BRC outpatients reclaim sobriety
BY WINNIE McCROY | The long road from drug and alcohol abuse to recovery is rife with pitfalls and setbacks — but for some clients at the Bowery Residents’ Committee Fred Cooper Substance Abuse Service Center, small steps toward sobriety have blossomed into lives reclaimed. Three BRC outpatient clients shared their stories of recovery.
“The program started in 1971 as a way to help people struggling with mostly alcohol, but also drug problems,” says Program Director Murray Edwards, MA. “The idea was for a supportive community and network of people who experienced working with addiction, an ‘each one teach one’ kind of mentality.”
Issues of addiction are often intertwined with mental health, homelessness, sexual and verbal abuse and lack of stability, as well as the physical toll that years of drug abuse takes on the body.
Edwards says that since the Fred Cooper Center on 127 West 25th Street opened last September, they have admitted about 220 clients, and graduated 65. “For many of them, drugs and alcohol started as a way to cope with those feelings that were so overwhelming and all-consuming. But over the years, the coping mechanism becomes problematic and leads them into other problems…because perhaps they were drunk or high, and got into a fight and were arrested.”
Once you remove the addiction, notes Edwards, there is generally an initial relief — followed by the tremendous struggle of losing a longtime coping mechanism. Success lies in changing lifestyles.
“A big saying in the treatment community is that it’s people, places and things that lead you back to drugs and alcohol,” Edwards remarks. “For a lot of people to get clean and stop using, it’s hard to change their old lifestyle, friends, places they used to go. We try to build a new support network, a new way to socialize that’s not based around drugs and alcohol.”
Barbara was 29 when she began doing crack cocaine. She got kicked out of the family home and was living on the street for years.
In January 2011, she decided she didn’t want to use anymore. She was referred to BRC’s Reception Center, where she found help. Once she began to get back on her feet, she was moved into the Fred Cooper Center.
Edwards recalls that when Barbara first entered the program, she had a bad attitude, telling people to their face, “I don’t like you.” Her mindset was finding ways to get high and still get over on the system. When she participated in the group counseling sessions, that began to change. She began to look and feel better, to act differently, and started to like who she was becoming. She came to a support group recently, and new clients pointed to Barbara’s success as something they aspired to.
“I had to change my attitude. I had a bad attitude,” Barbara admits. Now, when she thinks about using, she remembers the last time she did crack, saying, “I don’t want to go back like that.”
“The biggest challenge,” Barbara notes, “was not using. The biggest help was the ladies’ group. I would talk about my feelings, about wanting to use and the counselors would give me feedback and advice.”
She also made connections with the other ladies. Although that initial group of women has moved on, when Barbara graduated, she continued to attend the ladies’ group twice a week, where she found the help she needed to stay clean.
Back in contact with her family, Barbara says she recently spent the weekend with some local relatives. She lives in a BRC-sponsored apartment, and although she doesn’t associate with her old friends, she admits that former neighbors have commented on how much better she looks since she quit doing crack.
“I go for my check-up. I went through a lot of things and I got good relations with my kids now,” says Barbara, regarding her four adult children. “I talk to them every day on the phone. Some are down South, some in Schenectady and two are in the city.”
She has been clean for more than a year, and her mental health is stable. With the help of the BRC-sponsored Metropolitan Apartment Program job preparedness services, she has created a resume and is looking for employment as a receptionist.
Offering some advice, Barbara encouraged other addicts to, “Give yourself a chance. Give yourself a break. [BRC] can show you how to be clean again.”
Willie was 42 years old in 1992, when he started to get high, lured into smoking crack by a female partner.
“I was in and out of prison and jail since then, and I just got tired of it,” recalls Willie — who said his addiction led him to shoplifting to fund his habit.
He had just finished doing a year and a half in prison when he got picked up for another crime. They were going to give him the maximum penalty when Willie begged them for help, saying, “You keep locking me up, but I got a drug and alcohol problem and that’s not doing anything for me. Get me into a program.”
In the winter of 2010, a judge entered Willie into rehab, but wouldn’t let him leave Rikers Island alone. An escort drove him to the Tombs (the NYPD’s Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown) — where he walked the short distance to rehab at BRC’s Bowery location.
“I was hearing voices and I thought me getting high would help the voices, but it ended up making it worse. The jail thing, I got tired of that. Enough was enough. So I came out of the Tombs and headed to BRC. I don’t fault nobody but myself,” Willie says. “I really don’t look back on my past. I talked to people about it, but my past is my past, and I ain’t going back there no more.”
Willie credits the BRC’s one-on-one counseling and support groups as being invaluable to his recovery. Because he does not talk freely about his life, the biggest challenge was opening up.
Still, he worked the program, noting that his biggest accomplishment was graduating and moving into his own apartment. Edwards, remembering Willie’s graduation speech, says he proudly stated that it was the first thing in his life he ever finished.
Willie now has a network of friends from his support group, and avoids the pitfalls that come with returning to his old neighborhood.
People, places and things, Willie says, are constant reminders of what his life used to be like: “I test myself. I go back to my old neighborhood and people they out, they say how good I’m doing. The drug dealers try to give me drugs, but I walk away from them because I’m in recovery. They throw it to me and tell me I don’t owe them nothing, but I just leave it on the ground. I know that’s what they want me to do — pick it up and go get high, because they know that then I’ll come back and give them all my money.
“I’m definitely not going to put myself in no kind of situation to get back to jail,” Willie vows. “Sometimes I’ll be in a situation where you gotta know how to walk away. Words don’t hurt you. As long as nobody don’t put a hand on me, I’ll be alright. I can walk away. But there’s people out there sicker than me.”
People who feel like they want to get their life together should come to the BRC, Willie asserts. “I know there’s help out there,” he says. “It’s hard to do it alone. I tried that and it don’t work. You can do it, but you gotta be sincere. You gotta come here and tell the truth, and if you’re real, you’re gonna get help.”
Making a break with drug and alcohol abuse was extremely difficult for David. When his father retired from the military, his parents relocated him and his younger brother to Puerto Rico. Shortly after, they were involved in a fatal accident.
“When we were young, my brother and I lost our parents in a car accident and were raised by uncles and aunts,” David recalls. “We looked for guidance from hustlers in the streets and started doing drugs at an early age — heroin and cocaine, because it was cheap.”
Eventually, the boys returned to New York, where David began studying culinary arts — but the old life called out to him.
“There wasn’t no rock bottom for me,” David says. “I was working and everything was going smooth, until I got fired, and didn’t have nowhere to go except to my little brother. He was shooting up heroin, so I started shooting up with him. In the middle of all of that stuff, he OD’d.”
Feeling responsible for his brother’s death, David began running the streets, doing drugs — and committing crimes to pay for them.
“I was shooting up and stealing, and caught a petty larceny charge,” he says. “The judge mandated I go to a residential treatment program, but I got moved into a three-quarter house, and then [to the BRC program].”
Edwards recalls that when David went before the judge, he said that rather than being arrested, he felt as though he was rescued from the relapse caused by his brother’s death.
“You give your urine, you do the groups, you talk about stuff you really don’t want to talk about, and everything is uncomfortable,” David says. “But eventually, it kicked in. Once you’ve been where I’ve been, you start feeling better. Next thing you know, I was ready to get a job, so I found a job at Long Island University, but at the same time, I applied here.”
When a position became available, the BRC hired him as a kitchen employee.
David occasionally attends the aftercare program; when he sees clients where he was, he is proud that he got his life back on track. He has his own furnished room, a full-time job at BRC and has been clean for two-and-a-half years.
“I try,” David asserts. “I’m not saying I don’t struggle. I go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous]. I knew what it was to drink champagne with a rich person and eat out of the garbage. I used to wake up and shoot up, but now I get up and drink a cup of coffee, and think, ‘I’m going to work.’ Everyone asks, ‘Why are you always so happy?’ If you been where I’ve been, you’d be smiling, too.”
For more info on the BRC Fred Cooper Substance Abuse Service Center, call 212-533-5151 or visit brc.org.