From addiction to hope: a Ph.D's story
New London — For anyone down on their luck, out of it, angry, isolated, homeless, drug-addicted or simply fed up with it all, George Walker has a new year message: Out of despair springs hope.
Walker, who spent four decades as a drug addict and wasted years in jail as a convicted bank robber, just last month completed a Ph.D program at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., hoping to find a job in academia after a year and a half as a clinician for the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Meanwhile, he plans to open a practice devoted to family and marriage therapy.
It’s an amazing transformation for the native of Harlem who once dropped out of Wesleyan University to join the Black Panthers and had lived on the streets as a heroin addict, disconnected from family and friends.
“I got tired,” he said. “Addiction is a young man’s game.”
So on Sept. 30, 2000, as he recalls, Walker at the age of 50 had one last drink. It was alcohol, he said, that always later led to doing harder drugs.
Walker’s life had held promise at the beginning, but there were major impediments as well. An orphan by age 4, he was raised in the relatively well-to-do Sugar Hill section of Harlem by his aunts, none of whom had graduated from grade school.
But Walker did well in school, almost in spite of himself, finishing with SAT scores in the top 96th percentile and garnering interest from half a dozen Ivy League-level schools, including nearby Columbia University.
Graduating from high school in 1968 at the height of racial tensions nationwide because of the assassination of Martin Luther King, he decided on Wesleyan University in Middletown, where he remembers breezing through classes but sticking out like a sore thumb because he was one of the very few blacks on campus.
“Wesleyan was a culture shock,” he said.
He and several other black students took part in a campus takeover in 1969, he recalled, demanding that Wesleyan develop an African-American cultural center. The center, he said, was established soon after.
But in that same sophomore year, he dropped out and joined the Black Panther Party, moving to San Francisco to participate in what he hoped would be a revolution. He was embroiled in entanglements ranging from stolen weapons to demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
“We were idealistic, full of fire,” he said. “We had more balls than brains.”
Then, during a cross-country trip for the Black Panthers that he called eye-opening, Walker started to realize the futility of it all. Suddenly, an armed struggle in so vast a country seemed a ridiculous stretch.
“It was clear we were not just overmatched,” he said. “This was a flea against an elephant.”
So he dropped out of the Panthers and returned to New York, soon drowning his disillusion in the illusory world of heroin, supporting his habit by participating in robberies. Eventually caught, he wound up in jail for several long stretches, including one for a bank robbery in Connecticut. He estimates spending a total of 13 years behind bars.
“It was ugly,” he said. “I had three kids and abandoned all three.”
By now, he had gone into freefall, spending the next decade in subways and parks as one of New York City’s thousands of homeless. His family and friends had given up on him, and he had nowhere else to turn, except to more drugs.
“It reached a point where that was the one thing that was bigger than me,” he said of the drug habit. “I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my own way.”
By 2000, Walker figures he probably had gone through a dozen or so rehabs, which were a good respite from his desultory life but no permanent fix. Someone at a treatment center in New York finally suggested getting away from his usual haunts and going to a halfway house in Boca Raton, Fla., and he agreed to pull up stakes.
That’s when it all began to click for him. He patched together an undergraduate degree in Florida, then decided to go for a master’s degree, but there his record caught up to him. No one wanted to take a chance on a former junkie with a criminal past – until he found out about Barry University.
“They were not interested in where you’ve been but where you’re going to go,” said Walker, who wound up with a doctorate in mental health counseling.
“He showed a certain spark,” recalled Walker’s faculty adviser Jim Rudes. “He’s an exceedingly bright man with an unusual history. … He’s certainly left his mark on Barry.”
Walker’s dissertation, which grew out of his life experience with long-term addiction, focused on the idea of “ambiguous loss,” when people disappear with no explanation, such as might happen when a soldier is listed as missing in action or a junkie moves away and abandons his kids. In such cases, Walker said, the bereavement process is frozen and unending, and there is very little in the psychological literature addressing the best way for people to process such issues.
The remarkable thing about Walker’s dissertation, said Rudes, is that it used Walker’s own experiences with chronic heroin addiction to help understand substance abuse and the effect it has on those who are left behind.
“He has street credibility, and he’s an imposing figure,” Rudes said. “He became a leader.”
Still, Walker hardly sugar-coats his life.
“My history was just a wreckage of relationships,” he said.
But Walker argues that addicts can start rebuilding their lives by the process of “re-membering,” which involves narrative therapy tuned toward “resurrecting the possibilities” that life had held out before addiction took hold. It may not necessarily lead to happiness, he said, but such therapy can bring a feeling of peace.
“I appreciate being at peace,” he said. “I spent my whole life fighting.”
As part of the process, he has started in the past few years to develop a relationship with some of the children he had left behind. Sober for well over a decade, he also has begun to re-evaluate his previous life.
“Addiction is slavery,” he said. “Too many of us are not comfortable in our own skin.”
While some might see addiction as voluntary slavery, Walker begs to differ, saying in some ways it is a logical step for those given limited choices in life. As an addict, he said he felt valued and important, something he didn’t always feel in the wider world.
“Drugs work,” he said. “Drugs start out as a solution, not a problem.”
Since giving up the drug life, Walker said he has found a new openness as well as a determination not to let other people dictate his own behavior.
He also has developed a realization that drug rehabilitation must be combined with housing, education and jobs to be more effective. Walker, a city resident who just resigned from his position at the local SCADD office in New London, also argues that lifestyle changes must accompany any attempt at staying clean.
But most of all, he said, there are the stories that must be told — stories of despair and stories of hope. And choosing to hope can make all the difference, he said.
“Hope is the most powerful force in the universe,” Walker said.