Adrian Silva, 52, is a sober addict who spent most of his adulthood getting high and cycling through jails in Southern California. We recently met in a Santa Ana Starbucks to talk about his drug use—which continued even while he was in jail—his criminal past, and the redemption he found at the Orange County Community Court’s drug program. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Adrian Silva: My drug of choice was meth, and that took me down a path called Misery Lane. The consequence to me using is that I gave away everything. Some addicts say, “I lost this and I lost that.” We don’t lose nothing; we give it away in our addiction. I gave away a union job. I was making $30 an hour. I had my own house. I had a new truck. I had credit cards. I had money. My girlfriend lived with me.
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams: Sounds like a pretty good life.
Silva: I thought it was, until I started making bad choices and hanging around with bad people. One thing led to another. They’d come over Friday night, have a couple of beers. Then it was Friday and Saturday night. Then it was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. The rest was downhill from there. I was lost for probably 15 years. I’ve probably been to jail 20 times—like a revolving door, in and out. I would get stopped by the police. They knew who I was. I was actively using. I didn’t have a job. I’m a mechanic, so I would look for day work, but I was unemployable. I would find part-time jobs working on cars, doing house maintenance, cleanups, little weekly jobs. Maybe a construction job for a week, a painting job, home repair. I was a functioning addict. After work, I went straight to the connection. My body craved it.
Lantigua-Williams: How did you pay for it?
Silva: My addict friends and I would go to stores and do what’s called “boosting.” Two or three of us would get together and go to Target, and one of us would be the lookout for the getaway driver. We’d go inside and grab three or four packs of clothes: Levi’s pants, stuff that we knew we could sell.
Lantigua-Williams: Stores have security guards and alarms. Didn’t the police show up?
Silva: While actively using, I don’t care about you, I don’t care about myself, and I sure as hell don’t care about no police. The police don’t like me. I don’t like them. They’d get the dogs. I’ve been bit by the police dog. That dog bites and he does not let go. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been tased. I’ve had batons thrown at me. I’ve had flashlights thrown at me. All of that, and I still kept using. I was using against my will because once you’re in that lifestyle, it totally consumes you. We don’t even think about the consequences.
Lantigua-Williams: How did you end up in drug court?
Silva: The last time, I did three years. I got out and four days later I was busted again. I did another six months, and when I was getting ready to get released I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning. I felt sick. I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn’t breathe. I was getting claustrophobic, like I was inside a box. I was having an anxiety attack. I needed to go outside, and opened the window to breathe fresh air. I ran to the bathroom, threw cold water on my face. I looked in the mirror. It’s not glass, it’s not a real mirror. It’s a little chrome plate, but I could see myself. The person that I saw made me sick, because I finally realized I have a problem. I can’t stay out of Orange County Jail. The first thing I wanted to do when I got out was use. After doing six months again for the same thing, I wanted to go use.
Lantigua-Williams: Did you have access to any drugs while in jail?
Silva: In jail, there’s everything you need: heroin, alcohol, pills, meth, weed. There’s all of that.
Lantigua-Williams: Were you still using when you were inside?
Silva: Somewhat. You have to hang around with the right crowd. Once you’re with your own race, eventually something’s going to come your way. In jail, drugs is like going to Starbucks and getting something to drink. It’s there, you just got to hook up with the right people.
Lantigua-Williams: How did you pay for it?
Silva: You do favors. “Hey, make a couple of phone calls for us. Call your family, get some money, put it on your books. This is my number. All right, call up my girlfriend.” That’s the way it works.
Lantigua-Williams: Are there any programs in jail for addicts?
Silva: They have some programs in there, some AA and NA meetings. But there is such a big population that when you’re living on the third floor, on certain days of the week, they would have two meetings, and they would basically get on the intercom and the deputy would say, “The first 10 people to the gate can go to the meeting.” You got 95 guys in a jail cell. Forty of us want to go, but they’re only going to take 10. Whoever gets to the gate first is going.
Lantigua-Williams: Tell me about your experience at the community court.
Silva: When I walked in, it was a different atmosphere. It was more personal. They were introducing the other clients. They were clapping. They were giving out gift certificates. I go, “I’m in the wrong place.” They’re not going to give me a gift certificate, and they’re not going to clap or nothing like that. It’s totally different. I was like, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” That’s when I was told that I was in community court and that they were going to give me a program, a drug-diversion program. I didn’t know what it was. I had been to many other programs. They didn’t work, wasn’t enough structure. I always relapsed.
When I went before the judge, I knew I was broken. I had hit rock bottom. My family wouldn’t come and visit me for two years. I never got any mail from nobody. My so-called friends weren’t around. People that I worked for, or owed me money, they never showed up. I was there on my own. I was totally, mentally, and spiritually broken. Hopeless. I knew that I had to do something because I couldn’t continue to live my life this way. I was knocking on the door of death. In the Narcotics Anonymous book there’s a quote that says, “Jails, institutions, or death.” I’ve been to jails, I’ve been to institutions, so my last stop was death. I was going to O.D. or get killed by the police with my behavior.
I told the judge: “I’m an addict. I need help.” She goes, “We’re going to help you.” They took me back to jail. I came back two weeks later, and that’s when I was accepted into the program because I had no violent offenses. I’m just a drug addict, you know? I made a lot of bad choices, but I’m human, too. Once I got accepted into drug court, I knew something was going to change. I knew deep inside. The first thing I had to do was be honest with myself because when we’re active in addiction, we’re liars, we’re manipulators, and we don’t know any better. We’re just like little kids that can’t cross the street. Instead of walking to the corner and pressing the little button so I can cross safely, I’ll run in front of a car and get hit.
I went back to jail and told the guys. Everybody went, “Oh man, you’re crazy! You’re not going to make it! No way.” The rumor in Orange County Jail is if you go to drug court, either you’re dumb or you’re [mentally ill] because nobody can do it. It can’t be done. There’s too much regulation, there’s too much structure, there’s too much accountability. Random testing every day. You have to go to a sober-living residence. You got to follow directions. You got to see a probation [officer] every Monday, and you got to report directly to a judge every Friday. I didn’t think I could do it.
They told me, “We’re going to release you from jail.” I thought they were crazy. They’re letting me out? Really? They let me out of jail, and they told me I had to be in a sober living by 5 o’clock. I got out, went home, got some clothes, and then called sober living. I got there are at 4:45, 15 minutes before the deadline or else I was going back to jail. I ended up staying a whole year. It transformed my life. For my first 90 days, I did a meeting every day. It was heavy-duty structure every hour of the day.
To make this work, I had to do a few things. I had to cut all my friends loose. I couldn’t go back to my neighborhood. I couldn’t go to the drug connection. I couldn’t hang out with people that were actively using. As long as I stayed away from all those things, I could get one day sober and clean. Keep going to meetings, keep doing my program, go to the sober living. My curfew was 10 o’clock. All that structure, that heavy-duty structure was overwhelming, totally consumed me. I kept doing what I was asked to do. Guess what? I got 30 days sober and clean.
Lantigua-Williams: No relapse?
Silva: No relapse. I never had 30 days sober and clean in 15 to 20 years.
Lantigua-Williams: How did it feel?
Silva: I couldn’t believe it. I was more fearful at that time because I knew I was going to relapse. Maybe next week I’m going to relapse because my mind was constantly telling me dumb things. It tells me dumb things even to this day. I’m just going to go visit that person. I’m going to go visit that female. She’s actively using, but I’m just going to go visit and say hi. I can’t do that shit. I can’t go up to the neighborhood. I can’t go to the connection’s house. I can’t go to house parties late at night. I can’t go to bars where I know they’re selling and using. I don’t allow myself to go into those areas that are dangerous. I know there’s going to be consequences to my actions.
Lantigua-Williams: How long have you been sober now?
Silva: 1,401 days. I’m so blessed. I’m not on probation. I have a license. I have insurance. I know how to pay my bills. I paid my child support off. All my fines and fees, I paid them off. I got a full-time job, a part-time job, and I work at home on cars in my garage in my spare time, which is not too much spare time. I’m constantly on the go. I work at a recovering center. It’s a good program. I can help other people. I can give back. We have 140 clients. I do maintenance on the houses, but I also do security for them. I do a wide variety of things. I mentor some of the clients. We have some troubled clients. I talk to them. Whenever I see them, I’ll pull them aside and I’ll talk to them. I tell them my story. I used to be there. I’ve been where you’re at. They listen to me and I tell them what I’ve been through. There’s hope for you. You could recover. It all boils down to you wanting to. There’s no in-between. If I want to do it, you can do it. That’s now Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous works. I run my own meetings on Monday nights with 25 people.
Lantigua-Williams: You volunteer?
Silva: Yes, I volunteer. That helps me stay connected. Just because I got almost four years sober, I could relapse tomorrow. Once an addict, you’re always an addict.
This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.