“When I grow up, I want to be a monster.” Part I

By Darin Barry

At age five, I wanted to grow up to be a monster, like Dracula, or Frankenstein. So I grew up to be a monster.  I then aspired to be a CIA agent. I was eight. That never happened. At twelve, I wanted to grow up to be in the movies. That happened. At seventeen, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That sorta happened; I became a certified veterinary assistant. When I was eighteen, I remember telling my Mom that by the time I was thirty, I would be a millionaire and drive a Jaguar. But when I actually did turn thirty, I had moved back in with Mom, and all I really accomplished in the span of my twenties was several failed attempts at various careers, and all I was truly professional at was drinking. I also had started to show signs of bipolar disorder in my early twenties, but my behavior, and failures were always chalked up to my alcoholism.

I put the plug in the jug for the first time at 32. That’s when life began to get interesting. I became a bartender, and server at a restaurant in Mariposa, California. I lived with, and worked for the Stayner family, who were known nationally for a couple of tragic reasons; their youngest son was kidnapped, and the eldest was a serial killer. During that time, Cary Stayner’s murder trial was going on a couple of miles from where I lived. As Lloyd Bridges famously said in the movie Airplane, “It looks like I picked a terrible time to quit drinking.” One day, drunk and disheartened, I ran away from it all, and rode my motorcycle up Highway 49 towards home, Nevada City, California. Yet again.

Then I moved to Colorado after I had, once again,  stopped drinking, and became a mortician. I didn’t see that in my future when I was a kid. Colorado was the only state in the nation that had no licensure in the funeral industry. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that pulled me into becoming a funeral director, and mortician. That is a novella in itself, and too lengthy, and irrelevant to the story I tell now. But I will tell you this; I was a Walgreens manager at the time I got hired as a funeral director, and I got the job in a Yahoo chatroom basically because I looked good in a suit. I had no desire at the time, nor the experience to become a mortician. But the starting salary of $60,000 a year, clothing allowance, and expense account, took me away from creating Chia Pet displays to embalming, and cremating people overnight. I even had my name on the door of the Boulder Mortuary: Darin Barry – Funeral Director – Manager.

It didn’t end well. I ended up being a whistle blower, going to the district attorney with serious complaints about egregious practices, and criminal negligence committed by my employers. I ended up on national news. Stunningly, the victims had no recourse as there were no consumer protections in Colorado to protect them from the funeral industry. Years later I would help to write new legislation with a Colorado legislator to regulate the state’s funeral industry. An accomplishment for which I was proud. And I got through it all still sober. I was proud of that too.

I had a brief stint as a counselor for at-risk kids in New Hampshire. I never saw that career for myself either when I was young.

Then, in Portland, Oregon, me and my little brother opened up a coffee shop, The Brews Brothers. I do remember fantasizing about being a business owner when I was a kid. I had arrived. I loved that new career. I loved the culture in Portland. We were hugely successful. Sadly, we had decided to sell when our parents began to fail. We moved back in with them, this time for unselfish reasons: to take care of them until they passed.

Shortly after my Mom died in my arms, my bipolar disorder threw me into the lowest of the lows, and I ended up hospitalized for depression. Manic highs would also send me off to mental wards. I had been struggling for five years to overcome my mental illness, trying different cocktails of medications with the goal of stability.

I had alienated, and distanced myself from all my siblings. My mania always ended in periods of rage – I was an insufferable monster during those times. My childhood dream came true. I was a monster wreaking havoc in other people’s lives.

  

I moved back to Portland where I got into the television industry. I started from the bottom again, getting principal background actor gigs in Grimm, Portlandia, The Librarians, and a Jeep commercial. One happy afternoon, I walked into a hipster bar in the Alberta Arts District and ordered a scotch. And then another. Grandiosity set in, and I had convinced a production company over the phone that I had the skills, and experience to become an assistant director; a profession that isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It was a huge opportunity. I slept in the next day missing my chance completely, and I had a terrific hangover. A month later,  I got kicked out of my apartment too.

I moved back to Nevada City, broke. I lived with a friend for few years growing pot for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Then, something happened that I never possibly could have imagined as a kid. I became a hopeless alcoholic. My mental illness was also off the hook. I don’t know how I got a job at a local natural foods Co-Op, but I did. Then of course, I lost that.

Then, yet another career of sorts I never saw coming as a kid developed quite naturally. I became a homeless.

After several nights staying in my car, I answered a friends message on Facebook inviting me to come stay at her restaurant in nearby Camptonville, California. I lived above a bar; a fantastic place for a practicing alkie. Soon after, I moved out to their fifth-wheel trailer on the property, where I could drink with impunity. Nobody would bother me with seemingly self-righteous warnings, and concern. I drank the winter away in that cold-as-ice trailer. The bar had become lowered; it was ok for me to be homeless, drinking away in a trailer in the boonies. Once a week, I would drive drunk into nearby Grass Valley to attend class. I had hopes to become a peer support specialist; something my psychiatrist, and my therapist had set up.

One icy night in November of 2016, I fell off a porch while drunk off my ass, and broke both my wrists, and damaged my shoulder so badly that months later, surgery would be required to correct it. Another lowering of the bar occurred that night. It was ok to be a homeless drunk, and to severely injure myself while drunk. I was ok with that.

I was a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess without my booze at this point in my life. I had graduated to 1.75 liters a day of cheap vodka that I would run to the store to purchase, every morning, as soon as it opened. I never let myself become a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess. I needed to drink to keep that at bay. When you are an alcoholic of my variety, you know, or have known, what it like to NEED a drink. And at that point, it becomes vital: to withdraw without professional help is deadly. This was another lowering of the bar. I was ok drinking the party size bottle of vodka every day, over a twenty-four hour period.

Then yet another lowering of the bar occurred. On another icy night, this time in February of 2017, I slid my car into a ditch on my way to get vodka. I got a D.U.I, and was arrested. I spent the night in jail in Yuba County. When I was released early the next morning, I promptly found myself ordering long island ice teas at the closest bar I could find, a dive called The Silver Dollar Saloon. So I totaled my car, I got arrested and charged, and I was ok with that.

I moved into town, leaving my belongings behind to pick up on another day. I couched surfed at friend’s homes until I was asked to leave, one by one. I still managed to attend class once a week, although I was stinking drunk. My instructor took pity on me, and even thought it was charming when I broke into song during class singing Depeche Mode songs.

I was taken in by my friend Jen, who was the crisis worker answering phone calls for those who were suicidal, days after my arrest. During the last few days in February, I walked into a convenience store near Jens’ home, and collapsed. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. I stayed for seven days, being treated for alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, heart monitoring, and severe chemical imbalances.

On day four, while connected to and I.V, and machines that go “ping,” my first moments of clarity began to shine through. Everything changed. A stranger who had been following my journaling on Facebook came to visit me in my hospital room, telling his own tale of drug and alcohol use, his own experiences with mental illness, and his eventual recovery. He offered something I didn’t have, and something I desperately wanted: hope.

I had lowered the bar, digging to the lowest depths of the earth, almost to the molten core of the Earth, before my rock bottom was reached. I was in a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body, and hope come from a total stranger. I was an atheist. I had long tossed off what I viewed as the constraints, and judgements of organized religion. But in retrospect, I believe this was divine intervention. It was a spiritual experience, not from any deity of a religion I knew, but of something undefinable. And I’m not holding the man who brought me hope up to the pedestal of divinity, but I did dub him my guardian angel.

Months went by. I had been through a 28 day drug and alcohol program, where I discovered a promise of recovery from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body through the beginnings of work in a twelve step program. I had been given a place to live. I was given employment. I was given continued support. All from my “guardian angel.”

I had shoulder surgery in Spring of 2017. The recovery time allowed me to focus on doing my work in completing the twelve steps that I had dove head first into working. More clarity came to me as the time passed. I began to develop renewed interest in talents I had laid down for years: music, art, photography, and writing. I had begun to volunteer for homeless organizations, and spoke about my experience, strength and hope at institutions. I had graduated from my peer support specialist class, earning my certification. I earned my 90 day sobriety chip in June. I became the secretary (host) of the Young People’s Meeting within the twelve step program that kept me sober.  I had regained the trust of friends I thought I had lost, and made a host of new friends.

July came with the sunflowers I helped plant reaching 15 feet tall. It was then suggested that I was a good fit to become manager of clean and sober house in downtown Nevada City. I felt it was time to move on from beneath the wings of my guardian angel.

I hung my peer support specialist diploma on the wall of the house I began managing. Yet, another position that I never could have seen coming. Just a half a year earlier,  there could be not be a way I could see myself in the future as being a peer support specialist, and manager of a home supporting those who were formerly homeless, with co-occurring disorders. I would have been extremely focused on getting my next bottle of vodka, and that is all there was to my life back then. Now I am service to others in one of the most unselfish ways I have ever had to pleasure to know. Who would have thought?

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Although, I will never be cured, I get to remain recovered from that state, so long as I seek to stay spiritually fit. This is something I have gained from the Big Book of the twelve step program that saved my life. I haven’t found God. I seek him. Daily. I do not believe for a second I could have got sober, and remained sober without the intervention of the God of my own understanding.

When the sun rises in the mornings, and if  I am awake to see it, I see something new. I see the sunlight of the Spirit. But with or without seeing the sunrise, I am constantly bathed in the sunlight of the Spirit. I feel eternally grateful to be able to pass what I have been given, to those who still suffer. I feel grateful to be able to bare hope to those who feel they have none; to those lost, and alone, and afraid.

When I think back to what I wanted to be when I grew up, none of it seems silly in retrospect. I thought those silly career choices would make me happy, and after all, that was the ultimate goal. It took exploration, and fruition of many of those fantasies I had as a kid to discover that, ultimately, those particular paths wouldn’t bring me happiness. Self-seeking has wrought for me grief like only other alcoholics know. This may seem crazy to those who are non-alcoholics, but I am grateful to every drop of alcohol that got me to this point where I am today. To work with others who suffer, to see the light come back in their eyes, is like having a front row seat to watch God work – it’s a joy I’ve never known until now.

A Front Row Seat to Watch God Work; My Path from Hopeless Alcoholic to Recovery and Happiness.

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I used to be homeless. Now I’m not. 

I used to be a practicing alcoholic. Now I’m not.

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. That doesn’t mean I am cured of my alcoholism. It means exactly as I have declared; that I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. I have hope, clarity, and a body on the mend. I stay sober by helping other alcoholics to find hope – showing them the way out of misery, insanity, and some from the brink of jails, institutions, and death. I give away what has been so freely given to me. This is how I stay sober.

Five months ago, I was hopeless. I was absolutely shipwrecked on the island of despair. I was in a deep depression, drinking around the clock, and had lost everything. The tattered remains of my life, my soul, and dignity had landed on the bed in a hospital room, with nowhere for me to go. What remained of my life had nearly fizzled out on the floor of a convenience store where I had collapsed unconscious on the floor, bringing frenzied paramedics, and an ambulance days before. For seven days I was treated for extremely high blood pressure, alcohol poisoning and withdrawal, severe dehydration, and monitored for what physicians thought might be an eminent cardiac event. My once shapely, extremely fit body, had deteriorated to a sucked up mess.

After delusion brought about by alcohol withdrawal, and a body loaded with sedatives, had subsided, I had no longer believed I staying at a hotel. I had rising clarity, and clarity had been one of the things that eluded me for several months. The reality that I was hooked up to machines, and an I.V., laying ill at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley, California hit me like a ton of bricks.

About a month earlier, I had decided I wanted to die. I had reached out on social media, FaceBook, and specifically a group within the site dedicated to serving the locals of the county I live in Northern California, asking for someone to care for my cat, Isabella, should I spontaneously go through with carrying out the act of suicide.

Laying in the hospital bed, I decided to reach out to loved ones, on the same site I had posted that grim plea, that call for help, to let them know where I was. I had become such a tornado in my loved ones lives, and all who were around me during the last year of my drinking, I wasn’t sure if I was still loved by anyone.

A day later, still mentally cloudy, but experiencing more clarity than I had for a long time, a man walked into my hospital room who would become to be known as my guardian angel. He was a complete stranger. He only knew me through my posts on Facebook, in a group called Nevada County Peeps which has a membership great in numbers. He was warm and friendly. He offered up his own story of struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. He said there was hope if I had the desire to stop drinking, and wanted a new life. I did. And I once again felt hope. He became active at once, hooking me up with aid provided by the county’s behavioral health programs, and a drug and alcohol treatment program, and provided me with guidance with the skills he gained through his education in peer support counseling; ironically a certification I had been in school with, and graduated from. I just didn’t know how to help myself with those same skills. Clearly he knew how to help me.

After spending a few days in a mental health facility for evaluation and treatment, and a medication adjustment to treat my bipolar 1 disorder, I found myself in a drug and alcohol program in Marysville, California called Pathways. There, I learned about addiction, and was supported by caring counselors and peers. It was then, through outside meetings, I was introduced to a twelve step program, and it’s accompanying text that outlined the steps I needed to follow in order to achieve continued sobriety. The book mirrored every aspect of my experience that I knew as an alcoholic. It spoke to me – I could relate. It was a blue print for a new way of life I was about to be rocketed into. It outlined a solution that had eluded me.

My guardian angel, the man who came to visit me during my hospital stay, had remained in contact during my 30 day treatment in Pathways. When I had successfully completed the program, he found me at a temporary shelter for those going through mental illness crises, or those suddenly homeless, called the Insight Respite House in Grass Valley. There another miracle, the first being getting sober, occurred. He offered me housing in a clean and sober house, and a job. I couldn’t believe the kindness of this man who showed me that there was hope in a new life.

While at that house, I was able to undergo surgery to repair a shoulder injury I sustained while drinking months before I got sober. I was laid up for ten weeks, and in a device that kept my arm stationary. I also had to sleep upright. I was cared for by members of the house I lived in as well as good friends in the community. Weeks later I would move.

I became a manager for a new clean and sober house in Nevada City, California, owned by the same organization of the house I had lived in after my treatment, The Co-Living Network. Today, I help others who are homeless, addicted, and going through mental health issues. I am a peer counselor, coach, and mentor in the house, and I love every minute of it. Helping others provides me some of the greatest joy I have ever known.

I have also worked the steps in the twelve step program that brings me continued sobriety, and secretary a young people meeting of that program in Grass Valley. I speak often about what keeps me sober as the chair person in meetings outside my homegrown, and at institutions. I have been interviewed on radios shows, and soon to be interviewed by a television news station where I will talk about the model for living I am a part of forming with the Co-Living Network.

A lot of people in the midst of their addictions express a yearning for their life back. For me, that notion is crazy. Who would want to return to a life that brought them to the very misery they seek to escape from? I enjoy a new, bigger, better way of living today. I get to bring my experience, strength and hope to those who are suffering, and want to achieve sobriety and continued sobriety. I get to work with those seemingly hopeless individuals and watch the light return to their eyes. I get to have a front row seat to watch God work.

The Many Layers of Homelessness

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Last week I volunteered at a local homeless shelter cooking and serving dinner to the residents. Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting for a local organization, Sierra Roots, where before the photoshoots took place for volunteers, we served lunch for the local homeless. What I noticed is that there were people there whom I observed on the streets a decade earlier; people who were getting drunk, and/or using drugs, creating public nuisances, or whom I saw being hauled off by the local police in public parks, and the Streets of Nevada City and Grass Valley. These homeless men and women, many of whom can also be seen panhandling outside businesses, and along the sidewalks are the faces that we often associate most with homelessness. However, in my experience in working with the homeless, particularly those in shelters, I’ve encountered many faces we can’t put to the stereotypical branding of the homeless. I’ve met the newly unemployed, families with children, the gravely disabled, seniors, teenagers, traumatized victims of crimes including human trafficking, over the years I have been observing homeless people and families. Quite frankly there are people who want to be homeless. And then there are those who don’t. I’m addressing the needs of the latter.   I personally am formerly homeless having suffered from mental illness, addiction, and job loss.  I didn’t want to be homeless.

Many if not most Americans are only two paychecks away from being homeless. Our economy forces many families to live hand-to-mouth. Downsizing, jobs that relocate to foreign countries, businesses that go bankrupt, businesses that pay their c.e.o.’s exorbitant salaries while underpaying their base workers all contribute to the problem of homelessness, as does greedy medical insurance companies and big pharma.

In dining with the homeless during one of my volunteer shifts, I met a family who was very low income who were displaced because their landlord decided to sell their home and the family has no funds for first, last, and deposit towards a new rental, and yet another individual who lost his place to live because his landlord decided to turn his studio over the garage into an airbnb. Again, these folks were only two paychecks from being homeless.

The prevalent services to the homeless lack depth. We aren’t simultaneously treating mental illness and co-occurring addiction disorder. We lack follow-up. We aren’t making sure those who need medications are receiving them or taking them properly. We aren’t issuing temporary passes on public transportation to get them to work, pharmacies, medical, psychiatric, social services, and work.  We are lacking, or limited in the areas of vocational training.  We are lacking in facilities for them to bathe even.  Some non-profit organizations, and cities have addressed these issues, while there remains a majority that do not.  All we seem to be doing on the large scale is feeding them or throwing money their way without looking at the bigger problems or providing a path to a permanent solution.

Giving help, providing meals, money, and medical services isn’t a bad thing at all, we just don’t realize that those things are not the broader overhaul badly needed to provide the means for the homeless to become self-sufficient. If we invest in the broader picture of solution, we will save money in the long run, improve our economy, and can feel good in helping our fellow human beings.

(About the photo: Homeless man in San Francisco, Canon Rebel 35mm, Kodak Portra 800, f8)