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By Jared Weber

Spend a bit of time around any one of four “transition homes,” scattered around Raleigh and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see Michael McDade fixing something.

McDade — better known to those in the program as “Big Mike” — juggles several jobs these days, including a full-time position grilling food at Central Regional Hospital in Butner. He’s a handyman by trade, though. Those who know him, such as Healing Transitions Volunteer Coordinator Justin Garrity, will tell you that “he can fix everything.”

The houses are owned by Emmaus House of Raleigh which partners with Raleigh-based Healing Transitions to provide a post-graduation living option to program alumni. There, recovering former users ease themselves back into the working world after graduating the program.

As the go-to maintenance guy for all the houses, McDade’s responsible for a lot.

He’s also the house manager for house number two, located on N. East Street in Raleigh, mentoring transitioning substance users as they live together under the same roof.

It’s a busy life, but it’s one that McDade has grown comfortable in. The busier he is, the less likely he is to fall into his old traps.

McDade, 57, is a recovering substance user and Healing Transitions graduate himself. He graduated in 2008, when the program was still called The Healing Place.

“I don’t want to be the person that’s walking up the street with that one bag in his hand,” McDade said. “I don’t want the other side of that no more.”

A victim to peer pressure

When his teenage friends started drinking alcohol, McDade preferred to take care of everyone, rather than take part. If the other guys were getting drunk, he’d pour himself a cup to give off an appearance, and dump it out when no one was looking.

One of the main changes that Mike McDade has made in his life, as a recovering substance user, is the people he spends his time around. “I still got family members that smoke, drink,” McDade said. “Some of them I have to love from a distance.” Photo credit: Jared Weber

After a while, though, McDade said alcohol became unavoidable. Not only were his friends drinking, but once he took a job at the Consolidated Laundry Equipment factory in Raleigh, he was surrounded by it at work as well.

“Everybody at that plant where I worked at was drinking,” McDade said of the job.

Caving to his inner urge to “be the macho guy” in the room, as he put it, McDade forced himself to enjoy alcohol. Soon after, he and his friends started to smoke and sell marijuana as well.

At first, his substance use was manageable. Until around 1998, McDade worked hard to keep a roof over his head and a car in his driveway.

That was when crack cocaine began to flood his neighborhood.

The crack epidemic

Crack is a raw form of cocaine, smoked through a glass pipe rather than snorted. Its widespread use across American cities in the late 20th century disproportionately affected impoverished communities of color.

The drug was cheap, potent and everywhere. It didn’t take long for crack to become the drug of choice amongst McDade and his friends.

Due to his worsening crack addiction, McDade began to rack up a criminal record. He received multiple felonies for buying and selling the drug.

He also suffered physically. Just six months after he started using, McDade had gained 125 pounds.

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McDade estimates that his period of using occurred mostly between 1998-2007. After his mother passed away in July 2006, he said he went “all out.”

“I didn’t care if I died or whatever,” McDade said. “For that whole year, I was running from the law.”

One night in late 2007, cops busted into a house where McDade and some friends had been getting high. Before McDade could get rid of his drugs and pipe, the officers spotted him.

He was handcuffed and tossed into the backseat of a police car. However, before the officer could take McDade to jail, he offered him an option.

McDade said: “He said, ‘I got a choice for you. You can either go to The Healing Place, or I’ll lock you up.”

‘I ain’t never had nobody’

McDade refused to give The Healing Place a try that time, and the cop let him off with only a citation. But the idea of recovery had been planted in his mind.

When he was arrested again, months later — charged with intent to sell — McDade realized that something in his life needed to change.

Mike McDade (left) poses for a photo with Vic, one of the current tenants of Healing Transitions “transition house” number two. Vic has now been sober for three years. He entered the recovery program in June 2015, after relapsing and falling into homelessness for seven months. In that time, he lived in the woods just outside of Wilmington. “I feel lucky that I’m even still here, man,” Vic said. “I didn’t have no roof over my head. When I woke up, I was looking at the sky.”

He decided to face his charges in court.

Expecting to face serious prison time, McDade was surprised when the judge settled for probation.

Since he had nowhere to say, his sister offered to put him up. Once her landlord found out about his criminal history, though, McDade was back again on the streets.

“I went to my PO and said ‘You know what, I need some help,’” McDade said. “I was about to go and do the same thing that got me in this.”

McDade contacted Healing Transitions, and the program sent William Dickens, an alumnus and present-day employee, to pick him up.

Upon arrival, McDade entered the campus courtyard, nervous and afraid. He was shocked at what would happen next.

“There were so many guys that surrounded me, all to help me, and they said if you need notes, we’ll get you that,” McDade said. “I ain’t never had nobody come up to me offering to help me.”

In that moment, McDade promised himself that, no matter what it took, he would never let those men around him down.

Happy with recovery

As of April, it’s been more than 10 years since McDade moved into house two.

He’s not sure how long he’ll be there. One of the benefits of the transition house is that he’s been able to save up money while he stays there. As house manager, he only pays half-rent.

This is just part of Mike McDade’s hat collection. “I love some hats,” he said with a big chuckle. Photo credit: Jared Weber

For now, McDade is just fine with where he is.

“I’m happy with my life, man,” McDade said. “Things are going great.”

He’s also got his family back in his life.

When McDade was using drugs heavily, his sister, Geneva McDougal, said she rarely heard from him. Now, the two are back to being each other’s best friends.

“When he was out on the streets, I didn’t know where he was,” McDougal said.

She said that once he became invested in Healing Transitions, all of that changed.

“He began to talk to me and tell me what happened and stuff, and why,” McDougal said. “I began to see a totally different Michael every time that I went to visit him.”

He also has a relationship with his three kids.

“When I was out there doing all that, I’d see them coming in the car or something and I’d hide behind the house,” McDade said. “I didn’t want them seeing me like that.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that Healing Transitions owns and operates the four transition houses. Emmaus House of Raleigh, a mission group based in Raleigh, actually owns all four of the homes.

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Jared Weber

Jared Weber is NC Health News' 2018 legislative intern. He is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill where he's majoring in journalism and global studies with a minor in Spanish.