By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Curtis DeVoursney has felt more human lately.
That might seem like a small accomplishment but, when we met for the first time two years ago, Curtis was deep in the throes of heroin addiction. He had watched numerous friends and associates die of overdoses in the preceding months. At 24 years old, he was still standing and that made him feel invulnerable and godlike.
The day after we talked, he was reporting to jail for violating his last parole and even then the drug use didn’t stop.
“It’s difficult to remember because the amount of drugs I was on. I went to jail and continued using. I was smoking meth and smoking weed. Everything I wasn’t supposed to do,” Curtis said.
He was let out shortly before New Year’s Day 2016. He was staying with his father, but that came to an abrupt end. On New Year’s Eve he left his father’s house with the clothes on his back, a pair of shoes on his feet and another pair in his hand in search of drugs. He walked five miles into Salem in 30-degree weather in a last ditch effort and then began walking back to Keizer.
“It’s bad when you can’t get drug dealers to answer the phone. I couldn’t get any drugs because I had robbed every drug dealer I knew. I had burnt every bridge possible. The only options were going back to jail or to be homeless and walk the streets,” Curtis said.
He was walking on Cherry Avenue near his mother, Mary’s, home when he sent her a text message because she wasn’t picking up the phone. Curtis didn’t blame her.
Curtis told Mary he had no where to go. Mary asked if he was willing to go to treatment. Curtis said he would. The next time he called, Mary picked up the phone and told him to get to her house.
“I wasn’t going to put myself out, I’d been there and done that. Once he was here, Mom kicked in and I was trying to feed him and get him to take a shower. Then I told him he needed to call the treatment center. I didn’t call anyone,” Mary said.
Curtis made the call and detoxed on Mary’s couch while waiting to check in at Pacific Ridge: Residential Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center.
“It wasn’t hard to get in. They knew me and this time I knew what I wanted. I just knew anything was better than what I was doing. I didn’t know how to live life. I knew how to do narcotics and lie, cheat and steal. And, obviously, get arrested,” Curtis said.
He’d also gone through treatment before. He knew the things he was supposed to say and do, but not how to apply them to the way he lived. Part of the problem was he could never find someone to connect with at treatment centers.
Early attempts with treatment also left him feeling cynical about the process, he met with one counselor who told him he understood what Curtis was going through because the counselor had smoked pot.
“I asked him if he’d ever stuck a syringe in his neck and his mind was blown. I told him to shut the eff up,” Curtis said.
However, in a strange way, the encounter set him on the path he’s following now.
“From that day on, I knew that if I was able to get to the place I wanted to be, I would be able to tell people I did understand,” Curtis said.
After two weeks at Pacific Ridge, Curtis got permission to transfer to Oregon Trail Recovery (OTR) in Portland. His days were filled with mandatory group and individual therapy meetings at OTR and he was encouraged to find others he’d be willing to attend. He earned his first shot at a job in years. He worked in construction, then in a paint shop, then in fast food.
The program required him to do many things he found uncomfortable like find a sponsor he could be open and honest with, re-establish relationships with family and even pray. Custis’s hackles went up at the latter, but he gave in to that, too.
“I said I didn’t come here to pray and then my sponsor reminded me I said I was willing to go any lengths to get this. Once he said that, I knew I would go stand on my head in the corner for three hours if that’s what they told me to do,” Curtis said.
He soared in his recovery and in his responsibilities at work. Curtis was contemplating moving into fast food management when OTR hired him as a client support specialist, house manager and addiction interventionist. He’s been doing that for almost a year now and is approaching his second anniversary clean and sober.
“I am the front line of the treatment center. I live with the clients and have to lead as an example. I have a level of accountability that is unbelievable,” Curtis said. “My clients are either fresh off the street, fresh out of detox, fresh out of jail or fresh off of treatment.”
Curtis runs their group meeting, helps them with transportation and has even traveled to Tennessee and California to guide others through intervention training.
When his clients relapse, Curtis is the one to confiscate their drugs and paraphernalia. He is able to dispose of it without giving into temptation by keeping his focus on the needs of the clients.
“I put myself in their shoes knowing what it would have been like to have had someone step in and take away the thing that was killing me,” Curtis said.
Recently, he’s found himself buying more button-up shirts than he’s ever owned in his life. He keeps giving them away to new clients headed to job interviews.
“The professional part of it is still a challenge. What was really difficult was transitioning between the ways I talk on the street and how to talk in meetings,” he said. “When you put me in a situation with clinicians, they almost have to decipher my language.”
He knows the odds are against most of his clients, but his favorites are the ones with long criminal histories and lots of experience with drugs.
“That stuff fires me up. I live for watching these guys who come in filled with hatred and fear and anger and watching them turn into people who are happy and joyous and free. Living a life they didn’t know was possible,” Curtis said.
His experience with addiction has led to insights he now shares freely. Curtis laments the current way society chooses to deal with addicts, by tossing them in jails and and prisons.
“You’re punishing people for killing themselves. Why do you want to kick me when I’m down? If we could put people in treatment rather than prison, prisons wouldn’t be so full,” he said.
For those who encounter addiction among friends and loved ones, Curtis cautions against trying to relate when there isn’t enough common ground.
“Don’t act like you know what it feels like. If my clients have gone through something I haven’t gone through, I tell them that. I tell them I don’t understand that, but tell me what that is like. Come from a place of compassion and understanding and love,” he said.
Of all the changes in Curtis’ life over the past two years, this enthusiasm for other people and their needs – ones who arrive in his life as complete strangers – is the most stunning. When I met him in November 2016, Mary and his younger sister joined us. At one point in the conversation, his sister broke down crying when she talked about fears of being the one to find him dead of a heroin overdose. Unprompted, Curtis said he felt nothing about his sister’s tears any longer.
He sees more clearly now how he was able to be so callous.
“I had learned to disconnect myself. I had watched people die over and over. In my eyes other people were a liability. It was my way of protecting myself. If I showed emotion, it meant I was weak,” Curtis said. “When I was cleaning up my mess – and I’m still doing that – I was talking with her she told me all she wanted was for me to be there for her children. She has kids now and I’m there for them. I am able to be present in their lives and money can’t buy that.”
Mary said the changes are a complete 180-degree turn.
“What I know is that this is where he needs to be and his life up to now has led to this. It was hell living through it, but he’s giving back in amazing ways. His life was so dark and it’s not now,” Mary said.