Catching Catfish

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podcast-iconListen to: Catching Catfish
Read by: Rebecca Balko
Length: 10:20

In loving memory of John “Catfish” H.

As a child growing up, summertime was most often centered around activities that involved the water – which was influenced in large part by the almost inescapable sweltering heat, (otherwise referred to as the dog days of summer), that was just part of living in the south. Other than swimming at the local pool, two of my favorite activities were hunting craw-dads in local creeks and going fishing!

Hunting for craw-dads was always exhilarating, especially at my grandmother’s house in Little Rock, AR. She had a large creek behind her house at the base of what seemed at that age a HUGE rocky mountain, whose water was always cold to the many pairs of little bare feet that would delicately walk around in it moving from rock to rock, anticipating the mother of all craw-dads that might be found under each one. (For those who don’t know – craw-dads LOVE rocks to burrow under. The bigger the rock often meant the bigger the find! So locating a creek with lots of rocks, especially large ones, was like GOLD to us seasoned craw-dad hunters!) The excitement & anticipation of slowly reaching into that icy cold water, hands placed on either side of a big ol’ rock – (squinting to see through the current because you didn’t want to miss the craw-dad…nor did you want to miss the potential snake that could be hiding underneath!) – was almost indescribable. With heart racing and using all the strength that I could muster, I lifted the rock and there he was…the BIGGEST craw-dad EVER! Now came the most exhilarating and terrifying part – reaching into that cold running water, while seeing him poised with pinchers and tail up ready to strike, and placing little fingers on either side of his body fast enough to get a hold of him without him getting a hold of me first! The feeling of conquest was awesome, as was the envious admiration of the other kids!

The other activity I grew to love was fishing. Not just any fishing, but CATFISHING! It was appealing on several levels – First it didn’t require crickets or worms which was a TOTAL relief to me. I found the whole preparation of live bate on a hook to consistently be somewhat nauseating. To catch catfish on the other hand required only “smelly bait”…the smellier the better.  I actually viewed it as a magnificent experiment to lay out the chicken livers or squid in the sun and get it to that “just right” state of aromatic odor…all while figuring out how to keep the ants away. Once completed, all that was left was to find a good fishing spot, load bate on the hook, toss it out, put a bell on the end of the pole and wait! No need to jiggle the line, repeatedly reeling it in, getting the lure tangled or any of the many other issues that could arise in fishing for other types of fish. Nope, you could just kick back and relax until the bell rang, or better yet – prepare multiple lines to put in the water! Another plus was that you didn’t have to wonder if a fish was on the line. Catfish are fighters and when they hit that line, they run with it! Hearing that bell and seeing your rod heading into the water – Ahhhhhh…There is nothing quite like THAT excitement! Reeling in a catfish primarily centers on not moving that line to quickly, using a net to get it in and being really careful when removing the hook. They have very sharp barbels that when stuck…is a painful memory guaranteed to linger! The sense of accomplishment when reeling in those BIG ones was, (like the craw dads), tremendous – as were the envious looks of those around me!

Upon starting my journey in recovery at about 1 year sober, I began working in the treatment center that I had gone through. For the first 3-4 years I worked in the office and began training in addiction counseling. At around 5 years of recovery I became a primary counselor and at 8 years  began working with people who were not only dealing with addiction, but were also dealing with various forms of mental health issues (some severe), as well as other behavioral and/or developmental issues.  In the early days of working in this area, I had felt within myself a great deal of uncertainty, coupled with a sense of anticipation as to what experiences would lie ahead. Little did I know that the “experience” was going to be upon me in short order and came in the form of a man with whom I would never forget:

He had come to treatment recently released from prison where he had spent, (by his account), almost 10 years. He was a black man, who stood about 5’3. He was bald and only had 2 front teeth on the top – separated by about a 3 tooth gap and he had a round belly. He was in his late 40’s, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was functionally illiterate and had been drinking, (by his report), over 35 years. As we sat in my office for our first session he had his fingers interlocked with his hands resting on his belly ~ spinning his thumbs around and around each other. He would make no eye contact initially. I introduced myself and then asked if he would like to share anything – without looking up – he said, “I hate white people!” To which I made note. He then said, “And I hate women!” To which I made a note. Then, looking at me and the necklace I was wearing (a cross), he said, “And I hate Christians!” To which I made a note. I made him aware that I had documented his feelings and that I could assure him we would not talk about white people, women or Christianity – BUT that I was the only counselor that would be working with him and asked which he hated the thought of more…”More prison or working with me” To which he said, “I will work with you.”

As a young counselor working with this new group of clients, I quickly came to terms with my own limitations and with the reality that I knew very little as to the personal issues and obstacles of the people I was working with – especially this man, whose name by the way, was John…street name “Catfish”. His residency would be summarized as: He began defiant to pretty much every suggestion or direction I presented him with; Was initially angry most of the time; Eventually began to come around a bit; But ultimately ended treatment having not fully utilized the solutions found in the 12-step program and acting out on old behaviors which resulted in his eventual relapse. Although I realized that “I” could not have made those choices for him – I had been hoping so much to see the metaphorical “bell on that rod ring” and watch him take off into a new life.

Several months went by and as I sat outside I heard a voice behind me, (the unmistakable voice of Catfish), as he said, “Miss Rebecca – please let me come back. I don’t want no more stinky feet in my face.” (John had been living and sleeping in a homeless shelter). He said he would “do anything” to be able to come back…and so he did. In amazement, over the course of the next several months, I watched a miracle happen right before my eyes as he had made a decision within himself to do “whatever it took” to get clean and sober. One day as I came outside, walking towards me I saw John with a giant smile on his face showing his infamous 2 teeth that got him his street name ~ as he announced “Guess what Miss Rebecca? I don’t hate white people no more! My sponsor is white! I don’t hate Christians no more either ‘cause I got saved! Oh, and Miss Rebecca,(giving a wink), I LIKE women!” He and I both laughed in that parking lot until we had tears.

Catfish went on to become a leader in our program’s community. He lead by example to his own peers; did volunteer work, helped others and stayed sober. One day I was notified that he had been taken to the hospital & was in the ICU. Upon my arrival, I found that John was unconscious and as I stood at his bedside, (understanding now the nature of his condition & that he would not survive) – I could not help but to cry. Yes, my tears were because I was going to miss John very much. But the tears were also because I was overcome at once by the awe at what I had been allowed to experience ~ for it was through Catfish that I saw from a front row seat, the limitlessness of God’s ability to restore wholeness and joy to a man. To take one who appeared on the outside to have impossible odds of ever changing, much less getting truly better…and using him to be a living breathing example of the miracle of recovery and a testament of the unlimited mercy and grace of a loving God. I said goodbye to him that day and he passed shortly after – sober.

About 17 years have passed from that day until now and one of the single greatest honors of my life was having been privileged to have known John “Catfish” H. You see, until then I had thought I was in his life to help him start his journey with the ring of that bell….but found that ultimately God used Catfish to start mine.

© 2011-2014 Rebecca Balko