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How an Addict Becomes Homeless

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I spend much of my time writing on homeless addicts in the Bronx. I’ve gotten encouragement on the work that I do, though for transparency’s sake, I have to detail the act of my own intellectual and lived ambiguity: I ignore the existence of a soon-to-be-homeless addict in my own life.


I collected rainbows of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) chips — growth markers for time spent sober — in my Aladdin coffee mug, the earliest memory I can knit of my dad. I’d lie on my stomach through stabs of shrubbery to see inside the church basement where AA meetings met, slouching to see the new color of chip awaiting my menagerie.

Before that, when I was four, my dad was arrested on felony cocaine charges and sent away to rehab. It was during a rare South Carolina blizzard, when my mom and I ate tuna fish out of tins and looked for a neighbor to split firewood. We lived at an angle to the marsh in the old part of town and the sky swirled. My dad returned some time later.

In middle school, my brother was born, and I became second parent at the age of 11. My mom worked always (we subsisted at poverty level) while my dad squandered much of what she brought in on indulgences — a Cadillac Escalade truck, Tommy Bahama silk slacks, 18 holes of golf.

When I was in high school, he stole my surgery medication. He shot a hole through the cab door of his pickup truck with a rifle while drunk. He drove high with my two-year-old brother in the car. He pretended that I was his wife.

He and my mom divorced at the end of my high school career, after 25 years and various stints in rehab and jail. The reasoning: his drinking and another woman.

One winter two years ago, after I had moved to New York, my phone buzzed on the Amtrak ride bearing me home from a business meeting in DC. My dad had cut four arteries with a filet knife and had written “I’m Sorry” in blood on the tile of his shower. He was found in the bathtub by his second wife (he had called her with his intent beforehand), and by the police.

I soothed my mom into the night as the train traveled North and away from her, whispered assurances against the window in deference to my train-side neighbor. Things would be okay. I would make sure. I began writing my dad a letter a day, feeling an all-abiding, nauseating guilt. Daughters’ guilt, perhaps. I had failed him, this person about whom I was obligated to care.

My dad was taken to an expensive rehab in the North Carolina mountains, treated for co-occurring disorders of addiction and depression. I alone of my family chose to visit, meandering a rental car through the windy roads, auto-piloting myself through scheduled cry sessions where I sat stiff with the wreckage of other people’s family members. There he lived with granite countertops and flat screen TVs, and wrote poems, and told me how I enabled his addiction by co-parenting my brother.

Before leaving, I took him out for lunch and, cringing, tailed him to the restaurant bar where his eyes stalked the serving of mixed drinks, against the strict direction from his program officer to avoid situational triggers. Something flickered. That was the last time I saw him.

In his last days of rehab, his second wife filed for divorce on grounds of domestic violence.

Suicide threats became commonplace after. I’d wake, 800 miles away, to 3 a.m. drunk calls with colorful descriptions of “checking out of this world.” Nights without the calls were worse. After three months of it, I began switching off my phone come nightfall and enfolding it within a stack of sweatshirts.

It’s been two years since I’ve communicated with my dad directly.

After rehab, he did a stint in a halfway house and moved back to our South Carolina town. His parents, having paid for the recent zen mountain therapy and multiple attempts before that, declared that to be their final aid at sobriety. Hundreds of thousands of dollars gone.

He drank, combined prescription meds and went to jail, in and out for over a year. His debt climbed the thousands. He was arrested with my, now, 13-year-old brother (who, after everything, I consider my son) in the car. He lost multiple entry-level jobs for appearing on drugs. He lost his rented room in a ’60s ranch-style house. His compact Chevy car was repossessed. Family members and friends faltered and slowly died off, rich with excuses, having lent too much money or time.

Last week, after another suicide threat, his sister called the police who committed him to a mental hospital against his will for 30 days.


What happens next, I don’t know. A 60-year-old man with no job, nor friends, nor family willing to help. We’ve been abused, frayed, tired. I know what it is to give up and lose my way in caring.

In his tales, I’ll be spun as the daughter who refuses to talk to him, poor lonely, misunderstood him. His family and friends, hostile enemies.

Over the past eight months in the Bronx, I’ve heard stories, stories about former careers, lovers, kids, the avenues by way those on the streets have been thrust out and slighted: a demon of an uptight ex-girlfriend; an egregiously judgmental family.

When I speak to addicts on the streets, I accept their truths. What they conceive, their means of handling a lifetime’s worth of neurochemical imbalance and pain, matters far more than whatever the fine print of fact may be. I am, by some irony, sharing stories of those like my father while ignoring his pain and in turn submitting to his reality.

On the Hunts Point streets, I hear, “you’re my girl,” “you’re my friend,” “you understand.” To my dad, I’m a deserter, a member of the disengaged abandonment troupe.

I live and concede to both.

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Rks1157 11:38 am 09/29/2012

    Cassie, I have been connected to the recovery community for over twenty years and, I am a recovered alcoholic/addict myself.

    I could take your story and change some names around and it would fit a member of my family. It is difficult to watch and all too easy to think that you have some part it in it, some unfulfilled responsibiliy to, in your case, your father.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Your father failed you, not the other way around. Removing yourself from his life is the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and for him.

    You can however, continue to hope that one day he will hit “the bottom” sufficient enough to accept a recovery program and hang on. It happens regardless of age or how low we go. It is really up to him, not you, to make that happen.

    Perhaps some day you will be able to tell us a different story. A story of a new relationship with your father. Old wounds still hurt and should he recover then it will be up to you to work on a relationship though until that time comes all you can do is hope.

    Best wishes

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  2. 2. raysny 4:26 pm 09/29/2012

    He obviously didn’t get the kind of help he needed. Only a small percentage are helped by 12Step Facilitation (AA-based rehabs) and/or AA and NA.

    This talk about “hitting bottom” is cruel and insensitive, AA members want a person to be so desperate that they are willing to cling to AA the way a drowning man will clasp at straws.

    People quit on their own at the same rate as people quit using AA. The difference is that people who quit on their own give themselves the credit, in AA they are taught they are powerless, God & AA get the credit. However if one fails in AA, they get all the blame.

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  3. 3. baruch60610 1:12 pm 09/30/2012

    @raysny, your facts are incorrect. For most of its existence, AA was the single most effective treatment for alcoholism, as acknowledged by the medical profession. I don’t know if this is still true; however, it had been true since AA was created, until at least the 1990′s. I submit that worrying about who gets the credit or blame misses the point. The point is recovery, whatever it takes.

    @cassie, it can be unbearable to helplessly watch someone you love destroy himself. At some point you may need to let go. You can’t raise him up; but he may drag you down. Letting go may be the only way for you to survive.

    When I went through active addiction, my family let go of me, no doubt for the reasons I’ve mentioned. This was 35 years ago. I’ve been sober since then, but without any relationship to my family. I *understand* their letting go rationally, but it still *feels* like abandonment and betrayal.

    I hope your father finds his way back – but it’s out of your hands. That’s such a bitter fact of life…

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  4. 4. Na g n o s t ic 9:46 pm 09/30/2012

    Why is this miserable, self-indulgent crap in Scientific American?

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  5. 5. jorin 12:57 pm 10/1/2012

    If this article is just one way that a person ends up homeless. There are many others. Loss of job, illness, divorce, mental illness. One thing it does not mention is the inherited facts of some types of alcoholism.
    I have been associated for years with a member of the Yusep family and his sad and hurtful, to himself as well as others, inability to get and stay sober. In his quest we discovered by chance a person who knew the Yusep family as well as the Medev family who was this young man’s mother. It seems that for generations this family has struggled with alcohol. Not drugs, alcohol. They immigrated to BC from the Soviet Union and try as they might, they were, are and probably always will be dysfunctional and suffering Alcoholics.People who have known and loved them for generations attest to this. They call them “victims”. I am waiting for Scientific American to include a column on this aspect of addiction.Then maybe we will have insight on the causes of one of the addictions. I have great hope that now that they have isolated the addictive gene(alcohol) progress will be made. BTW this man eventually achieved 5 years of sobriety but only by entering into a slave class at his job and AA. He passed away two years ago from inoperable endocarditis. He left a village behind who loved and looked up to him.

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  6. 6. steve castleman 4:01 pm 10/1/2012

    As a sober addict of many years, I understand the guilt that comes with thinking that you’ve failed a loved one, rehab buddy or friend who still struggles with his own addiction.

    One thing that helped me put that guilt into better perspective was an understanding of the science of addiction: that it’s a chronic, progressive brain disease which warps addicts’ thought processes and motivations; that addicts make terrible decisions because it is their very decision-making apparatus that’s diseased; that addicts have poor impulse control because their orbito-frontontal cortexes, the brain structure of self-control, are degraded by drug abuse.

    For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on

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  7. 7. hayes19643 11:02 am 10/4/2012

    I think this was a very interesting blog because you explained your opinion thoroughly and even told stories. I can’t relate but I can understand. Good article !

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  8. 8. raysny 10:15 pm 10/4/2012


    AA’s own Triennial Surveys show that 95% of new members leave within their first year.

    AA does not improve on the rate of natural remission, quitting on one’s own, while raising the mortality rate, giving AA an effectiveness rate of less than zero. Dr, George Vaillant, former Harvard professor, researcher, and AA Trustee, set out to prove that AA worked. He compiled all the previous research and added his own eight year study, running the largest study of his day and published his findings as “The Natural History of Alcoholism: Causes, Patterns, and Paths to Recovery”. He said of his findings, “Not only had we failed to alter the natural history of alcoholism, but our death rate of three percent a year was appalling.”

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  9. 9. aidel 9:19 pm 10/25/2012

    I appreciate your courage. Speaking openly about the disease of addiction and how it has affected a real person/family is extremely valuable and goes a long way in beginning to eliminate the stigma of addiction and mental illness. I know the feeling of being an ‘orphan,’ even though (ostensibly) you have living family members out there. Sometimes when your family of origin cannot be salvaged, you have to create your own family. Please know that there are many people in the world who care deeply about you and really appreciate the work you are doing. I am one of them.

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  10. 10. SOSmary 1:08 pm 02/9/2013

    My sister (schizo-effective, behavioral, developmental issues) hurts my mother and me the most – this is classic behavior for people who have it rough like this. I pull back as much as I can out of self-preservation. Because I can’t help my sister I help the local kid (53) who never grew up and has no teeth and no other means of making money and I hire him for odd jobs and stand up for him in the neighborhood. I greet all people on the street as I would anyone else. I go out of my way to support homeless shelters through my business. I cannot be there directly for my sister – I’m not equipped for it and she makes it hell. In the small ways that I can be there for her, when I remember this is all not her fault, I show up. Ultimately “we are all one,” and by doing what you do for others you ARE there for your father, for yourself, for all of us – and thank you so very much for that.

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  11. 11. shaun.shelly 11:55 am 02/10/2013

    I work as a treatment professional volunteering full-time for an NPO, and it saddens me that for many of my patients, the love of family is seen as something they deserve, and so when it is given, it is abused. Yet when we as strangers express love and understanding and unconditional positive regard, it is treated as a gift, and often provides the motivation for recovery. The family members stare in disbelief and say “but we have been here for you forever, why did you not respond to our efforts?”

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  12. 12. AddictionMyth 7:27 am 03/30/2013

    Does it seem like AA is a drinking club? That’s because that’s exactly what it is: AA is a drinking club for sex fiends and psychopaths one small crisis away from their next relapse, and the old people who teach them how to play the abstinence-binging game. Also included is a random mix of the sad, lonely and socially inept, who are brainwashed into excessive drinking by the cult of powerlessness, bullied for sex and money, and kept around to swell the ranks.

    When will we finally realize this??

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