Justin Burggraeve on the TV show Conviction Kitchen. Photo courtesy Cineflix 2010.
You start in the injection room at Insite and, after hemming and hawing for a bit, you admit yourself into their second floor luxury spa-tox. Seven to 14 days later you graduate to the third floor stabilization facility. After three-and-a-half weeks of waiting patiently for a bed at a treatment center, you finally make it in ... you’re safe.
You bid farewell to your fellow drug-addled thieves, pimps, pushers, prostitutes and perverts that made up your roster of friends. Maybe you replace those friends with the sober crowd, most likely introduced to you through the 12-step meetings you had been frequenting while awaiting a bed in the 28 day Serenity Sanitarium.
You pay attention to every class, to every subject to do with staying sober and you start to practice the tools you learn during your stay. Everything is going to be just f-i-n-e. Then, congratulations on all your hard work, your new life awaits. You are discharged, large and in charge, into the world.
But what do you do now? Day One and I’m homeless, jobless and just about penniless.
This is where I—and I suspect many other addicts—run into a bit of a problem.
My priorities, naturally, were finding a place to stay, making money to stay afloat and landing a new job. None of these things were going to come quickly.
In the meantime, I had to avoid mentally deteriorating or I’d never get any of it done. During this time I learned (and continue learning every hour of every day) a few things that are vital to making the transition from treatment to outside sobriety.
Lesson 1: Be humble and accept any help that is offered
My first night, I was offered a place to stay by a friend’s family. Initially turning the offer down, citing their full house as the reason (but really just being proud), I ended up agreeing to spend the night there. Being turned away by two very decent, but very full shelters, may have been a factor in my decision, but the prospect of staying at the First United Church on East Hastings was the kicker—despite finishing treatment, I did not have the power to shite it out a couple of nights there.
I went to the welfare office, where they gave me a whopping $140 and sent me on my way. I immediately started looking for work as a waiter with only a couple months experience in the field and no Serving It Right or Food Safe certificates, which are industry standards. I had been part of a TV show called Conviction Kitchen that trained ex-cons how to work in upscale restaurants and I wanted to continue on this path.
Unfortunately, job ads stated, “Two years plus experience needed and both certificates a MUST.” I was immediately and deeply discouraged.
This is where the black hole of despair threatens hardest and the tools from treatment are needed most and agreeing to let people help me, even though it was hard for me to accept, allowed me to relax a little bit and slow things down.
Lesson 2: No matter how hard things get, remember meditation and other self-awareness activities are absolutely vital to staying sober
Eckhart Tolle talks about how all of our problems stem from either dwelling on past traumatic issues (which we addicts have many of) or obsessing over scenarios of a future that only exists in our head. If I am in the present moment, I have nothing to worry about and this gets me through my day, hour by hour. Thank God, too, because I need it to get over one of the biggest hurdles I’m finding to becoming a productive member of the sobriety society: housing outside the DTES.
I’m 27 years old and have spent over half of my life severely addicted to drugs. But by looking at me, most would never guess that I have ever even seen a needle filled with heroin or cocaine, let alone injected for the last three-quarters of a decade. I’m clean cut, articulate, dress well and look very healthy. At first glance, I’m the kind of guy you’d love to rent to.
I look vigorously for a single furnished room within or slightly above what welfare gives for shelter allowance ($375). Everything seems to go perfectly fine, as I’m very outgoing and friendly, until it comes time to talk about renting the place. I’m honest and let them know that I need them to fill out an “intent to rent” form, which lets welfare know where I will be living and is the only way they will issue me shelter allowance. This form might as well be a giant red piece of paper complete with a water mark that says “DO NOT RENT TO THIS PERSON”.
There is a huge stigma attached to welfare recipients. In the eyes of many, we are all active drunks, drug users, uneducated, lazy throwbacks in human evolution—especially to those who are renting out a piece of their home. Any talk of welfare, even if explaining that it is just for the first month, and the potential landlord becomes quiet and short, rushing you out the door with a polite, “I’ll let you know.”
Frustration, animosity, self pity, pessimism and defeat are among the first words that come to mind when accessing, analyzing and labeling the intensity of feelings this scenario brings to me. Pretty much the only way to get out of that emotional suckhole is to concentrate on the one thing I know I have for sure: my breath. It calms me down in seconds, gives me new perspective and enables me to carry on.
Lesson 3: Come to realize that being an addict is a gift
What if you were able to see that all the things you went through that led you to addiction, and all the things you did in your addiction, were blessings and not curses?
Not long ago, I confided in Dr. Gabor Maté (whose book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts I credit substantially for my current sobriety) that I have been having problems dealing with the childhood trauma that led to my addiction. He told me that I cannot change those things, and asked me to consider that possibly the trauma itself isn’t really the base problem. Instead, he suggested, it is my perception of myself that was developed as a result of those traumatic experiences that is the real problem.
Self-perception is something I can definitely change. As a now-grateful, recovering addict, I have been given a wondrous opportunity to look inside myself in a way not many people, addict or not, ever get to look at themselves. The majority of the world wakes up in the morning, does whatever it is they do, goes to bed and never once does it come to their mind to ask the one fundamental question that, subconsciously, we are all looking for the answer to: Just who the F*@K am I?
Over the last few months, through treatment, therapy, ayahuasca and hard work, I have had the absolute pleasure of getting to know a very kind, loving, compassionate human being who I call, well, me!
This, my fellow humans, is an absolute gift and, if I’m able to see these attributes, maybe someone else will too, and give me a chance to prove it despite my need for an “intent to rent” form to be filled out.
Lesson 4: Transferrable skills
Yes, you read that right. While completing a résumé, and stumbling on the “area of expertise” section of the template, I had an epiphany. Although you won’t exactly find Addict listed as a title on any of my previous work history on my résumé, I started to look at the things I went through before and during addiction as classes I took in a very long school semester that just happened to almost kill me multiple times. From being neglected as a child (self-motivated, works well with little to no supervision), to mental and emotional abuse (handles high pressure with ease), I have developed many skills of value. Addicts, in order to get our drug of choice, are forced to become extremely resilient and resourceful. We bleed every connection possible and, when that runs out, find another. We don’t stop until we got what we need and we go to any length to get it.
This determination and dedication is a blessing. It is my theory that if I put even half of the effort into finding a place to live and finding work that I used to put into getting my drugs, I might be a very successful person by this time next year. This is what keeps me going and this is why I don’t give up.
Yes, I’m homeless. Yes, I’m jobless. And yes, I’m penniless. But one thing I’m not is hopeless.
So I wake up every day, say a little prayer, dress in the one shirt-and-tie set that I borrowed and hit the pavement looking for work and housing with the same attitude that I had four months ago when I was heroin sick: I must get what I need, and I will do whatever it takes to get it.
If I stay humble, present, remember God’s gift to me and apply my transferrable skills, I will succeed.
Justin is a participant in Megaphone’s community writing workshop program.