Halfway to Sanity

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.'"

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith