Billy Bob beat The Craving, now helps others 

Submitted by Jo Mc.


(Published Sunday, April 07, 2002 12:24:07 AM)
By Marcia Nelesen / Gazette Staff©

Billy Bob has been there.

He got there because of The Craving.

He chose it over his wife, his children, a good job.

It put him on the streets.

And he knows what it takes to beat it every day.

Today, he offers his first-hand experience as part of a home-grown program at the Red Road House, 152 S. Locust St., Janesville. There, he rents seven rooms to others engaged in similar battles.

Stronger people emerge from the cocoon.

As the fog of addiction clears, the residents set goals for school or jobs or getting back their kids.

People say Billy Bob instinctively knows what to say and when to say it. They say his program succeeds because he has created a safe haven and offers "wrap-around care." The man is there, available 24 hours a day.

Word about Billy Bob and his Red Road House has spread to the streets.

It has spread to social services organizations, to the court system, to doctors.

Professionals sometimes refer their clients, their people on probation and their patients.

They see that Billy Bob's program can work.

And it works because Billy Bob has been there.

The Craving

The Craving is what Billy Bob's story is all about. For better or worse, it has made him the man he is today.

Billy Bob Grahn loves to explain The Craving. The phenomenon is an aspect of addiction that he suspects many people don't understand.

"If I ingest any alcohol or drugs, I am unable to stop," he said, attributing that to a chemical change that takes place in his body.

He remembers the indescribable fear that would come over him the minute he'd wake.

He'd think: "No matter what I would like to do today, I know I'm going to drink. If I don't have any money, Lord helps who gets in my way. I will find it."

Billy Bob also longed for a picket-fence life. Inside of him--alongside The Craving--dwelled the desire to be a good husband, father, grandson.

It's just that The Craving was stronger.

Billy Bob was born to the Bad River Reservation, a member of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians.

He and his family moved to Madison when he was young. They carried poverty and alcoholism with them.

He had a chance to break the cycle of addiction.

A golf pro in Madison took Billy Bob under his wing and introduced the young man to a different world.

But The Craving became paramount in his life.

On Jan. 1, 1990, he chose it over his wife and children, when his wife gave him an ultimatum.

"It's hard to explain to the normal world," Billy Bob said. "It killed me. But I had no option. I would have given my right arm to be a good husband and father. I would often dream of sitting in one of those long lines at the bank on Friday, like normal people do."

The rehab

Billy Bob was pulled from the brink by a handful of caring people.

He was living in a parking lot in his car in Janesville, doing cocaine and alcohol, when he had a stroke.

His one thought upon waking in the hospital was how he could get to the quart of booze left in his car.

But after three days, the feeling of sobriety had him strutting like a peacock.

He remembers meeting with Jan Ross after 30 days in rehabilitation. Her job at Community Action was to find him a job.

In her face, he saw real concern and fear for his safety.

She took the pipe she was smoking from her mouth and bopped him on the head.

"Right now, the last thing you need is a job," she told him.

She introduced him to Ed Gohde and Freddie Curtis from Alcohab Inc. They assembled a care package that included three months in a treatment program.

For the first time, Billy Bob said he felt welcomed. Their acceptance was unconditional.

"I wanted to be the good person, but I had done a lot of rotten things," Billy Bob said. "These two men accepted me and introduced me to a whole bunch of people here in town who accepted me for what I was doing at the time.

"And that was trying to be sober."

On Day 90, Billy Bob's funding was up. It was back on the streets at 4 p.m.

By 2 p.m., the street survival tactics were gearing up inside his body.

"I knew one thing if I knew nothing else," Billy Bob said. "If I'm on the streets, I will be drunk a couple of hours from now. I cannot be sober and live on the streets at the same time."

But Billy Bob attributes his sobriety to a string of miracles, and here came one of them.

A fellow rehabber had just gotten a room at a three-quarter house on Locust Street, a place free of alcohol and drugs where addicts recovered together.

"He was happier than heck and asked me what was wrong," Billy Bob recalled. Billy Bob said he had yet to find a place.

"Man, you take my room," the friend said. "You ain't going to last for two hours."

The friend got a room at one of the local flop houses.

Billy Bob is sober today.

His friend didn't make it. He went "back out," only recently becoming sober again.

What he learned

At Locust Street in 1990, Billy Bob had a roof over his head. There were no drugs or alcohol to be had. The pressure of the streets was gone.

Billy Bob watched other people recover. He hung with the people who were making it.

He also saw how some people flirted with the addiction. Within weeks, they were back on the streets.

His only excursions to the outside world were for physical therapy at University Hospital. He'd put two quarts of oil in his old, three-door Ford to get to Madison and two quarts to get back.

Billy Bob began seeing his three children on a regular basis. What kept him going was watching the fear and suspicion leave his children's eyes.

Guilt, remorse and shame filled that first year.

Then came another miracle, Billy Bob said.

Billy Bob had cashed in a bunch of pop cans and bought two tickets for a Badger football game.

He put two quarts of oil in his car and took his 7-year-old son on their first father-son outing.

The two were watching the players warm up when his son had an apparent seizure.

Later, Billy Bob heard the words he'll never forget.

The seizure turned out to be an anxiety attack, brought on when the boy saw a pot pipe coming toward them down the bleachers.

"He told the paramedics that he was afraid of what would happen if I took so much as one drink or one hit off a pipe," Billy Bob recalled. "He said, 'I would have lost my dad.' Here's a kid who's 7 years old that knows more about addiction (than many people). He knows if I consume so much as a drink, or take one hit off a pipe, my thinking changes immediately."

Others might not call a panic attack a miracle, but it certainly cemented Billy Bob's resolve.

The Vision

In 1994, Billy Bob returned for the first time to his home reservation and his spiritual faith.

On the shores of Lake Superior, he had what Native Americans describe as a vision.

A vision is day-and-night different from a dream. In a vision, you literally see the dream play out, Billy Bob said.

"I saw myself giving back to other people what was given to me," Billy Bob recalled. "I needed to go back and take over (the Locust Street house), and provide a safe and structured, alcohol-free environment. In my vision, I could see working in additional programs, finding funding and food."

Billy Bob had $3.14 in his pocket.

His elders, not swayed by his financial status, reaffirmed the vision.

Billy Bob asked if he could call the home the Red Road House. The Red Road describes the path each person travels in life on Mother Earth.

His elders gave him permission only if Billy Bob opened the house to all people, all races, male and female, regardless of whether they had money.

Billy Bob had to let go of his mistrust of other races.

The lack of trust is about the only thing that people with addictions bank on, Billy Bob said.

Billy Bob returned to Janesville and arranged to first manage and then buy the Locust Street home.

The big hug

Billy Bob's wrap-around approach peels back the layers of addiction one at a time.

His gut serves as his "how-to" manual.

People must be sober to get in the Red Road House.

But Billy Bob expects them to be unemployed, broke and hungry. He expects them to be physical and mental wrecks, usually with no insurance or rent history. Most are homeless.

He requires that they get jobs, volunteer or attend school.

"I expect them to not be totally sure if they want recovery," Billy Bob said. "They just have to show me a sincere desire to change their lives."

The addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

They'll need physicals and drug and alcohol and mental health counseling.

Most suffer from deep depression and will need medication for that, as well.

"I network all over the place," said Billy Bob said, noting those groups that help, including the Janesville Counseling Center, the Beloit Area Community Health Center--what he calls the "Wally World" of free health care--and Healthnet.

Billy Bob drives his beat-up van and takes his people to court, to job interviews, to counseling sessions, to see their families. He gets their Social Security status renewed and signs them up for food stamps.

He works with their doctors, social workers, probation officers, mental health workers, employers.

He often advises staff at ECHO or the House of Mercy on questions of addiction and runs over to either place when called with emergencies.

Billy Bob does a lot of one-on-one counseling, even if it's at 3 a.m. It is important to just be there and listen without judging, he said.

People say Billy Bob has the gift to know what to say and when to say it. It is a skill honed by a family life seeped in alcohol and his eventual sobriety, Billy Bob said.

The day-to-day struggle will hopefully replace the chronic addictive behaviors with the habit of sobriety. A support system is built to be available when the resident ventures outside.

A major component is to reconnect residents with their families.

He has helped mothers who are a gavel-strike away from losing their parental rights. He drove one man to Kentucky to spend time with his sick child. He raised the money for another to fly to Ohio for the graduation of a daughter he hadn't seen since she was a year old.

Billy Bob figures that about 20 people a year stay at the Red Road House. They come from Rock County and other nearby counties.

Their chances of staying sober increase the longer they stay.

Of the 20 or so who stayed for a year at the Red Road House, only three have returned to their addictions.

Of the 22 who stayed in 2001, at least eight have been sober for a year or more, he said.

Of those 22, 20 were unemployed and two were on disability when they moved in. Of that 20, 17 have found work.

Billy Bob figures he turns away about 25 people a month.

If they stay 30 days--if they get over that first-month hump--they'll usually spend at least six months.

One of Billy Bob's goals is to do systematic follow-ups on former residents to document his success rate.

At the Red Road House

For a time, Billy Bob used the small disability check he received from his stroke to help pay the mortgage.

The Red Road House became a nonprofit organization--a milestone--in 1997, after Judy Nolde and Ken Smith, then-pastor at First Lutheran Church, met with Billy Bob and told him he was doing a huge service for the community.

Billy Bob took his penny bucket to the bank and came up with enough to process the nonprofit application.

A board of directors was formed in February 1997. He started getting program fees for his residents from social services organizations. That money helps pay the mortgage and heat bill. He gets some food from Second Harvest Food Pantry and ECHO.

He needs a new roof and gutter system. With the help of Community Action, he got two new furnaces and central air conditioning, a godsend in the big old, drafty house.

Still, Billy Bob finds himself wondering how he's going to fix the plumbing, or where the next box of macaroni and cheese is coming from.

Billy Bob often ends up eating some rent.

But if the residents try to stay sober, stay on their meds and try to build relationships, he won't send them back out on the streets.

Seven years ago, it "scared the living hell' out of Billy Bob to leave the Locust Street house.

Now, he is the chairman of the Rock and Walworth Homeless Intervention Task Force--"how ironic," he said. He serves on the boards for the Poverty Response Team and the Action Council in Janesville.

As people hear about the Red Road House, they lend support.

ECHO funds a social worker who visits once a week. Billy Bob also received a $26,000 grant from state emergency rent money. He matches the grant money with whatever rent he receives.

JP Cullen & Sons donated the time of an architect, who produced plans to expand the house, which is a dream of Billy Bob and his board.

Cal Fergy, a private contractor, donated a week's worth of work and plows snow in winter.

Last year, the house received $1,400 in donations.

People are just amazing, Billy Bob said. "They give me the strength to keep going."

One of his proudest moments in the last five years was when Billy Bob received an eagle feather from the Bad River Reservation.

It is in honor of the fact that he is following his own Red Road.

Copyright ©2002 Bliss Communication Inc. All rights reserved. 

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