In those early days – clean but vulnerable, no longer strung out but at loose ends, fearing idleness would lead to relapse – Jason Smith had to, occasionally, escape from the singlewide trailer in Foresthill he called home. His dad’s home, actually, since Smith was fresh from rehab for a two-decade-long opioid addiction and had nowhere else to go. No job, little money, even less direction. Options limited, he felt a constriction far tighter than the court-mandated monitor hugging his ankle.
What he did have was a 1999 Buick LeSabre, painted gold but really a lemon, with a blown head gasket and a leaky radiator. Damaged, like the man behind the wheel, but still running, still capable of motion.
So Smith drove, just drove. He headed west, over the Foresthill Bridge, which, in the throes of addiction, he once contemplated throwing himself over. But it was January 2013 now, and Smith was in a much better place. This just-completed rehab stay, 30 days clean, was going to take. He would will it so. This time, he would stay off the pharmacopeia of prescription painkillers that led to jail sentences, hospital stays, torture in a Tijuana prison, job losses (including as a history teacher at Del Oro High School), familial alienation, the dissolution of too many relationships with women who deserved better, all leading to a botched suicide attempt in a bloody bathtub.
Smith had picked up this crazy, aimless driving habit during rehab in Modesto: He’d point the LeSabre toward the Sierra and go until the sun came up. It gave him time to think, or maybe not think so much about a life squandered. He would crank up the music, set on random. Whatever song came on, he’d find deep meaning in the lyrics. Sometimes it was a stretch but, occasionally, it was dead on, like when that Counting Crows song “Up All Night” played and Adam Duritz’s plaintive refrain, Ohhhh, It’s too late to get high now, hit him like a revelation.
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“I’m not a kid anymore,” he thought. “All my friends have families and jobs, lives. The days were long gone when they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just Jason; he wrecked another car again.’ I’m 33 and have nothing.”
The LeSabre, on this January morning, pulled into the Starbucks off Foresthill Road in Auburn, overlooking Interstate 80. Starbucks, a perfect place to kill time, to sip and mull. In the trunk was a clunky HP laptop whose battery wouldn’t hold a charge. But, no problem, he plugged in and settled down with a Venti iced coffee. Sure, he had Wi-Fi and thought about scanning social media, but was too embarrassed to reach out to friends. As for immersing himself in Internet distractions, well, “There’s really not much to look at when you don’t have a context to place it in.”
He sat there.
Then he opened a Word document.
He started writing.
And everything changed.
Three years later, three years clean, Jason Smith has, literally, written himself a new story by recounting tales from a harrowing descent into addiction that nearly killed him.
Those first raw, soul-searing essays he wrote and posted on Medium.com, a curated journalism site started by two Twitter founders, drew considerable attention – 80,000 “reads” the first week. The work was picked up on longform.org, an aggregation site for creative nonfiction. That exposure led to a deal with Brooklyn publisher Thought Catalog Books for a memoir, “The Bitter Taste of Dying,” released in July. A later essay about his time teaching high school history while high was optioned by producer Bob Levy (“Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl”); a half-hour TV “dramedy” is in development. Yet another essay, about Smith’s pedagogical and sexual education from two women in Italy during a college year abroad, has been optioned by a film company.
And, with no journalism background, he walked into the offices of the Auburn Journal and pitched a three-part series, called “Heroin in the Foothills,” that was published in the summer of 2014. He followed in the fall with a series examining the complicity of doctors in perpetuating the prescription pill abuse that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports kills 44 people nationwide a day by overdose.
It’s been a dizzying couple of years for Smith, now 36, who still seems a bit mystified by the literary path his life has taken. Here he is, “taking meetings” with Hollywood types, negotiating advances and percentages, having coffee with the likes of Jerry Stahl, the best-selling author and screenwriter whose own drug-addiction memoir, “Permanent Midnight,” was turned into a film.
The days were long gone when they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just Jason; he wrecked another car again.’ I’m 33 and have nothing.
Jason Smith, author, recovering addict
He’s got a new laptop, new car, new wife and new life. He even has regained partial custody of his 4 1/2 -year-old son, from an earlier relationship, in front of whom Smith overdosed at a Thanksgiving dinner four years ago. That ankle monitor that tracked his movements? It’s long since been unshackled, Smith’s jail time served, his financial restitution in various legal matters resolved. At long last, Smith seems to be exhibiting the potential he showed glimpses of in his undergraduate study at UC Davis and as a teacher both in the United States and in Europe and Asia. Only now, it’s without the scrim of prescription drugs clouding his judgment, undercutting whatever career path he tried to forge in brief moments of clarity.
Levy, speaking from Los Angeles, said he was first smitten with Smith “the character” in the high-school essay but, after meeting him, was charmed by his intelligence and “big-heartedness.” Levy calls Smith a “natural” as a storyteller and was drawn to the inherent irony of “a schoolteacher damaged in his own way but still able to see clearly enough to help his students.”
“It’s hard for a writer to be funny, sad, smart and observant all at the same time,” Levy added, “and Jason’s got a real mastery of all those things very early in his career.”
It’s a career still in its infancy. Smith’s agent, not to mention his editor at Thought Catalog, is clamoring for a follow-up book to “Bitter Taste,” but Smith is taking things slowly. He admits plunging into writing with the same single-minded fervor he exhibited toward scoring fentanyl and Percocet in his previous life, saying he pounded out 4,000 words a day – “binge-writing,” he called it – in composing the memoir. But Smith has learned, the hard way, to value perspective and practice moderation, to appreciate the important things: family, his health, helping others. Plus, dredging up wrenching moments of a past that mortifies and horrifies him can exact an emotional toll.
So he’s taking a break from writing to run a nonprofit homeless shelter, Right Hand Auburn, where a significant percentage of those he helps are dealing with addictions not so dissimilar from his own.
“I was getting tired of writing about (addiction) and this opportunity came around, out of nowhere,” he said. “Maybe that’s my subconscious reason for taking this job – to give back to the community I took from.”
He was back in a Starbucks – this one at Highway 49 and Bell Road, near the homeless shelter – recounting both his 16 years of addiction and the past three years as a writer, a parent and spouse and a productive member of society.
At 6-foot-2, and sporting a strapping physique that recalls his days as a tight end for Placer High School’s football team, Smith exudes intensity. His brown eyes rarely break contact with his listener, his rich baritone lending a warmth to even chilling descriptions of being beaten in a Tijuana jail after “getting popped” at the border with drugs. His hands remain steady while cupping the Venti coffee as he speaks of his remorse at the pain he put his parents and sister through.
His face, too, is curiously unlined, given all his hard living. He recounts stressful times like waking up from Xanax-induced blackouts bleeding and limping and without wallet or phone; or fleeing from the Russian mafia and a complicit prostitute in Prague so as to elude drug debts; or jumping bail and leaving the country after getting two DUIs in a single night in San Luis Obispo, where he spent one hazy semester in graduate school.
It’s hard for a writer to be funny, sad, smart and observant all at the same time, and Jason’s got a real mastery of all those things very early in his career.
Bob Levy, TV producer
What has drawn interest from producers and editors is Smith’s self-deprecation and utter lack of self-pity. He will say, when prompted, that doctors should not have been prescribing him fentanyl (said to be far more potent than heroin), but he should not have been drug-seeking long after the back injury he sustained shortly after high school graduation had healed.
That’s how his addiction blossomed, Smith said, with a shot of Demerol after back surgery, an infusion of warmth so appealing he never wanted the feeling to stop. He had not been a drug user to that point, and as a 14-year-old he had witnessed his uncle dying from a heroin overdose on his family’s couch in Auburn, with Smith trying to wipe away Uncle Mark’s acrid vomit to perform CPR, to no avail. (The book’s title, “The Bitter Taste of Dying,” alludes to that incident.)
With startling rapidity, the teenaged Smith became hooked on painkillers and muscle relaxers. They ran the gamut: Norco, Soma, fentanyl, Demerol, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Valium, methadone, Percocet, Xanax, liquid morphine ...
He apparently built up a tolerance that always required more drugs, the more powerful the better. When the fentanyl patches – primarily used to control pain in advanced cancer patients – no longer kept him from being “dopesick” (going into withdrawal), he would slap four of them on his stomach. When that no longer did the job, he’d put two patches inside his cheeks and chew them, to assure a faster response. That’s in addition to the Norco and Soma he was popping like Skittles.
Physicians have told Smith he must be exaggerating, that such a large amount of opioids would fell a horse. He swears he was telling the truth.
“I mean, I’ve talked to hard-core heroin addicts and, like, one (Fentanyl) patch would put them out,” he said. “I’d have two in each cheek and four on my stomach and go to class (at UC Davis) and pass. One time, they did a rapid detox in a hospital, pumping my stomach, and the nurse said there were 20 undigested pills in there,” he said. “Maybe it’s my metabolism.”
Part of Smith is hesitant to recount his drug use because it might come off as sensational, or even boastful. He said that’s the last thing he wants. This is a cautionary tale.
“Writing the book, I didn’t put myself in a positive light,” he said. “There’s nothing glamorous about (drug use).”
Smith counts himself fortunate that he emerged alive and pretty much unscathed. Halfway through writing the book, going to all those dark places in his past, Smith had almost convinced himself that he wouldn’t make it through, that the residual effects of 16 years high would kill him. His liver! Surely, he’d damaged his liver.
“I went to my doctor and said, ‘Test everything; I just want to know,’” he said. “I was already thinking, ‘Maybe I can get on a wait list (for a new liver).’ I mean, people kept telling me that much acetaminophen would kill your liver. The doctor tested and comes back and says, ‘Your liver’s fine.’ I said, ‘You sure it’s my liver?’”
He knew then he had a future. This month, Dec. 12, Smith celebrated his three-year anniversary of being clean.
That night, he got in the car, a new gray Ford Focus hatchback, and drove. This time, with a destination in mind.
“We went to Orangevale, Dovewood Court, you know, one of those blocklong Christmas lights things,” he said. “I took my wife and kids.”
Education: Placer High School, Sierra College, UC Davis
Personal: Wife, Megan; two children (Jaden, 4 1/2 , Isabella, 6)
Published work: Memoir: “The Bitter Taste of Dying.” Among his essays at Medium.com are “Confessions of a Drug Addicted High School Teacher” and “Sex of Wednesdays,” in development for a TV series and movie, respectively.
“The Bitter Taste of Dying,” by Jason Smith
$14.99; Thought Catalog Books; 200 pages