Better health on the horizon: Addiction recovery group celebrates its first yearAbout 25 people — of various ages, male and female, a mix of races — sit around tables configured in a large rectangle in the basement lunchroom of the Damiano Center.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
About 25 people — of various ages, male and female, a mix of races — sit around tables configured in a large rectangle in the basement lunchroom of the Damiano Center.
Richard Howell walks around the table, greeting each person, squeezing shoulders, joking or offering a few encouraging words.
Some of the participants sip coffee or munch on fresh fruits and vegetables as Howell takes a seat in the corner.
Speaking in a low, warm voice, he explains what they’re doing in this Central Hillside building on a Wednesday evening.
“It’s about solutions,” Howell says. “That’s what we deal with. Nothing being said here is considered to be stupid. The objective to this is to offer you a better horizon.
“If no one has anything to say — guess what? I do.”
This is Health Realization, a group that celebrates its first anniversary today. Howell started the group, and he also founded a local program called Housing for Inmates. But this group is not just for ex-offenders.
In simplest terms, it’s a support group for people recovering from addictions, although Howell points out that addictions can take many forms.
Several people will have things to say in the next hour, some joyfully reporting progress, some recounting struggles. Each will have the chance to rate his or her feelings on a scale of 1 to 10 (there are a lot of 10s) and state something for which he or she is grateful.
When a person states his name, the others around the table respond: “Hi, Jeff.” When he finishes talking, they respond again: “Thanks, Jeff.”
The free, one-hour sessions have drawn an average attendance of 28, and a total of 170 people have attended at least once, said Sandy Bennett, supervisor of the soup kitchen at the Damiano Center and treasurer of Housing For Inmates, a nonprofit founded by Howell.
Health Realization stresses three values, Howell said: honesty, commitment and integrity. Its purpose is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but its methods are somewhat different.
“AA and NA truly only deal with the chemical dependency issue,” said Dana Race, who refers clients to the group in her role as case manager for the Community Offender Re-entry Program. “Health Realization says, ‘This is your chemical dependency issue, but these may be some of the reasons why you’re using.’ So you’re thinking about it instead of just following something.”
Both Howell and Race are careful to say they aren’t disparaging other groups; different things work for different people, they say. Race said she has clients who are in both AA and Health Realization.
But it was Health Realization training at Twin Town Treatment Center in St. Paul in 2006 that transformed Howell’s thinking and sparked his desire to bring the program back to Duluth. (It had been offered locally in the past.)
“I had an epiphany,” Howell said. “Man! It would be so simple and so easy if I just admit my wrongs and stand up and be responsible.”
Howell, 59, had been hampered by wrong thinking for a long time, he said. The Chicago native was 17 when his mother died. “It was like the end of the world,” he said. “I couldn’t understand it. I became very angry.”
He started hanging around with older men who were involved in prostitution, check fraud and drug dealing. “I started selling drugs. I had a gift for it. I had the gift of gab. In other words, I was a good liar.”
He eventually moved to Minnesota with hopes of straightening out his life, but nothing changed. He spent time in prison in Rochester and at the Duluth Bethel. He was enrolled in AA. He was in and out of jail. All told, Howell said, he used drugs from 1972 until 2005.
Last drug sentence
Even after graduating from Twin Town, Howell had a drug-dealing crime hanging over his head. He remembers Judge Gerald Martin sending him to boot camp instead of a conventional prison sentence in 2007 and telling him: “Richard, I hope you can make a difference in someone’s life.”
He also remembers the prosecutor, John DeSanto, giving him a Bible. “I have that Bible in my truck right now today,” Howell said. “He said, ‘When you get yourself together, Richard, and you read this, I’m quite sure you can be the man you always wanted to be.’”
DeSanto, now a District Court judge, remembers that. “I really had a sense that this man had turned his life around,” he said.
Howell was living in a halfway house in Lincoln Park when he conceived of Housing For Inmates. He started the program in 2008, with a yet-to-be achieved goal of providing a facility where released offenders can live and have access to resources and mentoring. The need is apparent, said Race, who is president of its board. Between 600 and 800 incarcerated persons return to Duluth each year, she said.
The difference in Howell’s life is dramatic, Bennett said.
“What I think is amazing about Richard’s story is that Richard used to sell drugs in the Central Hillside,” she said. “And he’s back in the Central Hillside giving back to the community in every way he can possibly give back.”
'My heart broke'
Several people at Wednesday’s meeting talk about the ways their lives are changing. “It’s great to be able to just laugh and enjoy life,” one man says. One woman says she’s grateful for 30 days of sobriety; another is grateful for 25 months. Both are applauded.
Michael Jewell, 37, talks about two weeks he recently spent with his 5-year-old son, and how much it hurt to let him go.
“The second I put him in the van, my heart broke,” Jewell says. “He’s got a Spiderman toothbrush hanging up in the medicine cabinet. I can’t even brush my teeth without wanting to cry.”
The others listen sympathetically, and a couple of people offer words of support.
Later, Jewell said he had been attending sessions since March. He is in other groups as well, but Health Realization is his favorite, he said. It has helped him overcome chemical dependency and mental illness. He doesn’t even use prescription drugs, he said.
“The other groups, they didn’t tend to work on the mental process or the spiritual process,” Jewell said. “The one thing I’ve gotten most out of HR is it really doesn’t matter what happens to me. It’s how I think about what happens to me that matters.”