Alfred Halley grew up in a stable household on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. The worst vice of his stepfather? The unfiltered Pall Malls he smoked at a time when the dangers of cigarettes were largely unknown.
Halley left home for the Army in 1968 and though he was stationed stateside in Fort Meade, Md., the 19-year-old rubbed elbows with many soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.
“All the guys thought if you were from Chicago, you were a very worldly person,” said Halley, who decided to play the part by starting to smoke, drink and sample drugs.
After an honorable discharge, he returned to Chicago in the early ’70s to a good job in metal plating. But during the next two decades, he took a slow slide into drug abuse and alcoholism that cost him that job, several others and two marriages. His kids stayed away as he sank ever lower, dealing drugs as well as using in the 1980s.
“There’s only one focus when you’re caught up in the grips of addiction and that is how to keep feeding your habit,” he recalled this week. “You know that you love your children. You know that you love your mother. You know that you love your family. But that driving piece to get the drug always outweighs what you’ve been taught.”
By the time he moved to Buffalo to be closer to a brother on Halloween 1990, he was homeless, too. His life couldn’t have been much more frightening. Halley checked into a Veterans Administration 28-day inpatient program shortly after his arrival. He hasn’t touched alcohol or any illegal drugs since Nov. 13 of that year.
“While I was at the VA, I would go to a 12-step program,” he said. “I would go to meetings and although it all wasn’t sinking in, I was thinking, ‘What do you have to lose? You already tore up everything.’ There were incremental steps, but somewhere in the process I began to see the benefit to living a life of abstinence.”
During the last two decades, Halley has become a leader in the Western New York addictions recovery field, rising through the ranks at Cazenovia Recovery Systems. He will retire at the end of the year as chief operations officer for the agency, the largest residential addiction treatment program in the region.
He chose to share his story now to dispel myths about addictions recovery – and bring hope to those who feel crushed under the weight of drug abuse.
“The great myth out there is that people don’t get better, that people who involve themselves with drugs are morally deficient. They’re the poorest people, the lowest people. That’s just not the truth,” said Halley, 67, who raised four of his children in Buffalo after he got clean, and married his wife, Crystal, 15 years ago. “It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from and we see that each and every day: college kids, rich people, poor people. Addiction is the most equal opportunity employer that you’ll ever find. It doesn’t care what walk of life you come from. Doesn’t care how much you have or how little you have. It will embrace one and all – and then go about destroying your life.”
Halley 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.
Q. What do you wish the general public understood most about those who struggle with addiction?
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. 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.
My grandkids know nothing about my past. All they know is a loving grandfather. 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.
Q. Talk about your career at Cazenovia Recovery.
Nothing better could have happened to me than to have fallen into this agency. It really was a second chance – at a second-chance agency. We have a number of people in recovery that are employed by us. We have a number of residents who we’ve given the opportunity to be employed by us, as long as they keep their focus on their recovery. When you work in this type of place, if you’re not willing to give people a second chance, I don’t think it says much about your mission and your vision.”
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 helped cement it. Working with this agency had to be 50 percent of what helped to keep my focused and understanding. 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.