For the past year I’ve been volunteering as a “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission (RGM) near my home. I meet with men in the 10-month residential drug and alcohol rehab program. It’s a program that the 30 men in the program mostly run themselves, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry and serving other homeless men who come for a bed and a meal (but aren’t in the program.) The men in the program work, they take classes, they go to 12-step meetings, and they follow certain disciplines such as memorizing Scripture.
Since I meet with the men individually for 45 minutes to an hour each week, I get to know them pretty well. That’s why I like it: they are very interesting people whom I genuinely enjoy. They all have stories, pretty interesting stories.
A few observations stand out. First, these guys are terribly vulnerable to their own addictions. At any moment they can give up the cause, leave, and relapse. And they do, very often. They seem like normal, unstressed people most of the time, but they live on edge. I’ve seen them making very good progress until one day, without warning, something had switched off in them, their attitude was negative, and within days they were back on the street.
Second, there are no programs that can “fix” them. The RGM says that they give men an opportunity–a safe, clean place where they don’t have to worry about food and shelter–to learn and grow and experience God’s working in their lives. They have to engage and make the changes, the program can’t do it for them. I think that is exactly right. I’ve often slipped into thinking that good programs are the magic elixir. But what we are offering is not a fix-it. It’s an environment where they have a chance. Out on the street they don’t have much of a chance, realistically.
When you see these realities, it can be pretty discouraging. The success rate isn’t all that high. (It isn’t anywhere, I believe.) I’d say ten months is a minimum to establish real change that will last, and for most it’s not enough.
However, this week one of my guys, I’ll call him George, told me a story that gave me encouragement.
He’s a heroin addict. If you met him you wouldn’t guess it: he’s clean cut, young, smart, articulate. But he’s on the verge of losing his life to heroin. We’ve talked about the urges: how he tends to isolate himself, get down on life, isolate some more, and then find drugs to ease the pain. An impulse wells up in him that’s almost impossible to control. He might put it off, but not for too long–certainly not for the rest of his life. You could call it a death wish and not be too far off. It’s a wish to forget, to avoid, to obliterate self. It’s an overwhelming wish to slip into darkness.
Before I met him, George went nearly to the end of the 10-month program and then relapsed when he had just a few weeks to go. The RGM will take you back any number of times, but you have to start over. So George is in his second time through the program. (Plus he’s been in other, shorter programs before. Most of the RGM men have been through multiple programs.)
This time he says it’s different. The difference is in his relationship to God. He says that now God is involved in everything, not just some things. He has given his life to God and he wants to live for God.
Of course, there is a lot of God-talk frequently associated with recovery. Some of it is just hooey. But I know George pretty well, and I am fairly sure this is genuine. Not just sincere seeking, but genuine finding. He seems grounded. Nevertheless, there are those urges.
A few weeks ago he had a scare. He was with the RGM truck picking up stuff for the thrift store. The owner of a house was moving out and wanted to donate everything, so he called RGM and they sent the truck to help him clean it out. George went into the bathroom and immediately saw some pill bottles. He glanced at the labels–keeping his distance as though from a black widow spider–and glimpsed words that he associated with pain medications. He turned and almost ran out of the room, found the driver of the truck, and told him what had happened. “You have to keep me out of that bathroom,” he said. “Keep an eye on me,” he said. “Don’t let me go in there again.”
When George told me about it he was still almost trembling, recognizing how close he had come. He took encouragement from his spontaneous decision to run away from the temptation–he had never done that before–but at the same time he had brushed up against his vulnerability, and it scared him.
Last week, George went on a run and hurt his knee quite badly. He could hardly walk, so he visited a doctor who x-rayed it and told George he didn’t see any structural problem. It was probably a torn muscle that would recover with time. He said he would give George pain medication. George said, politely, that he doesn’t take pain medications. The doctor said he understood, but urged George to take the prescription just in case. George politely said no. The doctor continued to urge him, and George continued to say no, four times.
Finally, the doctor stopped offering. Then as George was leaving, the nurse asked about his prescription and urged it on him. It was almost comical how much they wanted to help his pain through drugs.
George says he didn’t even think about what he was doing until later. His refusal was completely automatic. It didn’t seem hard; it was simply a matter of doing what he knew he should do. He didn’t feel any temptation, not at the time, nor even later when he reviewed it. For the first time, George really began to believe that his addiction could change. That it is changing, in fact.
I’m not drawing any conclusions from this. I’m hopeful for George, but still wary. He is too. However, I think it’s good to stop and notice when something happens that has never happened before.