Bernard Huges – Oxford House
I first met Bernard Huges when I was over at our Mura Street Oxford House replacing a couple of older light fixtures. For those of you not familiar with Oxford House, it is an international organization whose focus is to help individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. The Oxford House concept is unique in that each house is self-supporting and democratically run and is occupied by a group of men or women in various stages of recovery. There is no caseworker or other official on site though one or more of the senior residents generally take leadership roles. House members are allowed to stay as long they feel it necessary to have a successful recovery. There is no “end date.” A house member may stay indefinitely if that is what it takes to prevent relapse although most eventually move on to full self-reliance.
Returning to the story, Mr. Huges seemed more than a little interested in my progress with the light fixtures. While I worked, we talked about this and that but mostly about the frustrations associated with repairing the work of others. The original installer had taken some shortcuts and made some mistakes that ultimately made the work significantly more difficult than it should have been. Finally, I ran into a roadblock that stopped me dead in my tracks, one of the junction boxes was set too deep in the ceiling. Seeing my consternation, Mr. Huges, Bernard by this time, disappeared into his room and returned with the most ingenious little spacers designed for just this type of problem. That’s when I discovered that he is an electrician by trade and I half suspect that early on he realized that I am not and that he was monitoring my work in his own self-interest and that of the house. I’ve been over to Mura Street a few times since for various projects and each time I’ve looked forward to chatting with Bernard while I worked. Finally, the last time I was there I felt comfortable enough to ask if he would be willing to share his story and he agreed.
Bernard was born on April 3, 1963 in Newport News, Virginia but his family moved to East Baltimore that same year and he’s been a Baltimorean ever since. His family was large, six boys and three girls of which he is right in the middle. His father left the family when Bernard was 13 but the clan stayed together until three years later when his mother passed away. By then his four older siblings were already out of the house and making their way in the world. With his grandparents also deceased there was no good option for the rest of the kids. Of the four youngest, two were adopted and two went into foster care. Bernard went out on his own. He was sixteen. He had been close to his sisters and brothers when they were all under one roof and, though it was difficult, they kept in touch and do so to this day. They visit one another with regularity and spend holidays sharing meals and swapping stories.
Bernard worked all through his late teens and twenties primarily in the construction trade. Despite having been on his own for so long he was only an occasional user of recreational drugs. Not much different from most twenty-somethings. His problem with heroin started back in the early 90’s and began like every other addiction. He started out as a recreational user (no one starts using drugs with the goal of becoming an addict) but inexorably the heroin got the better of him. Early on, he could clean up by doing what he called “the remedy” also known as going “cold turkey” for a few days, but eventually quitting for even a day became impossible. In 1995, a couple of years after he started using and realizing that he just could not handle it on his own, he checked himself into a detox facility. Three days later he came out clean and stayed that way for the next 14 years.
During this period he moved into the very specialized trade of ironwork. These are the guys (and occasionally girls) that build the steel frameworks of the largest construction projects: skyscrapers, bridges, stadiums, etc. You’ll sometimes see them high in the air with little more than sky above and below them. They are often described as the craziest people on a construction site although that’s most likely an outsider’s take on the men and women that are daring enough to work that hard in a very dangerous environment.
In 1999 Bernard was diagnosed with diabetes, the same illness that had played a major role in his mother’s untimely death. Shortly afterwards he realized that, given the effects the illness was having on his body, he would not be able to do the grueling work of an ironworker much longer. The extremes of heat and cold and the sheer physicality of the work were becoming too much. He gave himself four years to find another trade. It was at this point he took an interest in electrical work and before too long he was well on his way to becoming a full-fledged electrician.
In 2009 his older brother took his own life and shortly thereafter Bernard started using again. He’s reluctant to blame his brother’s death for his relapse but it did weigh heavily on him. Once again, it started casually but soon escalated into an uncontrollable habit. Unlike his first experience back in the 90’s, this time the addiction was complete and overwhelming. The drugs most readily available on the street had changed in the 14 intervening years. Now it was prescription painkillers and sedatives. Drugs like OxyContin, Xanax, and Nembutal. Most of these are formulated for timed release however, when crushed, they pack powerful and immediate punch. As with other opioids the user develops a tolerance thus requiring ever greater doses to achieve the same high.
Unable or unwilling to keep regular hours he soon found himself without a regular job. Instead he supported himself by doing odd jobs and “pick up” electrical work earning just enough to supply his habit and a few basic needs. Some of the people that hired him took knowing advantage of his condition and paid much less that he could have made had he not been desperate. “I never did so much electrical work for so little money,” he told me.
Eventually, he ended up homeless and living in an abandoned row house on Edmonson Avenue in west Baltimore. Living like that made him even more depressed and the drugs that once assuaged it now made it even worse. He said he often fell asleep hoping that he wouldn’t wake up…but he did and finally he decided to get some help. On August 19th, 2013 he checked himself in to Tuerk House for their 28 day intensive residential treatment program where each day is filled with both individual and group counseling, social skills development, lectures and meetings. During his last time in rehab 18 years prior, withdrawals were mild by comparison and over in a couple of days. This time, as a consequence of his level of addiction and types drugs he’d been using, the muscle aches and nausea lasted for three weeks. Finally the physical symptoms abated and he was ready to move to phase two of the program, residency at the Weisman-Kaplan House, a halfway house where he continued to attend meetings, receive counseling and, additionally was encouraged to seek outside employment. Phase two lasted eleven more months.
Upon completion of phase two, Bernard, like many others, still felt that he needed a supportive environment. On August 25th, 2014 he moved into our Mura Street Oxford House and became one of a close knit group of men each seeking to regain full independence but choosing the accountability of a group home to make the transition more gradual and supportive. When we first met, Bernard had been at Oxford House about 9 months. In speaking with him recently he said he feels that he needs a bit more time to “practice living responsibly” and that’s fine, as mentioned earlier, Oxford House allows residents to stay as long as THEY feel it is necessary. Of course, Oxford House does have its drawbacks. It is a group living situation and although each resident often has his own room, complete privacy is rare and that too is part of the program. It is assumed that once a resident is confident in his recovery he will want to become a more independent individual again. Until that time, however, one’s fellow residents serve as accountability partners and, though it’s not at all a bed of roses, as Bernard put it, “The worst day here at Oxford House is still better than the best day ‘out there.’”
Bernard’s future is still up in the air to an extent. His plans after Oxford House are fluid in many ways. He’s looking forward to being his own man, responsible once again for his own home. He talks of starting an electrical service business. At the same time his son is encouraging him to move to North Carolina to be nearer his grandkids and the pull in that direction is strong but Bernard is determined to be solidly on his own before he’ll consider it. He’s got a couple of more steps to take but, compared to the steps he’s taken already, these are small. He’s had a recent setback, a health issue related to his diabetes, but he’s on the mend and in good spirits and there’s little doubt he’ll overcome this challenge as well. It’s been a privilege to have met him and EHC is proud to have been able to assist him in his ongoing recovery. It’s people like Bernard that inspire us to the work that we do.