Halfway to Sanity

Ben Wallis survives the chemical abyss to establish a place where others can heal

Ben Wallis manned the wheel of the old Camero, a car in need of repair but still a loud, monstrous, muscular machine that can go at a great clip if need be. We rounded the corner onto Adams Street, and Wallis gave her some gas, offering a glimpse of what she can do. He wanted to show me how he saved this old beast from certain death in the junkyard, how he gave her a second chance.

Wallis kicked up the speed as we headed west on Adams. The car reeked of gasoline, auto-shop sweat and grease . . . 35 mph, 45--we passed solemn houses and skeleton trees. Then 65, 75--Christmas lights rushed by like suffused liquid. At 90 mph, the dark street ahead looked more like a tombstone, like the inevitable resting place after too much speed. The blood throbbed behind my eyes, and bumps arose under my scalp. I thought the old Camero would take a hellbound roll. But at that precise moment, Wallis brought her to a complete stop, with nary a skid.

Jesus, talk about physical metaphors.
The beastly Camero stalled right there, right in front of a humble 32-bed nonprofit recovery home called Changes at 2541 East Adams. Ben Wallis put the place together from scratch for erstwhile boozehounds, meth heads and dope freaks who are grateful and lucky to be alive and getting sober.

The method behind Changes is simple: One must have a desire to be clean and sober; one must work directly with a "sponsor" and attend a 12-step meeting once a day for the first 90 days; one must fork over $15 every 24 hours (which means having a job), which covers housing and three meals a day.

Ben Wallis is Phoenix-bred, with a Spanish father and an Irish mother and more than nine years of sobriety under his belt.

He's 27, appears physically self-aware and healthy, as if he does time in weight rooms and watches what he eats. He's trim and muscular, with big bones, short dark hair and tats--a kind of babe magnet (he once worked as a model).

His manner of speech is soothing, almost gentle, and for a guy who runs a 12-step-based recovery home (what others might call a halfway house), he illustrates his duties without solely relying on tired 12-step mantra. His approach is still hard-core 12-step, sure, but he has a hipper, more rock 'n' roll approach to recovery. Aerosmith, Megadeth and KUPD's Dave Pratt have heard of Changes and have made donations or talked up the place.

It is a recovery system that Wallis, his clients and his staff--an unsalaried bunch of misfits including a cook, a manager, two assistant directors and a mechanic--refer to as "Crazy and Sober." Still, private and county rehabs give Wallis and his crew the thumbs-up, often referring patients who are leaving residential treatment to Changes for transitional care.

Growing up, Wallis sang in the Phoenix Boys Choir, received straight A's for his attentive schoolwork, and was "a good kid." But, like all junkies, Wallis had a fucked-up childhood. His parents split up because his old man (who is sober now) was a blackout drunk.

Booze and the coke came next for Wallis and, barely into puberty, he took to them with a vengeance. He eventually lost his septum from snorting too much coke. So he started smoking it, so much that his tender lungs froze up, nearly killing him.

One day while hammered and spinning out on tequila, somebody poked Wallis' arm for the first time, releasing more than just sobering amounts of blow into his blood. "I'll call him a prick," Wallis says. "Any guy that is 35 years old and would hit up a 12- or 13-year-old with a needle is a prick to me."

Here, here.
By 16, Wallis had already done two stints in rehab, the first lasting two weeks, the second six months. But those stabs at sobriety were temporary, and at one point during his 18th year the 6-foot-2 Wallis weighed in at a paltry 98 pounds (down from nearly 200). The kid had been up for 32 days, shooting crystal meth, and he was lucky to be drawing a breath.

"I was runnin' and gunnin', and it was my last time out," Wallis says of that binge. "I had already tried to stay sober and I didn't think I could do it. I stole a bunch of stuff from my grandmother, my mom and my friends, so my mother had all this stuff on me. I came home, I was tweaked out and all fucked up, getting ready to die. And my mother told me, 'You have two choices. You can go to jail, or you can go back into treatment and try it again.'"

The meth head wasn't taking any crap from anybody, especially his mother.
"I said, 'No, take me to jail and I'll find some big black guy in there to fuck me up the ass and give me all the drugs that I want.'

"I just wanted to hurt her," Wallis says incredulously, almost on the verge of tears. "I just wanted her to feel the pain that I felt. I couldn't cry. I had no feeling. My heart was black."

Wallis passed out. He came to in a rubber room at Desert Vista Hospital, strapped down. Wallis had hit the proverbial bottom of the barrel with a resounding thud.

After surviving detox, Wallis woke up one day with a moment of clarity that led to a redemption of sorts. He noticed the sky was bluer, and he could see the clouds, the trees, again.

"I called my mom, and she reluctantly answered, and I just said, 'Thank you.' And I told her, 'I'm not gonna call you again for a while.' I get a little choked up, I guess, because I look back at the type of person I was back then. I was a worthless piece of shit."

The next few months saw Wallis remain sober, though not without a slip (he drank one beer) and a lot of denial.

"I drank once," he says. "But I continued my sobriety date. But it was a lie. Alcoholics and addicts are such good liars that we make ourselves forget about these things."

A stint of homelessness and a subsequent reawakening led to his current occupation. Hence, Changes.

Changes Recovery Home consists of a two-story house with a garage converted into a library/meeting room. The addicts (clients) sleep upstairs; five bedrooms each outfitted with Brady Bunch-style bunk beds, many built by Wallis himself, using donated lumber.

A smaller building off to the side houses the kitchen and dining area, pantry, and bedroom/office for Wallis. There's also a bedroom for Chuck Gudel, the jolly in-house cook and ex-wino who possesses a laugh like a toothless freight-hopper; Gudel came to Changes more than two years ago after 40 years on the sauce. A small guest house sits in the back, occupied by Changes' manager Randy Clark.

Wallis started Changes May 9, 1996, with nothing but $210, a sympathetic mortgage holder named Stephen Letson (he let the compound go for $279,000, with a small down payment), and the fervent desire to help others stay clean. Wallis had a dream. He also had the ability to work his ass off.

"He works as hard as he can," says Letson. "I am carrying the mortgage on Changes, and they have yet to be on time with a payment. I'm not getting any profit out of the place; I doubt that I ever will. But you know, I've seen guys go through that place, and he [Wallis] helps 'em get cleaned up, sober and working, and even if just for a little while, they get another shot to climb the mountain of life."

Changes acquired the necessary IRS status to operate as a tax-exempt organization, and generous donors--including West Side Food Bank and Motor Replacement--contribute supplies and food.

It's a constant financial battle to stay afloat. Changes' bare-bones overhead exceeds eight grand a month, hardly a pittance, and right now, as always, the organization is behind on a handful of bills. Wallis is perpetually manning the phone, trying to drum up donations from large corporations needing tax write-offs, keeping some utility from getting shut off.

"I had an inside connection at the Hilton chain, and I sent a letter to Barron Hilton," says Wallis, almost laughing. "I mean, the guy is worth $90 billion, and he sent us a two-night stay for two at a Hilton resort! All we wanted was a little help with the house."

But they are saving lives, and they do have fun.
Dominic, a handsome if road-weary 44-year-old mechanic from New York, says he has been a junkie for 30 years. He worked on dealers' cars in exchange for dope. At Changes, he has more than 100 days clean. And now he works on automobiles that are donated to Changes, repaired and then resold, with the profits funneled back into the program.

He has seen the insides of many Valley halfway houses, and had this to say: "From what I have seen, this is the only fuckin' one that works. People like each other here. We all get along. There are no power trips."

Randy, 36, who has a little more than two years sober, agrees.
"I was slammin' meth, I was a tweaker from hell," he says through a mouthful of dentures. "Before that I was doing coke, speed and LSD. And because of my using, I lost my wife, two kids and all of my teeth. And I spent time in the joint, the whole time I was getting high. The shit's easy to get in there.

"I eventually made amends with my kids and ex-wife, and that was beautiful. I flew 'em out here from Ohio after 11 years since I had seen 'em. . . . They forgave me for everything I did. They understand everything I had been through. It's unbelievable."

But not all have come through Changes with flying colors. The boys tell of Robert, who graduated nine months ago but died of alcohol poisoning.

"After two weeks of graduating here, Robert lost his job," says Wallis. "He started drinking and was too embarrassed to come back. He died. It was horrible."

Wallis and his assistant directors--Larry Ruehs and Danny Bingham--insist they are not in this for money, which makes sense because, obviously, there is no money. Changes' 29-item wish list includes everything from paying off the mortgage to acquiring new towels to opening a treatment center for kids. The struggle to help those in need is perpetual, and if all this makes Wallis sound as if he is bucking for sainthood, perhaps he is. Or at least an ex-junkie angel trying to stay afloat.

"Yeah, angels, maybe an angel with a broken wing," Wallis says, then asks: "But what are angels but things that go to battle for God?"

Before I left that night, Wallis read a heartbreaking poem by the very first graduate of Changes, and some of the lines sum up the horror and panic of losing everything through dope:

Having hit bottom and scared to death
I entered this house to quit shooting meth
I came to this house without having a clue
I leave here now with a different view
Looking back on my life and what I used to be
I thank God for Changes and how they changed me.

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