Four months ago I left my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male halfway house. It was a job that I loved every second of.
Landing the position was rather serendipitous. My only prior experience working with recovering addicts and alcoholics was as a “life skills” instructor to men, women and juveniles just released into reentry programs after serving varying amounts of prison time. Oh, and my best friend who hung himself two months ago was a crystal meth addict. So there was that.
I was all bright eyed and bushy tailed, idealistic but not naïve. I observed my two male colleagues, both in recovery, interacting with the guys, their styles completely different from each other. One would puff himself up and bark and yell, asserting authority he didn’t really have the right to, and the other was ornery and wonderful, all bark and little bite.
In a short amount of time I found my footing and discovered in myself an innate expertise that I suspected had always been there waiting to be put to such valuable use. I had little to no supervision, no one telling me that I was doing a good or bad job so I did my thing, holding my weekly one-on-ones with the 12 or so guys on my caseload. On the occasional weekend morning when I would cover for another staff member, the guys would cook breakfast for me, come into the office in small revolving clusters in pajama bottoms and mugs of coffee. The guys loved me, and I them.
Ten months into this job that I loved every second of a supervisor who my two colleagues and I suddenly had to report to was hired and the life and vibrancy of the house was sucked and spit out almost immediately. He kept his head down when the guys would come into the office like they did every day when they got home from work, and they gave me looks that said “Who the hell is this guy?” as they backed out the door. He implemented a new policy that the guys weren’t allowed to spend more time in the office than a simple check-in would necessitate and we were told to always turn the conversation back to them even if they asked how our days were going.
Two days after he started and in the midst of the utter chaos of a discharge after a resident tested positive for opiates, he noticed it was 5 o’clock, grabbed his keys as my co-worker and I watched in shock as he got into his car and drove away.
The following week a guy on my caseload also tested positive for opiates. Those with much more experience than I in the universe of addiction and recovery are rarely surprised when a relapse happens even after 10, 15 or 20 years of sobriety. But in this case, there was a general sense from most staff and residents that the lab results just had to have been wrong, that a mix-up must have occurred on their end. In the end, it didn’t matter. House rules state that if you test positive, you get discharged. Case closed.
I was tasked with relaying the results to him and I will never forget watching his life play out on his face—the anguish, the fear, the anger, the panic. It was devastating to watch. I had to observe as he packed his things and I sat on his bed and let him vent and cry and take whatever time he needed to make phone calls to figure out where he might find an empty bed. The other residents came in and out when they found out what had happened and offered to do whatever they could. When my supervisor called me out of his room to ask me what was taking so long I was rendered speechless. AND, when he told me that I had to make sure he got off the property right away, I thought my head was going to explode. I apologized over and over to this client who I loved and waited with him for his fiancé and daughter to arrive to take him to a sober house. I hugged him and told him that yes, I believed that he hadn’t used.
The following day staff talked about and processed what happened. He was doing magnificently in the program, patching up soured relationships with his family, and owning up to his past. When I expressed my very strong opinion that I didn’t think he had lied, our new supervisor responded by saying, “That’s what junkies do.” I was stunned. That day, I started to look for a new job.
The Director of the program used to worry and warn me about how much I cared about my guys. She kindly told me to stop calling on the weekends to check on the status of clients who were having a rough time and told me it could wait until Monday. She urged me to make “self-care” a priority. When guys started overdosing and dying she would certainly give me the space to talk but also remind me that it would only get worse before it got better. At one point I remember her very clearly stating, “They’re not your friends.”
I adhered to the rather fuzzy boundaries while I worked in the house. I knew not to become Facebook friends or hand out my cell phone number. I knew enough to ask permission to drive a couple of guys to the funeral of a resident who had overdosed and died. Should I have driven through a Dunkin’ Donuts on the way there and bought them all very complicated coffee drinks? Probably not. When a client of mine revealed in group that he always wanted a penguin, should I have had a stuffed one overnighted from Amazon on the night his father died and left it on his bed? Chances are good that I shouldn’t have.
Now that I no longer work at the job that I loved every second of, I HAVE become Facebook friends with a lot of the guys. When one posted a new status update that was all pain and desperation I messaged him and told him to meet me for lunch immediately. He did. Several of them have my cell phone number. Two have even been to my house. I’ve had lunch with several of them, taken my family to visit one who now lives two hours away. I’ve attended the funeral of one and wait for the phone calls that will inevitably come about others.
I recently turned down a job where self-disclosure of any type would be a fireable offense. I got giddy at an interview where I was told that it was mandatory that the young people in the program have your work cell phone and that it was REQUIRED that a separate Facebook page be set-up just to communicate with them.
I will never be the person who when asked by a client ‘How was your day?’ will turn the conversation around to ‘It doesn’t matter how MY day was, how was YOUR day?’ Most importantly, I will never refer to these incredible men who have lived through so much, made me laugh until I cried, made me cry because of the tragedy of their too-soon deaths, as junkies.
A piece about her best friend’s addiction to crystal meth was chosen as an Editor’s Pick on opensalon.com, the sister site of Salon.com.
Saks lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter and way too many animals.