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Dillard, who was 42 then, made it to Mount Sinai and begged the detox people to take him back. He had no insurance, though, and so they were going to turn him away. "But one of the counselors told me if you go downstairs to the emergency room and get sick, they'll have to bring you up here," Dillard recalled this week. "So I went downstairs and folded over like I was about to die. Set there all night, and the next day they sent me upstairs to the detox unit. And I've been clean ever since."
And also helping others get there. After detox at Mount Sinai, Dillard entered a recovery home on the west side—Bill's Family. He started as a resident and ended up executive director. In 2000 he left Bill's Family to cofound his own residential recovery program for addicts—It's About Change. The program now has two homes in south-suburban Calumet City and another in Elgin. He's president and CEO. Callers to It's About Change who get the voice mail hear Dillard, now 62, remind them: "And remember—there's nothing so bad that a drink won't make worse."
Dillard and I talked in a living room of one of the Calumet City homes—a brick three-flat on a dead-end street. A dozen clients live in the home, two in each of six tidy bedrooms. Most of them are court referrals—addicts who chose probation and treatment over prison. They meet every evening with staff to talk about relapse prevention, study the Alcoholics Anonymous "Big Book," and work on job-readiness skills. It's a 90-day program, but that's hardly enough to turn around most addicts. "Generally when a guy is serious about recovery, he sticks around after that," Dillard said. More of his clients are addicted to cocaine than heroin, and most everyone also drinks.
Dillard grew up on the south side. He and his sister were raised by their mother, a restaurant cook who struggled to make ends meet. The family moved often, and by the time Dillard was 10 or 11, he felt he was mostly raising himself. He started working at a fruit stand at that age, and also started drinking—Wild Irish Rose, which the wine heads hanging around the liquor store would buy for Dillard and his friends. Soon he was smoking pot too, and by his mid-teens he was snorting cocaine as well. He was shy, and he liked how drugs loosened him up. "I could talk to the girls, be the life of the party."
But those drugs also kept messing up his life. He got kicked out of Hyde Park High School, but he became a certified welder and was taking home good money—until he lost his job because he couldn't make it in on time because of his drinking. He sold coke and pot for a time, and pretty soon he was homeless, riding the el all night or sleeping in abandoned buildings. And still drinking Wild Irish Rose and using other drugs when he could get them.
At Bill's Family, "I struggled with the program for about 18 months," he told me. "In the Big Book they call it straddling the fence. I didn't know whether I wanted to really stay clean or go back to using drugs." The structure of the program helped. "The managers were like friends, not like somebody looking over you like a cop. The house was kept nice and clean, and it was up to us to do that. They gave us small responsibilities at first—I didn't want a whole lot of responsibility right away." He's modeled It's About Change on Bill's Family.
Dillard, who's divorced, stays in one of his It's About Change homes. He's led a unique life these last 20 years, residing in recovery homes the whole time. His clients "are steady teaching me how to stay clean," he said. "I’m not confused—I’m another drink or drug away from being that bum I was. And it’s my way of giving back to them. They get to see me working the program. I tell them, 'I’m just another dope fiend trying to stay sober one day at a time, another alcoholic trying to stay clean.'
"One of the rewards of this work is seeing a guy get what he needs, and go on and live a productive life," he said. "That fills me up. Money can't touch that. We get some guys that stumble and fall, they relapse. Some of them go to detox and then come back to us, and work on their recovery. And then again some just disappear.
"But I've seen a lot of them change," he said. "We have a heck of an alumni list. One asked me to be his child’s godfather. I've been invited to stand up in weddings. They call me on my clean date, my birthday, on Christmas, they invite me over for Thanksgiving. No, I wouldn't move out of the recovery home. These are a bunch of nice guys, and they consider me their friend."