›› Giving Back

by John Smethers

Who in the world would want to work with a bunch of manipulative, hedonistic, mendacious, and lubricious reprobates? They're self-centered, egotistical, and usually dilatory. How could working with these misfits possibly bring anyone any satisfaction? I'll answer that, but first allow me to introduce myself the way I do at meetings, followed by a short biography: "Hello. I'm a wino, junky, and a bunch of other shit, and my name is John."

That intro usually brings a few laughs, but it's a true statement. I went to a party when I was 12 years old and didn't get back until I was 45. My lack of academic initiative in junior high school was exacerbated by the ethos of the 1950s. Rock and Roll and James Dean was spurning out a breed of rebels that turned into the hippies and druggies of the sixties. So it was with me. At twelve years old, when I was in junior high school, I started drinking on weekends. Unlike most youngsters of later generations, I didn't start experimenting with drugs until the summer of my high school graduation in '62. Certainly I would have if it had been offered to me.

Over a period of more than 30 years, there was scarcely a time when I wasn't doing time, paying fines or restitution, doing community service, serving probation or parole, pending court, or suffering the loss of my driver license. I considered those repercussions 'dues' that I had to pay to continue to live the way I wanted to. The reason I got high was to have fun, so having fun was my goal in life and I avoided responsibility like it was a germ.

I have been arrested over 40 times for various misdemeanor and felony offenses, served five county jail sentences, many probations, and a three-year state prison sentence. While in prison, I went through a residential substance abuse education program, the California Department of Correction's experimental attempt at rehabilitation. It was called Project Change. Fortunately, it was there that I recovered from a seemingly hopeless case of mind and body.

I was a happy kid, a happy-go-lucky teenager, and later a somewhat happy drug addict. So why did I quit? Because my life was going nowhere, I was in prison, my family was concerned about me, and I knew my mind and body wouldn't take the abuse much longer, so after so many years of drug and alcohol addiction, I quit. It was a process, however, rather than simply a decision.

Would I change anything if I had it to do over again? Not much. Why not? Because I wouldn't be who I am today if my life had been lived differently. In my opinion, happiness is part of a temperament that is innate. Of course, life circumstances can alter that, but I believe that the basic temperament is static. If trauma doesn't strike, and we have had a stable and loving foundation in early childhood, most of us are capable of handling most of life's encumbrances. That's my opinion, anyway. However, I don't believe I could have remained very happy if I had not stopped using drugs and alcohol. Trauma--physical, mental, and/or spiritual-- would have inevitably struck. It always does. That's not to say that I didn't put my family through a lot, which is something I'd change if I could.

Fortunately, my two grand kids will never have to see me the way my daughter did. They'll never have to watch the police take me out of the house in handcuffs, like my daughter did. They'll never have to control their behavior according to what drug I was taking, like my daughter did. And they'll never have to endure being embarrassed in public, like my daughter did. The most important thing I can share with you today, is that it hasn't been necessary for me to take a drink or put a needle in my arm since 7 May 1990 (my last relapse date), and for that I am eternally grateful.

Here my story takes an unconventional turn.

Yes, I attended three or four AA meetings a day for about five years, and the following five years I attended at least three to five a week. What I didn't do, was work the program. I read the big book, once, as I did with all AA literature. I didn't work the steps and still haven't; I didn't have a higher power and still don't; I didn't use a sponsor nor was I a sponsor. I didn't even share in meetings. So after my three relapses, how have I managed to stay sober for 16 years? Before answering that, I should describe what I did do.

I applied for the Pell Grant while I was still in prison, so when I got out on 3 December 1989, all I had to do was apply, and enroll in classes at the local community college. With a couple breaks between college degrees, I went to school from February 1990 to February 2004, culminating with a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Along the way I earned a BA in psychology, and an MHS in community psychology.

In 2000, when I started a job at the marine base library and going to school full time for my doctorate, I stopped going to so many meetings. Since I didn't participate in a traditional 12- step recovery program, my only conscious reason for attending meetings was socialization. I was now getting my needs met socially by fellow students.

In March of 2006, I applied for a job with Desert Vista Recovery Center--Barstow's first drug rehab. After my second interview, I was hired as a recovery advocate, and soon afterwards I registered with CCBADC as an RRW.

Backtracking a bit here--during my education, I was often asked if I planned on working as a drug and alcohol counselor. I always replied, "No, I've been around drug addicts all my life, I don't want to be around them any more." Contradictory as that sounds being an AA junky for as long as I was--attending for socialization purposes--that was still my paradoxical answer. However, as time passed, my self-centeredness began to subside and I started feeling pangs of guilt for not giving back what was so freely given to me.

Back to 2006. Here's my chance to give back, I thought. I was baffled, however. Why did I want to work with addicts so badly after avoiding it for so long? Panic even set in when I thought I wasn't going to be hired. Of course, I was relieved when I was eventually called to join the team at Vista Guidance Center's first attempt at residential treatment, starting on 1 April 2006.

Being a part of Barstow's first rehab has been stimulating, but more than that, I enjoy it so much because I am engaged with the clients and am an important part of their recovery. Watching them develop from detox to their 90-day exit date, really makes me want to stay and watch this development unfold over and over again. Their eyes start to sparkle, their sense of humor comes back, their general countenance exudes a serenity that wasn't there before.

Of course, trying to decide which of these 90 day wonders are authentically in recovery and which are just playing the part, is virtually impossible to determine for sure. Drug and alcohol addicts are some of the best con artists in the world. Those working in the field of addictions who say they can't be fooled, are really fooling themselves. There's just too many invisible variables.

Either way--authentic or not, it's like watching an alchemical transformation taking place before your eyes. Consequently, I have found that I do want to be around them again, as opposed to my former attitude. It's different now, and I have 14 years of doing research and writing papers on issues of addiction and recovery, culminating in a doctoral dissertation entitled Scumbag Sewer Rats: Criminalized Male Drug Addicts and the Trickster Archetype.

So why is a man with all this education content on remaining at a job that pays ten dollars an hour? Partly because my home is paid for and so are my vehicles, but mainly because I love what I do. I could rent my house out, and go out of town to work at a career that would bring in considerably larger pay checks, but I don't want to. Is this a lack of ambition? Perhaps; however, I am 62 years old now. How far up a corporate ladder could I climb? I would much rather spend my time giving back to a population that I was a part of so long. I love going to work and meeting incoming clients, attending to the wants and needs of the existing ones, and beholding the moral and spiritual development of the senior clients. This makes going to work every day a lesson, not only in humility, but also in humanity. While keeping a healthy distance from my job site on my days and holidays off, and taking a dinner break at a restaurant, I am making a conscious effort to avoid burnout. It's working.

I hope I feel the same way five years from now.


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