This December, drug treatment and AIDS prevention activist Gerald Ribeiro will have been gone for 20 years. In 1989, he founded Treatment on Demand, a New Bedford-based grassroots response to the “twin epidemics” of substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. In 1995, The Standard-Times recognized Gerald as “Man of the Year.” The headline of the story read, “Hoping to build a better world.”
While, initially, the board was entirely people in recovery, Gerald broadened it to include representatives from other spheres — his rationale being that the need for more and better drug abuse treatment and HIV/AIDS prevention called for a wide spectrum of support. After he recruited me to serve on the board, Gerald and I teamed up writing funding proposals to support the work of Treatment of Demand. At some point, he asked me to help him write his life story. More often than not, the urgency of grant deadlines would preempt our work on his story; intent as he was on completing it, he remained firmly grounded in the here and now. Though we came close to finishing his memoir, he insisted on reworking it up to his death.
One of my favorite passages in Gerald’s book poignantly connects his deep compassion turned inward with his great compassion for others:
One of the triggers for me now that helps me to realize how lonely and sad and destitute I was during that period [of active addiction] is the foghorns that I hear at night. I can remember being out there late at night, copping, standing in line, hustling, and hearing those foghorns. When I’d be out there and I’d hear that sound, it always brought me back to reality to some degree. Like I’d be caught up in the moment of whatever I was doing, looking for that person I was copping from, and at the same time worrying about the cops pulling up. There was something about that haunting sound that touched something way deep inside me that said, “This is fucked up.”
Even now, years later, when I hear the foghorns at night, it does the same thing to me; it always makes me stop what I’m doing and listen, and a profound sense of sadness comes over me. At first, it’s just sadness, and then the memories start to come, and I remember how bad it was. And I feel bad. I feel bad for myself and I also feel bad because I know that right at that moment, as I’m listening to the foghorn, there are people who are going through the same thing. They’re out there lonely, hungry, or dope sick — though I’ve been away from that lifestyle for over ten years, it never fails. Sometimes late at night I sit out on the back porch and hear the foghorns and I go right back to those places. It starts coming back; it’s a reminder of what it was like and it’s a reminder of why I’m doing this work: fighting for more treatment and against the root causes of addiction. It serves a dual purpose.
Though Gerald wanted to help concerned people understand why and how other people became addicted to drugs, he most sought to reach addicted individuals at their lowest to offer compassion, hope, and a path to treatment. Feeling inextricably connected with others, he was fond of saying, “We’re all in recovery” — recovery from not only addiction, but also racism, classism, homophobia, and his list went on.
After his death, I self-published his book and have distributed it over the years — fulfilling a personal commitment to him as well as to the causes that had bound us together. If you would like one or more free copies of This Path I Took, send your request and mailing address to email@example.com.
Robert French is a New Bedford resident.