I’m a five-time loser; I went to the penitentiary five times before I made a change. For me, drug use started around age 15 in northern California. I was smoking marijuana with my friends, and that progressed to drinking on a regular basis. My friends were older than me, and everything they did involved getting drunk first. So I was drinking heavily, and in 11th or 12th grade I started experimenting with crystal meth and powder cocaine. I didn’t care for the meth, but the cocaine—I fell in love.
I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth. I went to junior college, but by then my drug use had gone from recreation to addiction. Pretty soon I couldn’t find powder cocaine around the neighborhood any more; all that was available was crack, so I gravitated towards that. I was stuck on it for about 13 years. In 1995 I got sent to the penitentiary, and I was in and out of those: San Quentin, Corcoran, lots of them.
I remember telling myself one night in San Quentin, “You know Jamie, if you don’t get your shit together by age 30, just throw in the towel and be a dope fiend.” My plan was to get out, get an ounce of coke, and lock myself in a room until it was gone. I mean, I was tired. I’d lost my friends, my family, all my possessions. Luckily when I turned 30 I was incarcerated and that’s when I got into the Phoenix House treatment program. I’m not religious, but I’m a spiritual dude—and I know the “old boy upstairs” heard me and helped me down the right road. I was leading a horrible existence, and treatment was the best thing that ever happened to me.
In the Phoenix House program, I finally got to address my issues. I had amazing counselors – Linda Stangle, Mr. Lomax, Chris Evans – who showed me so much love and inspired me to do better. It almost felt like I wasn’t in prison any more! I had the opportunity to be part of a positive structure, and that really opened my eyes. By the time I got out of prison I had built such a firm foundation under me because of Phoenix House. I knew what I wanted to do: help people the way Phoenix House had helped me.
So I became a counselor. I worked at a few different agencies serving people in need, homeless women and children, at-risk youth. Today, I run a nonprofit called Asian Neighborhood Design that helps kids who might be headed down the wrong road – or who have already hit bottom – work their way back up. We teach them trades and building skills, with a focus on green technology and solar installation.
The best day of my life was May 9, 2005, when my daughter was born. I was already good in my recovery, had a great support system, but she really solidified it. I knew I’d never do anything to hurt that kid. My ex eventually started using drugs again and split, but thank god she didn’t take our daughter with her. Instead, I swooped my little girl up and she’s been with me ever since; my current girlfriend helps me raise her. Today she’s seven years old, and she’s my best friend.
It’s crazy to be on this side of the fence now, having lived on both sides, watching my ex and her addiction and thinking, “Is that what I used to be like? Is that what I used to do to the people I loved?!” Never again, man. Never again.
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photo credit: Ryan Hammer