I Am Vince
Ten days in my life as I fight homelessness and addiction
You may already know Vince from his award-winning essay series One Week on the Streets.
His work is some of the most vivid, authentic, and illuminating that Speak Up has been privileged to publish.
In this piece, he chronicles ten days in his life as he fights alcoholism and homelessness.
Photography by Barbara Banks
THE MEDICINE OF GRATITUDE
I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 13 years old. At that point in my life, I did have a lot of stuff going on in my life that truly was depressing. My doctors and I, throughout the years, could never quite figure out which came first—the drinking or the depression. It was a toss up.
Eventually, a doctor talked me into taking Zoloft. I couldn’t tell if it helped, so another doctor suggested and prescribed Celexa. Still no effect. Then I learned a trick about how to ease my depression.
When I was living in Wilmington, NC, I was sleeping rough and found myself feeling really down thinking stupid thoughts like, “I can’t take this pain anymore. Is life really worth living?” Like I said, stupid thoughts. Then one day, I was writing in my journal and decided to list the things I was grateful for. It was like a Gomer Pyle, Shazaam! moment. My feelings of despair, depression, and anxiety were gone.
I sort of perfected my gratitude list routine. Monday through Friday at approximately 8:30 am, I would walk over to a wooden bench across the street from the courthouse, plop down, pull out one of my journals and an ink pen, and look at the hundreds of people wrapped three sides around the courthouse waiting for the deputies to open the doors.
Sometimes, I would have trouble starting my gratitude list. I found that if I just wrote at the top of the page,“Thank heaven I have no business in that building today,” that sparked my list. I never knew if I was going to run out of ink or run out of paper. Neither ever happened, fortunately. But some days my list would go on for five pages or more. By the time all the people filed into the courthouse, I was finished writing and had my journal packed away. I was also smiling deep down inside.
My little gratitude list trick works better than pharmaceuticals and is a whole lot cheaper.
I hope this can benefit someone.
GUITARIST IN THE TREE
One evening, I was sitting at the park waiting to hear the sizzle as the sun sat on the water. I had fed the squirrels all my peanuts. I felt like making one last lap around the park before making my journey back to the spot where I rested.
I heard beautiful music coming from a guitar. As I walked,
I thought the player was a busker sitting on a bench playing for donations. I saw no one sitting on the benches. As I got closer and the music was louder, I tracked the location of the sound. A guy, Michael, was sitting on a branch of a live oak, just playing away. He had no cup for people to pitch money into. He didn’t care. He was just sitting on a branch of a tree enjoying playing music.
Of course, I approached him, then he climbed down, and we spoke for about 45 minutes. I told him I did some writ- ing for Speak Up and showed him some [writings] in my composition book. He took a picture of a page to send to friends, which I had no exception to. He is a waiter, I think, at a five-star restaurant at the foot of Main Street. We are companions now. He buys Speak Up from me. All this happiness was brought on by me striking up a conversation with the “Guitarist in the Tree.”
THE TRUTH HURTS
I was walking around this morning, hating life as usual as I always do at about 5am. At 5pm, things are always better. But as I was walking the streets, I jumped on a train of thought about loneliness in relation to my alcoholism. The train was the one I was supposed to be on. I got to thinking about when and where the intense drinking began.
I’ve been drinking since I was 13. It didn’t pose too many problems until about 1986. That was the year I found myself really lonely. It got bad really fast. I had just left California. I had to sell my boat hull cleaning contracts due to osteoarthritis in my back. I wasn’t able to clean 60 to 70 boat hulls in a week without being in extreme pain. My parents offered me the choice of going to the college of my choice if I returned to West Virginia for “a while.” So, I sold my boat, diving equipment, and basically everything of any worth. I did keep my Suzuki 250 dirt bike. I disassembled it enough so it would fit into the back of my ‘65 Baja Volkswagen, and I headed off to West Virginia.
Looking back, it was one of those coulda’, shoulda’, woulda’ situations. In Long Beach, California, I was in the proverbial frying pan. There was no way I was going to be able to afford rent without diving. So I took what appeared to be the high road...2,404 miles directly into the fire. Within 60 seconds of entering my parents’ house, I realized why I moved to California to begin with. My father was still drinking and my mother was taking Valium to put up with his drinking.
They were both loving parents and would do anything for me. But drugged parents are what they are. Turned out my “college of choice” ended up being one of two local colleges, both of which would require me to live in their house. My dream and presumption of going to Florida Institute of Technology to study marine biology was nixed. I had left a life, friends, and business in California. I was truly lonely.That’s when I got to the point of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Within weeks, I was shaking so bad I couldn’t hold a spoon steady enough to eat soup.
Now, getting back to my origin of story. When I get lonely, I call on the only “friend” I have—alcohol. He/ she is always there. One problem with that. The alcohol dulls the loneliness for awhile. But as I was still riding that train of thought, I realized the alcohol was not easing the loneliness but actually causing it. After all, who wants to be around a drunk? Only other drunks, until the money runs out. Then they don’t even want you around.
This morning’s train ride was sort of an epiphany. The truth sometimes hurts.
I’ve been sober all day today.
This is the second day sober. I’ve had a lot of these second days. I’d like to try to get to the point where I can say second year. The last time I could say I had two years sobriety was about 45 years ago.
Sleeping on the streets gets pretty tough at times. Liquor makes it better for me—for the grand total of about 14 minutes. That transitional period, from sober to buzzed, all 14 minutes of it is what I and many other people are always chasing. After that 14 minutes of serenity is used up, the chase for another 14 minutes of it is always on. That 14 minutes feels so good, my mind refuses to understand that it’s the transition that felt so good. It doesn’t understand that fact. It believes, “I drank some and really liked the elation brought on by the change, so I’ll just drink more and bring on more elation through more change.”
What an incredibly vicious cycle of reasoning, or lack thereof. I’m not a bad person trying to do better. I’m a sick person trying to get well.
Third day sober. Woke up feeling rested and slightly energetic, and this was at 4:30 AM. After getting up and moving about, I realized a couple of pleasant things I’m not accustomed to at this time of the day. I had no racing thoughts or thoughts of anxiety and impending doom. It felt really good. It was a change for the better. My most dangerous drinking game today will be to see how long I can go without a cup of coffee.
When I would get up after a drinking binge, I would be shaking from withdrawals and the only thought that would fit in my mind was, “Where can I get a drink?” It would be sort of like waking up with a migraine and only one thing mattered—where can I get an aspirin?
If I was to walk down the street 10 minutes from now and someone offered me a drink, I would be hard pressed to pass it up. It’s just the nature of the beast known as alcoholism. Realizing that fact, I remember I have an AA meeting list in my back pocket. Before I do walk down the street, I’m going to pull out that list and find a meeting. Whether or not I make it to that meeting is yet to
be seen. But at least if I am offered a drink, I’ll have a time and place ready at the forefront of my thoughts of a better path to take.
Sober now for the fourth day.
Feeling really good.
STILL THIN ICE
My fifth day sober landed on Cinco de Mayo. Never even thought about tequila, not once, until a friend said she was going to have a shot after she finished babysitting her grandson. I realized that I knew all day it was Cinco de Mayo but tequila never entered my mind. Usually on this date I would be plastered before lunch.
This reminds me of the beginning of my last 19-month sobriety period. When it began, much like this one, I never really had the desire to stop drinking. I just stopped drinking long enough to let life start to slip in and fill the void of not drinking. Because when an alcoholic stops drinking there is a huge void. What normally took up most of the time and energy of a day is now gone. There’s a huge vacuum there. Like last time, I’m giving life a chance to slip in and fill that void. It feels good to think clearly, sleep well, and regain an appetite. But I’m still on thin ice and I know it. Living in a sober house last time helped tremendously. I had structure and responsibility.
This time I don’t have that. I’m on the streets. It will be difficult to pass up a shot if one is offered to me tonight. But I think I’ll be able to. Why? It’s because I’ve reconnected to a good childhood friend that I haven’t seen in 40 years. We just reconnected through Facebook a couple of days ago. I really care for this person, a lot. She’s not the reason I decided to try sobriety again, but she may be the key to me maintaining it.
She told me she had been trying to locate me for years. You see, when and where I grew up, very few people knew my real name. When I was brought home from the hospital after I was born, my older brother nicknamed me Chuck. The name followed me for at least 19 years, until I moved to California. All through school I was known as Chuck, even my report cards said Chuck. She had been looking for Chuck Shumate, not Vince. She must have learned my real name through a mutual friend. She sent me a friend request and it floored me.
We are starting to catch up and learn about each other’s past 40 years. It felt odd at first, like opening your heart and mind to a complete stranger, but we slowly are getting to know each other again. I could tell at first that neither one of us wanted to jump in and spill our lives out. Slowly we are seeing we’re the same people we once were, just older.
I believe our paths crossed for a reason, a good reason.
A PRODUCTIVE DAY
Today has gone quite well. Slept pretty good last night. Woke with energy and a ‘What can I get done today?’ attitude. Didn’t have much food stashed away in the bushes, so I decided to walk around and see what was on top of trash receptacles. I ran across a styro of broiled fish that was still hot. It was delicious. It didn’t taste delicious because I was hungry, it tasted delicious because it was. It wasn’t placed on a bench or above the receptacle so it could be shared with someone who might be hungry, it was tossed inside. Anyway, the fish was fantastic.
TODAY IS A MILESTONE
Made it a week so far! A milestone in my sobriety! Slept better than usual because I finally got some cardboard between my bottom and the concrete. The only thing that kept me restless for a while was an invitation I received from a friend in West Virginia. That invitation was to come and see her for at least two weeks with me staying at her place. I’d love to see her. I love the geography of WW. I’d love to have a roof over my head, home-cooked meals, and access to a shower any time I felt like taking one, even if it’s for only two weeks.
Sarasota’s Homeward Bound Program would more than likely pay for the bus ticket. One of the problems is I have a thing about busses. I dislike them. The travel time would only be 27 hours, which isn’t too bad. Another thing is that the town she lives in is so small that Greyhound does not even make a stop there, which means I would have to get off the bus in my hometown and she would have to drive about 25 miles to come and pick me up.
I have people-baggage in my hometown. I don’t want to go there. Can I get past these thoughts? I hope so. I realize I’m letting my past interfere with my future. It’s something I’m going to have to work on. It’s like driving a car and trying to get from point A to point B while constantly staring in the rear view mirror. It’s going to lead to missed scenery or a crash, or both.
I am Vince.
UPDATE: Vince Shumate is currently in Charleston, SC, where he is working on another series for Speak Up.