Across Milwaukee County, heroin is killing people. Last year, more than 140 people succumbed to the drug. For years now, lawmakers have been passing legislation and convening groups - hoping to come up with new ways to tackle the growing problem.
Tuesday, WUWM spoke with a man who described his struggle to break the addiction. Today, we sat down for dinner with a group of 12 men enrolled in treatment at Serenity Inns on Milwaukee’s north side.
It’s just after 6 p.m. when dinner fellowship gets underway every evening at Serenity Inns, a residential drug-treatment program. The 12 men enrolled, as well as any guests, grab hands and introduce themselves. The introductions flow to the right, as a reminder to the men to stay on the right track.
Every night, the guests at the table are the community members who prepare the dinner for the men and bring it to them. This evening, the guests are from Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Hubertus. The meal includes chili and fried chicken, vegetables and of course dessert. Once everyone gets a plate and takes a seat, one of the men battling addiction kicks off the dinner discussion.
“Okay, here at Serenity Inns we have another tradition where we ask a question of the guests and a question of the residents. Tonight for the residents, please explain what dinner fellowship means to you.”
People begin to answer, when they feel comfortable.
“My name is Mike and I’m an addict. Dinner fellowship to me means pretty much us as a new sober family growing together because we all came in the door beat up and then day-by-day we progressed. The guests that come in, they see us once a month and they can see how we grow.”
“I’m Demetrius, I’m an addict. Dinner fellowship for me is like being around family and newfound friends, because growing up, we didn’t sit at the dinner table. I was in my room or in front of the TV eating so it’s kind of new to me. I like this.”
Some men talk about how dinner fellowship was scary at first because they feared others would judge them for the decisions they’ve made. Yet, the sentiment shared most often is gratefulness.
“To me, dinner fellowship is real. Where I come from everything is fake, and I’m talking about the Department of Corrections. Us fellas sitting around these tables, we speak the real. In jail we just saying what we got to say to make it up out of there and I can’t do that. I’m grateful to be here. We got real questions and we get real answers, everything is real and it’s beautiful to me.”
After dinner, some start clearing the table, packing up the leftovers and washing dishes, while others want to share their stories. Joe is 37 years old and addicted to heroin.
“Like I said, I’ve lost over 10 friends in the last two years. One of my buddies overdosed behind a dumpster, another buddy has three sons, three, five and seven, he’s gone. Girlfriend has a five and 12 year old, she’s gone. Just trying to get my life in order and save my own life because I don’t want to be one of those numbers,”he says.
Joe says he started using heroin four years ago.
He says it started with the recreational use of pain pills. “Close friends in my circle were getting ungodly amounts of pain pills and giving them to you like candy. Most times, I didn’t even have to pay for them. You get caught up in the grip real quick."
Joe says that while addicts know the consequences of using opioids and heroin, their addicted minds tell them it could be rewarding. He says it’s like gambling with your life.
Joe has been at Serenity Inns for only a week, but this is his second go around here. “If I could just put half of the effort into staying clean as I did to try to get high, I’ll master recovery and I’ll be able to accomplish a lot of things,” he says.
Then, there’s Demetrius. “See I was a drug dealer and a user. Heroin. And I’ve been using since I was 17,” he says.
Demetrius is now 47.
“In Chicago where I’m from, out west, that was the way of life. We got tricked thinking it was an aphrodisiac, which it was. It was social at first, but then it became…we sold it, then we started using it, then one thing led to another,” he says.
Demetrius says he’s tried to get clean on his own 20 different times, but it never stuck. “I had it in my head that I got it. I’m going to stay clean or I’m going to do it on the weekends. It didn’t work. I thought I was a functional addict, ain’t no such thing."
He says that recently, his life became unmanageable and he knew things had to change.
Demetrius says he’s lost two brothers in five months, one to an overdose. “He was in detox with me and he didn’t come…I said man, I’m finna (going) to go to treatment, I’m done. I got fed up and tired because I was taking care of (him), I was his PCW, personal care worker. I’m watching him, you know what I’m saying. He wouldn’t go to the doctor so I was like man, I’m done. And he went to detox but he left detox. After we got out of there I came here. Next thing you know, I came from a meeting and found out he died. Already know why, how."
Men from all walks of life call Serenity Inns home. Men bound together not only by addiction but by the fight to break free. They say if they could tell people anything, it would be that they are not bad people, they’re just fighting a horrible disease.