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.

  1. Joel, my friend, I am sorry for not having checked in with you daily. Please forgive me for letting that get away from me. I do not envy what you went through, and admire you and your bravery beyond words for taking those necessary steps. Please do keep me informed and I will definitely follow your blog.
    Peace & song,

    • Ed
    • March 7th, 2010


    I prayed for you often during your time of recovery. I wanted to contact you during your time at Overcomers, but I honestly didn’t know what to say because in some ways, I felt that I contributed to your addiction. Maybe not in a large way, but I still knew better at the time. For that, I am truly sorry. I am so happy that the Lord saw you through the entire program, and I cannot imagine what you had to go through. Please know that if there’s anything you or Kathy need, please don’t hesitate to call or write. We will always be available for whatever we can help you with.

    Take care.

  2. Hi Joel,

    Powerful writing… somehow your descriptions make me remember years ago when at times I was on the cusp of addiction. I was eventually addicted to a prescription drug. I recognize your account of a delayed craving after several hours.

    Thanks for toughing it out… fighting the good fight.

    • Scott C
    • March 8th, 2010

    As someone else said, powerful writing. Thanks for being willing to share.

    I’ve always counted you as one of my good friends from that awkward time (at least for me) of the teenage years. Even though we lost touch for a while and have only recently reconnected somewhat, I still think of you as “friend”.

    Good luck and continued success. If I can help in any way, please let me know.

  3. thanks for that

  4. Do you know that your site looks a little bit weird in Safari on my laptop with Ubuntu .

    • Marissa
    • March 11th, 2010

    Whoa. I can totally feel like I’m there. Troy’s way less detailed and I’d always ask so many questions and get short, two or three-word answers. But to me it’s important to know what the dorm looks, feels, and sounds like..especially at night, when the lights go out and you’re laying there knowing this is the first of almost 200 nights.. I love that place, and the people in it. I miss Saturdays spent in the gym or the dining room. Thanks for sharing the parts we can never see or experience.

    • Hannah G.
    • March 11th, 2010

    Wow, this is great! I mean, not great circumstances that have brought you to this point, but great results that God is bringing about from your life now. It’s wonderful that you are willing to share what’s been going on in your life. Know that you are a blessing to others as you share your journey of recovery–you’re definitely a blessing and encouragement to me!

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