73: Saved from Myself

73: Saved from Myself

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Saved from Myself

Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I grew up in New York City. I was very shy and had no friends. One day, a new boy appeared in my same class. Butch was funny, and a mediocre athlete like me. We had fun and he made me laugh. I was only happy when we were together. The rest of the time I was miserable. Both my parents suffered severe mental illness, which was a tough way to grow up. My sister over-achieved, while my efforts seemed poor. I envied her, making matters worse.

It was the sixties, and soon Butch and I became potheads. Only his stuff lasted for weeks, while I consumed mine in days. I knew I had a problem. My parents found out and took me to my mom’s psychiatrist. I stayed silent because I was afraid. By age sixteen I was a liar and thief. I was put in a drug program. I was glad to be out of school, but now my friend Butch was gone too.

A year later they packed me off to a place called Phoenix House. To me it was like prison. I was the only white Jewish middle class kid. Surrounded by a hundred hard-core heroin addicts, most of whom came from the ghetto. Phoenix House did “treatment” in group settings. There was an awful lot of screaming, cursing and crying. It terrified me. Without even trying, I’d get into trouble constantly, which made me the object of ridicule. After thirteen months I ran away, with nowhere to go. Humiliated, I went back home. Dad said I could stay if I went back to school or got a job. I chose going to work.

I landed a job at Time magazine as a copy boy. This was the lowest and least respected rung on their corporate ladder. So I made believe I was a staff writer, living a fantasy. Before long the drugs returned, now pills and cocaine were added to the alcohol and marijuana. Time paid me $165 a week, not enough for my habitual drug use. I figured out a scheme to embezzle a couple of hundred dollars per week. Naturally I got caught and unceremoniously dismissed. The parting words from the Assistant Managing Editor: “You’re lucky I don’t have you put in jail. Don’t ever set foot inside this building again!”

The years flew by and I went from job to job, always getting fired for one reason or another. Simultaneously I moved through romances that never lasted long, and were defined by verbal abuse and neglect. It only got worse.

By 1980 I was homeless, living on the streets of New York. Begging for nickels and dimes, I’d buy cheap wine or beer just to get through the day. Sometimes I’d hang around a park or playground because I knew there were likely to be drugs there. Standing alone, many times a stranger would say, “Hey man, you want to get high?” It was like that in those days, and I’d quickly take advantage of anything offered. When darkness came I’d find a bench at a bus stop, making certain to be in a heavily populated area. But I feared closing my eyes in the city that never sleeps. If you’ve never been there, let me assure you, that’s really true. It was also true that I was afraid of getting mugged or worse. The streets are violent and dangerous. Staying awake all night, sometimes I’d ride the subways, looking for a transit cop nearby.

By late 1986, the only thing I was sure of was my name, and Jay Berman nearly died. Not the first time either, because I’d overdosed or attempted suicide more than once. Quite a few trips to psychiatric hospitals, medicated to keep me under control, sometimes put in a straitjacket. Like all addicts, I was my own worst enemy. A most unoriginal phrase described my reality. In mid-winter that year I was dying of frostbite. My home was the street, with snow and ice on the ground. The temperatures had dropped into the teens, one of the worst New York winters on record.

Then something happened that I still cannot explain. A taxi driver I’d never seen before pulled his cab to the curb. He literally picked me up in his arms and put me in the car. The guy took me to his apartment, laid me on the floor upon a bedroll of blankets, and told his wife he’d be home after his shift. She fed me and gave me hot coffee. Then she disappeared into her bedroom, leaving me alone on their living room floor.

Fast forward to January 1987, the guy buys me a plane ticket to Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood airport in South Florida. I stayed clean for a while, got a job at The Miami Herald, did well at first, but fell back into my old ways. I wound up destroying two more romantic relationships, and what might have been a promising career. By 1992, I was back on the streets, homeless and helpless. Several more trips to mental wards took place until it finally came to an end. I was never a religious person so when people spoke about “angels” I thought it silliness. But who were that taxi driver and his wife, who appeared as if out of a dream? Now in Florida, how did my family, who I’d not spoken to in years, decide to get me the help I desperately needed? Rehab, total strangers at AA meetings, therapists and renewed family ties all came to my aid. They did so without my even asking!

I am now celebrating twenty years of complete abstinence. I am still Jay Berman, who couldn’t look people in the eye, and today I share the gift of life with so many wonderful people. I have a son who makes me proud and fills my heart with joy. My residence is nice, safe, clean and filled with good neighbors. My days are spent reading and writing, going for walks, at the library, cooking, cleaning, and paying the bills on time. The evening is time for meditation, some exercise, and socialization with kind and loving people. Most weekends are spent with family. Now I know about “angels,” and I know I’ve been blessed. Today my job is helping others, which in turn helps me. Do you believe in miracles? I do.

~Jay Berman

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