Shelter urges addicts to cut the self-pity and move on

May 18, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OUTSIDE, the streets of Sharp-Leadenhall are dark and rainy and raw. Inside the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter, Woody Curry brings heat and light, and the laughter of self-recognition. The place is rocking. In the new language of drug recovery, Curry bypasses talk of physical addiction and sneers at hints of self-pity.

Those are yesteryear's laments. Pacing back and forth before a packed house, Curry writes one word on a board and leaves it there for an hour. The word is "fear." Wherever Curry's thoughts take him - and, at times, he seems to free-associate grandly before making his way back through the thickets of language - that single word remains at the heart of his message.

"I don't care what you're addicted to," he says. "You're addicted to whatever will change how you feel. The world isn't causing you to feel this way - it's your perception of the world. I don't want to hear about problems. I want to hear about your part in it. Nobody pulled your name out of a hat and said, `Let's get him.' There's no worldwide conspiracy against you. So we're not here for any pity party."

That's it in a nutshell. Four decades into the so-called war on drugs, we have moved beyond the old defenses. No more blaming addiction on poverty, on parents who didn't love you, on racial prejudice, on lingering wartime traumas. It's not that those things don't have meaning. It's just that they're part of the past now, and talking about them becomes just another stalling tactic before finally getting a grip on the remains of your one life.

So a crowd has gathered here, homeless men plus some friends and family, at this old converted city firehouse. It's a block east of the stadium parking lots, but cast in such shadows, and such psychological distance, as to make it virtually invisible to the ballpark crowds.

The place has been operating for about a decade. Fifty men at a time live here, in second-floor barracks-style quarters. On the first floor, mirrors line all walls. They're reminders of who's to blame for the catastrophes their lives became - and who's responsible for any redemption.

Most of those who survive the first month live here for a year or two. But they have to get jobs, or train for them or finish their schooling - and turn 30 percent of their pay over to the shelter. "Some of 'em," says Curry, "it's the first time in their lives they've paid rent."

Primary shelter funding comes from government agencies and private contributions. Shelter officials estimate about a 65 percent success rate for those who stay at least six months, and higher for those who stay more than a year.

Curry, the director since 1997, is the psychological heart of it. He's 61, a Vietnam vet with his own history of substance abuse. He spent six years in and out of hospitals, bottling up his sense that Vietnam had left him disconnected from everyone around him. When he finally visited The Wall in Washington, he says, and saw the name of his old corps commander, he cried for three days.

But he came to realize something: He could wallow in his past and blame it for his troubles or move on. It's the message he brings today: Let yesterday control you, and your life passes you by.

Curry went back to college, earned a master's degree, immersed himself in Asian philosophy. He learned, he says, about emotional detachment.

"Addiction," he was saying now, sitting in his tiny office as a crowd gathered in a big room outside, "is attachment - to people, places and things. And we use these for a sense of self-worth. The whole culture's like that. Self-worth is equal to net worth. The addiction was there long before the drugs. It's all about our need to belong, to be accepted.

"You have to learn to be vulnerable, to get over the fear of being hurt. So we challenge 'em on everything they try to hide behind. I don't care what it is, I don't care if it's about God. They ain't coming in here and doing no evangelizing. They can go to church on Sunday, or go sling bean pies. I challenge 'em on God. I want to talk about what's real, here and now."

Minutes later, he's telling his Monday night gathering the same thing.

"We don't sit around here," he says, "talking about what we lost. You didn't lose anything. Your car got repossessed. Your wife walked out on you. The only thing you lost was your mind." Heads nod appreciatively and a few chuckles of acknowledgement are heard. He writes the word "fear" on the board behind him.

"Addicts aren't afraid of dying," he tells them. "They're afraid of living. You buy stuff from a stranger and put it in your body to avoid seeing yourself. How do you treat drugs? Simple. You stop using them. Then what? We don't even know who we are. We're just some guy we made up to show people."

Around the room, there is general laughter, each individual delighted to admit a weakness not theirs alone.

"Addicts can talk some [bleep]," Curry says. "They talk philosophy, and religion and God. They sound brilliant. But they can't pay the rent. Life involves risk. Risk involves feelings. We ain't been in no relationships. We just take hostages."

More heads nod acknowledgement.

"If your life's unmanageable," says Curry, "it's because you're unmanageable."

Never mind the old defenses, he is saying. They're history's cliches, ground into punch lines for a new generation. These men have heard them all and are trying to move beyond them.

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