Recently the lease on my office expired and I had to go in search of a new place to park my desktop. I toured several small overpriced and somewhat depressing spaces until I found one that seemed perfect, on paper anyway. I met the broker, Mitch, at the building. He informed me that there were actually three different spaces available and asked if I wanted to see them all. I did. We toured the first two which were uninspiring but fine for my needs. Then we went to see the third. This space was smaller than the others but brighter and more private, tucked away in a quiet wing of the office building. It was perfect. As we were standing there discussing the lease, I smelled what I thought was cigarette smoke wafting in from somewhere outside. I asked Mitch if he smelled it and he said “Smoke? No, I don't smell it." Then I heard some laughter. I went to see what was happening and one floor below my window I saw a stream babbling by (which was lovely surprise, to have a potential office with a view) and a group of about 10 people standing huddled together, balancing percariously on a narrow jut of unfinished concrete, watching the water tumble along. All were smoking cigarettes. The scene was so odd, so out of place in this buttoned up business environment, so visually confusing that I was stunned into silence. This is a corporate office building. The only other inhabitant, I was told, is a large hedge fund that took over the space during Covid. "Who are those people?" I asked Mitch. "Ugh" he mumbled, "I'm so sorry, forget it. Forget this space, it won't work for you anyway. The others are better. Come on, lets go look at them again." But I was persistent. "Who are those people? And what are they doing there?" I asked again, somewhat more forcefully this time. "They're nobody." he said. "They're addicts. There’s a rehab on the bottom floor of the building. Weird right? They're junkies. I'm really sorry. Let's go. You don't want this space.” But I didn't move. I just watched them. "So they are all trying to get sober?” I asked. "Yes.....as if they ever will" he chortled. "Let's get out of here" he urged me.
"That's amazing" I said. "There’s a rehab in a corporate building like this? How interesting." "Yes" he said as he casually tried to shoo me out of the space. I turned away from the window to face him. "I'm in recovery" I said to him, surprising myself by suddenly breaking my anonymity with a complete stranger. "What?" He cocked his head at me like a confused French bulldog. "I said that I am in recovery. I'm just like them. Those are my people down there. I hope they all make it.” Mitch was mortified. I could see it in his change of face color, which went from fake-tan-broker-bronze to uncooked-pizza-dough-white in a flash. He had been so dismissive, so judgmental, of those addicts, those "nobodies". He had been ashamed that he had even shown me the space. And now I knew the building's dirty secret. That on the bottom floor there were drug addicts and alcoholics trying to get clean. “They can't ever enter our part of the building! They have a separate entrance!" Mitch squawked, and I could feel his shame that they were even occupying the same space as us. The stigma those addicts carried was dark and heavy. It felt like quicksand, as did Mitch's lack of faith that any of those people would make it. The acute embarrassment that Mitch felt having me see them standing there. The over-riding feeling I got from Mitch that he believed that those people were there because they had made terrible life choices, not because they had a possibly genetic and possibly fatal disease. Mitch was mortified that he had dared to show me an office where the smoke from the addicts’ twice daily cigarette breaks might disturb me. It broke my heart.
"It's perfect." I said. "I'll take it." Mitch laughed and said "very funny, let's go”. But I was serious. I took the space. I signed the lease. I love my new space. And when I‘m working there I get a twice daily beautiful reminder of why I do the 24/7 365 work to stay sober. At 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. I know my people are outside. I can hear their laughter. I can smell the faint whiff of smoke (which I don't mind at all) and I can hear the conversations as well. The lost jobs and homes and custody battles. The mostly obliterated sense of self and self-respect. The earnest oaths to each other. "We gotta make it this time man, we gotta." The hugs and celebrations when someone has completed the course and is getting "set free" to go live with a guardian or in a halfway house. The welcome that is extended to the new person who arrives, trembling, straight from jail or the nuthouse or the hospital. The alcoholics talking about drinking, the cocaine addicts discussing "blow", even the strangely exciting bravado and wild recklessness in the intravenous drugs users’ tales. I feel like finding that office was a God shot. A sign from whatever benevolent power is up there pulling the strings that it wants me to stay on this sober path. A force that wants me to be reminded every day why I continue to do the work.
Sometimes I stand at my window and if they look up and see me I always wave. And they wave back. If I felt like I made them uncomfortable I would not look out that window. The other day someone brought the toddler daughter of one of the rehab patients in to visit. The mother and daughter watched the stream go by as mom smoked and the toddler threw sticks into the rushing water. Then the baby was swooped up by its chaperone and I assume taken home. The visit was over. What I saw next was the other women surrounding the mother in a group hug. I could see that the mother was crying and that she was being comforted by those women. It was a very bittersweet picture. That could be me, I thought. Locked in a ward. A chaperone bringing my child to visit for 15 minutes while I suck down endless cigarettes and cups of bad coffee and try not to cry in front of my child. That is the face of addiction for me. That is the reality of addiction.
Mostly what I see when I look down from my office is hope. People trying to get sober. Trying to reclaim their lives that have been hijacked by addiction. Men, women, young, old, every color and shape under the sun, all standing there, watching the stream, trying their best to get and stay clean.
I love my new office. I know it will help to keep me sober. I am inspired by all of those people below my window, my "family" as I think of them. It sounds odd but I regard them as my brothers and sisters. We all have the same disease. We are all in the same boat. I may have hopped off the addiction train a few years before they did but I know that the second I stop being vigilant is the second I could slip out of sobriety and back into addiction. That could be me, balancing on that concrete slab, on the bank of that stream, watching the water flow and trying desperately to figure out how I'm going to repair all the damage I have done and how my own life slipped so far away from me. And I'm not interested in doing that, ever again.