Sober Living (David P. Barker)

“You know the rules, brother.”

Marion regarded me again. I looked up at him and knew he wanted to curse me out. I was a nine-year-old boy sitting watch at the front desk of an inpatient drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. The only child in an otherwise adult-only facility and he was a grown man paroled here by the state of Arkansas to rehabilitate him so he could reenter society. 

“I just need to get something real quick,” He protested. 

I pointed to the large sign that hung on the wall behind the desk I was stationed at. It had a whole list of rules. About accountability. About banned possessions. And about the hallway and dormitory rooms being off-limits without a pass until eight in the evening. It was five. Supper time. Most people were in the main hall eating supper. I could hear the laughter. 

Meals were one of the times I was appointed to work the desk–I covered both lunch and dinner. I got to eat before everyone. They thought it might be unseemly to have a nine-year-old eating in a room with a bunch of adult addicts attempting recovery either by choice or legal mandate. I also manned it during the morning meeting and any evening they needed to have a group meeting. I was placed at the desk mostly to answer the phone and take a message for someone with more authority to call back. It was usually simple. Until it wasn’t.

“I’m sorry, brother. You can’t.” 

His missing-teeth smile vanished.

“God damn it, kid. I’m going back there.” He started to round the corner.

I could do nothing physically to stop him. We both knew that. I pushed the rolling chair away from the desk to the hallway to get in his way.

“If you go back there, I’m going to have to write you up.”

“You can’t write me up.”

“Sure can. I’ve got the slips.”

“Fuck off,” he said but didn’t move further. A write-up would mean he’d have to sit in the center of a group meeting and be held accountable for his actions. No one wanted that. I’d only seen glimpses of the group meetings. That’s what they were called. Just “group”. Every now and then I could catch a look in through the cracked door–it never closed all the way because it was busted. The result of group gone wrong. 

Group happened when someone’s behavior needed to be corrected. It got loud and intense. Everyone got a chance to tell the person being taken to task how they’d messed up. Some of the things were weird–someone once got yelled at for being twenty minutes late on taking out the trash. Apparently, it was a big deal. Something about respect for everyone. But it was just trash and it’d gotten taken out. Another Brother was taken to task for not picking his dirty underwear up off the bathroom floor. Then, there were things I didn’t understand. Accusations of “not working the steps properly” or “not taking accountability”.

At group, the person in the center of the circle wasn’t allowed to talk. They couldn’t defend themselves. They couldn’t speak at all. They had to listen. They had to hear how they’d messed up over and over, until they understood how they messed up. It seemed like a pretty crappy thing to happen to you. I wasn’t sure if it worked, but then again, I couldn’t go to group. Not that I wanted to in the first place, it didn’t seem like a fun place to be. I was separate.

I watched Marion with a confidence I shouldn’t have. I had no real power. I wasn’t an employee of the facility. I wasn’t even the child of one of the two men who ran the joint. My mom was a recovering addict, just like this guy. I was only at the desk because they needed a place for me so I wasn’t wandering the building. They didn’t like wandering. I was the only kid able to come and stay because I was out of state and it was a reward for my mother’s good behavior. If they gave me a place to be and some responsibility then I could feel included in the community. I learned early on that community was what made this place work. They didn’t have employees besides the two owners. Everyone chipped in. Everyone did their part.

Marion pivoted and walked back towards the hall where dinner was and I looked back down to my Gary Paulsen book, satisfied I’d done what was asked of me.


Brother Brian was very clear in his instructions. “Brother David, don’t let anyone go into the hallway without a pass. They give you any trouble, they ignore you, write it down and me and Brother Vince will handle it.”

Everyone was a Brother or Sister here. It was something to do with respect–they had it on a sign on the wall. Something about everyone being a child of God, thus we had to address each other with respect. Thus Brother and Sister. It seemed weird but who was I to judge? If it helped an addict heal, then fine. I know what addiction does to a family. I know what it did to me. Going hungry at night and heating up water on the stove to take a hot bath because the electricity is out. Seeing my mother cry when she couldn’t get high. The desperation for a fix. So, if I needed to call someone brother or sister and it helped them? Then I was going to call them brother or sister.

Dinner ended and I was relieved from my post by my mother, who had the evening shift at the desk. I went to play basketball until her shift was up and we could hang out. We could play card games or take one of the communal cars to the movies. She was starting to look healthy again. Her hair had life. Her skin had color, and when she smiled it was with all of her face. Her eyes shined. She gained some weight where she’d needed it. She looked alive. 

But I hadn’t forgotten what she’d looked like when the drugs had their hold on her. The drugs that made her allow men to do unspeakable things to her. Made her vomit and retch, but mostly, destroyed her sense of self. Destroyed who she was. She’d been a skilled dancer, gymnast, and diver. She’d been curious and an avid reader of mysteries. She had thick, dark hair that I watched dull and flatten as cocaine wrecked her nervous system. Her balance wasn’t the same. Her energy was gone. She stopped reading. She shook when she was down. I watched her lose pound after pound the more heroin she smoked. I watched her lips crack and split open from the crack. 

She’d had a good job at a doctor’s office as a personal assistant that got us transferred to Arkansas when the doctor moved. She then lost that job because booze, weed and crack became more important. I was too consumed with riding my bicycle up and down the hill, running through the grass barefoot and raising hell to understand or recognize what was happening. I didn’t notice when she stopped going to work. I didn’t notice when our house smelled more like piss, stale beer and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes and weed. I didn’t notice the bathtub was stained with mold rings and the toilet bowl was almost brown. My five-year-old sister wasn’t getting bathed unless my brother or I did it. Food rotted in the pantry. The only visitors were people coming over to get high. It was up to us to keep house.

I did notice, however, when I stopped going to school. It was third grade. One day I went and the next, I didn’t. My mother didn’t wake up to take me and I didn’t think anything of it. A day home from school? Awesome. The day became two days and two days became a week and a week became a month and a month somehow became a whole semester of school lost. Instead of school, I read; Goosebumps or anything by Gary Paulsen. Or played Nintendo; Excitebike, Roger Clemens Baseball and Pro Wrestling Nintendo. Or played Cowboys and Indians in the backyard with invisible Indians and a make believe posse. The friends I had at school never called, they must have thought I’d moved. It wasn’t uncommon. Transient populations and all that. Kids were always leaving. 

My older brother told me my mother was sick and I believed it. I saw her changing. We got shuffled between addict parents. One in Arkansas and one in Texas. Eventually my siblings went to Indiana to stay with my grandparents. I was left alone with a man who didn’t want to be a father. Then I became the only sibling sent to my mother as she worked on getting clean to avoid jail time for writing bad checks and possessing crack. My grandparents wouldn’t have ever thought of sending my siblings there. Not to a rehab facility. It was the curse of having a different father than the other two. A father who thought he wanted to be a father but wasn’t up to the challenge. I was lonely and angry that my siblings abandoned me. Particularly my brother. He’d come with me to Texas and then chose to leave. I never got the choice. 

I didn’t think about any of that as I shot baskets with the men at the rehab though. The front of the facility was a concrete monument to cigarette butts and trash cans overflowing with soda bottles. Addicts replace one addiction with another. Some with Marlboro Reds or Newports. Some with Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Some with Mountain Dew or black coffee or porn or energy drinks or scratch-offs. Some, if they’re lucky, with group.

The men were nice enough to let me shoot with them. They were encouraging even though I was terrible and they tolerated me even though I was a kid. They passed me the ball and took it easy on me as they smoked and talked about getting head and how quickly a fat ass could make them bust as opposed to a flat ass. It was gibberish to me, the lanky kid who talked too much and too fast and wouldn’t comb his mop of curly brown hair to save his life. Playing basketball at a rehab facility with a bunch of recovering addicts, mostly black and white, with a few Latinos. All dressed in clothes I didn’t understand how they afforded—I hadn’t yet learned about knockoff Jordans and fake Rolexes. 

Once, I saw a cop car pull up and someone get taken away for violating the policy of drug use at the facility. Their girlfriend had smuggled in a bag of meth and they got caught trying to smoke it in the bathroom. Drug possession and use of any kind was a violation of the terms of their parole and meant jail. I lived with the fear my mom would be next. That she would slip and be gone and I’d be a kid alone at a rehab facility with no mother left to figure out how to get back to Texas. 

Another time, I saw two of the men I played basketball with get into a fight and almost stab each other. I listened as they told stories about fishing when they were kids or about children that they missed or the girl they’d always wanted to sleep with but turned them down. They argued profusely about why Gary Payton was better than John Stockton. I sat at the front desk and prevented them from going to their rooms. Ate the same food they ate. They took pride in their meals. The kitchen staff worked hard to make sure the food was good and it was. We ate jambalaya, fried chicken with collard greens and pasta with red sauce that’d cooked all day. 

I heard some of them get yelled at for their language or for being late or for whatever reason someone wanted to make a big deal out of. Heard them share war stories and then be told not to share them. War stories, I learned, were the things people did while they were using. They weren’t something to celebrate or to reminisce on. They were stories of desperation. Some were stories of stealing from parents. Selling family heirlooms. Selling their bodies. Everyone had done bad things. The point was to forgive yourself and move forward. To work the steps on a daily basis but not to allow yourself to get bogged down on the things you’d done. They focused on steps eight, nine, and ten. Those were Brother Brian’s favorite steps, because they were all about accountability. You had to make amends and be honest about who you’d harmed. He said that was the key to recovery. He seemed to be right.

This was the place I first saw men cry. I watched a man cry because he wasn’t going to be able to visit his kids. He sobbed. I watched another cry when he got mail and it was divorce papers. I heard men and women screaming out at night when they had night terrors. I watched Space Jam on a guy named Musky’s VCR at least twenty times. He was one of the few people who had his own TV because he’d been there so long. 

It was normal to me. These grown men and women were my friends. I’ve often wondered when people disparage addicts if they’ve ever had to watch someone struggle with addiction. If they understood that maybe the first time they used it was a choice but that choice was made for a reason. If only they knew how many people there that had been molested or raped or beaten or emotionally and mentally tormented. Or addicts who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia who have no access to therapy or doctors. Those are the same people who taught me how to properly shoot a basket and execute a bounce pass. They listened to me when I was behind a desk I shouldn’t have been behind. Taught me how to cuss, and I mean, really cuss. Who listened to me read aloud so I could get more confidence in my speech impediment.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep and the night is quiet, I lay awake and I wonder how they’re doing. I think about my mother. Her twenty years of sobriety. Hard earned, hard won sobriety. I think about the money she paid back. The years she spent waiting for her record to be expunged so she could move on with her life. So she could be someone, anyone, other than a felon. 

I haven’t heard from the rest. I think of them often. I wonder if they survived or if they came up short. I hope they won. All of them.


David P. Barker is a writer and teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana. He likes good stories, good barbecue and an ice cold root beer. He can be found on twitter @TheDavidPBarker or at


image: “Hermetically Sealed”, is of an eastern comma butterfly in its chrysalis, in an old pickle jar. JL Robbins is a fine art photographer and writer living in Pittsburgh.  Their prints are carried by Bottlebrush Gallery of the Arts in Harmony, PA.