Alfred Halley considers himself fortunate in many ways, including that he had learned lots of hard lessons by the time he stopped drinking and taking drugs in his early 40s.
A younger person may have gotten derailed on the road to sobriety if they were forced to confront what he did in the two years after Nov. 13, 1990, the day the Chicago native started recovery from drug and alcohol addiction at Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Buffalo.
“Particularly so with young people, there’s sort of a fantasy belief that once I embrace recovery nothing bad is ever going to happen to me again,” he said. “Six months after I started recovery, I got a call that my young son had been killed in a drive-by shooting in Chicago. I was devastated because I had him in my plan to bring him to Buffalo because he had gotten involved with gangs and I was concerned about him.
"It's probably is hard for people to imagine that someone with a drug habit still had the compassion and love for others, but I did. I wanted him to be OK. When I got the call at 2 a.m. from his mother that he’d been killed, that was a major turning point in my life. I simply said a prayer and said, ‘I don’t know what I was going to do if this hadn’t happened, but I am making a promise that drugs will no longer be a part of my life because I don’t want anybody to believe that that type of lifestyle is going to be beneficial. I didn’t want anybody – child or adult – to think it’s OK to live a life addicted to drugs or alcohol,” said Halley, now 67 and chief operations officer with Cazenovia Recovery Systems, the largest residential treatment agency in Western New York.
Halley is subject of this weekend’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh. He will be among several people who share their stories from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday during the fourth annual Recovery Day in McCarthy Park, 304 E. Amherst St., between Main Street and Bailey Avenue.
The public is welcome to the free event to celebrate those who have reclaimed their lives from addiction, encourage others to continue recovery, and educate the community about services for those with addiction, mental health challenges or both.
Halley holds a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies from SUNY Buffalo State and is close to completing a master’s degree in business administration at the same school. He became an intern at Cazenovia Recovery shortly after his recovery started. During the last quarter century, he moved from residence manager to counselor associate to state-credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor, program director, operations officer and chief operations officer at the agency.
We covered a lot of ground during an interview earlier this week in Halley’s Main Street office. He talked about being introduced to smoking, booze and drugs after joining the Army during the Vietnam War, and the slow cascade into addiction that cost him several jobs, two marriages and estrangement from his six children.
It was a talk that held great interest for me as the adult child of an alcoholic. My father, a popular English teacher at Iroquois High School during the 1970s and early ‘80s, died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 45 after years of heavy smoking and drinking. I was 23; my younger brother, 21.
“The biggest thing I’d like people to understand is that people do get better and that people who are caught in the grip of addiction never woke up as children, as young adults, saying 'I want to ruin my life by becoming a drug addict.' This is a slow and progressive disease,” Halley said. “The problem is that once you’re caught in the grips of it, it’s extremely difficult to get loose. Another thing I want people to understand as we’re talking about addiction is that we’re talking about our neighbors, our family members, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. These aren’t people who fell off the mountain. These are individuals we love and we care for. You can’t just stick your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on in our community and our country when it comes to substance abuse and alcoholism...
“I want people to understand – I want my grandchildren and my children to understand – that if you find yourself caught in the grips of this situation, please believe there is hope and there is a way out. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t get better. The fact that over 23 million Americans, last I checked, were recovering with some long-term recovery, says a lot. I know hundreds and hundreds of individuals who have long-term recovery. I know people who have come into 12-step programs and never picked up again.”
It’s a lesson my brother and I experienced 10 years after our father’s death – still struggling with what his life and tragic death meant – when a fellow teacher and close friend of his told us he went into addictions treatment the day after my dad’s funeral, and hadn’t touched alcohol since.
As was the case with Halley, this teacher had seen the benefits to living a life of abstinence.
What a meaningful gift, not only to himself but to folks like my brother and me.
Below are some excerpts from the interview with Halley that I didn’t have room for in the print edition.
Q. What are your days like now as chief operations officer?
Hectic. I oversee the supportive living program, which is a peer-connected program where normally three residents live in an apartment. It’s not a high restrictive level of care like community residences are. They’re monitored 24 hours and staff is always available. When you move to a supportive living program you’ve established a period of abstinence and recovery and established you’re able to live outside a 24-hour-a-day model. On an average day, I work 9½ hours, and I have a tendency to come in on Saturdays. I’ve been responsible for the supportive living program and HUD housing program for the last 10 years. HUD has 135 individuals and supportive living encompasses 99. That’s over two-thirds of residents the whole agency serves. The supportive living and HUD programs are comprised of men and women. The other programs are a community residential programs.
Q. What were the three things that helped most in your journey to get clean and sober?
The self-help program was the most fundamental part of my recovery process. My ongoing involvement with my 12-step program and the learning experience and teaching experience I got from there, and seeing other peoples’ lives prosper, laid the foundation for me. Ending up with the responsibility for my children – even though that wasn’t part of my plan – helped cement it. Working with this agency had to be 50 percent of what helped to keep my focused and understanding. I don’t work with residents one-on-one anymore, and I don’t believe you have to be recovering to help people, but I think if you are recovering, you have a good understanding of addiction. It lends a certain empathy toward a person who is struggling and looking to get better.
Q. What advice and strategies helped you to help others most successfully address their addictions?
Seek to raise people’s insights by not telling them what to do but having them look at what it is they feel will be beneficial to their recovery. For those who do know I’m recovering, providing a consistent, positive role model. The other thing is being understanding without enabling.
Q. How do you do that?
It’s a hard tightrope to walk, especially when you’re talking about the younger population. I think you try to motivate individuals to take a look and understand what they’re trying to do with their lives and how they might go about being able to implement them. I tell people, "Please understand that the substances have helped exacerbate your problems and no matter what goes on in your life, drugs and alcohol are not going to solve them." We’re going to run into situations that are going to be uncomfortable for us. Part of the way addiction gets a grip on people is it distorts rationale thinking. Trying to get the distorted thinking back to a level where you can make good decisions takes work.
Q. It sounds like you take a piece-by-piece approach.
You have to. If anybody believes you’re going to get well easily, that generally doesn’t work. We take a holistic approach here and try to treat every aspect of the disease in terms of what it is that people need to get better, but we also understand that this is a patient process and is often fraught with relapses. Some people, it takes five, six or seven times before they get it. Others, one or two. Some never get it and that’s very unfortunate.
Q. You’ve never had a relapse?
No. I’m pleased, amazed. Don’t know why in entirety this has been the experience for me. But there is a belief that the disease of addiction is so strong that even as I close in on 25 years, just one use can destroy you. I’ve kept that understanding throughout my life and it’s based in part on attending self-help meetings on a daily basis for quite some time. ... When you are faced with addiction, you need to grab hold to anything positive.
Q. What have those in recovery taught you during the process?
To recognize the small pieces in recovery as you go for the bigger pieces. As you go, you start to recognize, “I put a lot of work into this.” It’s a difficult process. If it was easy, nobody would stay clean or remain abstinent long. The process should entail some struggles and should maintain that you’re going to have to work hard on this every day. When you work hard, you don’t take it for granted. It’s saying, “This is something I worked hard for. I want to hold on to it during adversity. I want to hold onto when things aren’t going right for me. I want to hold onto it when I become unemployed, because I need to keep hope that I can become employed again.” The important thing is that you don’t cause the downfalls.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon