Zack Hair is sweating. He’s standing inside of Open Table Ministry’s Free Store, checking out his deodorant options while the brisk air conditioning rains down, yet thick beads are forming on his temples, forehead, and cheeks. His shirt is sticking to his lower back and he’s slurring his words, not much but enough to notice if you’re listening for it. These are all symptoms of his methadone treatment, a medication used by doctors to help patients reduce or quit their use of heroin or other opiates.
To a passing acquaintance, Zack might look like he’s struggling. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he’s never been better. He finally has a future to look forward to.
“My goals are simple and straightforward right now. I want to go back to school but I would like to be involved in social work or maybe become a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I think those are attainable goals,” he explained.
Just 4 months ago, Zack was homeless and addicted to heroin, crack, ecstasy, and nearly every other drug a street connoisseur can find. He’s overdosed and nearly died 5 times, sometimes needing Narcan — a nasal spray commonly used by paramedics to treat opioid overdoses during emergencies — to bring him back earthside.
But then he met Reverend Carolyn Schuldt, Executive Director of Open Table Ministry and local celebrity who has made a name for herself in Durham County’s homeless support community. It was January 2018 and Zack says he met her at a time when he was simply clinging to the idea of surviving. He just wanted to live.
By anyone’s account, Zack had already done a lot of living up to this point.
He grew up as the oldest of 9 children in New Bern, North Carolina in a family fully committed to an extreme fundamentalist Christian movement called Quiverfull. The Duggar Family, stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, are some of the most famous followers.
Zack just calls it a cult.
“It was just a weird vibe to grow up in. My parents met while they were selling and doing cocaine together but they were both white collar professionals. This is in the late 80s. They got married and had me and wanted a different life for themselves,” he said. “You know, some people will do certain things to change. My mom and dad, especially my mom, they chose religious mania.”
According to Zack, those who follow the movement don’t believe in birth control or public education. It also strongly advocates for a return to patriarchy. In hindsight, he realizes that she also suffered from her own mental health issues.
“I think my mom chose the religious mania just because she couldn’t control some of the ways she felt about herself. She was the head nurse at a psychiatric hospital in New Bern when she was pregnant with me but she didn’t believe she had any issues of her own,” he said. “My mom would leave suicide notes for me and my sister under our door saying ‘Hey Zackary, it’s your and Emily’s fault that I’ve killed myself. I’ve taken the piano wire and hung myself this afternoon. I’ve gone to heaven and it’s unlikely y’all will meet me there because of your extreme wickedness on this earth and I just want you to know that God will judge you for driving your mother to her grave.’”
Suffice to say that when Zack left his parents’ home at 17, he didn’t know how to live normally. His social worker suggested moving to the Greater Triangle area, thinking the area’s cultural diversity would be a good change of pace for him.
And in the long run, it has. Because while he came here with significant emotional trauma, the support he’s found through local organizations have helped him find purpose that he never had previously.
“I did still have a lot of trauma after I came here. My fiancé that I tried to move to Durham to get away from, he was found dead on the side of the road two months after I moved. My son’s mom died about a year after I moved here. She got killed in a freak accident at 2 o’clock in the morning coming back from a bar,” he said. “I have not yet gone back to New Bern since the day that I left there and honestly I’m at the point where I don’t have any intent to. I now have a will to live.”
Open Table Ministry is the reason that, for the first time in his life, Zack is planning for a better future. Because even though he first approached Reverend Schuldt while high on crack, ecstasy, and heroin, she still saw him for who he is — a human being deserving of love and support.
“When I first met Zack, I was moved by his sensitivity. And then, I learned of his addiction and after that, I learned of his background. It was heartbreaking to me,” explained Schuldt. “It is very humbling to think that I could make a difference and literally, I believe, bring this man from certain death to hopefully being able to live a long healthy life.”
For now, they’re taking that journey day by day. Zack has been clean for 90 days. He’s living in a homeless shelter but recently learned that he’s been approved for housing in Edgemont, in a neighborhood that’s walkingdistance from his methadone clinic. He has a good relationship with his life partner, one that he wants to eventually end in a life-long and court legal commitment.
For the first time in his life, he’s looking forward to a real future.
“I wasn’t even attempting to get clean and sober. I didn’t really honestly think it was possible after as long as I’ve used. I was able to find some help, mostly through the compassion that was extended to me here. I would really like to be a nurse practitioner that evaluates and does a multi-faceted differential diagnosis and then works with people that are suffering from mental illness because I know what it’s like. That’s the way I’d like to give back.”