Maui Sunset - by Jennifer Smutek

15 Years Drug & Alcohol Free

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, right now, I was homeless. I had nothing to my name but a book bag with a couple changes of clothes and a notebook for my poems and thoughts. I also had, for the first time since I started shooting heroin 5 years prior, a genuine desire to stay clean.

15 years ago right now I was asleep on the floor of some dudes house. I’d been kicked out of an East Baltimore recovery house the day prior for using drugs, and I already had a new recovery house lined up to move into the next day. At that point I was pretty familiar with the routine.

It was November, and I had been doing the “recovery house shuffle” since getting out of the slammer in January. The “recovery house shuffle” is this dance where I’d move into a recovery house, try to stay clean, I’d stay clean for a month or two, or maybe a couple of weeks, I’d slip up, I’d get high, I’d get kicked out of the recovery house and I’d move into another recovery house. Rinse and repeat.

The recovery house shuffle.

I had done a year in the slammer for petty theft (I used to support my habit by shoplifting) and I remember the day the judge sentenced me. He said, “Mr. Smutek, I am going to sentence you to a year and a day in the Division of Corrections. I’m not doing this to punish you, I’m doing this to help you.” Important distinction there, one that was lost on me at the time.

I’m not going to cover all of my experiences as they would fill a book (which I may write some day) but I will say that prior to serving that year in jail things were very, very bad for me. After many years of being just another fun loving party kid, I started shooting heroin in 1994 and my life promptly fell apart. Prior to serving that year in prison I was the epitome of a low end junky. The year in prison, I believe, was what broke the almost animalistic cycle of pursuing that next fix. I believe that without that time away from the streets I would be dead today.

As an aside, I laugh when I hear people say drug addicts are lazy, or weak, or whatever. Being a heroin addict in Baltimore city, or any city for that matter, is anything but an easy life. It’s fucking hard. It’s a dark, torturous, painful, lonely, sad life from which there seems to be no escape.

So, anyway… Judge Darryl G. Fletcher of Baltimore County District Court. God bless his soul. Damn straight he helped me. He was instrumental in saving my life. I got out of the can in late January of ’99 and decided that I wanted to give this staying clean thing a genuine shot. I moved into a recovery house, got involved in a twelve step fellowship and started to make some friends that were also trying to stay clean.

I had quite a few false starts over the next 10 months as I’d put together some clean time, slip up, and start over (recovery house shuffle) but – I never got to the point where I’d picked up a physical heroin habit again. I never quite went fully off of the deep end. I was definitely courting disaster and, I believe, I was dangerously close to going back off of that deep end.

In the end I have no doubt that it was my involvement in that twelve step fellowship and the friends that I’d made who made the difference for me. I’d gotten a glimpse of the life that I’d yearned so badly for. I was seeing that it was possible to not only stay clean, but it was also possible to live a happy and productive life without drugs and alcohol. The twelve step fellowship was proving this to me. I was getting small tastes of a “normal” life and deep down inside I did not want to lose it. I started to value my own life.

So, this brings me back to the morning of November 19, 1999 – or, first, the evening of November 18, 1999. As I’ve mentioned, I’d just been kicked out of another recovery house and was shacked up at the Fells Point home of some dude that would go and get drugs for me. I figured I’d do a shot, move into the new recovery house the next day and give it another try. The dude went out to get the drugs around 8pm and came back around 11pm. I did my shot of H, laid down on the dudes floor and fell asleep. Just another day of Jimmy fucking his life up.

Now, I’m not a religious guy but I am a spiritual guy. I don’t tend to believe in the concept of an interventionist god but I also have no idea what happened while I was sleeping that night. The first thing that went through my head when I woke that morning, on November 19, 1999, was “I don’t want to do this any more”.

I don’t want to do this anymore.

That was my first waking thought that morning, crystal clear; “I don’t want to do this any more.” A firm resolution and an absolute declaration. For the first time I really meant it and, most importantly, I was going to stay clean for me. There was no more fear of the future, or of my addiction, or wondering if I would slip up. From that very moment it was all lifted, I was done and I was finally free.

I look back it today and I still think to myself that it was nothing short of a miracle. To have this all consuming obsession that is addiction suddenly removed… I think it’s a difficult thing for a person to wrap their heads around if they haven’t experienced it. To this day it remains the most significant and the single most amazing moment of my life.

I can honestly say that, 15 years later, I have not had a single craving for drugs or alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly times that I reminisce fondly over a cold rolling rock, or even a bong hit – but those are passing thoughts, not cravings. Today, I know that drugs and Jimmy don’t mix.

I’ve not had a craving since. That’s just the way that it happened for me. After 5 years of struggling through what was a pretty brutal life, it just…. clicked.

From that point on I became extremely involved in the twelve step fellowship. I started speaking at meetings, I helped to start new meetings, and I took on various positions in the fellowship. I got a sponsor, worked steps, and did what was suggested in order to build a strong foundation of recovery.

At around 8 months clean I became manager of the recovery house. At 10 months clean I met the love of my life, Jennifer, and some time around 17–20 months clean I moved out of the recovery house and Jennifer and I got a place together.

Eventually, around 3 years clean, I went back to college and at 4 years clean Jennifer and I got married. At 7 years clean we bought a house together. When I had 10 years clean Jennifer gave birth to our son, a beautiful, wonderful baby boy, Simon, the love and joy of both of our lives. Right around 13 years clean we lost a home together, thanks housing crash, I was laid off from my job, and I started my own business.

And here I sit, today, 15 years clean, writing this rambling story that was supposed to be just a short blurb, on my fancy Apple laptop that’s connected to my big fancy monitor, using my fancy bluetooth keyboard, sipping my fancy coffee that I ground with my fancy grinder and brewed in my fancy french press. I’m emphasizing stuff but stuff is not the point, not in the material sense. The point is contrast. 15 years ago today I was sleeping on someone’s floor. Today I’m self employed, I work from home, and I design and build websites for people.

I remember running into a good friend of mine from my using days. I’ll call him JC, he was my “running partner” as we used to say. We got high together and did dirt together. I was around 3 years clean, I had just gotten off of work, and I was on my way to register to vote. JC was on his way to do something tied to the relentless pursuit of that next heroin fix. We chatted for a few minutes and I remember trying to convince him how beautiful life was without drugs, and that if I could do it then so could he. I remember telling him about my couch. I said, “JC, man, after I finish registering to vote I am going to go home and sit on my couch, at my house. I’m renting the house, but the couch – it’s mine. Do you understand? I bought it, I actually bought a couch, and I can go home and sit on it.”

He did get it because I could see the pain in his eyes. JC and I spent a lot of time finding other people’s couches to sleep on. I hoped it would get through to him because I loved this guy, he was like a brother. One cold winter morning a few years later JC was found floating in Baltimore’s inner harbor. He didn’t make it, and he’s one of many friends that I’ve lost along the way, god rest all of them. I am happy to say that a lot of the people that I got clean with did make it, and are living happy and productive lives today.

I’ve always been pretty open about sharing this stuff. I used to share my clean date on Facebook, and before that on various internet forums that I took part in, and I’ve always had people reach out to me in private – struggling addicts as well as friends and family of addicts. I’m not looking for any sort of congratulations, validation, or pats on the back. I feel that the opportunity to inspire and possibly help another person by far outweighs any judgement that another person may pass.

I’ve been clean for 15 years today, and I’m starting my 16th year. I’ve had ups and downs, things aren’t always easy, and there are still areas of my life that I struggle with – but my life today is well beyond the dreams that I had 15 years ago when I was just starting this journey.

15 years ago, right about now, I had just woken up on the floor of some dudes house. I thought, “I don’t want to do this any more” and I made the conscious decision to change my life. Once I made that decision, and acted upon it, things started getting better immediately.

Today I’m working hard to build my business, which will allow for a transplantable, independent income source, and which in turn is part of a larger goal, that my wife and I are pursuing together, to move our family from Baltimore to Maui, Hawaii, in the Spring of 2016.

That’s quite a difference when I look back to 15 years ago, when I was homeless and had nothing to my name but a desire to stay clean.

So, if you’ve read this, thank you. My apologies for the long winded, stream of consciousness, grammatically sloppy, rambling waterfall of words. I didn’t plan this out or do any sort of outline. I sat down and started writing. I just hope that it inspires someone who may be in pain, or struggling.

There is always hope. If I can get clean and stay clean, anyone can.

Maui Sunset by Jennifer Smutek

Photo Credits – Maui Sunsets, by Jennifer Smutek