Finding fun in recovery
by Shelley Daily
From the August, 2018 issue
Davey LaFave tracks his sobriety on a phone app. On this July morning, as he sips an iced decaf coffee at the Kerrytown Sweetwaters in his baseball cap and Converse high-tops, he's been sober 12,274 hours--more than sixteen months. A cross-addicted alcoholic--"booze and narcotics"--LaFave, age forty-eight, knows "relapse is inches away." But he's determined not just to stay clean but to have fun while doing it.
Reaching this point has been a fight for LaFave, who once dressed the windows at Selo/Shevel Gallery and was the visual creative force at Sava Farah's Babo market (now Fred's). Two years ago, he says, his "entire life crumbled like a Jenga tower" when he was fired from his job and his partner of eight years gave him a get-sober-or-else ultimatum.
LaFave had already racked up ten visits to medical detox--once registering a 0.5 on a breathalyzer--and completed two twenty-eight-day treatment programs. Then a bed opened up in Dawn Farm's residential treatment program in Ypsilanti. He says the "Farm" saved him.
He praises its therapists--"who have addiction histories themselves"--its engagement in the community (residents visit area AA/NA meetings), and his renewed connection to nature through farm work (he raised baby chicks) for making this recovery stick. He completed the four-month residential program and now lives in a transitional house on Gott Street.
Before his stay at Dawn Farm, he says, vodka "was the love of my life." After he was fired, "it was me and Savannah Guthrie [of the Today Show] on the couch with a fifth of vodka." He was living in Ypsi when he reached one of his lowest points, awakening from a blackout on the front lawn of a historic home. "It was maybe noon, and the homeowner told me they'd been watching me for three hours, making sure I was still breathing." He ran home, deeply shaken.
LaFave's battle with addiction began in his early twenties. He was born "an 'oops baby'" to forty-something parents in Marinette, Wisconsin. His
father was an electrician, his mother an accomplished community theater actress. His two sisters, already in their teens when he was born, are more like "favorite aunts." When he was fourteen, he told his parents he was gay; they responded calmly. His mother drew him into her theater world, where he was a talented young actor, and, he says, something of a "prima donna." He was open about his sexual orientation but didn't date. He was befriended by the popular girls, and though some guys called him "LaFag," he diffused potential bullying with humor.
In 1989, he moved to Madison as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. But he soon realized, he says, that "everyone" in his theater B.F.A. program "was a thousand times more talented than me ... I was frightened."
He started drinking and recalls the "marvelous euphoria" of Vicodin after he got a wisdom tooth pulled. LSD, cocaine, and pot were added to the mix when available. Along with "celebration and art and music," he says, it was part of the college culture. "We were all so light about it, and I was physiologically resilient."
He worked part-time at one of the first Urban Outfitters. The chain liked his work so much that in 1994, it offered him a job as a "store fixer" for its underperforming Ann Arbor location. He dropped out and moved.
He loved arranging spaces and creating store displays. "It was like building small play sets," he says. He also partied hard at the Flame, Ann Arbor's original gay bar, as well as at the Old Town, the Del Rio, and later the Aut Bar in Braun Court.
Cynthia Shevel tapped him to create displays at her Middle Earth gift shop, then he followed a boyfriend to Atlanta. When the boyfriend dumped him, he worked for a year as a designer for a department store before realizing "my heart was in Ann Arbor."
Shevel hired him back and soon made him a full-time window dresser for her and partner Elaine Selo's Main St. gallery. Using bold painted designs and whimsical paper cutouts, he created surrealist window scenes, such as a flock of flying shopping carts. Restaurateur Sava Farah was impressed enough to bring him on as "visual director," but as his drinking began to create problems, she demoted him to cashier and eventually let him go.
Farah says she realized that keeping LaFave on the payroll was "enabling him." He says being fired helped save his life.
His long-term relationship ended while he was in rehab. "We're on different paths now," LaFave says, but "I'm still polishing his halo" for helping him through his "darkest days."
LaFave moved into the Gott St. house when it opened last October. The eight residents represent a "potpourri of addictions," he says. "We have a common bond that cements us ... It's like soldiers who've been to war." Everyone must pass random drug tests, attend daily meetings in the recovery community, pay program fees on time ($475 a month), and complete service work. (LaFave does "laundry like a pro" at Dawn Farm's detox center on W. Huron.)
Dawn Farm facilities manager Ted Thiry says LaFave "is inspiring to the entire community, especially the younger guys. [He shows that] change is possible, and that you can have fun in recovery."
Few are as committed to fun as LaFave. After spending the Fourth of July at a pool party, he pulls up his sleeve to reveal an arm plastered with temporary tattoos applied by a five-year-old there.
A friend, Keelan Ferraiuolo, co-owns the Electric Eye Cafe on N. Main. After he helped prepare for its opening last year, she hired him as a barista and decorator. He lacked coffee skills "but he's got people skills you just can't teach," Ferraiuolo says.
Almost a year and a half after getting sober, LaFave says, his "skill set shines brighter than it ever did." He's writing every day and someday hopes to publish his story. And he's sharing his experience publicly. Anonymity is important to the recovery movement, he says, because stigmas exist, but his goal is to "abolish these stigmas by remaining transparent and proud of my struggle."
Although he still thinks about drugs and alcohol, he says he doesn't crave them anymore. "I just need to keep doing the next right thing," he says, quoting a recovery mantra. "I'm rediscovering joy that I had in childhood."
[Originally published in August, 2018.]
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