Jeromy Oakes was living out of a van in Maryland when he saw the bottom rushing up toward him.
He’d been drinking and using drugs since he was 14, his abuse getting worse with each passing year. The 34-year-old already had lost his wife and two kids to the bottle. He was ready to take his own life.
“I was in an emergency crisis center on suicide watch,” he said, recalling that turning point. “I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t reached out for help before. But there was a moment of clarity when I was lying in a hospital bed looking at the ceiling. I saw a second chance.”
Oakes called an old friend back home in Maine. That friend knew Bill Rae at Manna Ministries in Bangor. The friend put Rae in touch with Oakes, who reluctantly shared his struggle with addiction, a story Rae has heard many times before.
“He told me, ‘Just be here by Monday. God will take care of the rest,’” Oakes recalled of his first conversation with Rae.
So far, he has.
Oakes has been sober 3½ years. He has a steady job. He has been making amends with his ex-wife and his children. He had tried rehab before, but it never stuck. There was always something missing.
“I realized spirituality was that missing piece,” he said recently at Manna’s offices on Main Street in Bangor. “I know it sounds corny, but I found a purpose.”
It was 20 years ago this month when Rae, now 60, founded Manna simply as a food pantry in downtown Bangor. The agency’s genesis was rooted in Rae’s own struggle with methamphetamine addiction many years ago, which led him to a similar faith-based rescue mission in Portland, Ore.
In the last two decades Manna has added a full-service soup kitchen, an emergency homeless shelter, a detoxification shelter, a long-term rehabilitation program and various outpatient services. Manna also is in the midst of adding a separate rehab shelter for women and children, something that doesn’t exist in the Bangor area. The agency is 35 staff members strong with an annual budget of nearly $2 million and serves dozens of clients in various stages of recovery. While there are 16 other drug and alcohol recovery shelters across the state, Manna stands alone as the only licensed facility rooted in religion and spirituality.
For Rae, he’s simply imparting what he knows and what worked for him.
“We don’t shove it down their throats. Everyone knows what they are coming into,” Rae said recently from his office. “We’re not a church, and we don’t want to be. But if they want to grab hold of that piece, it’s available. People need something to hold onto at 3 in the morning when nothing else is there.”
Trisha Crockett, the head pastoral adviser at Manna, said she simply offers truths to her clients.
“More than anything, I think people need to feel hope,” she said.
For many, that hope has been their salvation, but faith aside, Manna provides a stable, nurturing environment to fight addiction, said Casey Harris, a case manager.
“The mission is not to provide a short-term break from the cycle [of substance abuse] but to break the cycle,” he said.
Ann Witham lives on the fourth floor of Manna in one of a handful of apartments available to those caught in the expanse between recovery and self-sufficiency. If the first three floors of Manna are a halfway house, the fourth floor is a three-quarter house.
Witham, 39, became addicted to prescription painkillers after suffering a back injury as a teenager. When she ended up at Manna last year, she was stealing, burglarizing homes and committing other acts she didn’t care to mention. Anything and everything to get a fix, she said.
“When I came in, I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye,” she said. “I had no self-esteem.”
Like so many in recovery, Witham didn’t get sober on her first try. She had been in other rehab facilities and only decided to try Manna because nothing else worked and because the alternative was likely jail.
“I had reservations about what this program was about,” she admitted. “I was never brought up in church.”
Yet she always acknowledged an empty feeling, even while she suppressed it with painkillers.
“I still struggle with it,” she said.
She hasn’t used since June 12, 2009. She plans to move out of Manna’s transitional housing soon, and she’s taking college classes. Her young son was taken from her because of her addiction, but she has a plan to get him back. She knows it won’t come easily.
“I have to establish my life before I can establish his,” Witham said. “I have to follow God’s time.”
That’s how Rae built Manna, too. On God’s time.
Twenty years ago, Manna was little more than a soup kitchen and that’s still how many addicts end up there — looking for a hot meal and a warm refuge from the cold.
“When they come to us, this is the end of the road,” Rae said. “If we shut down, they might go to jail or back on the street. Some would be dead.”
About five years ago, Manna moved into the former Beal College building on Main Street, which aside from a sign out front, is nondescript and almost hidden in the shadow of the Veterans Remembrance Bridge.
Since then, Rae has added Elijah’s House, a 45-day treatment shelter for drug and alcohol addicts and Derek House, a nine-month extended-care shelter. There are a total of 22 beds between the two houses with a handful more on the fourth floor. A fundraising campaign has been launched to raise construction costs for Anne’s House, a shelter specifically for women and children.
The idea is to create a continuum of care — with God in the middle — to allow addicts services at each point in their recovery.
Dr. Stephen Andrew, Manna’s clinical supervisor, compared addiction recovery to a rocket launch. There are stages. When it first takes off, there are all these parts and they eventually separate. Eventually, though, the rocket needs a booster to keep going. Manna provides those boosters.
Harris, who works specifically with patients at Elijah’s House, was a bit more direct.
“When you step back and look, we’re literally helping people fight for their lives,” he said. Harris seemed to sense the doom-and-gloom sentiment of the comment and added. “But we have a blast doing it.”
Jim Paradis Sr. has been at Manna for about four months and is now past the initial detoxification stage. He is sharing a room with another recovering addict, but he knows he’s only in the first few miles of his marathon to sobriety.
For years, Paradis worked in the restaurant industry. Alcohol found him easily. Then OxyContin.
He was in and out of treatment a dozen times at Acadia Recovery Community in Bangor. He always relapsed.
“The bottle was a prison. My own prison. I needed help shredding all the, the …” Paradis struggled to find the right word. “The garbage.”
So he tried Manna. The 47-year-old grew up Catholic, but all he remembered of his religious roots were rules and laws. It wasn’t powerful, he said. This time was different.
“God grabbed a hold of me the same way Oxys did,” he said. “Now I can’t put it down. I know God’s a touchy word for some people, but I’m not ashamed.”
The weary lines etched on Paradis’ face could fill a novel, but his eyes are clear. At Manna, he has a psychological counselor working on his tormented mind and a spiritual adviser leading him to God.
“They always ask me ‘What have you done today to inch toward your goal?’” he said. “You can have knowledge, but without wisdom, it does no good.”
He hasn’t reached out to family yet. It’s too soon for them, he said.
“I’m in a danger zone for a while,” Paradis said. “It’s going to be a continual struggle.”
Many of the case managers and clinicians at Manna — Rae included — have stood where their clients stand. They have known addiction intimately.
Money to fund Manna’s growing operation comes from community donations and constantly shrinking health insurance reimbursements.
As Manna has grown, Rae has noticed some shifts.
“The clients are younger,” he said. “It’s good in the sense that they are reaching out for help sooner.”
The job’s not always easy. The people at Manna are largely invisible. The public usually finds out about clients only if they relapse and commit a crime or if they turn up dead somewhere. The stories of success don’t reach far beyond the walls.
“I don’t feel like we have to justify success here. You can see it,” Rae said.
He recalled stories of recovering addicts embarking on simple pleasures such as bowling or camping.
“I’ve never done this sober,” they would say.
Still, it’s the nonsuccesses that bother him most.
“When you see someone who almost got it,” he said. “I always lose sleep over that one failure.”
A painful reminder came last week when a homeless woman in Bangor died from a combination of hypothermia and chronic alcoholism.Dr. Andrew said community support for Manna’s mission has been strong but also said recovery is an uphill battle because there is no real cure for addiction. In that sense, maintaining funding is a struggle.
“It’s always harder to sell prevention than a cure,” Dr. Andrew said.
As long as Manna exists, faith will be at the center.
“We have one client who is continually questioning the existence of God,” Rae said. “But you know what? As long as he keeps questioning, we’re on the right track.”
Attle Smith came to Manna Ministries in late January looking for a brief refuge from the cold and a meal.
He didn’t expect salvation.
“When I came in, I was beaten, on the ground … I was below the ground,” he said. “I walk around proud now that I’m sober.”
Smith had no self-respect. No respect for anything that stood in the way of that next drink.
“I was a 32-year-old loser,” he said.
His gradual descent into alcohol addiction soured his relationship with family, but they haven’t given up on him yet.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Smith said.
Last month, while he was still in detox, he called his parents from Manna to check in and let them know how his sobriety was going. Usually, Smith’s dad would pass the phone instantly to his wife. This time he talked to his son.
“The last time I saw him, he gave me a hug and a handshake. He said ‘I’m proud of you,’” Smith said, steadying his voice from the emotion. “I haven’t had that in 10 years.”
When he came to Manna, Smith wasn’t sure about embracing God. He’s still wary.
“My relationship with God is still in its infancy,” he said. “But I’ve been through other [treatment] programs. They didn’t stick. Maybe this is what I need.”
At lunchtime on a recent weekday at Manna, a group of staff members and clients stood around in a circle while the smells of food wafted from warming trays. It was the week of Easter, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, and Rae began to talk.
“What can you give back to him?” he said. “What can you put at the cross? I have something I want to put down.” But he didn’t elaborate, instead he continued talking. “This Easter, I encourage all of you, in the quiet time of night, to leave something with God,” Rae said.
He spoke of freedom.
“It’s not something you can vote for or elect,” he said. “It’s not something you can buy or drink or snort or smoke.”
“It’s in here,” Rae said and pointed to his chest.
Like so many not-for-profit agencies, Manna is struggling financially. Cuts have put the facility at risk. That’s not good news at a time when Manna is trying to raise money to build a new shelter specifically for women and children.
Rae is ever hopeful that Manna will be subsidized fully by the community within five years. It’s a lofty goal.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said, then quickly corrected himself. “God will figure it out.”
To donate or learn more about Manna’s programs call 990-2870.