A CROOKED PATH FORWARD | The pandemic has tested my interpersonal skills, but I’m rising to the challenge

Choices mean power. And responsible choices are the key to connecting with a community. Trauma is stored in the cells of my body and often compromises my ability to make responsible choices. I have struggled to balance trust with survival instincts.

On Aug. 22, 2017, I made one of my first prosocial decisions by checking into an addiction treatment center. I arrived two hours before my intake appointment. I had a duffel bag of clothes that had not been washed in three weeks and a backpack with a couple of library books inside. My dad was with me. I felt a little nervous, but a little relieved, too. 

The next day, I began learning the difficult and complex discipline of living with other people. Every hour of my waking and sleeping was structured. I lived with 12 other addicts with mental illnesses, trauma and criminal backgrounds — like mine. Day two of treatment aroused in me hypervigilance and suppressed anger.

I was paired for dishwashing duty with a phase-three resident who was about to graduate. Every evening he would ask me to leave the pots and pans to soak after dinner so he could finish them when he got back from a meeting. He rarely got to them, so the chore coordinator would come get me out of bed to finish them.

I muttered from my bed in the dark, empty room, “I wonder if that asshole bleeds when he’s stabbed?”

When I reached phase three, however, I understood why the pots and pans guy never had time to finish the dishes. I was busy from sunup to well after sundown building a drug-free life outside the treatment center. It took all my energy and concentration, and I was exhausted by day’s end.   

After treatment, I moved into Fairhaven, a faith-based shared housing program. It was a beautiful house, but then I noticed the mission and values statement they had on a bulletin board.

One of their values read, “We recognize marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.”

I wondered what that had to do with recovery. I also felt disturbed by the blatant fascism, but I chose survival over ethics because I did not have anywhere else to live.

I shared a room and went through four roommates in four months. One night, I came home late after work and found my door unlocked and open with the lights out. I froze because I thought someone had broken in, but there was just a new guy asleep in the bed opposite mine. That’s when I decided I had to find a new home.

I chose to honor my own needs and take responsibility as an ally in diversity. I applied to Oxford Houses of Oregon because they are democratically run and open to anyone in recovery. Once accepted, I had my own private room for the first time in over a year. I felt safe. I had an equal voice in all matters affecting our life together.

Then I got into a fridge war with one of my housemates. We each had half the space in one of the refrigerators, but he would put one or two things in my space. I felt protective of my boundaries — which was good — but I took it too far. I became aggressive and resentful and looked for ways to piss him off.

Instead of discussing my concerns in house meetings, I withdrew more and more from the rest of our community. I felt superior because I was educated and artistic while a lot of the other guys liked dirt bikes and mixed martial arts. They also managed to keep jobs and relationships and stay in recovery, but I had blinders on.

Then a good friend in recovery invited me to rent a house with him and another guy. We found a nice little spot in Southeast Portland with garden beds, beautiful hardwood floors and stone tile counters. I told myself I had arrived because now I was living with friends on our own terms. We had ups and downs — especially trying to keep a third roommate — but we made it through our first year without any major drama.

Then the COVID-19 global pandemic came to our door. We were privileged because I could work from home and he was put on paid leave. After just two weeks of quarantine, however, I lost all self-control. My friend asked me to play a card game, but I was busy trying to find a grocery store that would deliver. When he expressed disappointment, I felt offended and flew into a rage. How could he be thinking about a game when I couldn’t even find food? I shouted obscenities and pounded doors, then drove off and texted him to move out. He did. So, I moved in with Grandma Sharon. I felt gutted and guilty but grateful I didn’t have to go back to the streets.

I wish I could say I’m all better now, but that’s not true. After settling in at Grandma Sharon’s, I feel safe again, although not whole. I stashed some of my economic impact payment in a savings account to start an emergency fund. I am putting what I used to pay for rent into that account, too. I want for no material necessity.

I am still struggling to make responsible choices, but now I see the pattern and the problem at its center. When I experience hypervigilance, I default to survival behavior. For example, when Grandma Sharon told me how nice her neighbors were, I looked for faults behind their kindness or imagined all the ways I would not fit in. I told myself elaborate disaster fantasies. I still need to make responsible choices in a prosocial way, but — out of instinct and habit — I get stymied by fear.

Grandma Sharon knows all my interpersonal struggles. By contrast, she has never met a stranger. She makes effortless conversation with everyone she meets and takes a genuine interest in them. More than that, she does not judge. Her ability to make friends is a mythic form of genius to me. So, when she suggested I bake a couple of peach cobblers and leave them on the doorsteps of her neighbors, I felt like she was letting me in on a secret. I felt like she had opened the gate to her cul-de-sac and invited me in.

People in the Pacific Northwest do not seem to know how to make cobbler. My stepmom, however, passed down her great-grandmother’s Southern peach cobbler recipe to my sister. Reka gave me a copy of it last year. What makes it Southern is the whole stick of butter and full cup of sugar upon which the whole thing is founded. It is delicious and guaranteed to make friends out of strangers.

Grandma Sharon knows how good it is because I made it for her last fall. When she suggested I present it as a gift to her neighbors, I assumed that was something people only pretended to do on TV. Upon reflection, however, I remembered a meal she and I shared last October. I made my stepmom’s peach cobbler as a gesture of gratitude to her for taking me and a couple of friends to Seaside for a long weekend. That was the weekend we became family.

So, this afternoon I am going to challenge my fear with generosity. I am going to bake my family’s secret recipe and, in doing so, open my heart to my neighbors and say thank you for being kind. Thank you for being part of the human family. And thank you for letting me be part of the human family, as well.

This series is a first-hand account of the struggles and successes of overcoming trauma, mental illness, addiction, homelessness and more.​

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