Scared sober at the DESC homeless shelter

Tim Weglin Credit: Judy Lightfoot

The guys hanging out in the Downtown Emergency Service Center overnight shelter when I arrived one December night in 2009 looked way older and weirder than me. But I was a homeless, clinically depressed alcoholic at the end of my rope, so I fit right in.

I told myself I was different, though, and I teamed up with a few other guys who liked feeling superior to our fellow sufferers. In our joking conversations my group divided everybody else at the shelter into the crazies, the junkies, the stinkers, the itchers, and the hackers.

The itchers, hackers, and stinkers were to be avoided like the plague because some of them probably had it, and the crazies were to be watched because there’s no TV at the shelter. One would stand in the smoke room, point his finger like a gun, extend his arm, and roar “BOOM!!!” Then he’d grit his teeth and snarl in the direction of his imaginary shot. We named him Aqua Man on account of the wet-suit top he wore. Another would walk up to residents one by one, look deep into their eyes, and hum a long, drawn-out “Hmm-m-m!”

Over 200 people sleep each night at the DESC shelter. They’re admitted on an emergency basis, meaning the streets would be their only alternative bed. The shelter is like what Robert Frost said about home — “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” You aren’t turned away unless the shelter’s full or you’re violent.

The staff generally does a good job of enforcing the rules, which are No Drugs, No Drinking, No Fighting, and No Exchanges Of Any Kind. One guy was kicked out for exchanging 15 cents for a coffee. Smoking is permitted because if shelter clients were allowed outside after curfew to smoke, there’s no telling what they’d bring back in with them. Keeping us indoors is good for the general public, too, who don’t have to see us lined up on the street like auditioners for a reality show called The Wrong Stuff.

The smoke room was the gathering area for people-watching as well as for clandestine drug activity and cancer. There’s a term used in the smoke room called “shorts,” meaning the last few puffs or quarter-inch of a cigarette, as in “Can I get shorts on that cig?” Guys in my group liked to apply the term to other things, as in “Can I get shorts on that bagel?” “Can I get shorts on that soda?” and my personal favorite, “Can I get shorts on them shorts?”

The men’s dorm accommodates 130 men in bunk beds, wearing 130 pairs of dirty socks on 130 pairs of smelly feet. At night a symphony of bodily noises is always playing, and the orchestra is occasionally paid homage with lighter flames twinkling in the blackness like an Aerosmith concert. The lighters belong to crack smokers and junkies cooking up bedtime snacks they hope to get away with because staff numbers decline in the evenings.

The first time I closed my eyes in that dormitory, lying in my assigned bunk, the tears ran down the side of my face into my ears. How the hell did I end up here?

Before I became homeless, I was engaged to be married and had worked at a big hotel near Sea-Tac for almost two years with a perfect attendance record. I was a functioning addict, single-handedly trying to reverse America’s depression (and my own) by injecting all my disposable income into the economy via my dealer. After wild weekend parties that were actually 36-hour benders during which I consumed diverse lovely drugs, my fiancée would ask me if I was OK, fear in her eyes.

Maybe addiction was one of the things that helped me come across as what my friends call a nice guy. People like me, but I have a hard time liking myself. The darkness has several tie-down points attached to my soul and tugs at them on a regular basis.

Then two years ago on September 11, really an unlucky date all around, a lady ran a stop sign and T-boned my car as I drove to work. The collision totaled my car and my back, resulting in the loss of my job, which involved heavy lifting. The driver who hit me was a mother with her grown daughter in the passenger seat, and if there is any justice in this world, maybe Susie was telling Mom about the scorching bout of herpes she was dealing with.

With an injured back, and increasingly too drugged-out to think of applying for unemployment, I moved back home with my parents — a joy every adult male should experience.

At home with my mom in my native city of Auburn, I discovered three things you don’t want to do when suffering from heartache:

  1. Don’t try to drink your sorrows away. There’s not enough liquor in the world or liver in yourself.
  2. Don’t listen to sad songs like “Mr. Lonely” or “I Can’t Live Without You” while cleaning your firearm and considering what nonprofit group might benefit from your few remaining possessions.
  3. Don’t e-mail your ex with lies about all the prettier, sexier girls you’ve been dating, in an effort to bring her running back to you pleading “I’m sorry! I should never have left such a loving, considerate person!”

At home I drank so much it started seeming healthier to leave, even if I had nowhere else to go. I was afraid of sleeping out on the streets, so I looked for a shelter in Seattle. In Auburn, homeless services consist mainly of distractible convenience store clerks. Truly, someone I know, in my … I mean in his darkest hours, stole fifteen 24-ounce cans of fortified beer, three and four at a time, from under the nose of the same cashier in a single three-day period.

After finally arriving at the DESC, I secretly continued drinking for three months. One day when I was reeking of liquor a staff member confronted me: “You’re drunk!” I waved at the sordid scene around me and replied, “Look where I am, man!” But not long after that I stopped making excuses and started trying to get sober. Staying at the DESC was showing me what lies ahead for a drunk who refuses to get help or to help himself. I began spending my days in a battle against the desire to drown my sorrows.

Wake-up call at the shelter is at 6:30 a.m. sharp. A brave man with white hair and glasses sticks his head a few inches from your face and proclaims “Good morning!” My new daily disciplines after breakfast consisted of exercising as best I could despite my back problems, and going to the Seattle Public Library. (If you’ve ever wondered why so many computers are in use there, it’s us.) A couple of times I was voluntarily committed to the Harborview psych ward due to crises I could no longer smother in an alcoholic stupor, but when I was out I kept taking my meds and didn’t miss appointments with my therapist or with my alcohol counselor. As the weeks went by I slowly came back to life.

Some of the guys who are probably still at the shelter are really decent people, even Aqua Man, in his way. I discovered this after I had been there a while and stopped needing to think I was somehow above them all. They were just like me, stuck in a cycle where every day is a struggle to drag around the weary weight of yourself. We were all part of the same community that no one wanted.

David had lost his wife and child to a drunk driver, and soon afterward his will to live without the help of 80-proof anesthesia. Carl was straight out of Mice and Men, a Lennie without his George. He talked endlessly about how he was going to build a boat made of throwaways he found in Seattle alleys and charge customers for water tours around Puget Sound. “You ever build a boat before, Carl?” I asked him. “No,” he smiled, “I’ll just get me one of them how-to books.” He didn’t own a single tool or one piece of building material, but he had a dream.

I had one too, finally. Two and a half months after I stopped self-medicating with beer and shortly after I no longer needed inpatient confinement at Harborview, I was invited to move into the Plymouth House of Healing, short-term supportive housing for homeless people discharged from the psych ward. The theoretical possibility still exists of falling back down into the company of David and Aqua Man at the DESC, but believe me, that place scared me sober.

So I’m still alive, here on planet Earth, and amazed at the generosity of others who are helping me solve my problems. Right now I’m sitting on a couch with two other House of Healing residents, watching “America’s Got Talent” and writing this story.

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