driving my housemate to work at 5 A.M. because his driver’s license has been revoked. In addition, you had to mark all your food with a Sharpie to know it’s yours, you had to keep your room neat and clean and you had to make your bed every morning. Many guys shared with a roommate unless they lived in the house long enough to earn a single by seniority. I was one of those guys and I still have mixed emotions about being there that long, but no matter. Oh, and I still adhere to the practice of making my bed every morning. Mitch knew that if you start your day with an act of humility and order, you just might carry it through into everything you do. That is another sentiment that I gleaned from my time in one of Mitch’s houses. Start your day clean because you, now, are clean as well. Plus, as Mitch always said, chicks dig a guy who cleans up after himself. More than that, keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean were also of paramount importance because Mitch knew that most guys in his houses had become accustomed to their wives, girlfriends and mothers cleaning up after them. And being married as long as Mitch had (his wife was the book keeper and the mind behind the muscle in the operation) he stressed the importance of the phrase “happy wife, happy life.” And if you didn’t clean up after yourself, you were fined. Didn’t matter if it was a half-empty plastic bottle you left on the coffee table before you left for the day or a soiled pot you left in the kitchen sink before you went to bed. If you left a mess and then you left, you were fined. $10 for the first offense, $20 for the second and so on. And Mitch would be the first to tell everyone at the weekly house meeting that he wasn’t a big fan of the fine system himself but it was the only way to maintain public order in a house full of 11 guys trying to get their lives together.
I lived in Mitch’s house for 18 months and there’s no way I could say for sure how many guys I saw come and go during my time there. I stopped counting after 50. Mitch had this operation going for more than 10 years and he never hesitated to tell us that he didn’t start to break even or turn a profit until the 9th year. There was a host of reasons. Some guys “went back out,” the code phrase for drinking or using again and thus relinquishing their “sobriety deposit” of a $100. But that was a pittance of a trade-off considering Mitch let guys stay in the house who were one or two or even three months behind on rent. Some guys even went back out while they were still living in the house because they thought they could get away with it. Please. A recovering drunk or addict knows what to look for and nobody got away with it. Some guys violated the rules of the house that Mitch laid down and were read to the new resident upon moving in, a process complete with said new resident signing off on the process to signify “Yeah, I got it. Any violations are on me now.” In those cases, Mitch conveyed that information to a guy’s probation or drug court officer and they were removed from the house. But Mitch’s compassion for the new guys, his tolerance for their behaviors and violations went to extreme lengths. For Mitch, it wasn’t about making sure a guy followed the rules as much as it was trying to help guys new to recovery become accustomed to taking care of themselves. More than that, Mitch wanted guys to become accustomed to liking and respecting themselves. In my case, since I had nowhere else to go and I had a job upon leaving treatment, following the rules of the house was relatively easy. But for a lot of the guys, Mitch’s houses were a completely foreign way of living.
Mitch knew about transitioning to a sober life. I heard him give a speech once at a meeting in which he relayed a story I’ve heard many times in recovery about being the alcoholic/addict who wants to stop but doesn’t know how. This will be a strange, incomprehensible concept for the “normy” but for us, it makes total sense. Mitch took the idea of living a normal life and combined it with living a sober life. He was 5’8” soaking wet and had a laugh that was akin to a schoolgirl’s giggle. But the Napoleon Complex he suffered was reserved for fighting addiction and he felt an obligation to extend a kind hand to guys like me who got out of treatment feeling vulnerable, alone and lost. And again, I stress the importance of guys having other guys literally around every corner, even if and especially in their own house, all trying to do the same thing. I was fortunate to have a family and friends on my side. Many guys, especially those who had been to treatment one or two or three times before (again, it happens all the time), they had no one with faith in them. Except, that is, Mitch and the guy’s housemates. Many alcoholics and addicts know all too well that feeling of “What am I going to do now without that massive crutch in my life?” I certainly did. Mitch knew because he had been that guy more than two decades before. He had traveled down that path and, with his houses and the guidance he offered, he effectively told the newcomer “You’re not alone buddy. Here’s 10 other guys in the same boat you are in. Now let’s try and find land together.”
In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, in my experience anyway, the terminology for the length of your sobriety is broken down into being sober “for a minute” (less than 10 years), being sober for “awhile” (between 10 and 20 years) and being an old-timer (20 years or more). Don’t tell my sponsor he is officially an old-timer, though. It would break his heart. Mitch is an old-timer, too. He has devoted more than a decade to incorporating compassion into his daily life by extending an olive branch to the newcomer, patting him on the back and bringing other guys with him to say “Hey, this is going to be hard. Let’s see if we can make sense of this thing together.” I have been sober for a minute as I celebrate 3 years of sobriety June 23 of this year. Could I have done this without Mitch’s help? Maybe. But I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t have to.