On February 6, 2015, I called a cab, packed a bag, and checked in to a detox center in Kirkland, where I stayed for five days before returning home and starting over—no job, no prospects, and no real faith in myself, but an ineffable feeling that this time, things were different.
I won’t belabor everything that it took to get me to Fairfax that rainy morning—suffice to say, this wasn’t the first time I’d checked myself in to a place where the doors locked from the outside—but something had clicked. More than six years after I first sought help—thinking, in my ignorance, that detox would be a “reset button”—I was done.
But putting it that way makes it sound like a foregone conclusion, and of course it wasn’t. Most people who struggle with substance use struggle to quit, and most of us relapse before we “get it.” Some of us have loving, supportive families who try to help; some of us lose the support of those families after a stint at treatment doesn’t “work,” and many of us don’t have support from family or friends at all, because we’ve burned every last bridge or never had bridges to support us in the first place. I had every advantage—a decent job, a family who wanted to help even if they didn’t know how, and friends who never stopped showing up for me, even when I was at one of my many “rock bottoms”—a concept, by the way, that is just a story we tell ourselves.
One of the reasons I write about homelessness and addiction with such conviction is that I know what it’s like to be addicted and I know the privilege that prevented me from becoming homeless myself. Another reason is that I want to dispel the myths about addiction that people choose to believe because it’s easier than acknowledging the ways in which we’ve failed people who don’t have comfortable cushions to fall back on.
For every conservative armchair addiction expert who says, “My brother was an alcoholic but he just decided it was time to quit,” there’s someone who tells me that they were doing fine on medication but then their doctor cut them off and they switched back to meth.
For every person who tells me they support a zero-tolerance policy for people who want to live indoors, there’s a guy who was able to quit drinking only after getting stable in a place where people didn’t judge him for having a disease.
For every person who says people live in tents and shoot heroin because they want life to be a nonstop party with no consequences or accountability, there’s me, an alcoholic, telling you that maintaining an addiction from day to day is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.
The people you see on the street muttering to themselves or committing crimes to feed a drug habit or living in squalid, deplorable conditions didn’t start out that way; they fell farther than I did, and probably farther than anyone you know, because they ran out of resources, and probably didn’t have many to begin with. The job of a just society isn’t to look at people who are struggling with a life-threatening, time-consuming, soul-annihilating disease and shame them for not curing themselves on their own. It’s to ask them what they need and help them get it.
My bias is for compassion toward people that too many others view with contempt and want to sweep away. This isn’t because I’m a better person than anyone else. It’s because I know that the cure for addiction isn’t tough love or making people’s lives harder or forcing them into treatment and then blaming them when a 28-day spin-dry doesn’t “work.” The cure for addiction is realizing that there isn’t one cure for addiction, that recovery looks different for every person, and that some people may never “get it.” That doesn’t make them less deserving of respect and human rights; it just means that they didn’t defeat a life-threatening disease.
It’s hard to fit public policy into a framework of uncertainty, but everything else is a waste of time.
Unlike many of the people I write about, I had resources, and I got sober in time. I could have become homeless. I could have died. But I didn’t.
And here are some of the things I’ve done because I didn’t: I got a job at a nonprofit that fights for reproductive rights. I created this website. I got a book deal, left the job at the nonprofit, and started writing full-time. I moved out of a lousy apartment in a great location and got a place with a view in a better one. I expanded this site into a full-time enterprise, supported by hundreds of readers in Seattle and beyond. I rebuilt my old relationships and built some new ones. I wrote that book. I stayed here, one day at a time.