By Julia Robertson
“Five years ago, I set four goals: to get a place of my own, one year’s sobriety, run a marathon and go to Disney World. I thought I would spend my whole life trying to get those goals, but I achieved them.”
On Monday, March 31, 2014, friends and supporters gathered around Waldon Adams as he beamed down at his cake. The occasion marked his fifth year of sobriety after decades of alcoholism, cocaine addiction, and homelessness.
It was five years ago that Adams left homelessness for housing, thanks to the Neighbors First program at Friendship Place. Traditional housing programs require that homeless individuals achieve sobriety before they can get housed. But Neighbors First turns that notion on its head. Based on the “housing first” philosophy, Neighbors First operates on the premise that only when people have the security of a roof over their heads can they begin to address the issues that caused their homelessness in the first place.
“Friendship Place helped me get sober and encouraged me. Not worrying about housing made it all possible. I had everything I needed to get started. I was immediately able to start going to meetings to get help,” Adams said.
Adams, 53, a veteran suffering from manic depression, can trace his addiction back to one Fourth of July night in his late teens. He had just been honorably discharged from the navy on psychiatric grounds. In a manic fog preceding any proper diagnosis, Adams took holiday dynamite in his hands. Someone nearby told him to put down the flammables. Adams said he hated being told what to do, and he became very upset.
He accidentally lit the dynamite and blew up his hand. “It all of sudden went boom, I blacked out and told someone to give my brother my bike because I thought I was dying.”
Adams lost two fingers and part of his thumb and ring finger. “I remembered when I took the wrap off and saw my mangled hand for the first time, I cried so hard. That’s when my alcoholism began. I didn’t want to have a waking moment where I wasn’t high. I took anything. If it said ‘drowsy’ I took it.”
A third-generation Washingtonian, Adams became homeless in part because of his addictions, but also because of his inability to work in groups. In ’82 Adam’s dropped out of college when a professor assigned a group project.
“I was doing really well in that class, but because I was bipolar, I struggled to meet new people and hated working with others, so I quit.” This issue continued to plague Adams’s professional career, causing him to lose one job after another. “One minute I am fine and joking with everyone and then the next day I am scared that no one likes me. Sometimes in the course of the day I may change several times.”
“If it were not for running I think I would have been dead.”
Adams’s addictions and mental health challenges eventually led to a life on the street, and a positive HIV test. In and out of psychiatric wards and hospitals, he reached a point where he believed suicide was the only option.
The turning point was the day Adams got up from his hospital bed and began to run around it in circles. From that moment on, Adams was a runner. Running gave him an immediate sense of calm and stability. “I was planning on killing myself but running kept me open to hope again. If it were not for running I think I would have been dead.”
Shortly after that, Adams was referred to Friendship Place and three weeks later, Neighbors First staff moved him into his new apartment. “They arranged for the furniture and home goods like plates and shower curtains, all the things I never thought about. They gave me a good start; there was nothing stopping me now from going to meetings and getting sober,” Adams said.
Neighbors First case manager Taryn Goodman visited bi-weekly to assist and refer him to advocacy groups and therapists to help with his addiction and mental illness.
Soon after Adams moved into his apartment he set three more goals: to achieve one year’s sobriety, run a marathon and go to Disney World. “I thought I would spend my whole life trying to get those goals, but I achieved them,” Adams said.
In fact, Adams has ran 10 marathons and has been featured in several media outlets. He most recently went all the way to California for the L.A. Marathon and to Florida for the Walt Disney World Marathon.
“My life now is good, I have never lived like this before.”
Adams keeps a blog called 5hourmarathon at firstname.lastname@example.org and is the co-leader of a roadrunners group, Run to Live, in DC. As he was being interviewed for this story, he received an email announcing he’d been accepted to be a NIKE product tester.
“I can’t believe I have been sober, and cigarette free for five years. Thank you, Friendship Place. You all have played a major role in helping a helpless and hopeless addict like me become usefully whole.”