Finally, a joyful holiday for recovering alcoholic
Detroit — The math is right. Much of Jeremy Sword’s life hasn’t been, but this is basic subtraction, and he stands by it.
He is 38 years old. As Christmas dawns, he’s two weeks out of Jefferson House, an intensive long-term rehab center run by the same Capuchins who serve 450,000 meals a year to poor people.
Before Jefferson House, Sword says, "I hadn’t had nine months sober in 30 years."
He makes sure to clarify a bit later. Thirty-eight years minus three decades equals third grade, or maybe second, but it’s not like he was drunk every day of his childhood. Just some of them.
Life was a party for his parents, booze was always around, nobody was looking, and he wanted to be like the grown-ups.
"Vodka, whatever," he says. Then, as time staggered on, heroin and opiates. Then liquor again, exclusively.
Through it all, he has kept his inviting laugh and open smile. Most everything else, he lost, or at least hid.
Now he’s straight, and it’s Christmas. Old holiday, new feeling.
"I don’t think I ever really had a joyful Christmas," Sword says, "one where I wasn’t cold inside."
He’s been looking forward to the day — almost like a little kid.
The story of Sword’s redemption begins with a nine-day coma and ends on a Greyhound bus.
Well, it doesn’t end. Sword is an alcoholic, and he always will be. But what he has, to his surprise, is a new beginning and an open road to possibilities.
He doesn’t hide the two DUIs, the imploded marriage or the other steps on his way to bottoming out. Much of what he learned at Jefferson House involved finally facing things.
The 12 men in the house arrive at different times with different addictions, says program manager Amy Kinner. They have no income or home, come recommended by shorter-term treatment centers, interview for openings, and must "appear to be making their best effort. They have to be open and honest."
Sword dropped out of high school in Dearborn Heights when he was a freshman. "I thought I had it figured out," he says, meaning he was making decent money selling marijuana.
Nine months in a youth home put him out of the weed business. He started installing hardwood floors and has kept at it, when he wasn’t drinking or drugging his way into unemployment.
By 19, he says, he was shooting heroin. After escaping a drive-by shooting, he moved to Tennessee, where he dropped the heroin and took up opiates. All the while, he was guzzling.
At 17, he’d had a son; they don’t communicate much, he says, but he’s trying to reach out. In Tennessee, he married and had two more children, a boy who’s now 11 and a girl four years younger.
"I thought it was going to fix me," he says. "I’d live happily ever after."
Instead, he found his comfort in the numbing of pills. The marriage lasted five years, and ultimately, he came back to Michigan. The opiates gave way to a fifth of cheap Canadian whiskey every day, or maybe a fifth and a half.
“I started drinking when I woke up,” he says. “It was either that or I’d have a seizure.”
In November 2018, a cousin found Sword on the floor of his mom’s house in Dearborn Heights. He wouldn’t wake up. When he finally did, it was nine days later in a hospital.
An honest feeling crept in, and with it a sincere goal.
"I was really scared," he says. "I didn’t want to die."
After the Krishnas
Jefferson House has been a destination for addicts since 1976. Kinner, 50, started there in 2011 and became the program manager four years later.
Across that span, she says, she has determined that recovery is "full of small miracles," starting with the moment of clarity when someone like Sword is dying for a drink and realizes that dying is the operative word.
The program she oversees is unique in multiple ways, starting with the duration. It’s six to nine structured months of therapy, 12-step meetings and daily meditation, with focuses on problem-solving and communication and specific sessions devoted to quitting both gambling and smoking.
The house itself is a 1912 pharmaceutical executive’s mansion across from Belle Isle that became a convalescent home, a center for Hare Krishnas and then a red brick life raft for abusers of drink and drugs.
After the Krishnas left, a donor deeded it to the Capuchins, and the first group of residents helped rehabilitate the building while they did the same for themselves. Other donors entirely fund the program, which accepts no insurance or government money.
The organization doesn’t break down the costs, other than to say it’s part of a $12.4 million charitable operation that includes two soup kitchens, a children’s program, an urban farm, a bakery and a service center that distributes clothing and food.
Alumni often pop in, Kinner says, for meals or meetings or just to remind the current crop of residents that optimism is reasonable. She reports a success rate of 75% for men who complete the program — though she concedes the figure, like most in rehabilitation, is blurry.
Sober for how long, and according to whom? The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites relapse rates of 40-60%, and says backsliding “is not only possible but also likely.”
The 75% figure Kinner quotes is self-reporting from people who’ve stayed close to the institution. They’re among the 40% who complete the program, about five men out of every houseful.
One of those is Dmitriy Pomogalov of Grosse Pointe Woods, who says, "Jefferson House was like winning the lottery. A better lottery. If I’d won a real lottery, I’d be dead by now from a drug overdose."
As a 14-year-old in Belarus, west of Russia and above Ukraine, Pomogalov says he accepted that he would not live past 28.
At 27, as a devoted heroin user in Detroit, he did 90 days of rehab at Sobriety House and impressed the director enough to get a nudge toward Jefferson.
Pomogalov explained that he wasn’t religious. The Capuchins didn’t care. "You’re just required to be human and have a willingness to stay alive," he says, two decades later.
Thriving is a bonus. He and his wife, Georgia, own Aria Salon in Grosse Pointe Woods, and their second son is due May 1.
Like Pomogalov, Sword had something of a guardian angel.
Released from the hospital, he decided to quit drinking on his own. He’d be fine for two weeks, he says, then convince himself it was OK if he only knocked back a pint.
He checked into Eastwood Recovery Center in Southfield last March and met a counselor who'd been through Jefferson House. He recommended Sword for an interview and is now Sword's AA sponsor. The 3 ½ weeks at Eastwood, plus eight months at Jefferson, comprise his cleanest slate since he was learning cursive.
"I never really trusted anybody before," Sword says. At the house, he found 11 other people rowing the same lifeboat, and he opened up.
The inner demons that drove him to self-destruction are working themselves out, he says. He’s learning perspective, the art of recognizing and dismissing little things before they become big excuses to fail.
He cooked for the other residents, enjoying the creativity and responsibility as he made goulash or pork chops for 12 in an industrial kitchen with three freezers. He felt useful, and more importantly, he felt valued.
He’s living with a cousin in Dearborn and working for his flooring company. An apartment fell through, but rather than reach for a bottle, he dismissed the minor setback as the hiccup it was.
Now it’s Christmas, a day of routine and rejoicing and, for Sword, another day of recovery.
Kinner is married, with two teenage children. Their tradition is to spend the day with her mother in Harrison, 25 miles north of Mount Pleasant.
Pomogalov and his family always go to his in-laws' house in Grosse Pointe Woods.
Sword boarded a Greyhound Sunday and rode 14 hours to Knoxville, Tennessee, where his kids miss him and his ex-wife is rooting for him.
It’ll be the first time he’s been with them sober for the holiday. Truth is, he says, they don’t have any traditions, at least none he can remember.
He’s looking forward to starting some.