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Shelter in Place: The New Normal.

by | Mar 19, 2020

When Things Feel Dire, there’s light…

Back in August of 2003, there was a blackout on the East Coast. Not a brief, 3-hour power outage that caused a momentary amount of discomfort for a select few neighborhoods. I mean ALL ELECTRICITY WAS OUT FOR DAYS.

I’ll never forget it. It was a difficult time for all of us: many people who lived in Brooklyn, but worked in NYC, had to trek across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home – there were no subways running, and all of the traffic lights were out. It was a HOT summer.

For many, this was more than just a temporary inconvenience. But for me, a man who was in the grips of a chronic addiction to crack cocaine, it was BRUTAL. I had been home for months, having lost my previous job due to my erratic behavior and frequent attendance issues. And life for my family was already a living hell long before the electricity went out.

One of my least proud moments, among many, was selling the only air conditioner during a heatwave to pay for my habit. I had sold many of my kids’ toys, among other items that weren’t nailed down in our tiny East Flatbush apartment. It is a shameful period of my life, but it is one that I keep at the front of my memory, to remember how bad things can get if I let the demon out…if I ever deem it safe to sip even one “innocent” bottle of beer.

When the electricity went out, I was home with my three sons, who had been playing video games. They had grown accustomed to Daddy’s vacant stares, his lack of interest in their developing lives, but they were still too young to really know what was up – my standing excuse was “Daddy is sick.” Not entirely untrue, but less than the full truth. This was THEIR new normal.

Suddenly, the power went out, and I was not alarmed at first…

I was more distracted by my own inner thoughts about how I was going to scam some money to get high. I thought perhaps it was a brown out, and that the power would be back within the hour. Maybe it was just contained to our building, or our block.

After about 30 minutes, I pulled myself together enough to venture outside. Going out, in my own neighborhood, was always uncomfortable in broad daylight. Most of my neighbors already knew that I was a crackhead, and they rarely ever made eye contact with me, always glancing out of the side of their eyes with that “what the hell happened to HIM?” look on their faces. I had lost about 30lbs, and it showed. I was probably about 135 lbs soaking wet with a brick in each hand.

I swallowed my own shameful self-awareness long enough to learn from my neighbors that the outage was widespread, and throughout the entire borough of Brooklyn at least. Some folks had transistor radios, and learned that the outage was citywide. And later, we found out that the blackout stretched across the East Coast, with no estimate for how long it would last.

The seriousness of the situation was enough to break me out of my stupor…

…and allow the responsible adult in me to take over, and care for my kids…at least until their mother got home from work. Until then, I had to figure out how to keep the boys entertained and not worried while in the midst of a major catastrophe. All they cared about, at that point, was video games and not much else. But crafty old Dad had plenty of non-tech games to pull out of my back pocket.

There was that hand-slap game: you stand facing each other, with one pair of hands resting on top of another pair. The object of the game was for the person whose hands were facing up to slap the hands of the person whose hands were resting on them, before they had a chance to move them. Very low-tech, but fun.

When their mother came home, we decided to take a nighttime walk with the boys, to help them cool down in the sweltering heat. She and I were already on the outs, having destroyed our marriage and relationship with my selfish, destructive behavior. But we were on a truce, just to get through that situation. The boys were happy, relatively oblivious to the storm brewing between their parents, and they were just happy to have the both of us not yelling at each other long enough to have a nice stroll in the night air.

We returned to that hotbox apartment, lit some candles, and I stood in front of their bunk beds, fanning them with an empty record album cover and telling silly stories that I made up on the fly. We had just spent 8 straight hours with no electricity, and it took THAT long for me to see the light.

The very next day, we still had no electricity, but the phone was working. I called a drug rehabilitation program called Star House, located in Harlem. I was supposed to have checked myself in their months before, but I wasn’t “ready,” still needing more time to destroy what was left of my family and my own sanity. I BEGGED them to let me in, to give me a bed – I offered to walk across the bridge and into Harlem if they would. The counselor, Mike, told me to be there at 8am Monday morning. It was Friday, August 14th.

The last thing I had to do, besides packing my clothes, was to settle a $200 debt that I had with a drug dealer named “Cutter.” PRO TIP: Never run up a tab with a drug dealer, especially one named “Cutter.” I called my sister and asked her to wire me the money, so that I could check into rehab and not have to worry about the kids being hurt. Nicole was always there for me, and this time was no different. 

Of course, in order to settle the debt, I had to venture into the crack den, past the offers of drugs, in order to make payment. The temptation to burn that $200 was strong, but not as strong as my desire to return to my boys a changed man. I couldn’t bear the thought of them, years later, having to explain to their friends that their Dad was either a) dead, b) in jail, or c) a crackhead living on the street somewhere. So, I paid Cutter, and I never looked back.

My sobriety date is August 17th, 2003. 

Being “sheltered in place” with my sons, sans electricity, sans entertainment, sans distraction, gave my overstimulated brain the time to work out what the hell I was doing to myself and to my kids. Now, I’m not suggesting that being home for an extended amount of time, with bills mounting and fears of the infection spreading, is IDEAL.

What I am saying is that it may give us a chance to reconnect with family in deeper ways that really matter. When things are tough, we sometimes find ways to rise above, to summon our better selves, to find a way out of the darkness.

Things may seem dark right now, but within each of us there is a light that is brighter than all of the lights that went out that hot August night. We can, and will, light the way towards recovery.

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