Anyone who lives with addiction, writes about addiction or studies addiction knows a lot about failure, a ton about false starts and too goddamned much about death. Today, though, I want to tell a happy story, and one I wasn’t expecting. First, though, I’ve got to go back to a speech I gave on Memorial Day, 2015, at Veterans Park in Manchester, NH. (As it happened (as it was meant to happen), I shared the stage with Senator Kelly Ayotte that day. Later, she entered this speech into the congressional record, something I will cherish for the rest of my days—and would never believe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.)
So . . . the sermon, errr speech I delivered:
Lives of Purpose, Not Meaningless Deaths—5/31/15
Today we remember our military dead, particularly those who died in battle defending our country. Each of those war dead raised his or her hand and swore an oath, a promise to every other citizen: I will die for you. Think about that. I will die for you. Life is what we live for, life is all we have, yet each fallen warrior we remember today offered to die for me and you and you and you. That promise, ladies and gentleman, whether fulfilled or not, is truly remarkable, for who offers death for the sake of strangers?
You heard that I am a veteran. It is true. I was no great patriot, just a dumb kid from Durham with a duty to serve my country, so I joined the Army for four years. Like all veterans, I raised my hand and offered to die for you. After my enlistment, I did many good things, but also made large and self-destructive mistakes. So large and so self-destructive that eight years ago, I was living on the street, drinking mouthwash for the alcohol. Having reached the jumping off point, I no longer wanted to live. I wanted to be dead. I wasn’t offering to die for you—I wanted to die for myself.
Instead of embracing death, I reached out to the Manchester VA medical center. I was stabilized and introduced to the group that has helped me remain sober ever since. I was a suicidal drunk, and I got the help I needed. Today, I am the luckiest man on the face of the planet. As director of Liberty House here in town, I witness the redemption and return to health of many veterans every year. That is exciting. What is not exciting, though is seeing the dozens and dozens of vets who are not ready when the lightning strikes, the lightning that might return them to sanity and safety.
I am an alcoholic, and identify myself as such, but I am also a heroin addict and always will be. I’ve been clean four times as long as I’ve been sober, but I’m always just a needle away from active addiction.
I’d like to tell you about three Liberty House alumni, representing the certain past, the current present and the unknown future. Their stories are our stories, and each of them raised his hand to die for you and for me.
First, Ernie, a 1990s infantryman. Ernie was the first vet I brought to Liberty House three years ago. Newly clean of heroin, Ernie was a good resident and a good man, but the wreckage of his past landed him back in jail. When released, he didn’t come back to Liberty House. Instead, he returned to the arms of heroin. He is dead. He overdosed on heroin in February. His death was not for you or me. His death meant nothing.
Second, Don, an Iraq combat veteran. When I met Don sixteen months ago, he was completing treatment for heroin addiction. He came to Liberty House, became involved with a support group, and began rebuilding his relationships with his children. Today, he is working full-time, self-supporting and completely clean and sober. His life is filled with meaning and I am proud to call him my friend. Just Saturday he came by to help us with a construction project.
The third vet I’ll call Joe. He lived with us for two months, going to support group meetings, working full time and regaining the respect and trust of his family. Unfortunately, Joe stopped going to meetings, violated Liberty House rules and is this very second living on the street in Manchester, an active heroin addict. Just Saturday, he stopped by Liberty House to help out with the project, excited about getting clean. Last night, while I was writing this speech, Joe approached a current resident on Elm Street, visibly high. The current resident, clean and sober, became emotional telling me about Joe, and the promise he is throwing away.
You have heard of the heroin epidemic in Manchester, all the overdoses, all the wasted promise, all the death. I see this every day, see the Ernies, the Daves and the Joes. Joe, and he may be in this crowd right now, bumming money or cigarettes off you, faces the juncture every junkie faces. He can choose death—by overdose, by neglect, by violent crime. Or he can choose life, the path of recovery Dave and I have chosen. I’m not a praying man, but if you are please pray for Joe and all the other Joes and Janes using heroin today, veterans or not, are offered the real choice of recovery, the choice between a life of purpose and a meaningless death.
So, a quick update on the three men I talked about in that speech. Ernie is still dead. Don, the Iraq vet and recovering addict/alcoholic, is still clean and sober, still in recovery and still a man of distinction. In fact, for the past couple years, Don has been a member of the Liberty House Board of Directors, not as a token former resident but because of his insights into life as a homeless vet in recovery.
I’d asked for prayers for Joe, the still active junkie at that time—prayers he’d get clean, recover from the horror of addiction, rejoin the land of the living—but I’d honestly assumed, when I didn’t hear more about him or his life, that he’d become a statistic, either in the column of active users or that of the dead. It pains me to reveal that assumption, but in the world of addiction I’ve had to attend a lot of funerals, and the fields are always white with folks to be introduced to recovery.
If you’ve read this far, you want to know the good news, and I’m excited to tell you that last Friday, while I was in a church-basement meeting in Colebrook, I got a text from Joe and his girlfriend. Joe, who’d relapsed off the rails and off my radar, got clean and sober and he and his girlfriend have stayed clean for two years. He’s working, living in an apartment they pay for themselves and still trying to do the right thing. In a couple weeks, when I’m down in Manchester, the three of us are going to get together, catch up and celebrate. Celebrate life. Celebrate recovery. Celebrate that we’re all still alive to celebrate.
I am indeed a very happy man.
And if you’re Joe right now, still above ground but wondering how much longer you will be, the choice is still yours. You don’t have to end up with a toe tag at a morgue. You don’t have to follow Ernie to the grave. You can choose Don’s path or my path or, thanks be to God, Joe’s path.
You, too, can indeed be a very happy man or woman.