You Can’t Keep It Unless You Give It Away


Nine months ago I received a Facebook message from an old friend. He sent me a phone number and only typed: “Call me I have a question.” I had recently started volunteering as a Recovery Coach for several police departments and made mention of it on my Facebook, so I hoped this was why he was reaching out. William White explains best what a Recovery Coach is:

“A recovery coach is a person who helps remove personal and environmental obstacles to recovery, links the newly recovering person to the recovering community, and serves as a personal guide and mentor in the management of personal and family recovery.”

As part of a state grant, I was asked to participate in the first Recovery Coach training class for the program. I was grateful to be involved and eager to help, but I hesitated before calling back my old friend. The last time I remember seeing him, we were huddled together in a cramped bathroom in the finished basement of our heroin dealer’s house. The house was charming and in a friendly neighborhood, not like you might imagine when picturing where people buy and use drugs. He had ushered me into the small half-bath because the lighting was better for what he needed me to do. After years of heroin use, his veins were difficult if not impossible to find with a standard insulin syringe. Physically ill and with a look of panic in his eyes, he needed my help to inject heroin into his neck and provide relief.

I decided to call him back that day nine months ago. On the other end of the phone was a homeless man, addicted to heroin, and no longer able to be with his children. He remembered seeing on Facebook that I was volunteering as a Recovery Coach, and was reaching out for help. He would do anything for a chance at recovery but didn’t know where to turn. As someone with no home address, no income, no insurance, and a felony record, treatment didn’t seem easily accessible. Leaning on my knowledge of available resources, existing relationships, and training as a Recovery Coach, I was able to help guide this old friend into treatment. I met with him that night, and when we hugged, I told him that I loved him, recovery was possible, and that I would do anything in my power to connect him with that opportunity. The next morning he walked into treatment.

Recovery is possible.

We lost contact shortly after he walked into the only detox facility in the state actively accepting people without health insurance or financial means. The last time we talked, he was preparing to leave Milestone, and with the help of the great people there, he was heading to a residential treatment facility out-of-state.

He has entered my thoughts often and I have wondered where he is and what he is doing. I tried to remain optimistic that he had found his way into long-term recovery, but having experienced several relapses in my own story, I suspected that he might have slipped back into the grips of his disease. Substance Use Disorder is a powerful and baffling disease that needs consistent treatment, sometimes requiring multiple attempts at sobriety before it becomes sustainable.

This past weekend I was walking through the Portland Old Port when I looked up from my feet to suddenly find myself face to face with this same old friend. Nine months had passed since I had hugged him and saw him off into treatment. I embraced him again and then took a step back to gain perspective on who was standing in front of me. His face was flush with color, something I had never seen before. Looking into his eyes, I saw a man who was confidently present and serene, much different than the last time we met.

“I’m sober — nine months,” he said. “It was you — I couldn’t have done it without you. You’re the only one who cared and showed up when I asked for help.”

You can’t keep it unless you give it away.

I’m not responsible for my friend’s recovery, and I don’t deserve the credit for his success. He made an honest evaluation of himself and then took action, doing the work needed to achieve sobriety. Asking for help isn’t easy, but taking action around the desire to recover is even more difficult.

Seeing my friend before treatment, broken, desperate and near death, reminded me of the places I had been and how I had felt inside. It’s easy for me to forget about the misery and pain I endured, and I need reminders of what it was like. Making an effort to help another person still suffering, allows me to think about someone other than myself. Encountering him again after his nine months of sobriety, reminded me that recovery is possible. It reinforced a strong feeling of accountability, making me more conscious of my own actions and how they impact the world around me.

If it wasn’t for interactions with other people like my old friend, and my effort to continually be of service, I don’t think I would still be alive today. There is a common saying used in the recovery community, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away,” and I subscribe to this belief. I know and accept that I can’t do this alone. Helping others has a profound impact on our mental and physical health, not just in recovery from Substance Use, but for all of us. Recovery Coaching and other programs saved my life by allowing me to be of service, just like they also help save the lives of people still actively suffering. Recovery is possible, treatment works, and you can’t keep it unless you give it away.