Finding My Way Home

By Nic Sheff 11/28/12

I recently volunteered at a homeless shelter, and it brought me right back to all those times I was on the other side of the soup ladle.

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I am not a particularly altruistic person. In general I’m more concerned with my own stupid ass problems than anything else. But when, a few weeks ago, I was sitting around with two of my friends, and they both began talking about their plans to volunteer at a local soup kitchen feeding the homeless in West Hollywood, I would’ve felt like way too much of an asshole not to go along with them.

So I did.

It was just a few days later that we all met together at the soup kitchen to load up a bread truck full of hot food and donated baked goods and fruit and salad. The lady who ran the program was amazing; she was this 82-year-old woman who’d been living in LA since 1939. She delegated the different tasks and we all set to work setting up tables on a street corner behind a warehouse near the Target on La Brea and Santa Monica.

The job of ladling soup out of a giant pot about half my height into Styrofoam cups seemed like one of the least desirable positions on the line, but by the time I got done unloading the truck, it was the only spot open. 

I never could have possible imagined that I would end up one day being one of those faceless, nameless homeless people asking for money.

So I took my place behind the white plastic table and started spooning out soup with black-eyed peas and carrots. The people waiting to be served were gathered off to one side against a chain link fence. Service was set to begin in another five minutes. I ladled out soup in preparation for the rush. I watched the men and women all standing together, no one looking at each other—their heads bowed and talking softly.

The night was warm and the Santa Ana’s blew in strong from the desert. 

And then, as one by one, the men and women began coming forward to fill their plates, I tried to think of something, anything I could do to make things a little better for them than it was for me back then.

Because it wasn’t so long ago that I was in their place.

I was 19 and I’d just come home from a disastrous semester at college, where the only thing I learned how to do was shoot heroin and unsuccessfully lie about it. I say, “unsuccessfully” because as soon as I did get home from college, pretty much everyone in my family knew just by looking at me that I was strung out again—strung out worse than ever. 

So at that point, my dad gave me an ultimatum—either I go into rehab or I get out. 

And so I chose the latter.

My reasoning was simple: I still had about a gram of crystal left and a whole mess of pills. If the ultimatum had come when I had no drugs and was completely broke, maybe my response would have been different.

But since this was the situation, I quickly packed a bag and pushed my way out of the house, hitching a ride to the freeway and then taking a Golden Gate transit bus into the city.

For about two weeks, I stayed with my friend who lived in a basement apartment underneath his mom’s house on the edge of the Presidio. Then I stole a check from his mom, like a total crazed fucking asshole, wrote it out to myself, cashed it, got the money, bought drugs and then promptly got kicked out of my friend’s place once his mom got the call from the check-cashing place.

Again, if I’d been out of drugs then, I might’ve called my family and agreed to go into rehab. That was something that always differentiated me from the other street kids I would come to meet and be friends with when I was homeless. I had a way out. Many of them didn’t—though at a certain point my shame was so great that I don’t think I would have ever asked for help if I hadn’t ended up getting beat to shit and OD’ing and waking up on life support.

But that came later.

From my friend’s house, I went to sleeping in a park behind the youth hostel in Fort Mason—eating out of trashcans, stealing, begging for money, hustling. 

This would be my first stint at homelessness but it wouldn’t be my last.

Over the course of my using life, I found myself living on the streets many times.

In some ways, it was the begging for money that was the worst. That might sound ridiculous when you compare that to all the other, seemingly more severe consequences of homelessness but it’s true. Having to ask a stranger on the street for spare change and seeing the revulsion or pity and sadness in their faces was worse than getting beat up and having my ribs broken and having to sleep with my wallet and drugs and anything important in my underwear so I wouldn’t get robbed. Seeing the look of reproach and disgust on people’s faces as they turned away and crossed to the other side of the street cut into me worse than any knife.

Dogs would bark at me.

Even the most gentle family dogs would lunge and snarl at me (and only me) as I walked past.

That feeling of being an outcast, like I was no longer even a human being, like I was nothing but a parasite feeding off what others throw away, like the weak one of the herd that deserved to be left behind and eaten by the lions—was the most acute and horrible degradation I’d ever known. 

One day I was sitting on a corner in downtown San Francisco, smoking cigarettes, begging for change. It was me and these two street kids: Twitch, who’d been on the street pretty much his whole life, and Fish, an older kid who lived in the park behind the Safeway on Noe and smelled terrible until you got used it. The three of us were sitting there right on Market in the financial district and it was suddenly as if I could see myself from outside of myself, if that makes any sense. I could see what I looked like from the outside—that I had become one of those homeless kids I’d seen all my life growing up in the city. 

I grew up in San Francisco, where homeless kids and homeless adults are all over the place. Once, when I was around five, I remember that McDonald’s was giving away Berenstain Bears figurines in their Happy Meals. I’ve actually always hated McDonald’s, but I loved the Berenstain Bears. So I did a bunch of chores around our apartment and, as a reward, my dad took me to McDonald’s to get a Happy Meal. I retrieved the toy and then immediately asked my dad if we could give the food to a homeless person. We walked out of the McDonald’s and found a man sleeping in the doorway.

From kindergarten on, three times a year, my class would take the bus down to Glide Memorial Church to work in the soup kitchen and homeless shelter. I was scared of many of them—the ones who demanded more juice when I was only supposed to give them one cup full, the trannies, the ones with scabs and sores and whatever else.

But I never, in all that time, could have possibly imagined that I would end up one day being one of those faceless, nameless homeless people asking for money on the street corner, offered food out of charity, and eventually even waiting in line to get a seat in that same soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church.

It was hard to swallow that I could be like the man my five year-old self would have given a Happy Meal to. And yet.... 

Addiction and mental illness made me just like all those people I’d seen and pitied and feared my whole life.

The only reason I’ve made it these 10 years and can now be in a position where I’m serving the food at a soup kitchen, rather than being a beneficiary of its charity, is luck—really, a whole lot of luck. 

Luck that I didn’t die.

Luck that my family was willing to help support me.

Luck that I got on the right medication.

Luck and luck and more luck.

When I was out there, on the street, what I wanted from people more than anything else was just to be treated like a human being. 

But standing behind the table at the soup kitchen, spooning black-eyed peas into a Styrofoam cup, I struggled to figure out what it was I could give these people.

The answer I came to may be stupid. I’m sure it seems obvious as all hell. But when I was out there, on the street, what I wanted from people more than anything else was just to be treated like a human being. When people couldn’t or wouldn’t give me money, I never blamed them for that. But to be treated like the scum of the fucking earth, when I already felt like the scum of the fucking earth, was what hurt me most of all.

So as the men and women shuffled past, taking soup, asking questions, I just tried to talk to them, to look them in the eye and help them to feel like an equal to me—which, after all, they are.

But I wasn’t the only one treating the people we were serving with compassion and kindness. I wasn’t the only one talking to them, looking in the eye. 

We all were.

All the volunteers. All the organizers of the program. Everyone treated everyone else as complete equals.

They helped the whole event to feel more like a fun gathering—a party even—than the hopeless, depressing feelings of the soup kitchens in dark basements in San Francisco.

The lesson I’d learned was already being implemented by everyone else.

So it was a good night.

And I was very grateful.

And I think most everyone else was, too.

Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat and has previously written about how not to preach recovery and his father David Sheff's book Beautiful Boy, among many other topics.
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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.