From Homeless to Hero
November 17, 2021
According to Joseph Campbell, the late professor and author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” The heroes we read about in books or watch in movies are simply pictures of that heroic spirit that lies somewhere within all of us. Those heroes represent our collective search for what it really means and what it takes for a human to give themselves to something greater. But real heroes are actually all around us, and I have found that they show up in the unlikeliest places. The battles that our homeless residents at City Mission fight every day require true courage. During my three years here, working alongside our residents, I have seen that heroic spirit in more ways than I have in my entire life. It continually amazes me how their recovery requires heroic effort, sacrificing themselves in order to restore hope, purpose, and strength in their lives. Even the second step of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve-step program (“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) requires you to begin living for something greater. I am convinced that the path our residents take from brokenness to independence is the Hero’s Journey. The Ordinary World
Every hero’s journey begins in the place he or she knows and understands the best – a place that feels normal and predictable. The story of Moses, for example, in the book of Exodus, finds Moses in a place of relative comfort and predictability in the mountainous, desert region of Midian. He is performing the very ordinary task of shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. He has a wife and at least two children. He has built an ordinary life for himself in an ordinary place. For many of us, the ordinary world we grew up in elicits happy, nostalgic feelings and memories. Some of us, perhaps, never leave our ordinary world precisely because it is so pleasant and comfortable. Unfortunately, for many of our residents at City Mission their ordinary world is filled with chaos, violence, and addiction. Sadly, that world becomes normal, predictable, even comfortable for them. A large percentage of City Mission residents are in drug and/or alcohol recovery, and at one time in their lives, drugs became a kind of saving grace, the only thing perhaps that got them from day to day – an integral part of what makes their ordinary world feel normal. “Addiction is a dark, comfortable place,” explained Rob, a former City Mission resident. “You know what it feels like, so you’re ok with it. Change is the scary thing, especially if you don’t know how.”
According to Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, an article produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Over time, if drug use continues, other pleasurable activities become less pleasurable, and the person has to take the drug just to feel ‘normal.’” Eventually, drug use can become the defining characteristic of what “ordinary” feels like to a user. It alters your perspective so that the drug becomes your new normal. On their website, alcoholrehab.com, the American Addiction Centers explain that, “The life of an addict can be terribly miserable, but it is familiar,” and “there is comfort in the familiarity…Those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs can find it almost impossible to imagine how they can possibly live without these substances.”
“All of our residents can remember a time when their addiction helped them,” said Paul Granger, City Mission’s former Manager of Men’s Services. “We’re all trying to find our shield or our helmet that’s going to protect us against this world that hurts us.”
Unfortunately, many people turn to drugs and alcohol, because it can be a temporary escape from the challenges and the trauma of their reality. Many, like Rob, use opioids and other drugs as armor against physical pain. Rob suffered severe complications after gastric-bypass surgery. When his prescription ran out, he was already addicted. He turned to street drugs to numb the pain. Others, like Tara, another former City Mission resident, turn to drugs to escape psychological and emotional pain. She grew up in fear of her father. “I really didn’t have a childhood,” she explained. “My Dad took that from me. He was very abusive, mentally. And physically with my Mom and sister. He could put the fear of God in you with just a look, because we knew how crazy he was.”
Lance Dodes M.D., in his article The Psychology of Addiction for Psychology Today, explains, “Every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness…Addictive behavior functions to repair this underlying feeling of helplessness. It is able to do this because taking the addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) creates a sense of being empowered--of regaining control--over one's emotional experience and one's life.”
For far too many, drugs and alcohol become normal life, a kind of armor that protects users from the day-to-day trials and tribulations of life. Drugs start out as a solution. It’s only over time that they become the problem – an even more devastating problem than the original one users were trying to escape. The Unknown The absolute most crucial step in the hero’s journey, the one that all heroes must undertake, the step that in many ways defines a hero, is crossing the threshold into the unknown. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he suddenly has an important decision to make, a decision that will ultimately impact the world for thousands of years to come. He can either stay in the comfortable little cocoon he is currently living in where everything is safe and predictable, or he can venture off into the wilderness of the unknown where life is dangerous, and the future is uncertain. If he chooses to stay in Midian, then he never really becomes a hero. He must set out on the path to Egypt before his life can take a heroic turn. Similarly, our residents at City Mission must leave behind the very thing that makes them feel normal and venture off into the unknown of recovery and life transformation. The hero must find the courage to step outside of the life cycle he is stuck in. He must leave behind his addiction, the very thing that makes him feel safe and normal. “It’s a paradox,” explained Granger. “Everything our residents think they need, they need to risk giving that stuff up. And now they have to walk through this world without any armor, without those things that had always protected them. Being caught in that struggle is the essence of life. I respect that immensely. It takes an enormous amount of courage to trust that you can live a different life through this process when everyone and everything in your life is telling you the opposite.” Rob had been to rehab many times, but he didn’t really want to change. His addiction was the last thing he wanted to let go of. “I was a rehab Rockstar,” he said. “I was never a troublemaker. I knew how to play the game.” Because of his addiction, he lost everything – his family, his house, his job. He was evicted from his apartment and living on the street, thinking about how he had become the hobo he remembered laughing at as a child. For him, it was scarier to give up his addiction than it was to be homeless. Pete is another former resident and staff member at City Mission. At one time, he owned his own business. He had a nice house, a nice car, and a family. But he was an alcoholic. His drinking nearly killed him on three separate occasions. “I almost drank myself to death,” he explained. “I couldn’t stop. I was in the grips.” In 2008, he nearly died of an overdose. His wife made him go to rehab, but he continued to drink and was divorced in 2009. In September of 2009, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, which turned quickly into ascites, a severe swelling in the abdomen caused by his drinking. His skin turned a fire-hydrant yellow, and he ballooned up to 330 pounds. “The doctor told me I was in the twelfth hour,” he said. Somehow, he was miraculously healed, and he quit drinking for 37 months. In 2013, he nearly died again when he overdosed on anxiety medication and a fifth of scotch. “I had to come within an inch of my life,” he said. “Pain is one of my best teachers. It’s the only thing I ever listened to. God throws pebbles. If that doesn’t work, he throws boulders. I needed the boulders.” The journey into the unknown often comes at a price. There is nothing easy about it. For addicts to change, they often need to hit rock bottom, because change not only means giving up a substance but giving up everything they had built their life around, everything they thought protected them from a painful world. Rock bottom looks different for everyone. Pete had to come within an inch of his life. For others, it could be going to jail, losing a loved one, or getting fired from a job. In their article, Change is Possible for Addicts, the American Addiction Centers explain, “Those who have a high rock bottom do not need to lose very much before they decide that they have had enough. Other people hold onto their addiction until it destroys everything good in their life.” But when the fear of the unknown world without drugs or alcohol is finally overshadowed by the pain of life with drugs or alcohol, life-change is possible. When an addict reaches their rock bottom, they are willing to do anything to escape. Pete agreed, “The pain got to the point where I was willing to do anything other than what I had been doing.” The American Addiction Centers explain, “When people reach this stage, they have the motivation and potential to completely turn their life around.” “When you’re at your weakest, that’s when Christ is at His strongest in you,” Rob told me one day in the City Mission chapel. “He is always there. He draws us real close. He whispers in your ear, ‘I’m right here.’ That’s the start of the change.” Tara explains her venture into the unknown this way, “I could still be in Virginia curled up in bed crying my eyes out in a completely dark room. Instead, I’m here at City Mission trying to be the woman I never thought I could be. Me sitting here right now, that’s enough proof for me that change is possible.” Tests and The Inmost Cave
Once heroes venture into the unknown, they are met with enemies and obstacles that test their new resolve. At each obstacle, the hero must renew his decision to carry on into a new future or revert back to his old ways. Joseph Campbell tells us, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”
Moses is met with many obstacles on his journey. Pharoah refuses nine times to let the Israelites go, and then once the Israelites are free, they run out of food and water in the desert. They are met in battle by the Amalekites. The people complain and grumble against Moses as they are forced to wander the desert for 40 years. At each stage, Moses must find the courage to push forward. According to the American Addiction Centers, people with addictive personalities (those who are more likely to fall into addiction) often “find life too uncomfortable to deal with. In recovery the individual has to find a new way of dealing with things.” Navigating through the challenges of life without drugs or alcohol requires you to adopt more effective and healthy coping strategies, develop stronger interpersonal skills, discover new ways to build your confidence, and handle difficult situations and feelings. You find strength deep within yourself that you never knew was there. “This can be a place of adversity that they don’t want to walk into,” said Steve Nicholas, City Mission’s former Director of the Career, Training, and Education Program. “It can be a battle area. How do they respond when they face adversity? What is their choice? Do they back down and return to a place of comfort or fight for something better?” Tara says, “You got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sharing in meetings, speaking with a complete stranger, trying to put yourself out there in the fellowship of other addicts. Helping the next addict is without parallel. It will shape and mold you into a completely different person. I am not the same person I was a year ago.”
When faced with new challenges, instead of turning inward, Tara learned to reach out to others and live for something greater than herself.
There comes a time in recovery when you must confront your deepest fear or your greatest weakness – your inmost cave. It is a moment of truth in your hero’s journey. Just a few months into his sobriety, Pete was kicked out of a treatment facility for “drug-seeking behavior,” and with no other options, he was forced to come to City Mission. It was an obstacle in his journey that filled him with anger -- an anger born in the heart of who he was. He was angry over losing his family, his home. He was angry over the four DUI’s that landed him in jail for 47 weekends. It was an anger that had perhaps always been there – an anger that perhaps drove him to drink in the first place. It was this same anger that nearly got him kicked out of the Mission as well. After lashing out against a City Mission staff member in August of 2014, he was given a stern warning that if he didn’t change his behavior, he would have to leave. That same day, while at church, he had an epiphany. “I cried out to the Lord with literal tears running down my face.” “Tears are some of our best prayers,” Pete said. “Psalms 56:8 tells us, ‘God collects each tear in a bottle.’”
That challenge proved to be an opportunity for Pete to find a deeper power, and his life was renewed. From that day, Pete began living for something greater than himself. “I call that day Humility Monday,” he explained. “Something happened. I had come to the end of myself. Either I found God or He found me, but I realized on that day that it ain’t about me anymore. And I just experienced some type of joy, some sort of peace in my life that could only come from the Holy Ghost.” Every resident’s story is unique, but if they truly desire life-change, they must all square off against their deepest, darkest fears and discover something greater, something that eclipses those fears and leads them to a full and abundant life. Death and Rebirth Often, there comes a time in the course of a hero’s journey when part of the hero dies. The person who finishes the journey is simply not the same person who started out. A transformation must take place for the hero to complete the journey. The greatest example of this in all of history and all of literature is the story of Jesus Christ. For Him to accomplish his purpose on Earth, He had to die and be resurrected. And His life is a model for us all to live by. In Luke 9:23, He tells us, ““If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” We are all to be transformed. “I tell people, if you see the old Tara, shoot her,” said Tara one day in the City Mission chapel. “She was a very sick, broken individual just looking for a way out. The old Tara died. I’m not that person anymore. Today, I’m completely different.”
Pete added, “I am a witness to the transformation power of God. I experienced it. Just like the Apostle Paul was changed on the Road to Damascus and saw everything differently from then on.” Rob chimed in, “If I was still the same person I was, there’s no way I’d ever be able to stay clean. If I didn’t change everything, I would never say that there could be redemption.”
“Recovery is a strange word,” he said. “I don’t want to recover anything of who I was. I want to see who I can become. A new creation. This journey is about finding the person that I can become, the man I can be, not recovering the old man. The old things have passed away. All things have become new.” Return With the Elixir The very last step in the hero’s journey is when the hero returns to his ordinary world and shares everything he learned on his journey with others. This last stage in the journey just so happens to coincide with the twelfth and final step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program (“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs”). Reaching out to help others is a crucial aspect of both the hero’s journey and recovery. “I have hope today, because I want to help others,” said Tara. “It does something for me when I can help someone and see a smile on their face. Knowing that I did something for them just like someone did for me.” This part of the story makes the hero’s journey complete, but it also represents a new beginning. They can finally leave their own wants and needs behind and see a bigger world for themselves. Now, they have a purpose, a calling, a mission – a future. Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Conclusion I have been blessed to meet and have meaningful conversations with Rob, Tara, and Pete. When I think about these beautiful, heroic souls trapped in their old lives of addiction, pain, fear, and despair, it breaks my heart. But they are new creations now. They are children of God. They are beloved. Their honesty, love, compassion, and humility are truly stunning. It was a treacherous journey that brought them to the place where they are, and today, they represent the very best of us. They are my heroes! Note: Some of the names and biographical details have been changed to protect the anonymity of the residents.