Recently a friend of mine asked me a really good question. He asked, “What do you think is the reason some people stay sober and others seem to fall off and go back to using?” First let me say that I don’t think there is a direct answer to why this is, because no two cases of addiction are alike. On May 17, 2015 I celebrated 8 years of sobriety. No drinking. No pills. No cigarettes (not that cigarettes would be a relapse, just something I don’t partake in) and I believe strongly that my sobriety is steadily increasing because of my daily routine and the activities I involve myself in, and how they play into my perspective on being sober. With addiction being so complex, I cannot honestly tell you why some people stay sober and others don’t, but I can tell you what I’ve been doing for the last 8 years that has helped me.
Let's rewind back to 2007 when I first got off the bus at Wasco State Prison to begin my two-year journey. When I first arrived at Wasco, I had no clue what direction my life was going to take. In fact, at that time I was ready to adopt the prison lifestyle and mentality, because I was housed in cell-living during my time in reception. Cell-living was where they kept inmates that were serving time for violent crimes. Those inmates were generally heavily involved in prison politics, and it would have been extremely difficult for me to overcome the brain-washing that occurs in that area of prison. In my mind, I was done for… Fortunately for myself, the 90 days that I spent at Wasco were 23 hours of lockdown, each day, which meant there was very little inmate interaction, and the drug availability in the cell block was extremely scarce due to isolation. This scarcity halted the option for me to use drugs in prison. Yes, believe it or not, there are drugs in prison… A LOT of drugs in prison.
It was in those first 90 days at Wasco that I felt a strong calling to return to my talent as a BMX racer. This leads me to the first thing I believe has helped keep me sober.
Purpose. After Wasco I went to Tehachapi State Prison for 9 months and there was hardly ever drugs on the yard there thankfully that gave me more time to be sober. However after Tehachapi I was transferred to Avenal State Prison, which is open dormitory living. I was about 10 months into my term and I remember showing up on the yard at Avenal and immediately noticing that 75% of the inmates were high on drugs. I could see it in their faces. As I walked into the dorm I was met by some of the strongest smelling weed California had to offer, and I was in disbelief because the cops were sitting right in the middle of all of it. When I got to my bunk to setup my bed, I had noticed across the way that four Southern-Mexican gang members were shooting up heroin at their bunk. I became quite nervous for my future because at that point I knew I would be tested more than I have ever been tested in my life. I made it 13 months without putting a needle in my arm at Avenal State Prison, and there wasn’t a day that went by that I did not see someone putting a needle in their arm or neck. I was able to do this because I felt a strong purpose with getting back on my bicycle so I could help others through my story. This purpose felt so much greater than what the drugs had offered my life. I believe as an addict walking into sobriety there must be focus on creating a purpose for sobriety. It’s like having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It drives humans, and we thrive on purpose. But even with purpose, if you are not surrounded around the right people you will fall into temptation, which leads me to my second important key to staying sober.
Friends. I kept a small company of friends while in prison and continue to practice this in the free world to this day. Sure, I noticed people shooting up heroin each and every day in prison but I also see drug addicts, homeless people and other types of activity I was involved in 9 years ago while I travel from point A to point B outside of prison. They aren’t stops on my journey unless I’m handing out clothes, buying a person a meal, or trying to help someone who may be in need. The company I keep are like-minded individuals that have no interest in using drugs or drinking, and this makes it very easy to keep my mind on the things that build me up and move me ahead in life - as opposed to offering out verbal temptations that could lead to future relapse. I have strenuously avoided opening doors to past friends, or people who are still using drugs or drinking. My sobriety and purpose are so much more important than rekindling flames of my childhood so called “fun.” I also believe that this creates an environment where I can give back, leading me to the third key of my sobriety.
Service Work. In prison I didn’t have a ton of service work I was involved in. After all, there isn’t much serving to do in there, unless you’re serving time. I think that being in a sheltered and isolated area allowed me to see what is important in life, and I focused on myself and preparing for my release back into society. However, when I was released I went straight to serving others. In the beginning it was feeding the poor weekly on G Street & speaking to small groups of kids about my life experiences. As I matured in recovery, my speaking spread across the nation and I started the Freewheel Project (www.FreewheelProject.org). I spent time helping others to try and find the help they needed to gain sobriety. Service work is so important to me because it constantly reminds me of how horrifying my addiction was. It reminds me how low it took me and how far I’ve come, and how badly I desire to avoid going back. But the best part is helping others, and it seems to make your inner soul feel good. It’s rewarding and a feeling I cannot put into words.
Gratitude. Lastly, but definitely not least is Gratitude. This is the most important of all the things I believe I’ve put into practice over the past 8 years. Being grateful. Often I think that the addict falls into a habit of forgetting their past addiction and they begin to move through life forgetting about all that they have today, even if it’s very little. The miracle of gratitude hit me when I was in Avenal. I was washing one of my Dickies branded white T-shirts that I had to purchase through a catalog. I remember as I was washing this white shirt what it represented in prison. It was nearly the equivalent of owning a Mercedes Benz in the free world. And it was then that it hit me - if I can become grateful for a white T-shirt in prison, how much more grateful should I be for freedom, for small things and big things alike? I think being grateful keeps us sane in a time when it’s perfectly normal to go insane, but as addicts we make dumb decisions when we act on insanity. It’s not a scientific fact, but I truly believe if an addict puts these simple principles into practice their ability to achieve long term sobriety will go up exponentially. Of course it always comes down to one's willingness to put in the required work. I am grateful for everything I have today. It is in that gratitude that I will continue to overcome.