Redemption Man – Clean for real

From The Oregonian, June 2, 2005 – not available elsewhere online

After decades as a criminal dope fiend, David Fitzgerald is steering ex cons through a drug rehab. program that really works.

It’s half past eight on Monday morning, the weekend a memory at best. Two dozen men and women are wedged in the lobby at Hooper Detox just off East Burnside Avenue, hoping for an open slot. The room is white, edged in nautical blue, and the sad-eyed addicts look like sailors without their sea legs, queasy, resigned, waiting to reach shore.

David Fitzgerald sizes up his new project, Stephen Sanford, in Brian Lindstrom's documentary, Finding Normal.

David Fitzgerald sizes up his new project, Stephen Sanford, in Brian Lindstrom's documentary, Finding Normal.

A man walks into the room and quickly sizes them up. He wears dungarees and a 49ers jacket over a tight-fitting tank top, a cluster of skulls tattooed on his arm showing outside his jacket cuff. His face is lean, with an arching brow, a narrow chin and eyes that penetrate like a bird of prey. In nearly four decades in and out of reform school, jail and prison, he has lost 11 teeth to drugs.

David Wayne Fitzgerald climbs the stairs to meet a tall, blond heroin addict with a surfer smile, dressed all in black. They sit together at a small table. The addict, Joseph, has been at Hooper for nearly a week, and tells Fitzgerald he has failed at 20 attempts to get clean. “It’s kind of chilling to see the new ones coming in,” Joseph says softly. “It’s where I was. I don’t want to be there again.”

Fitzgerald talks calmly with Joseph about selfishness and trust, about endless running, about shutting up and doing the right thing. The addict knows this man speaks from experience.

“If you work on building relationships with us,” Fitzgerald says, leaning forward and locking into Joseph’s eyes, “we will not sell you out.”

Fitzgerald, 54, is one of three mentors working for Central City Concern who pick up clients from Hooper and off the street. His younger brother Randy Sorvisto also is a mentor. Of his seven other brothers, one died after a drunken brawl, two recently got out of prison and one just checked out of Hooper.

Fitzgerald, who brings home $850 every two weeks, shepherds addicts through Central City’s intensive drug treatment regimen. The program includes Spartan studio housing in the nonprofit agency’s new Northwest Eighth Avenue tower, health treatments, counseling and a battery of truth-telling group sessions. The mentors, all with long histories as addicts themselves, have worked with 1,500 men and women in five years.

Central City tries to hook clients into jobs, housing and the growing community of recovering addicts, so they have a rock to hold onto when the program ends, usually after three months.

Given the grim math of addiction recovery, the county-funded program is a stunning success. When the mentor program began, about half the addicts who went through detox failed to even start drug treatment. An independent review in the program’s first year found participation shot up to 85 percent among mentored clients. Completion of Central City’s program nearly tripled.

Today, the agency says, more than half the clients who enter the mentor program remain sober and in permanent housing a year after finishing both the program and the health curriculum.

The mentors’ success comes in part because they’re highly selective. They toss out anyone still using. They’re suspicious of those who haven’t crashed hard.

Their clients are mainly second- and even third-generation addicts, some violent ex-cons, many beaten or neglected as children. Some have college-size vocabularies. Others can’t read. Almost every client has failed treatment programs before, a few in double digits.

The program is also voluntary. Steps away from Old Town drug dealers, the clients can walk at any time.

Midmorning in the crowded “clubhouse,” the mentor program’s small office on West Burnside Street. Fitzgerald sits at his wooden-slab desk, occasionally spitting Copenhagen into a plastic-lined garbage can.

Each morning, his clients check in for a daily dose of straight talk. If they don’t show, Fitzgerald tracks them down.

David J., a meth addict who slept on sidewalks downtown before he came to the program, stops in. He wonders about the worth of classes that teach about interviewing and job hunting.

“It’s important,” Fitzgerald tells him. “You think, ‘I already know how to do that. I don’t need to do that.’ Well, so what. You still need to go down there.”

Richard has big news: He broke up with his girl the night before. Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous suggest staying out of new romantic relationships for a least a year after getting clean.

“Sit on down,” Fitzgerald says. “I need you to know that I stayed out of relationships for three years. Had I tried to do it without doing all the stuff I did to prepare myself, it would’ve torn me up.”

Current and former clients stream in and out. There’s banter about chewing tobacco and about the movie “Jackass.” With snapshots and stories, Fitzgerald makes sure to work in the new house he’s buying; his 1975 Chevy truck; his blonde wife, Sharon; his toddler son, Trevor; the garage all his own. He knows a stable life is an attractive but seemingly impossible goal. His clients twist in black swivel chairs, listening.

Barry walks in, tossing a small football. He’s middle-age but spry, a meth addict, wearing a ball cap and smiling, happy about speaking up for the first time at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Fitzgerald isn’t impressed.

“I don’t know who you are,” Fitzgerald replies. “You’re a good guy. But what I see is . . . you’re trying to hide something, so I ignore you.”

Barry nods, then stands up. “Now he’s going to forget about it,” someone in the room chides. “One of them little sweeties walks by outside, and boom, he’s gone.”

Barry pauses, his hand on the door. “I’m going to share something with you,” he tells Fitzgerald. “I’m dyslexic. I struggled with that all through school. If I have to read, I run.”

Alone in the clubhouse later, Fitzgerald says Barry is “just like the rest of us.”

“He’s a liar, a cheat, a thief. He can’t be trusted. He’s self-centered and self-seeking. Until the illusion is shattered, we’re stuck in it until circumstances — and someone else with a similar experience — can graciously, or not so graciously, bring that home.

“I’ve got some natural ability to do that,” Fitzgerald says. “But the main key is, I was that guy.”

As a boy, Fitzgerald stayed with his mom and a baby brother in the old Caruthers Hotel downtown. When he was born, his dad was in prison for deserting the military. His mom drank.

When Fitzgerald was 7, his mom didn’t come home one night, leaving him and the baby alone. When a social worker and a cop came to the door the next day, he bolted, running away as fast as he could. The cop caught him. It was foster care after that.

Fitzgerald remembers climbing a tree outside Faubion Grade School several years later. He had been kicked out of school again.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do the schoolwork, I can’t get along with the kids in school,’ ” Fitzgerald says. “I remember thinking, ‘When I get old, I’ll make everything right.’ But I just deteriorated so fast.”

It was the 1960s. Fitzgerald started stealing candy and sniffing glue. At 16, he stole a 1963 Chevy station wagon parked at the Broadmoor Golf Course, got caught and wound up at the McLaren School for Boys, where he developed a vicious right hand.

Randy, his younger brother, remembers Fitzgerald sticking up for him. When he wasn’t in jail or prison, he made pancakes in the shapes of animals for his younger brothers.

But by the 1970s, he was living between Lair Hill and downtown, dealing and attacking men and women. He was using LSD, then speed, heroin and cocaine. He was a criminal dope fiend — one of society’s more accurate labels, he says.

Fitzgerald’s rap sheet runs four pages. It ranges from petty theft to assault to burglary to armed robbery, and includes three escape attempts. In 1980, he held up a cocktail lounge on Burnside with a gun. For that and a dope charge in prison, he spent 13 years behind bars.

Fitzgerald’s daughter, Sandy, was born when he went to prison, a fact that still makes him cringe. Behind bars, Fitzgerald was a predator with drugs as his goal. It’s harder to get drugs in prison today, he says, but back then he shot up almost every day, even in solitary.

Ex-cons who did time with Fitzgerald say he was ruthless, not to be trusted, a liar.

“For him, drugs came first,” says Greg Blank, a recovering addict who also works for Central City Concern. “He would say whatever was necessary to get what he wanted, and he had a real cold look. At one point, I almost thought he had a death wish.”

Today, Fitzgerald says, his main objective “is to find people who create havoc in the community. I have a responsibility because of all the havoc I created. And those are the people I relate to best.”

Late afternoon, and Fitzgerald and counselor Bobby T. are about to begin another “criminology” session in a room with huge windows on Burnside and Park. Behind them hangs a painting of a woman holding a red venomous snake at bay.

The 16 men in the group have hundreds of years of penitentiary time among them. Six have gray in their hair.

“Phil, how you doing?” Fitzgerald asks.

“It’s my daughter’s birthday, and I’m not there. For the last 10 years, it’s just been a . . . battle,” Phil says, “and I lost.”

Bobby T., a former meth manufacturer and ex-con turned counselor, shifts forward in his seat. He took his relationships with his own children for granted. “But I can’t be in guilt, anger and remorse. If I stay there, I’m going to get loaded again.”

Fitzgerald says his longing to connect with his daughter motivated him in recovery. “She had quit listening to me, but what she didn’t do was quit watching me. When she saw some change over time, it made a difference. And the changes weren’t a big deal because all she wanted was for her dad to be present.”

The men nod quietly. Phil does, too.

Fitzgerald turns to 20-year-old Quinton. “You are starting to seem like a ghost to me, and that’s a true statement,” he says.

Quinton taps his corduroys. The men around him are older, harder. He’s getting bored, he says.

Two men in the group offer to help, something Fitzgerald encourages. Imagine being clean five years from now, Bobby T. and Fitzgerald say. Think how many lives you would have touched. Think about the friends, the addicts, waiting for Quinton to come back and say, this doesn’t work. It’s boring.

” ‘There ain’t no hope. We ain’t never going to change.’ That’s a lie. It’s a . . . lie, man,” Bobby T. says.

“What you do matters,” Fitzgerald tells Quinton. “You weren’t brung here for no reason.”

When he left prison in 1993, Fitzgerald knew he’d go back again, perhaps for good, if he kept using.

The state ordered him into a Salvation Army treatment program. And he met a series of ex-cons who were clean. One took him to his house to meet his wife and two kids. Another brought Fitzgerald to his first play — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — with his wife and daughter.

Fitzgerald had figured out part of the addiction recovery formula — finding people with more clean time than you and building relationships with them. But he still had to do more of what in recovery circles is called “the work,” stepping up at meetings, stuffing his ego into a sack, helping others, confronting the weaknesses behind his addictions.

Fitzgerald feared talking to people outside prison, so he gave them his intimidating stare instead. One Sunday morning, he rode his beater 10-speed from the Salvation Army building on Sandy Boulevard to Laurelhurst Park.

“I said, ‘Hi!’ to everybody I saw, and I waved to people on porches. Some people probably thought I was crazy. What I knew is I needed to take some action and take some risks.”

At the same time, Fitzgerald was holding himself back. He didn’t attend all the meetings. He didn’t go through all the Narcotics Anonymous steps. He wanted to maintain control.

During his clean time, Sandy, his daughter, came to live with him, and Fitzgerald left the Salvation Army program to take care of her. She was an addict, too, and when Fitzgerald’s record kept him from getting a job that paid enough to support them, she started talking about returning to her old haunts.

Fitzgerald arranged for his mother to take her in. But he felt like a failure. He crashed. He was back downtown, using again. “It was the first time I ever thought, ‘I’m not going to use’ and I used,” he says. “It devastated me.”

On Jan. 18, 1997, strung out and filthy, he robbed and ransacked an attorney’s house in Northwest Portland, sliced himself hopping out the broken window, and was caught with a sack of wallets and credit cards. He told a detective he expected never to get out of prison again.

While awaiting trial, he went back into treatment. This time, he went to more meetings than required and forced himself to speak up. He went through all the steps, including the one about being ready to have a higher power remove his character defects.

“It was the first time in my life I asked for help,” he says.

In court, Salvation Army officials and his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor stood up for him, saying he was a changed man. Deputy District Attorney John Copic and Fitzgerald’s victim wanted a three-year sentence.

“This is a serious, serious criminal,” Copic told Circuit Court Judge Stephen L. Gallagher Jr., according to the hearing transcript. “This man has attacked men and women, he’s damaged people’s property. No one can be ranked more severe.”

Fitzgerald’s defense attorney asked for a year sentence. That would keep him in a minimum security prison and away from his addict friends at the penitentiary.

That wasn’t an idle concern: Oregon’s April prison report says more than half the 12,800 inmates have at least “severe problems” with substance abuse.

The judge opted for the lighter sentence, but not without reservations.

Some at the hearing “see a redeeming quality in you, Mr. Fitzgerald, that Mr. Copic does not and that I — I don’t know,” Gallagher said. “I hope you haven’t conned everybody in this courtroom.”

Fitzgerald had an unexpected second chance, and a new clean date: Jan. 19, 1997.

When he got out of prison again, Fitzgerald re-entered treatment and forced himself to speak up at community meetings and even before the Legislature about recovery issues. He tried to help other addicts, the 12th and final Narcotics Anonymous step. He landed the mentor job, and met his wife, Sharon, also a recovering addict. His daughter is in recovery and is married with two sons.

Fitzgerald and Sharon’s son, Trevor, was born on Jan. 19, 2004 — Fitzgerald’s seven-year clean date.

“I had a vision that if I could get clean and stay clean, that it would help some people I cared about that nobody else cared about,” Fitzgerald says. “I’m not a religious man. But I’d like to think there might be a God who affords us an opportunity to matter.”

Fitzgerald knows he still has his own work to do. He still feels inadequate. He’d like to be kinder. He got an intensely painful kidney ailment recently, and the doctor prescribed OxyContin pills. Even now, at eight years clean, it was hard to stop thinking about those pills. He stopped taking them, even though the pain hadn’t gone away.

Portland’s addicts are recovering by the hundreds and thousands, he says. But “it takes strength, and it takes stamina, and it takes wisdom to change. It ain’t for the faint of heart. It’s really not.”

A new day, and Fitzgerald picks up Ron, an alcoholic, from Hooper. Ron is a big man, soft-spoken and graying. He walks slowly in the pale sunlight.

At the club house, Fitzgerald talks to Ron about checking into his studio, about getting pots and pans, about honoring his new clean date. Ron has been in Hooper three times and in a Seattle treatment center twice. He carries his possessions in two small garbage bags.

“This ain’t like no treatment program you ever been in before,” Fitzgerald tells him. “You’re gonna make some decisions to get clean. You’re gonna own it.”

“I want a year,” Ron says. “I’ve never had a year of anything.”

Fitzgerald turns in his chair. His eyes lock in.

“You can be as good as you were bad,” he says firmly. “That’s human nature.”