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Addictions counselor finds a 'family' with Reality staff and clients [Commentary]

Along life's long and twisting road, Sheri Bell found a straight course that led to bliss. It manifested itself during the 24 years she spent as an addictions counselor at the former Reality Inc. on Main Street. And while the facility is gone, has been gone for two years now, replaced two years ago by Hope House Treatment Center, the memories she compiled appear to be woven into her DNA.

It was a defining chapter, she offered, a job that she can't help but compare to every other job she's held or will hold.

"We were like a family," she said of the staff and clients, adding that stability was a hallmark. Whenever staff from the Prince George's County Health Department would come in to look things over, Bell recalled they were "amazed." Bell said most staff stayed at Reality between 10 and 28 years.

Bell, who grew up in Beltsville and holds a bachelor's degree in addictions counseling, yearns for the days she spent at Reality, which ran on Main Street for 39 years.

"We celebrated everybody's birthday ... we knew everybody's children. We went to each other's funerals," Bell said. "The love and passion we have for each other we gave to our clients. The staff meets every three months at Olive Garden just to stay connected."

Have you ever had a job that loved you back? Bell insisted this one did. After her first day at Reality, she went home, only to find herself wanting to go back to work.

As a friendly reminder that Laurel remains a small-town stronghold, Bell says she still runs into folks from the glory days. "I was at Giant yesterday," she said, "and I saw a former client. He jumped out of line and gave me a hug. I'll never expect anything like it again."

The fun flowed, Bell emphasized, with everything from Friday night movies and popcorn to bowling. And come Christmas, every resident would get a stocking. All these expressions of love in an environment where the work couldn't have been more serious.

She sprinkled in some statistics about what she and her colleagues faced day-to-day. The majority of addicts are genetically "predisposed" to diseases of the brain, she said. As many as 85 percent of the population also are burdened with co-occurring disorders ranging from adult attention deficit disorder to bipolar disease.

Surprisingly, she noted that 30 percent of one's chemical essence "comes from your aunts and uncles. It tends to skip." That answers the question she gets often from clients who can't figure out why they battle booze while their parents were clean and sober.

Then, sadly, there are stories from addicts who claimed their first injection of heroine came from their own father.

Ruth Walls couldn't agree more with her former co-worker and close friend. "That was the time of my life," enthused the registered nurse, emphasizing that the deep love for her job drove her to hang around for just shy of 30 years. It was a position for which she never earned more than $22.40 an hour, even with a master's degree in nursing.

"Imagine being with people who are so real all the time," Walls said. "We would have all worked there for free.

"There's nothing better than a person in recovery. They have no veneer, no bark. Those people are my heroes.

"This sounds very selfish, but they actually healed me."

Walls and Bell gave a shout-out to Nettie Tennebruso, Reality's warm, iconic housemother. "She loved people before they loved themselves," Walls declared, "and she still loves them."

During her 24 years there, Bell said Reality had a mysterious and magnetic pull. For 10 years, Bell commuted from her home in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., and on those mornings when the roads were covered with snow, she was told to just stay home. "But I would show up," she said.

Bell's voice faded, and she showed a flash of melancholy as she admitted she may never fully recover from Reality's demise. In her own life, she's been through a lot of it, including her ex-husband's own addiction. So she wanted to send a love letter to those who believed in Reality's mission and donated to it generously: They include the mayor and staff at City Hall, St. Philip's Episcopal Church and longtime landmarks like Rainbow Florist and the Laurel Meat Market.

Regaining that light in her eyes, she left me with one thought that lingers, "I'd like to say this community raised Reality and Reality raised me."

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