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Frank Gray

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Ex-addict shows that change is possible

The woman wasn’t exactly sure when the column had appeared – 2003, 2008, she couldn’t say – but it made her angry and she remembers the column to this day.

I wrote, she says, that crack addicts would never change and that they would do anything, including hurting someone, to feed their addiction.

She wrote me a letter expressing her feelings and I talked to her by phone last week. I didn’t recall the column, I told her, but then I’ve written about 2,400 columns over the years, some better than others, and just because I didn’t remember it didn’t mean that I didn’t write something to that effect at one time or another.

In the case of the woman in question – Bernita Smith – the comments she read really stuck in her craw. That’s because at the time she was sitting in the Allen County Jail on a drug charge and was on her way to prison, her latest stop in a decade of drug abuse.

Smith said that not long before she had actually kicked drugs – for a while. She had been in drug court and was sent to a halfway house where she stayed off drugs for eight months.

But there was a problem. She was married to a guy she described as a drug dealer, so when she finally got a pass to go home for a few days, it was easy to fall back into her old ways. She started smoking crack again.

When she returned to the halfway house, she confessed that she had fallen off the wagon, so it was out of the halfway house and into jail, where she sat for a while before being sent to prison for two years.

And then she read the column, she said.

“I resented it. At the time I was still addicted, and it hurt me,” Smith said. “It had me crying.”

Her reaction was something on the order of “what does he know?” I’m just a guy who sits at a desk with no view of the outside world writing things about people I don’t know who are addicted to drugs.

But then, Smith said: “My going to prison made me take a long look at myself. And you described me to a T.”

The most important way you can learn is with honesty, Smith said, and if you’re not honest with yourself, you’ll never learn anything.

“That’s me you were talking about,” and she realized that pretty soon she would be cracking people over the head or breaking into people’s houses, Smith said.

It seems the two-year sentence did make a change in Smith’s life. She took drug classes, which reduced her sentence, and within nine months she was free on parole.

She came back to Fort Wayne and, because she had worked there before, managed to get a job at McDonald’s.

“I have no idea how that $375 paycheck paid my rent and utilities and put gas in my car,” Smith said of her time shortly after leaving prison, but she got by.

Eventually she decided it was time to leave Fort Wayne. She moved to Indianapolis to be close to her children, who were grown now, and got a divorce.

Today, Smith, who is 52, says she is in training and hopes to start working with a prison ministry that travels to prisons and counsels people with addictions. “People are crying because they want to get off,” she says.

And by the way, Smith says, she’s been off drugs for five years now, a sort of proof that I didn’t know what I was talking about when I said drug addicts could never change.

I’m glad for Smith, and I hope her new life is a successful one.

But to tell the truth, I still can’t recall ever writing such a column.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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