My name is R. J. and I am a grateful recovering crystal meth addict. People always ask me what RJ stands for. I used to tell them “Roll a Joint”. Soon it became “Rampant Junkie”. Today it is “Recovery Journey”. But it certainly was not always that way. Cue flashback nightmare sequence music…
January 27, 2015. After verbally detonating on my 79-year old mother when she opened a piece of my mail, she simply says, “That’s it. I’m calling the police.”
I thought she was kidding. She was not. In hindsight it was the bravest thing I had ever witnessed my mom doing.
A few minutes later two officers arrive and try to detain me after I flip out. That’s what happens when you’re strung out on marijuana, Percocet, Xanax, Valium, Molly, GHB, and Crystal Methamphetamine. One grabs my arm, I swat his arm away, scratching him across the face. I get knocked down. As the cuffs go on, I shriek, turn my head, and bite one of them on the arm…hard.
And I, this middle-aged gay man from the upper middle-class Philadelphia suburbs, get dragged across my mother’s lawn – complete with all visible neighbors looking on disdainfully – to be locked in the psych ward at Camden County Correctional Facility.
The slam of that jail door signified the end…and a beginning. After all, who plans a sobriety date? As that magnificent key locked me into cell #40, a window opened. And as the slam’s echo shuddered through the cell, I whimpered and turned to face that door’s double-reinforced plexiglass.
Step One. I spent that first week in a turtle suit (a green, quilted Velcro gown reserved only for the threatening and certifiable) with only toilet paper and lace-less sneakers. I slept in a rusty bunk bed on an inch-thick mattress that the prior user had urinated on. The ammonia fumes were so overpowering my eyes teared every time I laid upon it…well, in addition to the constant crying as I realized my 21-year run was over. That first week I wet the bed four times, compounding the already soiled problem. I not only was alone in that cell for 23 and a half hours a day, but I also spent my 39th birthday in there…detoxing…hopeless.
One day the psych doctor did an intake with me. I could barely answer his questions. I had fried my brain so badly that all I could do was open my mouth and cry. Thankfully, he understood.
“Would you like something to read?” he asks.
I nod eagerly, my words continuing to escape me despite the fact that I had privately tutored English for over 20 years.
He handed me a beginner’s guide to meditation. I snatched it up, forfeiting my half hour out of my cell to devour it. I remember opening immediately to the St. Francis of Assisi Prayer–otherwise known as the Eleventh Step Prayer. I read it. I said it. I repeated it. I memorized it. I took it to heart. And with this budding spiritual ritual, my brain started to return.
Soon thereafter on a gray, winter day of about 20 degrees, with no heat or hot water in the ward, I climbed atop the bunk bed to meditate. Getting into the now familiar position, I slowly closed my eyes and started silently chanting that same prayer. The singularity of focus distracted me from my shivering.
“It is in dying to self that we are granted eternal life…” my mind said, ending one round of the prayer.
Just then, amid the external swirling cold, one single beam of sunlight penetrated the gloom and hit the slit window of the cell. In my ironically peaceful state, I could feel the cell and my body flood with warmth.
I felt something greater than myself was present.
I slowly opened my eyes and spoke my first full sentence of my recovery.
“God…is that you?”
Just then, a bird alighted on the window sill outside. It stared at me with cocked head and searching eyes. Time stopped.
He hopped away, then turned his little head back at me to stare again before departing as if to say, “Don’t worry, buddy. You’ll be ok. See you on the other side.” He flew away, and the sunbeam slowly slipped from sight.
And I became a believer in a power greater than myself. Step Two.
I was released from jail on my own recognizance on the condition that I go straight to rehab. My brother, also my lawyer, picked me up and took me directly there. When he dropped me off, I remember looking at him and saying, “I’m not scared.”
The truth is I wasn’t. I was terrified. And so began 28 of the best days of my life…because I stayed willing (and had I left I’d have returned to jail). I kept hearing from my new acquaintances to keep my ears open because someone may say something that would change my life. Like most of the words I have heard in this recovery journey, they were true.
The third night there, a complete stranger came to speak to the room, giving away what was so freely given to him. He started his story, explaining how his father was an abusive alcoholic. My ears tuned right in. He went on to say how at 9 years old, when things went smoothly in his house because his dad didn’t drink or hit anyone, he would take an inventory of all of the actions he had done that day.
And he would repeat them day in and day out, regardless of the ensuing events, trying to keep the peace as much as he could at such a tender, young age. He couldn’t. And neither could I. Sitting and listening to him, I flashed back to my 9-year-old self-witnessing my father in a drunken stupor threatening to kill my mother for something trifling. I retreated to my room, cursing him out while writing down vows to never be so mean, so disrespectful, so violent, so very wrong.
And I didn’t do that. No, no. I was far, far worse.
When the police carried me out of my mom’s house, the last words I said to her were, “I’ll kill you.” The look of shock and horror on her face will forever remain with me.
From that speaker’s sharing, I started to understand my addictive behavior fueled by self-inflicted pain. Whether I was born with this condition doesn’t particularly matter to me. The truth is I have it. And I always will. But with the clear messages of experience, strength and hope I have been able to grow, letting the past dissipate in favor of hope. And at 106 days clean I left rehab with a second family tucked safely in my heart.
I had a grand plan to go to a room in a house from a bunk-mate I had met in jail. My biological family didn’t like that. They said, “You will do this recovery our way or we will never speak to you again.” With a newly employed respectful, serene mindset, I replied, “I have nowhere else to go. If it doesn’t work out, I have to learn to fail and pick myself back up to move on.” And they let me.
Right from rehab I arrived with two trash bags of clothes and literally a dime to my name. The daughter of my bunk-mate opened the door. Her face fell.
“I am so sorry. We already rented the room.”
And for the first time in my life, something amazing happened thanks to the foundation I had worked so hard to build. I stayed calm. I spent the night there despite learning there were drugs in the house and witnessing another tenant beat his girlfriend. I repeated both the Serenity Prayer and my new, old friend the St. Francis prayer. That night, Step Three happened. I was out in the big, bad world with nowhere to go. The next morning, I called my beloved counselor from rehab and relayed my situation. She immediately starts calling places. She gives me numbers to call. She yells across the hall to another counselor.
“RJ’s in trouble. Know of any housing?”
That counselor makes a phone call to a friend who runs a recovery house in Northeast Philadelphia. A bed had opened ten minutes prior to my call. One hour later I arrived to begin a 7 month stay that afforded me more foundation, more fellowship, and some of the best memories of my life to date.
I got a home group. In fact, I got two of them. I did more than my 90 in 90. I had to – I am on a life and death errand…and I always will be. And I am ok with that. But one crucial piece was missing: a sponsor.
I had asked someone who spoke at rehab but couldn’t get a hold of him upon exiting. Fine. That life and death errand impelled me to find another, so I did. I sat in Step Four with that sponsor for a month as he blew off my step work three times in a row. Fine. Life and death errand. One night at a meeting I heard a young lady speak for her two-year anniversary. I was mesmerized by the simplicity of her positive message, the easy-breezy way she humorously relayed her past, and the level of importance she ascribed to the program itself. This was clearly my sponsor. I marched right up to her and humbly asked her to work with her. While I’ve learned that it is unconventional for a woman to work with a man, I didn’t care. First of all, I’m gay. Secondly, she has what I wanted spiritually. Third, my unclouded instinct moved my feet right to her.
Through Steps Four and Five, this woman achieved a feat I never thought anyone could perform. Sitting down to my resentment list, she noticed my Dad was #1 on the list. Follow:
“So RJ, you’re an alcoholic addict?”
“And your dad was an alcoholic.”
“And RJ, have you forgiven yourself?”
“Then why can’t you forgive him? He suffered from the same thing you did.”
In that moment, after four questions, 24 years of pain floated from my chest. I cried for about an hour in a coffee shop, emotions swirling with less and less regret in favor of more and more freedom. Thank God for sponsorship. Thank God for her.
One note: I am clearly a crystal meth addict. Alcohol was not my first (or second or third) drug of choice. However, the description of the alcoholic in the AA Big Book is (or today, closer to WAS) me: spiritual malady, physical allergy, mental obsession…today, I proudly straddle my recovery program between AA and CMA. Why? Two reasons: 1) A.B.C. (Alcohol Becomes Crystal) and 2) fellowship and recovery are fellowship and recovery wherever I go…as long as I stay willing.
Steps Six and Seven for me entailed a very private, intimate experience with God directly following my Fifth Step that I could never describe accurately in words. Suffice to say, I kept my feet moving with open mind and willing feet.
Steps Eight and Nine are an ongoing process for me. I caused a lot of wreckage from some painful past experiences. At 25 years old I lost a promising career in television game shows after a nearly fatal poisoning onset by a concert fog machine. I was blacklisted after bringing a Worker’s Comp suit against a major network. I also contracted HIV from having reckless sex. Finally, an ex-boyfriend committed suicide, and when the police found him swinging from a chin-up bar, he had my love letters at his feet. These happened within 5 months of one another. Other unfortunate events occurred as they always will. Some were precipitated by my using and some were not; however, in my miserable state I became very adept at screaming, punching, destroying, and alienating anyone and anything. But this program has taught me to show up, feel it, and move through it – clean and even sometimes serene. Like many of my fellows, my past has now become my best asset. I am convinced that staying in Step Nine for as long as it takes will satisfy the question my sponsor repeatedly puts to me –
“How free do you want to be, RJ?”
Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve are my favorites. They keep me present and resentment-free. When I admit when I am wrong, I become accountable. By becoming accountable, I shine a light on it. When I shine a light on it, it dies. Maintaining my relationship with my Higher Power–a God of an understanding I got to create myself–affords me an ultimate fail-safe when issues arise. And any chance to help someone (addict or not) is well worth it, as I strive to recreate and provide examples like those who were so very kind to me. From these three steps, my life has evolved into an unflagging sense of purpose. And that purpose has its promises of rewards.
The date was December 14, 2015.
I walked into court to face my past actions–a possible 5-year prison sentence for 5 different charges–harassment on my mother, disturbing the peace, paraphernalia possession, resisting arrest, and the biggie–aggravated assault on a police officer.
With my lawyer/older brother representing, we faced the judge who had reviewed two certificates from graduating rehab, reference letter from my counselor there, and two reference letters from managers of the four recovery houses I had lived in for 7 months. They saw the bullet points of service, footwork, step work, speaking, sponsor relationship, sponsees, and my plan for submitting this very story.
And in one brief, powerful moment, I heard words I never dreamed of hearing – “Your case is fully dismissed.”
I walked out of that court a free man. The kicker? December 14th was the date 21 years ago when I first picked up a drug. Amazing. And so I went off to enjoy a moment even sweeter than the dismissal.
En route back to work to continue my newly created life, I stopped at my mother’s home for the greatest and most solemn of hugs right in her living room where almost a year ago she saved her baby’s life by calling the police.
The Big Book of AA states in its Promises that “we will be amazed before we are halfway through…”
Certainly true. But for me, I never want to be “halfway through” – for if there is a halfway point, there may be an end coming. Never wanting to go back to the life I left behind, I refresh my commitment to this program daily. They say the journey of 1000 miles begins with a step. Thank God I found 12 of them.
And I cannot do it alone. Nor do I want to. For we are in this recovery journey together. Whether live and one-on-one with my sponsor or sponsees, en masse in a meeting, or simply through this page to you – the reader – I feel a connection that is more powerful and more sustaining than any mind-altering substance I have ever put into my body.
My name is RJ, and I am a grateful recovering crystal meth addict. And I have almost a year clean. I hope…I hope this story finds its way to your heart somehow.