18 Chai. Life. 18 and life to go

I am sitting here in my office at the University of Michigan and reflecting and it seems like a good time to blog. This is going to be a free form ramble. Forgive me if it falls short in some ways. 

Today marks 18 years and one day since the last time I used any intoxicants. I am 50 years old. It is quiet. I am comfortable, grateful, and sad. Every year for the past 18, I reflect and celebrate on this date. 18 feels a bit different and perhaps a bit more significant. 18 is a deep number in Hebrew, my lineage. When I was 18 years old, I had already been using substances for about 6 years or 1/3 of my life. It was apparent to nearly everyone with knowledge of my situation that drugs occupied a disproportionate amount of my time and energy. I was obsessed. I was defiant, rebellious, self-righteous and despised authority. I was known to tell police with guns drawn to fuck off. If I was a black kid, I would surely be dead. 

One day, about two months after my 18th birthday, I was in an Ann Arbor hotel room with some friends and after selling a guy some drugs for the umpteenth time, this time the door busted in. He was a cop and he had been waiting for this moment for months. Men with ski masks and automatic weapons barged in. As I was tackled, I looked across the room at an older guy named Sunny who I had recently met in Tennessee and I saw urine running down the front of his Guatemalan pants. He had been through this before. He was on parole for safe-cracking and was not supposed to be outside of Tennessee but the Grateful Dead were playing in Ann Arbor the following week so risks were justified. We were all hauled off to Jail and my friend Adam and I were sent to prison for a couple years. 

I was in a prison in the Upper Peninsula. All of the corrections officers were white. Most of the inmates were black. There were real differences in the ways that we were treated. I had advantages based on the color of my skin. My mother, stepfather and youngest brother, who was about 6 years old, supported me and visited as frequently as they could. My brother actually lost friends when their parents found out that his brother was in prison. I do not remember considering for one minute what it was like for them to be having this experience. My father who lived in DC at the time had been fed up with my shit for years. I saw him once while I was incarcerated when he flew from DC to the Upper Peninsula, sat in the visiting room and told me how fucked up it was that I was in this situation and then walked out. I am not sure the visit lasted more than 10 minutes. I am vacationing with him in South Africa this week.

I got out of prison and I was almost 21. I went to some AA meetings. I attended some weird outpatient sessions where the other clients were older professionals. I had family support. I was able to live in my parents’ house and their neighbor got me a job, no application was necessary. I made a living wage and was soon able to rent an apartment. The apartment application did not ask about my criminal history and was very affordable with an entry-level job. Now there is no affordable housing in Ann Arbor and property owners routinely discriminate against people who have been convicted of felonies. I began drinking heavily and then selling drugs again before I got off parole. 

Seven years later, I got my second drug felony. Someone paid for a lawyer and I got probation, which included a stipulation to go to the methadone clinic for “treatment” every day. In spite of the probation, drug testing, methadone etc… I could not stop using drugs and eventually headed to California to avoid prosecution. I was in and out of jails, detoxes, hospitals and rehabs for the next several years and back and forth across the country. I was mostly homeless or couch surfing. I had no health insurance, but getting into good residential treatment on the county’s dime was always easy. 

Eventually in Feb. 2002, I ended up in detox again. Nothing was different but everything changed. I again had access to long-term treatment that forced me to make connections in the recovery community. I was able to live in transitional housing after treatment. My first two jobs were given to me by people in recovery, no applications were necessary. Eventually I ended up working in Detox, went to college and the rest is history. In recovery, I have grown up. I have had some of the same friends for the past 18 years and I haven’t ripped any of them off, ever. My family relationships have been rebuilt. I am partnered with a smart, cool, compassionate human. We have a house. We have dogs. We pay taxes. We go on vacations. I work with young people who I admire and love and I have coworkers who I trust, respect and consider friends.  Loss is also a part of my story. My brother died from addiction and many of my closest pre-recovery friends have died from addiction. My grandparents have died since I have been in recovery. My dogs who I adopted as puppies are nearing the end of their lives. Life is both heavy and sweet.

In June 1989 when I was in quarantine waiting to go to prison the song 18 and Life was popular and to my dismay it played incessantly on the television. When I was 18, two years felt like life. Now 18 years feels like the blink of an eye. When I was 32, my life was nearly over. Now at 50, who knows.

A couple days ago Bill blogged about community recovery capital. I would classify my 32-year-old self as having had high problem severity and high in external recovery capital. I was an intravenous poly-substance user with almost no work history and had been completely enmeshed in the culture of addiction for my whole adult life. In Ann Arbor, I had access to high quality treatment on demand. I had family support when I got out of prison. I had access to felony friendly employment and housing. In addition, perhaps most importantly I had easy access to a thriving recovery community with many shining examples of hope.

I often think about the intersections of race, class, privilege and recovery capital. I saw Van Jones speak recently and he said that he saw more drug use and crime in his time at Yale University than he did living in the projects. He went on to say that when caught with drugs the kids at Yale went to Europe for a semester, while the kids in the project went to prison for the same shit. Policy changes in the criminal “justice” system are key to this work. Affordable housing and living wage employment that do not discriminate are also important. Access to adequate treatment on demand is a no brainer. Those are the easier things to grapple with.

I was born with recovery capital and my recovery capital grew as I did. My parents were employed, we had housing, our basic needs were met, we had access to healthcare there were adults outside the family who were role models, I went to good schools from pre- k through high school, my neighborhood was safe etc… All of these “advantages” that I had made things easier for me later on.

Without an emphasis on Social justice, community recovery capital is hollow. If we care about helping people get into recovery then national healthcare, early childhood education and environmental justice are just a few of the issues that are in our hula hoop. Voting this year is necessary but not sufficient. And if you do nothing else, please vote.

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