Graduating with honor. One man's journey from the streets to the podium

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.''

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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.''

Those words affected him, but not enough to make him change. He didn't go to the meeting; instead, he continued his daily drinking routine. ``By this time I would only dabble in drugs when I got my little welfare check. I wasn't doing any more hustling or stealing. I was tired of the joint [prison]. I just wanted to be miserable in the street, not miserable in the penitentiary.''

That summer he was asked to ``cut some drugs,'' which meant diluting the purity of heroin with milk sugar or quinine. Before he got started on this, he inhaled some of the pure heroin. ``The next thing I remember I was in Howard University hospital, being brought to by a guy who had started school with me and who was now a heart doctor. My heart had stopped. He asked me, `When are you going to get it together?'''

The answer to the doctor's question, and to Streater's problems, dawned in November 1975. He says the ``sky didn't open up,'' but something began to happen.

He recalls waking up happy one day in early November. His ``fix,'' a quarter gallon of vodka, was in the house. No worries about hustling funds that day. He put on a suit and descended the stairs on his way downtown ``to be discovered.'' Instead, he began discovering himself, the words of the guy from the meeting echoing in his head - ``If you want something different, you have to do something different.''

During what was to be his last trip to a liquor store, he thought of the countless times he had stood in front of such stores early in the morning, watching people drive to work.

``I remembered peeping in the cars, looking at the people's faces going to work. And it seemed to me that they didn't have the confusion, this utter confusion I had in my life. We pray in many ways; I know the prayer was heard. We don't have to pray in words. We pray with our hearts. If I had to translate it into words, I know I said something like, `I want this confusion out of my life.'''

Streater called his stepfather, and they drove to a hospital where he committed himself for 10 months. That was 12 years ago. During that hospital stay he said he began to learn how to love, how to share his most personal thoughts with other human beings. For the first time, he says, ``I became close to another human being.''

In particular, there was one man, a sea captain who had overcome drugs 37 years earlier. In a bullying but loving sort of way, he helped Streater take an honest look at himself.

Streater discovered that the void that haunted him haunted others, and that love could eliminate that emptiness. He says he found ``strength in what I previously thought was weakness.''

Donald came out of treatment for the last time and went to work as a clothing salesman. In 1978 he began a herculean schedule of attending undergraduate school, working part-time as a drug/alcohol counselor and full-time caseworker for the city Department of Human Services in Washington. This seven-day work week would go on until 1983, when he graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia with a degree in social work.

``The way I figured it, the lawyers and the social workers ran the country. But I thought lawyering would have a more profound effect on the system. You know, the Constitution is a beautiful document. I thought I could right some wrongs.''

Donald was accepted into Georgetown's evening program and continued to work as an investigator (beginning in 1982) for the Department of Human Services during the day.

``Looking back,'' Streater sees this revolution in his thinking as an evolutionary part of ``God's plan.''

``Everything that happened to me, everything I was involved in, everybody I met, even the people I didn't like, helped me. Every little piece is a building piece. A word here, an event there, when you look back, it's the clear picture. People ask me now, `What are you going to do?' I don't know. But I do know this: We are all here as part of a plan. We all serve a purpose.''

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