Archive for March, 2010

Wake Up Call

The morning of my second day came very early. I had slept reasonably well all things considered. I had begun the schedule I would keep almost every day for the next 6 months. During the week the lights were shut out in the dorm at 9:30pm. After that Overcomers could still be outside in the recreation area or in the mission library until 10:45.

At first I was staying up and reading or journaling in the library but before long I found myself going to bed at 9:30 or even earlier. The lights were turned on each day at 5:30am. I am not a morning person but I am fairly adaptable so I adjusted to this fairly quickly. The first thing that happens each day is that all the men get out of their bunks and spend 5 minutes just sitting quietly in our chairs beside our bunks. The idea is that this gives those men who wish to do so the opportunity to begin their day with a few moments of quiet reflection or prayer before the morning chaos begins. Frankly, I never found that time all that productive for those purposes but somebody along the way thought it was a good idea.

The next event on the daily agenda was “pray-in” at 6:10am. Pray-in occurred before each meal each day and it was a time for the leaders to give any necessary announcements to the whole group and for us to pray for the meal that was to follow. In the mornings only about half the men bothered to go down to breakfast. The rest would stay up in the dorm area to take advantage of the first time of the day when smoking was allowed.

Smoking is an interesting rabbit trail to chase for a moment. I don’t have exact numbers but I’d say that well over half of the men who come into the Overcomer program are smokers….that is, smokers of those things legally smoked. It is unquestionably an addiction yet it is not, at this writing, banned from the program entirely. Overcomers is actually one of the few Christian programs that permits smoking. If the administrators of the program had their way it would be prohibited but there is also a genuine concern that the loss of tobacco would keep too many people out of the program.

The main problem is the tremendous irony that smoking adds to the recovery program. It is especially in classes that this irony surfaces. For 3 and a half hours a day we would sit in class learning more about our addictions and how to deny our urges for our poison of choice. However, every 50 minutes there was a scheduled break so that clients could ingest their dose of nicotine. By 10 minutes until the break most of the counselors would admit that concentration of the smokers was gone out the window as the clock watching began in earnest. That being said, a common maxim in class by the counselors was that the program truly happens for real out on the “smoking deck”.

They were right. It was where reality came out. It was where the men were the least guarded and felt safe enough to give their real opinions as opposed to some of the “programese” that they would speak in class. I was often out there. A friend of mine dropped my pipes and a generous supply of tobacco by a few weeks into the program and I joined them many evenings and drove away their acrid fumes with my aromatic clouds from my bowl. Pipe smoking wasn’t a big habit of mine. Usually pipe smokers don’t inhale the smoke and we don’t tend to get hooked on the nicotine. By the final couple of months of the program, as the weather at night turned bitter and cold I forwent smoking all together and haven’t picked them back up since. For me it was mostly the social aspect that I enjoyed and when the weather made it too miserable I found other outlets. The pipe did raise quite a few eyebrows at first though as apparently nobody in the program had ever brought one before.

I almost stopped smoking it immediately. It hadn’t taken long for the other men to learn that I had once been a college instructor, and indeed one at the famous/infamous Christian college across town. This led to a few of the guys, jumping on my love of books, pipe and general level of education, to try to tag me with the nickname of “Professor”. I winced anytime someone tried that and I would usually sincerely ask them not to call me that. A reminder like that was a bitter sting everytime I thought of it. I wasn’t any longer a professor or a teacher and I hated being reminded of that. However, the others who knew were understanding and while they indeed appreciated the irony of my position they were willing to forgo calling me that for the most part. Another Overcomer I worked with in the kitchen had a similar aversion to being called “Chef” though he had owned a restaurant in the past and was easily qualified for the title.

One of the hardest and most humbling parts of the past few months has been the loss of my position as a teacher. I suppose in our society so much of who we are is tied up in what we do for a living. My entire reason for moving back to Greenville was to take a teaching position in a program that I cared about. Most of what I had done over the past 8 years was invested in that program and those students. I loved teaching. I had growing reservations about where I taught and a lingering bitterness due to one particular situation years ago but that didn’t change how I felt about the actual doing of my job. In retrospect, I should have left years ago.

But, that didn’t happen. I let an addiction gain control of me and I threw away much of what I had worked for over the past 8 years. I found myself in my late 30’s with no job in a terrible job market with experience and skills that seem too particular to easily be desirable to employers. A survey of friends and acquaintances at similar times of life puts them with established careers and in very different places that the one that I find myself today.

Today, I sell bread along side of kids. I don’t fit in when people look at me behind a register. The other day a woman came into the store where I work and made a comment that was intended to be friendly about how seeing me behind the counter in my apron and hat made her think of one of those reality shows on television where the boss apparently does the job of the regular employees for a day. I understood what she was observing and I smiled and nodded as I took her order but that one hurt more than a little. Yeah, I seem to be a little late in life to be working in that position, I know. Thanks, I needed that. Your order will be ready in a minute.

That’s what a rough day is like. I’ll have a few more before God chooses to show me his plan for me more clearly but I suppose that this is one of those “whatsoever state I am in, therewith to be content” times. That’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s been a regular part of the curriculum for the past few months. Days begin and end. They did in the mission and they do now that I am out. I was blessed when I was teaching and loving it. I was blessed when waking up in a dorm full of men at 5:30 in the morning. I am blessed to be under the provision and care of God where I am now.

More later…thanks for reading.


The Mission

Let me take a moment to give you a general layout of the mission where I spent 6 months.  It was built in 1999 and replaced an older building that once stood in what is now the parking lot of the current mission.  The mission is in West Greenville near some rather poor neighborhoods.  Gentrification is slowly taking bits of that area of the city but it has not overcome most of the blocks of poverty yet.  The old mission used to be next door to an old rooming house that was apparently a location for just about any kind of vice one can imagine.  That building was knocked down a while back but long time residents still remember things like drugs being passed to men in the mission by tennis balls thrown over the wall.

The homeless mill back and forth between this area and the revitalized downtown of Greenville.  A walk around downtown takes visitors past many wonderful shops, coffee houses, restaurants and scenic parks.  As one follows the paths that sometimes go under bridges that carry busy roads it is easy to miss what I came to think of as the “hardcore” homeless living in the dark corners.  While I don’t meant to suggest that there is currently enough space in the homeless shelters of Greenville to accommodate everyone who needs a place to stay on any given day, most people could find a place in one of the shelters within a few days if they wanted to.  However, there is a contingent of the homeless that for one reason or another do not want to live at shelters.  Some simply do not want to follow the rules against alcohol and drug use or some of the other policies.  Others cannot be safely housed with others because of their behavioral or mental problems.

On cold nights (below 40) the Greenville Rescue Mission opens its “Cold Weather Shelter” where anyone can come to stay warm(er) for the night at least.  Security is a prime consideration that most people don’t think about when society wonders why there aren’t more places that can be open to shelter the homeless.  One cannot simply open the doors to the gym of the mission and let people come in without searching for weapons or having security present all through the night.

I had a chance to meet many of the men who stayed in the mission on the “homeless” side during my time there.  The “whys” that bring a man to live in a mission are many.  I met men that were homeless following an extended prison stay.  I knew of men who were professionals whose every possession was taken away as a result of judgments against them for “white collar crime”.  One man was apparently a professional airline pilot at one time and was now reduced to picking up cargo runs following his prison stay and loss of his license to pilot passenger craft.  Another man told me that over 20 years ago he had simply decided that he had enough of married life, left his wife and daughter and began travelling.  For the past couple of decades he had drifted from one location to another, never living anywhere more than a few months.  He estimated that in all that time he had spent perhaps 6 months in a dwelling of his own provision.  Otherwise he was under the sky or in a shelter.  I met a man who had multiple campsites hidden all around Greenville.  When he was tired he simply went to his closest temporary home.  As far as he knew his tents and possessions were still right where he left them in the midst of the town in unnoticed locations.

Often young men would come through the mission.  They were perhaps just over 18 or in their early 20’s.  Usually they had run away or simply decided that they didn’t want to live by their parent’s rules any longer.  The scary part was to sit in the mission library and see the two ends of the spectrum.  In one chair one might see a man in his 50’s arguing loudly over a game of checkers with another man who had seen decades drift away with absolutely nothing to show for the spent years.  A few feet away an 18 year old boy would be talking some nonsense about a video game they could no longer even afford or indeed had a place to play if they could.  It was the same person really, just with half a century or so between them.

I’d say the most notable thing about many of the men in the mission is their unwillingness or inability to grow up.  I do not speak of simply retaining the joys of youth that can be retained into maturity.  The men there who seem unable to break the cycles that keep them in missions are the ones who simply never obtain the willingness to take on any long term responsibility.  I saw inarguable evidence that a man who chooses to be idle and carefree can easily do so for the entirety of a very long life.  I’m sure that there are many who never make it that far but that lifestyle is quite survivable with a little cunning, luck and by means of a few services provided by both private and public organizations.

My contact with the homeless up to this point was minimal.  Now that I think of it, minimal to the point of none.  To borrow from Spinal Tap, how much more minimal could it be and I think, “None, none more minimal.”  I don’t suppose that is all that uncommon though.  Though on reflection, I (and you indeed) might have met, talked with, known a homeless person without ever realizing it.  The obvious ones: the ones in dirty clothes, long greasy hair carrying battered packs or bags are one group, but there are others I know who you might strike up a conversation with in downtown Greenville at the park, library or a coffee shop and you would most likely never know they were “one of those homeless people” unless they volunteered the information.

Were you to visit your local mission you would doubtlessly find many interesting people.  They have amazing stories to tell and you will learn a lot.  Your temptation may well be to help them in some way because many of them will seem to just be missing an only an “opportunity” to get themselves straightened out.  I wouldn’t advise anyone who feels led to help someone else to not do it however I do think that if you want to reach out to people in this situation one should do so with eyes wide open.  Be prepared for your generosity to show little apparent fruit.  Keep in mind that if someone seems intelligent, well spoken, talented, gifted and otherwise personable and still finds themselves chronically in a rescue mission or homeless then there is an often hidden piece of the puzzle that may not be readily apparent.  It could be something as profound as a mental illness or even simple laziness or even that that person simply doesn’t place a high value on the kind of home and job stability that most of us hold so dear.

That being said, nothing you ever do for someone else is ever truly wasted.  I learned that some of the homeless were exactly who I thought they were but I learned that many of them were somewhat surprising.  Missions and shelters are amazing places.  There are good ones and bad ones.  Some truly want to help others.  Some are little more than scams that keep their residents under their control by demanding amazingly high “rent” or percentages of their wages for jobs that the facilities help them get.  Some are safer than others.  Some tolerate no drugs, alcohol or dangerous behavior and others are little more than subsidized crack houses.

My friends and family were somewhat concerned for my safety while in the program.  In the case of the Greenville Rescue Mission I had little to fear.  Clients who are belligerent or dangerous are not admitted at all if their behavior is known and nobody who refuses to follow the rules is retained as a client.  An unfortunate yet necessary part of the safe operation of a mission like GRM is that they do not take severely disturbed or mentally unstable people.  On the one hand I often saw profoundly troubled people who had no place to go.  Some people just seemed to shuffle between state and county services, the police and what few services they were eligible for.  Frankly, the mission side and the Overcomers were filled with convicted criminals.  Some of them had done some truly horrible and violent things.  I met many men whose lives have been changed and were it not for that change they would have been dangerous to be around them at all.  I met men who had killed, knifed, shot, stabbed, beaten, robbed, home invaded, and worse.  I found myself in a situation once that I was told quite frankly by one man had it happened in prison I’d have found myself laying on the floor of a shower with multiple leaks having sprung forth from my person.

There is something in the make-up of the chronically homeless that keeps them there.  There were several men that I met during my time at GRM who had considerable skill in valuable areas.  Some were truly amazing cooks.  Others were skilled tradesmen.  It was not uncommon for these men to find a good job and move out and seemingly get their lives together and then within a few weeks be back again.  Some men had cycled in and out of the mission in Greenville or in surrounding cities or counties for years.

The cliché would be that “people are the same all over” and while my experience is that yes, these men are very much like you and me in many ways, there is also, in the case of many of them, something different.  There is a wanderlust.  There is a profound disregard for the stability that we cherish.  Some, as I said earlier, simply have never had their character mature though their bodies have grown old.

Let me close out this part by finishing out a description of the facility.  The mission houses about 150 at any given time including the Overcomers.  There are several small “family apartments” for in-tact married families with children who are homeless.  There is a common dining area and kitchen where all meals are prepared.  There is a gymnasium with a basketball court taken from a long since demolished local facility and a small chapel.  The common meeting area is the “Library” which serves as a game room and general hangout.  It is frequently too noisy for study or quiet contemplation but I found it fine for journal writing and frankly it gave me quite a bit of inspiration.

It is not technically “free” to live in the mission.  I believe the actual charge was something like $9 a day but men usually worked a small job outside the mission or in the kitchen or house crew or at one of the Miracle Hill warehouses to pay their boarding.  Stays are supposed to be limited to 90 days but under certain circumstances some men have stayed much longer.  The goal of the mission is to transition men to living on their own and even while I was there programs were being improved so as to make these transitions more likely and more successful.

So this is where I was for the last few months and who I was with.  I learned at least as much as I did in my years of college and grad school in only a few short months.  You can’t buy perspective like that nor can one get it from a documentary or a book.  Growing up white and middle class does indeed shelter one from a good deal of things.  Some of what I now know I could well have gone the rest of my life without ever learning.  Some of it I wish I didn’t know.  But after all was said and done my eyes are open to a side of life that I had no experience with.  I can’t recommend the path I’ve taken to learn these things and to be here but I do treasure it for myself and hope to find the words to share some of what I’ve learned in the future.

Recovery: Arrival

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, at the beginning of one of the Jeeves novels, laments about the difficulty of knowing where to begin a story.  This is especially difficult when one knows that some readers may have a certain degree of familiarity with places, characters or situations and others most certainly do not.  One group will quickly grow impatient and urge the author to “get on with it” and “move along” while others can be quite confused and left with too many unanswered questions.  So it is with this portion of the story for me.

The events that brought me to the place where I want to begin things are not things that I have much desire to rehash at this time at least.  Suffice it to say that over the course of the last few years I cultivated an extremely unhealthy relationship with alcohol that brought many aspects of my world crashing down on May 1 of 2009.  It is that date that I count as the time that I entered the culture of “recovery” because before that I had only sought to free myself of the bondage to alcohol in my own strength.  Only a very few people knew of my problem before that point and even the ones that I did let in on my secret were routinely lied to and not truly allowed to help me in any meaningful way.  There is more to be said about that portion of my life but as I said, that’s not really where I want to go with this right now though I reserve the right to rabbit-trail off in that direction as opportunity allows.

Even after May 2009 I was not truly submitted into recovery in ways that could allow God to work in my life.  I was going to a lot of meetings and listening to some good counsel from friends but I wasn’t putting much if any of it into practice.  I was buying more chances and taking one more opportunity to see if I could figure out a way to get my life back together and still do things the way I wanted to do them.  It was on July 29 that it broke down once more and by August 3, 2009 I was walking into the Greenville Rescue Mission to enter a 27 week recovery program called Overcomers.

You don’t join this exclusive club all that easily.  First you have to screw your life up pretty badly.  (Check)  Then you find yourself sitting across the desk from a man named Curtis Pitts.  Mr. Pitts was a judge here in South Carolina for many years.  He’s retired now and he administers the Overcomers program for Miracle Hill Ministries.  On July 30 I found myself sitting in a chair deeply in the throws of detoxing from alcohol abuse and vacantly answering the question Curtis asks every man who wants to get into the program: “Are you ready to change your life?”  Nobody gets in to the program that doesn’t say yes.  There are two ways to make yes come out of your mouth at that point.  One is to really have no idea what you are saying and to believe you are making an informed and rational decision when you say “yes”.  The other is to have no intension of changing but being smart enough to know that going through one more program might buy you another chance with someone so you say “yes.”  I fell into the former category.  I said yes but had no real idea what was to come.

Overcomers isn’t a detox or medical facility so a man under the influence or only hours away from his last drink or drug can’t immediately enter the program.  It was Monday before I could take care of my personal affairs to the point of being able to go away for 6 months or so and for the worst effects of alcohol poisoning to be out of my system.  I’d been through this detox before many times.  Over the past two years or so I’d will powered my way off of the bottle for as much as a few weeks at a time.  I knew how the cycle would go for me.  8 to 12 hours after my last drink the restlessness and extreme discomfort would begin.  Sweating bouts would happen regularly and it would be days before my appetite for food would return though food generally helped the process if I could make myself eat.  Sitting still was not an option for more than a few moments and though there was no food in my stomach I felt a constant urge to vomit or at least retch.  I had tried various methods of getting off of alcohol and trying to beat the detox.  Slowly weaning myself off of alcohol really didn’t work.  Gutting though it seemed the best way.  The worst detox I ever had was back on May 1.  That endless night was filled with mental discomfort that I can scarcely describe.  In the dark of the bedroom I was in I thought I saw people standing in the shadows or moving around the foot of the bed.  I swore that I saw words written on the walls of the bedroom.  Images and visions that made no sense that I can only vaguely recall played in loops like a VCR set on endless play.  I saw exactly the same images replayed again and again and time seemed to stand still.  As bad as it was though…65 days later I was drinking again.

And so as I said, I walked into a rescue mission that August morning with my possessions packed into two bags.

I had been to that rescue mission once before as I recall.  Kat and I had dropped off some bread we had picked up as part of a local food collection program but I had never really thought much about who lived there.  “The homeless” I supposed.  One can’t really grow up in America without hearing about the homeless.  It seemed to become a big issue back when I was a kid with the usual camps advocating for the homeless or condemning them.  Not being a very political animal I didn’t give much consideration to them.  I had helped out with a food drive or two and taken a bag of obligatory cans of whatnot to a drop off around the holidays but I never had met any homeless people.

The Greenville Rescue Mission is divided into two halves.  On one half is the Overcomer program that I joined and the other half is a collection of men whose circumstances have led them to Greenville with no place to live.  I got to know several of those men over the next few months.  The first few days though were all about adjusting to an environment like none I had ever seen.

Most men who enter the Overcomer program come in, more or less, the same way: broken.  The previous few days or hours that precede entering a rehabilitation program are usually among the hardest of a person’s life.  Often a man is brought by a friend or family member who is desperate to see change in the man or boy that is being dropped off.  I was brought in by my wife, parents and a good friend.  After passing my breathalyzer test and a drug screen I said my goodbyes, was prayed over and I entered the program.

Most “intakes” to the program were done on Thursdays or Fridays but in my case I came in on a Monday.  The program plan is for the first few days of a “client’s” stay to be relatively free from responsibilities other than learning the routine.  My stay started off somewhat differently.  After being checked in and oriented by one of the “team leaders” I found what would be my first job at the mission almost immediately.  (As an aside, I’ll go into “team leaders” a bit more later but for my Bob Jones University friends reading this I can use “team leader = hall leader” as an easy bit of shorthand for you to understand the position.)

For the first few weeks of the program everyone is what is called a “pre-programmer”.  This means that one works at their mission job for most of the day and has one hour of class at 4:00pm.  Most clients are assigned to a job about 48 hours or so after they arrive or, in the case of those showing up at the end of the week, on Monday.  I was still in the process of being checked in and oriented when I heard one of the guys from the kitchen tell Scott, the team leader, that they needed help in the kitchen.  Since I like to cook I immediately volunteered that I wouldn’t mind working there and the next thing I knew I was down in the supervisor’s office being interviewed.  That turned out to be one of the best decisions I made.  Working in the kitchen was an amazing experience and I’ll go into more of that later.

So at the end of the day I found myself journaling about my first hours and taking in my new home.  The Overcomer dorm is a large room with about 60 bunk beds and lockers inside.  There are two bathroom areas with the facilities one would expect.  The bunks were metal frame with a hodge-podge of donated orthopedic mattresses on them.  Some mattresses were much better than others.  New guys always got the worst ones because as soon as a guy gets “disqualified” or “DQed” from the program and his bed is stripped the scavengers come for his mattress.  I’ve seen a mattress move to a new location literally before the previous owner was out the front door.

Bed linen consists of a thin blue ribbed bedspread that is tied at each end and stretched over the mattress.  On top of this each man is issued a blanket of some kind and pillows and pillow cases.  During the day the bunks are expected to be neatly made and nothing else is permitted to be stored on the bunks.  Everything else each man owns is secured in his locker apart from shoes which are kept under the bottom bunks.  The mission kept the building well heated and cooled so the type of blanket wasn’t all that important for warmth.  I had a tan comforter that I eventually started using as the covering for the blue spread.  I brought a light weight blanket from home as my covering.

I brought the recommended clothes for my stay and little more as there was not much room for storage.  Some men came in literally with only the clothes on their backs.  Others brought far more than they would ever need.  After 15 years of living with my wife I was now in a dorm with 50something other men with all of my worldly possessions in a 7’ tall locker.  Life had changed already and that night found me laying on a lumpy mattress staring up at a fluorescent fixture in the dim glow of the light from the bathroom.  All around me I heard the snores and noises of the other men.  The reality of what I was in for over the next few months started to crash in upon me and I felt very alone for the first of many times.