For decades, Shawn English relied on drugs and alcohol.
They were greedy companions.
They wouldn't allow English to keep a job or a roof over his head. They were dependable – always there for the taking – but didn't offer any real sustenance.
They tore English down, until, one day, he had enough.
Leaving Washington, D.C., he knew, was crucial if he wanted to escape them. As he prepared to move back to his native Southwestern Pennsylvania, English prayed.
“I said, 'God, I want peace. All I want is peace,'” he said.
As he emerged from addiction and began to cobble the fragments of his life together – working and living at Washington City Mission – English, at last, found what he was looking for.
“When I was in the mission, riding in the truck, picking up furniture, I got joy in looking at the cows in the yard. That is peace to me. Looking at mountains,” he said. “I've never seen this in the city. Skyscrapers, fire departments, police sirens every two minutes, people getting shot. You know, I didn't want that no more.”
At 52 years old, English feels as though he's finally living.
“I'm determined not to go back,” he said.
English was raised by his grandparents in Uniontown among cousins, aunts and uncles. In 1973, at 9 years old, he moved with his mother and younger half-brother, Derek, to the nation's capital.
They were poor, said English, and his mother struggled to raise two boys. Although Derek had weekly outings with his own father, English didn't know his.
A persisting memory is that of his younger self, sitting and waiting for Derek's dad to come and pick up his little brother, and his own feelings of despair at not having the same.
“I'm still a little boy, sitting on my couch, waiting for my father to come through the door,” he said.
English felt unloved. He rebelled.
At 11, he started smoking marijuana, drinking and stealing. He was repeatedly in trouble with the police. One day, officers came to the front door.
“Mom said, 'Take him. I can't do nothing with him,'” said English. “I figured if my mom put me away, no one must love me.”
The next two-and-a-half decades, English was in and out of institutions, detention centers, and, when he came of age, jails and prisons. Though he earned his GED certificate and went through Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous while incarcerated, English said he didn't use the education to his advantage.
He was released from prison in 1990. He got a job, and a friend let him live in his basement for more than a year. But English couldn't hold it together and started drinking again. He considered suicide.
After calling an uncle in Uniontown, he came back to his hometown, where he stayed in a shelter for a month. Someone told him about the Washington City Mission, so he got a ride and moved in.
“I laid in that top bunk. I thought, 'I'm done.' I was tired of messing up and starting over,” he said “The City Mission saved my life.”
English started taking his recovery seriously. On March 4, 2014, he got clean.
One of the men asleep when a fire broke out in the mission kitchen June 9, 2015, English said the outpouring of support from the community cemented his belief that Washington was where he should be.
“I saw the love in this town,” he said.
He worked for the nonprofit, collecting donations, and eventually, got a position as a personal home care attendant for TRIPIL Services. He took care of elderly clients overnight and worked at a gas station during the day. English rode a bicycle everywhere, no matter the time or weather, and got encouragement from people who would acknowledge his familiar figure biking through the snow or rain.
Eventually, English was able to purchase a car and moved into a place of his own. Now he works in the offices at Greenbriar Treatment Center.
He credits the people in his life, including his three sponsors, who have given him a chance. He wants to help others the way he was helped.
“I don't bite my tongue with them cause people didn't bite their tongue with me,” he said. “Same way I got, I try to pass it onto them. I just speak my mind and keep it real.”
English was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though he tried for a while to take prescribed medication, it made him feel dazed, like he was still taking street drugs.
“I put nothing in me to change my mood,” he said.
Instead, he relies on sharing with others as a coping mechanism.
English runs a men's recovery group and attends NA and AA meetings five to six times a week.
“Twelve steps will break you down and build you back up,” he said. “I let it out. I talk about everything. I'm trying to grow up.”
Every morning, he texts 160 people – mostly others in recovery – sharing encouragement.
“Every day is a gift ... Keep believing ... You are somebody ... Take time to be thankful ...”
He strengthens others with words of love and acceptance that he struggled for years to believe.
With age and maturity, English said he understands that his mother, who died 14 years ago, really did love him.
“She did her best,” he said. “She done me good.”