- Addict to Academic: Recovery From 30 Years of Drug Addiction John E. Smethers, Ph.D:
From grammar school through high school, teachers periodically made comments on my grade reports such as,
"John is a capable student but he will not apply himself." They were right. I did just enough to get to
the next grade. My dad wouldn't let me quit. Because I was 17 my during entire senior year, I needed parental consent. Though
I wasn't enthusiastic academically, my father still managed to instill a value for education that would surface in my life
almost 30 years later.
My lack of academic initiative 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 1960s.
So it was with me. In 1956 when I was eleven years old, upon entering junior high school, I started drinking on weekends.
Unlike youngsters of later generations, I didn't start experimenting with drugs until the summer of my high school graduation
in 1962. I certainly would have if it had been offered to me. In a nutshell, I went to a party when I was eleven and didn't
get back until I was 45. 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.
were awesome. Being their only child, I pretty much got whatever I wanted and did whatever I wanted to do .. they were not
strict disciplinarians, though I did spend my share of the time on restriction. Nor was I abused in any way; therefore, I
don't blame them for my drug and alcohol use. I got high to have fun. Having fun was my goal in life and I avoided responsibility
like it was a germ.
By the end of my 15th summer in 1960, I was an alcoholic. Three times within a six-
month period, I landed in jail. Each time I had been drinking. My first night in jail was for Curfew. Probably the most significant
thing about my first arrest was meeting a new friend who remains one of my best friends today. Jim and I had one hell of a
good time in that jail cell, climbing around on the bars like monkeys, tearing up the mattresses for cotton ball fights, and
yelling obscenities at the cops. From that point on, going to jail wasn't much of a threat. A week later another friend and
I were busted for petty theft--stealing milk off of someone's porch because our mouths were dry from drinking all night. Eight
months later, I got my first DUI on my Cushman Eagle motor scooter. My driver license was revoked before I got it. I was Jailed
again the night after graduation in 1962 for trespassing and again later that year for stealing hubcaps. There were five more
charges in 1963 for minor offenses, two of which got me 60 days in the county jail.
at Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center near San Bernardino, two of my friends joined me there. We played practical jokes on each
other, met new drug connections, and planned what we were going to do when we got out. It was not an unpleasant experience.
Not only was being jailed for the night not much of a threat, serving time wasn't either.
I was released, one of my friends asked, "Well, how did you like it?" I smiled and said, "I liked
it." Compared to what I was expecting, I did like it. To me, it was like being in a summer boy's camp.
a happy kid, a happy-go-lucky teenager, and later a relatively happy drug addict. So why did I quit? Because my life was going
nowhere, my family was concerned about me, and I knew my mind and body wouldn't take the abuse much longer, so after more
than 30 years of drug and alcohol addiction, I quit. It was a process, however, rather than a decision.
I change anything if I had it to do over again?
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. Trauma .. physical, mental, or spiritual would
have inevitably struck.
Before I elaborate any more on my shadow side, I should comment on the shining star of my life .. my daughter
Lynda. We lost her mother when she was four years old, so before and after and between wives, I raised her. She gives me a
mothers day card every year. She and I agree that my drug and alcohol addiction during her childhood has not damaged her.
She inevitably became an addict herself, however, but she found recovery after only five years of drug and alcohol abuse.
She got clean and sober before I did, and then she hoped and prayed that I would also find recovery. Today, Lynda and I are
best friends, and she has brought two more shining stars into my life.
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.
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. Fortunately, I was released from parole early for
collegiate scholarship and compulsive attendance in 12-step meetings. Since then I have become responsible and accountable
for my actions, which I wasn't previously capable of.
have an automatic denial system, especially when it comes to their addiction or when they've been accused of something. Most
of the more than two million inmates in our country's prisons are innocent!
I went to prison, my querulous old friend Jack called me on the phone to explain-- or whine (most drug addicts are chronic
whiners) about being arrested for a burglary he didn't commit. He carried on for five minutes about the injustice of it all.
The whole time he was ranting on, I thought about the thousands of burglaries he had gotten away with.
Finally, I asked: "Jack, why are you so outraged about this?"
I didn't do it! God damn them! The bastards are trying to frame me."
I calmly replied, "What about all those burglaries you got away with over the last 25 years, Jack?"
"What? Don't get carried away Johnny. The fact is, I didn't do it. This charge doesn't have
anything to do with what I did before." He dismissed
my question as ridiculous.
I was in the county jail, I overheard the following conversation: "Ya know Frenchy, I wouldn't be here for robbin’
that liquor store if the damn clutch wasn't bad in that old Chevy of mine. Just as I was taking off, the motor died. I got
it started, then it died again. That happened three times. By the time I made it to the corner there were red lights everywhere."
"I hear ya
bro, if my old lady's mother wouldn't have turned me in, I wouldn't be here either," replied Straight Razor.
I could identify with those middle-aged bikers, because I have all too often placed the blame for my behavior
outside of me. It would have been a waste of time to say, "Frenchy, you wouldn't be here for robbin' a liquor store,
if you hadn't been robbin' a liquor store." It's strange, but that obvious statement is absurd to them. So it was
having a beer on my night off in the bar where I was a bartender, one of our regular customers asked if I could get him a
quarter gram of speed. I said no. Later he asked again. Again I said no. However, when he asked me again around one o'clock
in the morning, I knew that there was some in the bar, so I got the drugs for him. He was an under cover policeman. I fought
the sales charge in a jury trial and lost. I took it all the way through the court of appeals, and lost that too. I was entrapped.
It was not my fault. They were picking on me. The truth is, if I had not been selling drugs, I would not have gone to prison
for selling drugs. However, like Jack and those bikers, I was incapable of being accountable for my actions.
was 45 years old before I made it to state prison. I had been knocking on the door for twenty years, however. As the judge
looked at my rap sheet he said, "I can't figure out why you haven't been sent to prison before." Then he
looked at me and said, "I can't believe that I'm sitting here trying to talk myself out of sending you to prison
My rap sheet didn't have violent crime on
it. Though there are a couple burglary charges and a robbery charge, they were investigation charges and didn't result in
conviction; in fact, they didn't get past the arraignment or preliminary hearing stage. Most of my offenses were drug and/or
alcohol related. I believe that's why judges were hesitant to send me to prison. But by the time this judge viewed my rap
sheet, there were 40 charges that took up several pages. As it turned out, I am glad he sent me to prison.
months after I arrived on the prison yard, there was an experimental program starting called Project Change. It was a nine-week
education and therapy program designed for pre-release inmates. On the flyer was a request for interview. I knew that I would
never terminate parole successfully unless I refrained from the use of drugs and alcohol, so I filled out the request form
and interviewed for a place in the program. I only wanted to remain abstinent for as long as my parole lasted, then I planned
on returning to life as I knew it before I was incarcerated .. a fun-loving, dope fiend party animal.
While tending bar prior to going to prison, two of my friends used to come in and drink soda.
up with this, Jerry?" I asked.
"I'm on parole. If I don't give my PO any dirty tests or I don't have any brushes with the
law, I'll get off parole early." Jerry and Lisa both got off parole 13 months
after their releases, so I was determined to do the same.
I was accepted into Project Change six months prior to my release date. Since the program was just starting,
they needed to fill the dorm that was allocated for the program. Later, only inmates in their last 60 days were eligible.
A month later I got a clerical position with Project Change. Never having used a computer, I found an inmate in the education
department who tutored me until I was familiar with the word processing program on CDC's Apple computers. Once I was proficient,
I typed questionnaires, work sheets, and other classroom material, much of it gleaned from Hazeldon recovery books. We held
classes five days a week in the TV room, and part of the dorm was also converted for classroom activities.
reason I volunteered, was for the fringe benefits. Project Change students would go to chow first, and they would be first
in line for commissary and linen as well as mail call. I am surprised that more inmates didn't volunteer, if for no other
reason than the fringe benefits.
I was receiving from Lynda, my 21-year old daughter, even prior to my enrollment in Project Change, were motivational and
rife with AA clichés and jargon. She seemed genuinely happy in sobriety. I was not much of a father to my daughter
and even less of a son to my mother. I had caused them more anguish than I could ever hope to make up for. However, once I
started digesting all the literature I was typing and reading and started taking a sincere interest in the Project Change
program, I also started feeling the guilt associated with the wreckage of my past. I found myself seriously considering a
life without drugs and alcohol, rather than just a temporary abstinence until I got off parole. I started to really want it,
not for me, but for my family. After Lynda started reading my letters, now rife with AA clichés and jargon, her return
letters were so full of hope, encouragement, and happiness, that I became that much more determined to stay clean. She and
my mom was so proud of me that I absolutely could not let them down after everything I had put them through.
A mother's love knows no bounds in many cases. When my mom died, my aunt said, "Johnny, your mother
idolized you. To her, the sun rose and set on you. There was nothing or nobody more important to her than you."
My mom continued enabling me after her death. The inheritance she left provided me with enough money to finance two graduate
degrees and enough for me to live comfortably since then. She went to her grave providing for the little boy she idolized.
Today, I idolize her for giving me such unconditional love. She never lost faith in me. She loved me as much when I was drinking
and using as she did when I was a kid or after I got clean and sober.
Change we were taught that we had a disease that was chronic, progressive, and fatal: chronic because it never went away,
progressive because it kept getting worse, and fatal because it killed people on a regular basis. We also learned about family
dynamics such as co- dependency, and we learned about the addictive personality, barriers to intimacy, anger management, and
a special focus on relapse prevention. We did role playing in preparation for saying no. We covered a lot of the material
that I encountered later as an intern at McAlister Institute in San Diego where I was doing field experience for my Master's
degree. Project Change worked for me. Within four months I believed that I had recovered from a seemingly hopeless case of
mind and body. I was certain that I would not drink or use anymore. However, the fact is, even among those who are certain
they will not drink or use anymore, most of them will anyway. So it was with me.
Kathy, one of the teachers in the program, recognized that I had academic ability and suggested that I go
to school when I got out. I said something like, "Yeah, yeah, sounds like a good idea," but I wasn't serious and
she could see that. She approached me on the matter several times, practically nagging. Finally, I started giving it some
serious consideration. I knew that I was going to be living with my mom again when I was released. She was on her last legs,
and I wanted to take care of her for as long as she had left. I figured going to school would keep me busy with homework when
I was at home. Plus, I could be of help to my mom and at the same time be doing something for myself. When Kathy heard me
talking this way, she started believing that I might be serious.
In Project Change I learned that if lasting change is going to take place, one has to monitor and discipline
their thought processes; therefore, if I was going to remain abstinent when I was released, I was going to have to change
my thinking. As it was, almost every waking moment was spent thinking about either the bar where I was a bartender, how much
fun scavenging at the dump was, the people I drank and used with, and all the women I slept with. I came to realize that being
in a recovery oriented environment and having this stinking thinking going on in my head at the same time, was like having
someone pushing me away and saying "come here" at the same time. I had to ask myself, how can intrinsic recovery
take place with such a conflict?
great leaders throughout history have taught the principle that our life is the result of our thoughts. Buddha said, "A
man's life is the direct result of his thoughts." Solomon said, "As a man thinks in his heart so is he."
Happiness comes from happy thoughts, that's another reason why I was relatively happy when I was drinking and using (or maybe
I choose to only remember the good times). Success comes from successful thoughts, failure from failing thoughts, etc. So
it is, our life is controlled by our thinking.
Our minds have two parts:
a conscious part and an unconscious part. The ‘depth' component of Depth Psychology is the unconscious part. The conscious
part is what we think and reason with, but the unconscious part controls bodily functions such as breathing, blood circulation,
digestion, etc. .. it never sleeps and is working all the time. It's like a computer. It takes in data and processes it. It
has a memory of everything that has ever happened to us, from the day we were born to the present moment. It is non-judgmental.
It doesn't know what is good or what is bad. It doesn't care whether the thoughts come from us or from others. If we don't
take the effort to program it positively, our unconscious will take directions from other people or from the environment or
from our own self talk.
I use to wonder why I didn't always get what I wanted or why I couldn't do certain things. Perhaps I was sending
negative messages to my unconscious, or maybe it picked up negative inputs from those around me. My dad always said that I
was too easily influenced by my friends. I was.
the tenets of the Project Change program was: If our lives are not what we want, we have the power to change it. And we change
it by changing our thoughts, which are programmed to our unconscious.
invented a methodology to change my thinking: I simply decided that I would shoo my old thoughts away, and replace them with
different thoughts. I did this quite literally. With my hand in a swishing motion by my ear, I shooed the recurring thoughts
away and started thinking other thoughts. Walking around the big yard shooing thoughts away in that manner, I could tell by
the looks I was getting that I was being viewed through jaundiced eyes. A nut case, I'm sure, they must have thought. I didn't
care. I was on the road to a new life without drugs and alcohol.
it took me a long time to remember to shoo the recurring thoughts away, so I only did it two or three times a day. As time
passed, however, I started doing it more often, and then even more often, until I was doing it a lot .. maybe 20 or 30 or
even 40 times a day. That's when I was getting so many of the looks from other inmates. After awhile I discovered that I wasn't
doing it as often. It started going back the other way. As time went on I did it less and less because I wasn't thinking the
old thoughts as often anymore. I had replaced them with new thoughts. And then . . . guess what? After about three or four
months I had exorcized all those old thoughts by replacing them with thoughts of what I really wanted to be doing and where
I really wanted to be when I got out. I visualized myself in NA meetings, and I visualized myself in college classrooms (still
thinking about women, of course). I also visualized spending time at home taking care of my mom, which of course, served as
further impetus to remain abstinent. How could I be a comfort to my mother at the end of her life if I was still drinking
and using. Eventually, staying clean had become the very most important thing in my life, more important than having fun,
even more important than my daughter and mother. Without total abstinence, what good would I be to them? They may have been
my incentive for getting clean, but staying clean finally became my top priority.
months before my release date, Kathy volunteered to help me with the tedious financial aide paperwork so I could get the federal
Pell Grant when I was released. I received the financial aide paperwork and she helped me with it like she promised. I was
45 years old and was going to be a college student again. I tried twice in the early ‘60s, both of which were failures,
so I came to accept that I wasn't college material. And maybe I wasn't . . . then.
My daughter had gotten clean and sober while I was doing time in the county jail.. about a year before I went
to prison. She still has the letters I wrote to her during that time, plus the ones I wrote from prison. After reading over
them, I am amazed at all the fatherly advice I was giving her. Some of it was actually sound, but most of it was from a refractory
and hedonistic loser with an inflated male ego. One thing was consistent in those letters, however; I never failed to tell
her how proud I was of her and how much I loved her. If nothing else she grew up knowing she was loved. And that, I believe,
is the reason she is the epitome of motherhood to my two grandchildren today.
she wrote to me was recovery oriented, and she mentioned several of my dope-fiend friends who were showing up in AA meetings.
It was comforting to know that I was going to have friends at meetings when I got out, but since I considered myself more
of a drug addict than an alcoholic, (I never thought of alcohol as a drug), I planned on attending NA meetings. I eventually
resolved to attend both.
I own the home I grew up in and I have earned a few university degrees culminating with a Ph.D. Having a doctorate, owning
my home, and having my car, truck, and camper paid for are not the things that make me happy. The closeness I share with my
daughter and grand children make me happy. Thinking about the time I spent caring for my mom before she died makes me happy.
But could I have sustained the happiness I had during childhood, adolescence, and through most of my drug and alcohol use
had I not stopped.
I will answer that by quoting a paragraph written above:
"In my opinion, happiness is part
of a temperament that is innate. Of course, life's 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."
It is highly unlikely that I could have handled the mental, physical, and emotional encumbrances resulting
from continued drug and alcohol use. I learned early in recovery that becoming responsible and accountable for our actions
is a cornerstone of a life well lived.
My doctoral dissertation served as a foundation for my recently published book, Scumbag Sewer Rats: An Archetypal
Understanding of Criminalized Drug Addicts. Hopefully this book, as well as my unpublished memoir, Scumbag to Ph.D: 30 Years
of Drug Addiction. will be an inspiration to others and their families who don't believe that there is Redemption for a Drug