“Life is beautiful on this side“: A Recovery Month Story

Friday, September 18, 2015

National Recovery Month is a time set aside to share stories of how recovery changes lives. Mothers and fathers repair relationships with their children. Individuals find stability and are able to stay employed. People begin to believe in themselves and work toward achieving their potential.

Central City Concern is a place filled with such stories. We are an organization in which two out of five employees self-identify as being in recovery. Many of our counselors, case managers, care providers, and even administrative staff are on that same journey many of our clients and patients are also on. At CCC, the words “I understand” come from people who have been there – whether “there” means active addiction, homelessness, or times of despair and hopelessness.

We sat down with a CCC employee who was gracious enough to share his story to find out how recovery has affected his life and find out why his latest vacation was so much more than a time to get away.

• • •

On June 12, 2015, Leonard Brightmon found himself in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was thousands of miles from home, but light years beyond where his life was headed just ten years ago.

Home for Leonard has always been Portland, Ore. Born in the City of Roses and raised by a single mother, Leonard was an affable kid who, despite severe asthma, loved to play basketball. On the streets, he played alongside Portland basketball legends, some of whom made their way to the NBA.

“I wanted to become a pro, too. Be able to buy my mom a house and all that,” Leonard says. “But as we know, my life took me to other places.”

As a young adult, Leonard began to use cocaine recreationally. Continued use quickly revealed itself as an active addiction. Fueled by a childhood aversion to needles, Leonard initially swore to himself that he’d never use intravenous drugs. But as his life spiraled out of control, cocaine use escalated into heroin use and dependence.

“I made that promise to myself. But yet, there went I.”

Leonard’s life became unmanageable as quickly as heroin had become his preferred drug. Even after the birth of his daughter, Leonard continued to use.

“We were going through a court process to have my daughter adopted out. I couldn’t even show up in court and advocate for her,” Leonard says.

“When you have a heroin addiction, there’s no choice: either you’re going to be sick or you’re going to get up and get the money or whatever it takes to get the drug,” explains Leonard. “My life was a mess.”

Leonard eventually became tired: of the endless pursuit for his next high, of feeling aimless, of missing out on his daughter’s life.

He moved away from Portland for the first time, hoping a change of scenery would help. It didn’t. Leonard managed to stay away from cocaine and heroin for three years, but filled that time with a dependence on alcohol.

Leonard moved back home and decided to give Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings a try. There he met people who, while living every day managing their addiction, were successful at getting up. At going to work. At raising families. He “heard other people’s truths. I was touched by their honesty.”

“I would hear them say things about their struggles and their successes,” Leonard continues. “And I’d say to myself, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be like that.’”

Through NA meetings, Leonard started forming relationships with men who were living the way he admired. He realized that he didn’t have the skills or knowledge to emulate the habits that kept his new role models clean and sober, so he learned from them. Leonard even took parenting classes, trusting that his newfound recovery would someday lead to a reunion with his daughter.

“Once I made those positive connections, that’s when my life started changing.”

The last time Leonard ever used a controlled substance was June 12, 2009. Since then, he has walked the path of recovery. He found a support network of others in recovery. He’s worked his way up to become a trusted lead community building assistant at Central City Concern, responsible for the upkeep and livability of several housing properties. He became a homeowner. He and his daughter reunited.

When asked what his recovery means to him, Leonard, who is almost always smiling, turns serious. He stares into the distance and takes an extended pause, as if he’s mentally retracing the path that his life has led him down until today.

He takes a deep breath. He exhales.

“Recovery is something that’s given me my life back.” Each word that leaves Leonard's lips is steeped in intention and earnest. “It’s helped me to be open to the fact that I’m an addict and that this fight is for the rest of my life. And I accept that. Recovery has given my daughter a father, my mom a son.”

Leonard stops to carefully choose his next words. His trademark smile returns to his face, somehow more radiant than before.

“Life is beautiful on this side.”

That beautiful path of recovery is what led Leonard to be in Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2015. He made the trip to attend the 36th World Convention of Narcotics Anonymous.

There, he met people “that looked like me, people that didn’t look like me. People that talked like me, people that didn’t talk like me. But everyone was there for the same reasons.”

At the convention, Leonard heard “powerful stories that brought tears to my eyes. To hear about how people have become successful – not in the sense of money and all that – but more like relationships and family and values, gave me joy. It energized me.”

Now just beyond six years clean, Leonard understands what it takes. He’s built the tools and skills necessary to start and end each day clean and sober, and to start over again the next day. Leonard knows that without the connections he made through NA, his life would likely have turned out very differently. He hopes now to be that vital connection to others.

“I like to share what I’ve gotten out of recovery,” Leonard says. “I want to help other suffering addicts.  I want to reach out to them the way I was helped. I understand what they’re going through.”