Part of the PublicSource series
Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
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When I arrived, all I had was a trash bag full of donated clothes. The bag contained mostly basketball shorts and worn American Apparel T-shirts, along with a pair of pink Old Navy flip flops that I took a lot of heat for wearing.
Except for the security cameras above the doors, you would never know that the old Victorian building on the border of East Liberty and Garfield wasn’t just a regular house. To be admitted, I had to pass a drug test while Rick, a retired construction worker who now worked at the facility, searched my luggage for drugs, weapons and other contraband. I stood in the driveway and smoked a cigarette until he was finished, at which point he showed me to my room.
The bedroom was the usual recovery house suite: creaky twin bed on a Harvard frame with those ruthless corners, old mismatched sheets, no ceiling fan to combat the stale summer humidity. Rick introduced me to my roommate, a guy named Joe, who made small talk while I unpacked my bag and tried to settle in.
This is how I arrived at Michael’s Place — the transitional housing program that saved my life.
On July 28, as I walked through Michael’s Place once more for the last time, all of these memories returned to me. How accustomed I had become to the rigmarole of a entering a facility. How despondent I had become. How ungrateful I was for that furniture, those sheets, the people who came to work each day to help me.
It’s hard to be grateful when you’ve lost everything and the only thing keeping your feelings at bay is the ability to numb yourself by any means, chemically or otherwise.
But as I walked through the big red brick building, more than four years after first arriving there, I can’t help but think how grateful I am today. The last time I did heroin was April 6, 2014, living in abject misery. Today, I wake up every day in a good mood, thankful that I’m not already sick from withdrawal. Michael’s Place gave me the chance to do that. But, in recent years, the program has been beset with many funding issues. And on July 31, after 17 years of helping addicts like me, and being one of the most successful programs in Allegheny County for doing so, Michael’s Place closed its doors for financial reasons.
In my 22 months there, I had half a dozen roommates and lived with more than 30 different guys. We each used to keep tabs on how many people we had seen come and then get kicked out because they relapsed. The odds for addicts aren’t good. I am one of the lucky ones who made it. And even though I get asked all the time, I have no idea what rhyme or reason there is to it.
I have a friend that puts it like this: There are two planets, one called Opportunity, the other called Desire. Both planets have to be aligned in order for someone to have a chance against their addiction. Michael’s Place was my Opportunity.
Michael’s Place began in 2001 after a group of prison chaplains at the Allegheny County Jail noticed the vicious cycle of substance abuse, homelessness and incarceration. Substance abuse leads to homelessness and incarceration, and incarceration offers no alternative but homelessness upon release. Stuck in that cycle, the inmates the chaplains saw come through the jail usually wound up right back in jail. They formed a group focused on creating a safe place for them to go.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, whose charitable mission is to help the downtrodden, donated most of the funding for the program. Local and federal grants made up the rest. In May 2001, Michael’s Place opened its doors at the Epiphany Church in Downtown, where the PPG Paints arena is now. In 2007, when the construction on the new arena began, Michael’s Place moved to North Negley Avenue in Garfield.
Around the same time Michael’s Place was getting settled in their new building, I began recreationally taking OxyContin. Before long, I was using it every day. I quickly learned that any analgesic can be used in place of another — the only real difference being dosage and duration — so I found and began using heroin, fentanyl, Opana, morphine, codeine, methadone, buprenorphine, anything I could get my hands on.
Within a few years, I had lost my cushy corporate job and was avoiding jail time for possession and theft charges. After that, I cycled through rehab and homelessness, living in three-quarter houses and looking for couches to sleep on. By the time I arrived at Michael’s Place with my hand-me-down pink flip flops, trash bag in tow, I had been to six rehab facilities in the preceding 18 months. I arrived with my life essentially burned to the ground, with active warrants, pending court dates and ruined relationships with family and friends.
"I was resigned to live
or die as an addict."
For years, I struggled with my addiction. But, of course, I always wanted to get clean. Every night I intended to make tomorrow different, only to find those intentions drowned out the next morning by the need for a fix. Addiction may best be summed up like this: When you can quit, you don’t want to. When you want to, you can’t. There were times when I wanted to get clean more than anything, but with no rehab to take me or person to help me do it. And then there was one time where I called for weeks and weeks begging for a bed at a rehab facility, and when the driver came to take me, I told him to leave. I lost years of my life like this — vacillating between begging for chances and squandering them — until the planets began to move for me.
The saddest part of my addiction was when the drugs stopped working. Heroin no longer feels good when the only relief it provides is mere homeostasis. But the alternative is unthinkable, so the addict’s predicament is that there is no choice. Just unquestioned servitude. I’ve never known a sense of imprisonment worse than using against my will. In the rare times when I was forcibly extricated from the bondage and routine of my using, I found that my life had grown much worse than I was able to notice under my self-administered anesthetic state. As irrational as it may seem, this realization sent me running back to the very culprit of my loss. After years of unfulfilled promises to myself about quitting, I couldn’t even fool myself anymore. I was resigned to live or die as an addict.
Lying in Michael’s Place on my first night, still kicking the lingering effects of my withdrawal, I wanted more than anything to escape the life I had been living. I had a raw amount of willingness to start over from the misery of my using, and this is what my Desire looked like. I had lost everything, but it occured to me that maybe the nice part about losing everything is that it makes it easier to start over. The only problem was that I didn’t know how.
Learning how to take my desire and transmogrify it into real change — this is what Michael’s Place did for me. While there, I was shielded from the responsibilities and pressures of life as I learned how to live normally and not get high. The magic of Michael’s Place was that it was able to do this better than any other program around. It offered subsidized living for up to two years while its residents were slowly able to build self-sufficiency. When I first arrived, I thought I wouldn’t be there for more than a week. I ended up staying for almost two years. In that time, I completed outpatient counseling, found a job working at a bookstore in Squirrel Hill, successfully completed most of my two years of probation, cleared numerous outstanding warrants, began freelance writing for the Pittsburgh City Paper, dealt with past wreckage from my using and worked with people beginning their own recovery. I even contacted the IRS to settle up my delinquent debt. By the time I moved out of Michael's Place, I was a fully productive member of society — my feet squarely on the ground.
If Michael’s Place was my opportunity to achieve this and my desire gave me the willingness to work for it, then the people who made up Michael’s Place were the ones who actually put them together and saved my life. The things I learned in that time — accountability, responsibility, encouragement, patience, a virtuous way of life — all came from the people I met who supported me through the program. A retired cop took me to one of my court dates and offered to speak on my behalf. After the hearing, he bought me breakfast because I had no money. I also formed a close relationship with a retired therapist named Bud who volunteered at the program. He became the first person who I ever trusted and listened to.
All these years later, on that recent July day only three days before Michael’s Place closed forever, I found myself walking through its empty rooms and realizing that, for being a recovery house, Michael’s Place functioned more like a real home. As I was looking out of a bedroom window, I remembered playing football one Thanksgiving day in the backyard — until a guy pulled his hamstring. I can’t help but smile thinking about a bunch of drug addicts playing in a Turkey Bowl before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner together. They say that regression is a side effect of addiction, and, I guess, in a lot of ways I was like a kid again at the end of mine. Maybe I missed some things my first time through. I’m grateful for the chance I had, as an adult, to start my life all over again. And Michael’s Place was the house that I grew up in.
The thing I can’t stop thinking about now is all of the people caught in their addiction who won’t have an opportunity like I had. Maybe they’ll be lying in a creaky twin bed, thinking about how they’re really going to try this time, that they aren’t going to fall back into the cycle, but they won’t have Michael’s Place to help them do it. Suddenly, I don’t like the planets metaphor anymore. All I can do is shake my head and feel lucky. And grateful.
James Lanigan is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at Lanigan.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.
Web design and development by Natasha Khan.
This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.
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