Down and Out in the Rooms

By Jimmy Long 06/18/13

"No matter how far down the scale we have gone." I was homeless when I came to AA, and the experience helped other homeless men to get sober.

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There but for the grace of God... Photo via

I started drinking and drugging at the age of eight, and by the time I was in my twenties, I had burned so many bridges that I found myself homeless in New York City.

Living on the streets, I learned where to eat—places like the Bowery Mission kept me alive. I would get to take a shower at the Holy Name on Bleeker Street. Sometimes I'd stay in the men's shelter on 3rd Street and they would hold a lotto once a day; if you were lucky, you could win a bed at the Palace Hotel above CBGBs and get a meal ticket. I didn't mind sleeping in boxes in Sara D. Roosevelt Park—it was urban camping.

I would see people going to work in the morning and think to myself, "They could not survive my life." It was a way I played mind games; I would feel tougher than normal people. But inside I really felt hopeless and less-than. My self-esteem, for as long as I can remember, was always very low. Alcoholics seem to share this feeling of being different, either better or less than others—big egos with low self-esteem.

I was told I had a choice: I could be homeless and jobless and drunk, or I could be homeless and jobless and sober.

One of the hardest things about being homeless was finding a place to go to the bathroom. I could take a leak anywhere, but doing the other was a problem. Most places wouldn't let you use their rest rooms.

When I finally stopped drinking, I counted days on the streets. I would go to meetings all day. I would eat at the Mission or other churches in the area and sleep in the park. I was told I had a choice: I could be homeless and jobless and drunk, or I could be homeless and jobless and sober. I was told to take the conditions away from staying sober. And by the grace of God, I was able to do this.

I would complain at meetings about my situation, and someone would send me over to speak to a newcomer. They told me to go give that guy some program. I would say, but I'm new and I'm a relapser. They said to me, just ask him how he's doing, reach out, see if he needs a meeting book or a cup of coffee. ID with him. Just show him the kindness we have shown you. It worked. I'd get out of myself and off the pity pot.

As I stayed sober and started to get my life together, I got off the streets, landed a job and got a little studio on the Lower East Side. It seemed like a palace.

I reached out to a lot of low-bottom drunks because I shared their experience. One was a guy like me, who was in and out of the rooms. He just couldn't stay stopped. After one of his trips to detox, I worked with him as he waited to go to a long-term rehab. All he had to do was stay clean and sober, and call them once a day until they had a bed available. So I let him stay with me in my little apartment. He did well for a week, making meetings. Then I came home to find that he had started using again, and robbed my apartment.

The strange thing was, I didn't get mad. I actually felt sad for him. The things he took could be replaced. But when he was done drinking and drugging with whatever money he got from my stuff, he was going to be feeling guilt and shame, plus all the pain of relapse, hopelessness and despair. I knew that deep down, he was a good guy and that he was sick.

About a week later, I saw him and he looked really bad. When I went up to him, he thought I was going to hit him. But I didn't. Instead, I explained to him how he had hurt me and how I had not deserved that. And that I didn't care about the stuff, what made me sad was that I had to cut him out of my life.

He looked shocked. He couldn't believe it. He said, "You didn't even call the police?" And I said, no. That I already forgave him. I told him that I knew he was a good man who, because he was sick, did a bad thing. I said, "Please get help. You know I love you like a brother. Take care of yourself."

I didn't see him for more than a year. And when I did, he was clean and sober. He came to see me to make amends and he gave me money for the things he took. We are still friends, although since I relapsed (after 12 years), I haven't talked to him. He lives in another state and is doing well.

There was another homeless guy, who I met while on a date. He asked me for money as my date and I walked down the street. I said, "I'm sorry, I can't help you," and with that, he cursed us out. I lost my temper and we had words. We almost got in a fist fight. No surprise, my date never went out with me again. After that I felt bad and told myself, if I ever see that guy again, I'm going to 12-step him.

Sure enough, I ran into him. He was panhandling near my job. He didn't remember me. So I would stop every day and give him a dollar. Then I would talk to him, and we became friends. Over time I started to tell him my story. He opened up to me. I let him know that if he ever wanted to stop, that maybe I could help.

Then one day, he asked. He said those magic words, "I'm ready." So I took him home that night, fed him, let him take a shower, gave him clean clothes. I gave him a few drinks until I could get him to the hospital in the morning. I gave him just enough booze that he wouldn't go into DTs.

He went into the detox and a week later he was back on the corner drinking. We did this several times, until he disappeared. I didn't know what happened to him. Then he showed up at my job. He was sober, going on three years. He said he wanted to thank me for saving his life.

I told him, "God saved you. All I did was plant seeds."

Jimmy Long is a pseudonym for a member of AA. He last wrote about his experience with relapse.

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