Graduating with honor. One man's journey from the streets to the podium
LAST week Donald Streater donned the sober black robe of a Georgetown Law School graduate, ending a four-year night school odyssey. A short trip compared to the 23 years he spent shrouded in the darkness of heroin addiction and alcoholism. The 47-year-old doctor of law had been, in his own words, ``a bum.'' Just 12 years ago his classroom was the street, where he wrote fraudulent checks to support his habits. In and out of hospitals and jails, Mr. Streater spent his energies chasing counterfeit highs to fill ``a void I felt inside since childhood.''Skip to next paragraph
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At 13 he took his first drink. As a teen-ager he experimented with marijuana. And at 18, when a freshman at Howard University, he ``stuck the spike in my arm'' (injected heroin), he says. ``I had found it, the new thing - the panacea for my problem.''
``Like anything administered that way, it's not a permanent, lasting thing. Instead of looking within, I looked without. All the ramifications are just as you read, it never changes, it never will. You get involved with drugs. You get strung out. You have to resort to things to get money. And it happened to me just that way. No different from anybody else.''
As he looks back now, diploma in hand, he pieces together the various junctures in his life that led to the present.
There was the time in 1968, after years of drug use and trips in and out of prison, when he landed a ``good job with a major airline.'' Under provisions of his parole, the company entered into an agreement requiring him to notify them if he stumbled back into drug use. He kept his distance from drugs for a short time, but eventually had to give that notice.
``My parole officer was telling me things that I needed to hear but I didn't want to hear,'' he says. ``I eventually went on methadone. I think I was the first legal person to go on methadone in this city.''
For three years, he stayed with the government-sponsored methadone program, which administered the legal narcotic in an effort to wean addicts away from heroin. His personal physician was concerned about harsh effects from long-term use of the synthetic narcotic, however, and Streater left the program. He then began abuse of his other legal drug, alcohol - like ``ten dope fiends.''
Streater defines his problem as ``never feeling like I belonged, feeling very insecure as a person, inferior.'' The drug gave him a ``false security and self-esteem.''
He recalls that his efforts to rationalize his situation became a millstone around his neck. ``I lived in an `if only' world,'' he says. ``If only I weren't black. If only I were a different kind of black. If only I had two parents or my parents had money. Never looking at me and accepting responsibility.''
At 36, Streater went to a meeting of a support group for drug addicts and alcoholics. He listened, incredulously, as former addicts talked of being sober. He left the meeting with no intention of returning. To him, he says, ``sober was just a word.''
One Sunday a guy from the meeting called, urging him to return to the group. ``I told him I had some business to take care of,'' Streater says, noting that at that point he hadn't worked for years and ``the only business I had was the business of being a bum.''
This stranger wasn't soft on him. ``He said something to me that rang in my ear, that really stuck in my gut. He said, `If you keep doing the same thing, you gonna get the same results. Look at your track record. Look at how your life has been for the last 36 years. You been doing things your way, and your way has gotten you where you are now. Nowhere.'
``I didn't like that, because I just met this guy and I thought he was being too personal. The other reason I didn't like that is because it was true. And then he said, `If you want something different, you're going to have to do something different.' It was the most profound thing I had ever heard.''