May 22, 2006

35 Years of Bad-Learned Behavior Pt. 3

Here is the final part of Richard's story. As he recalled the scenes, it was like a movie in my own head, but so real at the same time, not quite cliche.

I could have written a book with all the material I got from Richard in one two-hour interview. I still might...

After fifteen years of heroin abuse, fifteen years of crime, in and out of rehabs and the like, Richard sat alone in a vacant house. His black and white thirteen-inch television buzzed and faded powered by an illegal tap of the neighborhood electric. Spackle buckets had become furniture, washtubs, and his only place to defecate. A single broken mirror hung on the dilapidated drywall, reflecting a man he barely recognized.

His friends were gone. He had cheated and robbed everyone he knew. He had no money, not even for dope. But he was a survivor.

Three blocks down the street, he sought out a dealer, a young kid on the corner. Richard approached him.

“Can I get one on the arm?” He didn’t have any money.

“F*** you, dope fiend,” the kid said.

Richard turned and walked back to his vacant row home, revenge on his mind. He would stick this guy up. He needed the fix.

He waited a while and returned to the block. There were two lookouts on the corner, both of which disappeared, distracted by two passing hookers. Richard turned into the alley to find the dealer.

He was there, and Richard called out, “Hey let me get one.” The kid turned, walked back to his stash, trying to hide where he was keeping the dope. He was unsuccessful.

Richard took his chance and punched the kid in the face. “Give me the sh*t.”

“F*** you.”

Richard hit him again. The kid relented.

On the way back to the row home, gunshots broke loose between the cops and the dealer, echoing through the neighborhood. Police sirens wailed. Richard ran up the steps, flipped open the cut out trap door to the attic, placed both feet in a bucket secured to a pulley and hoisted himself up to the eaves. He peered through the screen, watching the police, thinking about the vengeance of the dealer if he ever found him.

He sat there for three full hours. The police never found him.

Richard overdosed on heroin that evening while hiding out with a friend outside of Baltimore. He awoke the next morning in Carroll County Hospital. Without him knowing it, his road to recovery had started.

He found an old friend in the hospital, a “biker dude” named Lou with whom Richard used to stick up card games. Lou was now a counselor at the hospital.

“He was the first one to tell me it doesn’t have to be like this,” says Richard. “He said, ‘Tonight we’re going to watch a movie. Its got Sandra Bullock in it.’ I was like, ‘Oh man, she’s a fox.’”

The movie was 28 Days, in which Sandra Bullock plays an addict struggling with realization that she has a problem, and the trials of rehab. This was Richard’s introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Richard was given a structured environment in which he would learn that the problem was with himself, not the rest of the world.

“You really find out how f***ed up you are,” he says. “[In AA] every day you practice being a civilized person with the hopes that one day you won’t have to pretend anymore. I don’t like to change, you know that. I had 35 years of bad-learned behavior to deal with.”

Richard has been clean for five years now. He secured a job at the Main Ingredient CafĂ© in Annapolis, Maryland and has risen up to a position he jokingly calls “Kitchen Steward.”

“The steward acts in place of the king. He takes care of sh*t.”

Being a managing chef is a tough job. Richard is up every morning for work early, faced with the difficulties of organization of duties, inventory, and food cost. But he is in control; of his environment, and himself.

“You have to accept that there is a power greater than yourself. I read the Republic, The Art of War, The Four Agreements. I’m not trying to be a saint. You just got to figure out how to play nice in the sandbox.”


  1. Richard still struggles with playing nice, I assure you.

  2. You seem to know quite a bit about this... :-)