Jason Rummel, 31, learns how to knot a tie in the Caritas Works program for men recovering from addiction (Photo by Tina Griego)
The eight men have been living together for months now. The youngest is 20. The oldest is 60. Three are white. Five are African-American. They cannot quite be called friends. They would not be likely to spend time with each other were they not in the same place, were they not facing the same kind of struggle or sharing the same kinds of hope: to find a good job, to reconnect with children and grandchildren, to be at peace, to be free. All hopes predicated upon one requirement: that they stay clean and sober.
“We use hope as an acronym,” one of the men says. “ ‘Hold On, Pain Ends.’”
A 31-year-old who snorted so much meth and opioids that the drugs ate holes in his nasal passages and ravaged his throat, says addiction is like this: “Every fiber in your being not wanting to do something, but it controlling you so much that you are going to do it anyway. I mean, there were times where I was actually in tears because I didn’t want to use — while I was in the process of using.”
They met for the first time in this despair. The youngest, a cherubic-looking redhead, was suicidal. The 31-year-old, Jason, says death had already claimed him. It was, he says, a death of spirit. This they all recognize, a toxic churn of sickness and self-loathing and anger and hopelessness. In the months they work together on sobriety — the community meetings, the counseling, the workshops, the peer mentoring, the side-by-side, day-to-day, guy-in-the-next-bunk living — they have come to recognize something more within one another: the capacity to help someone else and, in that helping, to be transformed.
“We are each other’s life preservers,” says Chuck, the eldest of the group.
“Have you ever been in a life and death struggle with someone you care about?” one of the men, Eric, asks me.
Yes, I tell him.
“That’s what this is,” he says. “This is life and death. And there are a lot of brothers who are no longer with us who have lost this battle. And when I look at these men who are still here, they are the ones who made it. So, what I see, is I see seven walking, living, breathing miracles.”
So, no, not friends. Brothers.
The eight sit now in a classroom in a CARITAS building off U.S. 1. CARITAS, a nonprofit largely funded by foundations and donors, is known for its emergency homeless shelter, the largest in the region. It also runs The Healing Place, a long-term, 12-step recovery program for addicted and alcoholic Richmond-area men who are, in one form or another, homeless. The Healing Place is just down the road from this building. Men come in off the streets into the overnight shelter or the sobering-up center, and from there, if they choose, into the program with its 128 beds.
It takes most of the men a year to 18 months to get through the recovery program. When they have clearly shown their commitment to recovery, they can begin Works, a five-week intensive job preparation and life skills program in this Route 1 building.
Works has a room-turned-walk-in closet of blazers, slacks, dress shirts and ties, arranged as they would be in a fine men’s store, and the men in the program are expected to avail themselves of it. They sit now, neatly attired, waiting for a man from Ledbury to arrive. Ledbury, the Richmond-based luxury men’s clothing brand, has been teaching classes here for more than three years, and sends each man off with sartorial advice and two very fine shirts.
This go-around, the Ledbury instructor is Donald Johnson, who is, as one might expect, impeccably put together. He talks to the men about pairing shirts and blazers, and where the cuff of the pant should hit the shoe and how socks should match the trousers. “Keep it simple,” he reminds them.
He begins a necktie lesson and each man is given a tie to practice knotting. As Johnson demonstrates. I watch Jason, the one who spoke of weeping while using, intently mimic his movements.
Later, Jason tells me that he started experimenting with drugs and alcohol at 13. That by his second – and last – year of college, meth and opioids had joined the party. That his mom and dad, loving parents who visit him every weekend, were none the wiser because he, like other addicts, “wore many masks.” By 23, the crank had eaten holes in his nasal passages and ravaged his throat. So, he switched to needles. He racked up a few felonies, which is more common than not among the men at The Healing Place. While on probation and driving high, he flipped his car. It was either enter treatment or go back to jail. He came to The Healing Place a year ago, unwillingly, he admits. It took him a bit to realize, first, that he couldn’t con his way through, and, second, that he no longer wanted to.
“I didn’t realize I would gain as much as I have,” he says, “that I would learn so much about myself. I’ve learned that my life is worth living. I’ve learned that I have something to offer.”
But I know none of this as I watch him struggle with his tie. “I haven’t worn a tie in years,” he says, “and the last time I did, someone tied it for me.” Neither do I know then that it is his goal to become a peer mentor when he is done with Works so that he can help birth the moment “when the light comes on in someone’s eyes and they come out of the fog to see that life is beautiful.”
I watch the men who know how to knot a tie turn to help those who don’t – over, under, through. It is a gesture so intimate and full of hope that I cannot help but think again how a city contains universes unseen. If we are fortunate, we may stumble upon one, and, if luckier still, catch a glimpse of a moment so genuine that, in it, the heart of a people is revealed.