“Baby Sam,” as he is lovingly called by his family, is 48 years old and a native Anapolitan. He has deep-set green eyes and sandy-colored hair, which he neatly slicks back. Sam started getting his tattoos when only sailors and bad guys had them. He has quite a collection running up and down his hands and arms: a beautiful, long-haired brunette, a skull with a melting jaw, several stars on his hands, a woman’s name, and a scroll with the number 98 on it, just to name a few. I’m a little intrigued by his tattoos and make a mental note to ask him about them later.
As an adolescent, at home Sam witnessed physical violence between his parents, drug and alcohol use. By the time he was eleven, his parents divorced. Sam’s dad retained custody of him.
At age 14, Sam began using drugs and alcohol. Who was his supplier? His father. Sam explained that his dad felt guilty about the divorce and tried to make it up to him by giving him beer and marijuana, “I hated the taste of beer, but I liked the buzz. I was always shy, except when I drank.” Sam says. “I liked not feeling shy.”
I asked Sam if he had at any moment thought that what he was doing was wrong. His answer, “That’s just the way it always was. To me, it was a normal life. I had nice clothes, I went to school, and maybe it was just the people I hung out with, but everyone I knew was doing drugs.”
The first time Sam went to jail he was 18 years old. He had been drinking and driving and had run his dad’s car into a house. He was afraid to be released from jail because he was sure he would face his father’s wrath. He expected the worst and was surprised when the only punishment he received was that he was told he was never allowed to touch his dad’s car again.
After that incident, Sam says, he and his dad became”friends.” They drank, smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine together. He describes how they even went on double dates with his dad’s girlfriend and her daughter. At one point, he explains, a “dancer lady” moved into their home. It was his dad’s new girlfriend, whom his dad soon married. Sam couldn’t bring himself to call her mom. He was bothered by this new living arrangement and felt isolated, but he stayed on and continued to do drugs and alcohol with his new “family.”
As time went on, Sam graduated from marijuana and cocaine, to LSD, PCP, and crystal meth. His rap sheet also grew. Sam has been in jail over 20 times and in prison twice. He clarified for me that “jail” referred to county jail and “prison” referred to the state penitentiary. Most of his arrests were related to incidents involving drugs and/or alcohol. Sam served five and a half years of a seven year sentence for selling cocaine and assaulting a police officer. He was imprisoned again a second time for five years for selling cocaine to an undercover police officer, and received an additional 16 months for escaping from a work-release program. “Baby Sam’s” own father, the one assigned to raise him, protect him and teach him right from wrong, had led him down this path. But the penal system failed Sam even further. “In jail,” Sam says, “officers would bring and sell us marijuana, cellphones and vodka that they would sneak into the jail in water bottles.” The same correctional system that was punishing him for his behavior was sending him a clear message that his true crime, was getting caught.
There was a time when Sam couldn’t see a life without drugs and alcohol. He said that when he wasn’t on drugs he felt strange, scared, and nervous. What he didn’t realize was that there was another underlying problem that had fueled his behavior…undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Sam lives with bipolar disorder and experiences severe paranoia and depression, disorders which were not identified until Sam was an adult. “Sometimes I would flip out. I didn’t know where it came from,” he explains. “I kept asking myself, why am I doing this? Why am I flipping out like this, for no reason at all?”
After time spent in a Residential Drug Rehabilitation program and regular therapy treatment at First Step Recovery, Sam has been clean for about 2 years. “A day without good will is a day without sunshine,” he recites. That’s his motto. He takes his meds, stays away from people and places that could get him into trouble. His goal…to stay out of jail and prison. I asked him what made him want to get clean. “I got tired of going to jail and prison and hurting the people I love and care for. I got tired of hurting myself,” he replied. Sam has been in recovery before and has relapsed 3 times, but seems confident that this is his moment to get well and stay in recovery, “I’m happier than I have ever been,” he explains, “I want to get my GED. I got kicked out of high school for smoking pot. And I’d also like to get to know my daughter.” Sam has a daughter that he hasn’t seen since she was two and a half years old.
When I first met Sam, he thanked me for giving him the opportunity to tell his story, a thank you I had not expected. He told me I was giving him a gift and that he wanted to help others through the telling of his experiences, “I want to help young people realize that drinking and drugs are the worst possible things you could do – nothing good comes out of it.”
Sam says he isn’t working right now. He doesn’t feel ready, but looks forward to a day when he can get back to work. His girlfriend says he’s great in the garden and keeps a “gorgeous” yard.
I asked Sam what his proudest moment in life has been. “When I realized I could stay clean and graduated from a Residential [drug rehabilitation] program with honors. It helped my self-esteem. It helped me realize I didn’t have to live that way anymore. I learned a lot through that program,” he answered.
Now it was time to ask about the tattoos. The beautiful long-haired brunette was his ex-girlfriend, his daughter’s mother. The number 98 was the year he first had gone to prison. The skull with the melting jaw was symbolic of how he once felt about women—that they were evil. His daughter’s mother had left him and taken away his daughter, “That broke my heart. I’ve tried to find my daughter on the computer, but haven’t been able to.” About his own mother, Sam says, “She hurt me so much. She never even visited me in prison, not once.” The hurt is still in his voice. “I don’t feel that way about women anymore,” he’s quick to point out. “I have a girlfriend now and she’s very respectful. I love her very much.”