Being on certain substances is kind of like committing suicide on an installment plan.
My wife had left me, and my best friend had passed away. Although I still had everything I needed — a house, a car, two dogs — I didn’t have much left in terms of a love of life. I had always been kind of a maintenance pothead, but one day I was watching an episode of Breaking Bad and started thinking about methamphetamine.
I decided: that’s what I need to get rid of myself.
Once I was addicted, I sold my belongings to purchase meth. I had this Siddhartha-style plan, where I was going to rid myself of everything in my life and figure out what was valuable. It was cathartic. Meth turned out to be a potent anesthetic against emotions, a chemical solution to get my head to shut up.
Think about going to a bar and using alcohol as a social lubricant. Now go a step up, and then ten floors higher. I used substances to spackle areas I could have worked on.
The first time I got arrested, they didn’t know what to do with me. I was an “upstanding citizen” — middle-class, prior service Marine. They kept letting me go. The judge didn’t say to me, “You have a meth problem. We’re sending you to rehab.” It was just, “Don’t do it again.”
The last time, in December 2011, the judge finally sent me to jail on a $200,000 bond.
Inside, I started detoxing. I’d always been a husky guy — I’m 215 pounds now, about 5’9” — but at that point, after nearly two years of meth use, I was 145 pounds. There was a lot of hallucination, and plenty of paranoia. I requested to be put in segregation in a cell by myself, where I slept for a week. Maybe I’d wake up and have a meal every once in awhile.
My memory is like a movie: snapshots and then a fade to black.
When I woke up and realized the true nature of my circumstances, I went to see a nurse and told her I was depressed. She gave me Celexa, an antidepressant. What that did was make me apathetic, a feeling that things just happened.
I spoke to my dad on the phone, and he told me that while I’d been inside, someone had broken into my home and taken my dogs. I’d rescued those animals, and in the end they were all I had. That wasn’t part of the plan, and yet it sort of was: it was because of associations I’d made from using drugs — someone knew where I lived and decided to take what I had.
I hung up the phone, went back to my cell, and thought, I’m gonna end it.
Usually this is where the superego steps in and says, “Wait! Stop! That’s not a good idea!” But apparently because of the antidepressant and attendant apathy, my superego wasn’t operating well.
I had to be careful that the guards weren’t watching me, since they came around every 15 minutes. I don’t know if I waited until the exact minute the guard walked away or I didn’t care, but I wrapped a sheet around the top bunk and sat with my legs crossed on the bottom bunk, and then slipped off. Sounds grew muted. My field of vision started narrowing, like tunnel vision.
I remember seeing a flashlight in the window. Someone opened the door and called for help. Someone else cut me down with a knife. They unwrapped the sheet and put me on a gurney. I remember someone, a guard, being excited and saying, “I’ve never done that before!”
I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a suicide smock rolling around on the floor in a concrete room, an observation cell where one wall was all windows. Everyone was respectful. There was dignity, as much as could be. This wasn’t some backwater town with Barney Fife telling me to shut up.
After two days, I had a large contusion around my neck from the sheet, but they moved me to a part of the jail for people with serious mental health issues. A padded cell with no toilet, just a drain in the floor. I spent a couple of hours there, then went to a cell for inmates who are a danger to themselves. I was still wearing a suicide smock — no metal or buttons, almost a dress. They gave me a suicide blanket, too, which was big and thick, like one you use for moving. I also got a rack for a mattress, but no mattress, and a toilet and sink unit. That’s it. They’d come around and give us meals on foam trays, with no silverware, and a foam cup that’s been cut so that the bottom is like a triangle. That’s how you scoop your food.
I remember when I was allowed to go back to a regular cell, a corrections officer asked me, “Are we doing sheets today?” What he meant was: “Can we trust you? Are you going to try again?”
I said, “We’re doing sheets.”
I went back to my segregation room and laid down on a mattress for the first time in over a week. That was a pitiful, demoralizing moment. I spent another three weeks in there counting the days until I could meet with a judge, since I was still pre-trial. I wasn’t allowed much to read, but they let me have a copy of “The Big Book,” which is the main text for Alcoholics Anonymous. I had a lot of time and no solutions, and I found the problems described in the book weren’t so different from my own. I did the first three steps1 on my knees in my cell.
After the jail did an investigation, I got a piece of paper with findings that said it was a suicide attempt, and spent another seven days in segregation.
In early February 2012, a judge sent me to rehab. I might have gone to prison — that’s what prosecutors initially proposed — but there was a new kind of intensive probation program2 for drug users on offer. The only trick was I had to plead guilty. They gave me a surveillance officer who would just randomly show up where I lived to check things out and give me a breathalyzer. I couldn’t leave town without permission, and had to call a number every day to see if I had to do a random urinalysis. That happened at least once week, sometimes every day. This went on for three years until I was let off three months early, in November 2014.
Not long after, I enrolled in the Recovery Support Specialist Institute at the University of Arizona.
When I was doing drugs, there had always been this third-person observer in me, just watching the entropy of my life. I had been a project manager for technology companies, and my whole professional career was about painstakingly putting things together. But the process of entropy — of having everything fall apart — is much faster.
The third person observer in me said, “If you live through this, find a way to use all this in a positive way. Make it worth it.”
It redefined my mission in life, to begin helping people with what I went through. There’s a movement in behavioral health of having people who’ve been through recovery serve as counselors. I can make a connection very quickly. I know the look in their eye. I say to them, “I know exactly where you’re at.”
I’m grateful the judge let me into that drug program. If he hadn’t, I’d probably be a number in the Department of Corrections, or I wouldn’t be alive.
This account is based on interviews with a man who was incarcerated at the Pima County Jail in Tucson, Ariz. Now, he works as a recovery specialist and trainer for professionals who work with populations affected by addiction and other mental health issues.