Jason Smith is a graduate of the University of California, Davis. His work has been published extensively in both online and print media. Smith is heavily involved in the recovery community in Northern California, where he frequently shares his experience, strength, and hope in getting out of the hell that is addiction. He is a frequent speaker at the California Medical Board and California Board of Pharmacy. Smith is currently the Creative Director of The Real Edition.com, an online community for people who’ve struggled with addiction, and their loved ones, to tell their stories and share their experiences. Smith lives in northern California, raising a family with his wife Megan and their two children, Isabella and Jaden.
Jason’s Smith’s powerful memoir of addiction and recovery, The Bitter Taste of Dying (Thought Catalog Books), could just as easily been titled, “The Bitter Taste of Living,” because, for a long time, life to Smith seemed about as appetizing as a sucking on a lemon peel. Except when he was high.
Smith witnesses his uncle’s death from an overdose and wonders if he could have saved him. Then, he delivers a crippling tackle to a kid during a football game. Repressed guilt over those incidents sets Smith up for the one thing that makes everything go away. Following a car accident he’s given a shot of Demerol. From that point on, Smith life, and his memoir, become a relentless quest for opiates that lead him around the world in a series of bad choices, near-death experiences, and increasing depravity.
Smith’s writing is unadorned, which contributes to our sense that we are witnessing, firsthand, someone lose their soul. Along the way, Smith lets us inside an addict’s head, which isn’t such a great place to be. Following a period of sobriety, here’s Smith in Nice—on an epic bender, stoked on Xanax, codeine, and OxyContin—which will end with him incoherent and broke, sleeping with the homeless at the train station: “I tried it their way. The world said I had to stop doing drugs, and I stopped. And I was miserable. I’d watch people in restaurants smiling, joking, laughing, and wonder how they were so fucking happy.”
Fortunately for Smith, his attitude regarding sobriety, and happiness, change over the course of his story. Given the events depicted in his memoir, the fact that Smith survived his addiction is remarkable. The fact that he came out on the other side, driven by a desire to write about his experiences, is miraculous. Miracles make for one hell of a story. So does The Bitter Taste of Dying.
Jason Smith was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone.
Bitter Taste is your first book-length writing project. What surprised you most about writing it?
The most surprising thing for me was actually being provided a glimpse into my own head. I wrote the book at about a year and a half clean, which I think was just removed enough from the chaos to not get pulled back in, but close enough to remember things vividly. Writing a memoir like this, despite it being written in first person narrative, I began to see how my actions and my mistakes affected other people, and began imagining what it looked like through their eyes. It was quite therapeutic in that sense, and allowed me to tap into a depth of empathy that I don’t think I had prior to writing the book. When you’re a drug addict, and you get clean, you’re still a pretty self-centered person. At least I was. As time went on, and I stayed clean, I’d get frustrated by the inability or refusal of people in my life to let the past be the past, you know? Just let me have another shot and move on. But as I wrote the book, I began to see, “Oh… that’s why my mother still worries about me on Christmas. Because I overdosed on like four Christmases.” Or “Ok, that’s why people still don’t trust me. Because I broke their trust over and over and over for a decade and a half.” It helped me understand just how long it would take to finally turn that corner of gaining trust again, which I actually found quite motivating. It made me realize it wasn’t all for nothing. It was just going to take more work than I’d ever imagined.
The story takes place over the course of 16 years. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I felt like each story included in the book was the culmination of a new level of depravity that I’d promised myself I’d never go to. Each story sort of wraps up the time period preceding it, as an almost microcosm of that period of my life. When I started that book, I had only been writing for about six months, so I was still very new as a writer. It was much more natural for me, at that point, to tell a story than to construct a traditional memoir narrative. Ironically, I think that’s what ended up giving the book a different feel and what people who’ve read it found enjoyable. It’s a little bit different, and that came from my being so new to the craft of writing. I wish I could say I planned it that way, but truth is, that was all I was capable of at that point of my career. From the time I submitted to the publisher to the time they gave me back an early final copy of the book, my writing style had changed quite a bit. I began experimenting with different things and feeling more confident as a writer, so when I went through and proofread the book, I started marking it up, finding change upon change upon change that I wanted to make. Finally I realized that I had to just let it go. That’s the book I wrote at that point in my life, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. I really had to come to an almost cosmic faith that the book is what it’s supposed to be. Otherwise I’d still be re-writing. And I’m really grateful that I came to that conclusion, because there’s a level of vulnerability in my writing that I had early on that I have to dig really deep to find now. Having that book, I can go back to parts that have really connected with people and really analyze what I did.
Who were you writing this story for? A particular audience? Yourself? Did that change?
My audience completely changed about halfway through writing the book. Even though I was now clean, I was convinced that I’d completely fucked up my liver from all of the acetaminophen in the pills that I was taking for so long. I mean, I was positive there must’ve been some serious long-term damage at best, a potential bad liver at worst. So when I sat out to write the book, I just did it so there’d be an official record for my family, friends, whoever. “This is my story” type of thing, not really thinking that anybody beyond my immediate family would ever see it. Just something to be remembered by, to show that at least I was capable of starting something and finishing it, as opposed to my M.O. when I was using, which was to start something, get high, and forget all about it. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t expecting to die at any moment. But that fear is what drove me from being that guy saying he’s going to write a book someday, to actually sitting down and writing a book.
Halfway through the book, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to my doctor (the first time in years I’d gone to a doctor for something other than scoring Rx narcotics) and told him I needed him to check my liver out. I think it caught him off guard because it was only the second time I’d ever seen him, and he knew only the little bit about my drug days that I told him on my first visit. I explained the quantities of pills I’d done over the years, all of it, so he ordered up a panel of tests. A few weeks later, he called me back in and told me that my liver was totally fine. No damage whatsoever. Nothing looked the slightest bit abnormal. I was sure he fucked up the test somehow. I kept asking him, “Are you sure? You’re sure? You’re sure that’s my liver results?” He assured me everything was fine, and that totally shifted my mentality of how I approached writing the book.
After getting my test results, my aim became much less selfish. I realized I wanted to humanize the struggle of addiction and tell the story in a way that the reader is able to connect with and pull for the guy in the story without condoning or excusing some of the horrible shit he does in that book. I wanted to say to people who are struggling, “Look, you’re not alone in what you’re going through,” while also saying to the family and loved ones of addicts, “Look, it’s nothing personal. Here’s why we do it.” My overall goal was to just further the understanding of addiction by humanizing the struggle.
One of the things the book does well is explain the logic (twisted as it is) behind the decisions you made as an addict, many of which put you in awful, dangerous situations. Was it hard to remember what you were thinking at the time, or did it come right back to you?
A lot of it came back to me as I was writing. For example, I had blocked out a lot of what I went through in jail in Mexico until I started writing that story. But as I wrote about being arrested, I was suddenly reminded of that fear I felt at the time, or the fear of being in that filthy jail cell and realizing I was about to kick. In a way, it forced me to really deal with some of the stuff I’d blocked out, and writing about it made it hurt much less. Shit, it’s much cheaper than therapy.
The story is told by the sober Jason Smith, looking back at Jason Smith, the addict. Does addict-Jason feel like a distant character who existed a lifetime ago, or is he more familiar?
Same guy, just with a much different driving force today. I don’t ever want to convince myself that the guy in the book was a different guy – and believe me, it’s tempting – because if I’m able to do that, I’ll be able to forget where I came from, and that could be dangerous. I always need to remember that feeling of waking up sick, needing the drug, sacrificing everything in my life for the drug, because each day I wake up and I don’t feel that – I’m extremely grateful. I’ve heard some addicts describe it as a constant presence, like a devil on their shoulder, just waiting to be re-awakened. That’s not what it feels like for me. For me, it’s more like having an ex-girlfriend who, at one point, I was madly in love with. And I see her on the street now, we acknowledge each other, and I continue walking, that feeling of love completely gone. In fact, I’m surprised with how little love or hate or anything I feel for the drugs. They were a chapter of my life, and that chapter’s now well documented, and then I closed it and moved on to whatever comes next.
One of the interesting points you make in the book is that, while addicts are self-destructive and manipulative, they are also resourceful and relentless problem solvers. Did those traits stay with you into sobriety? Are there any aspects of addictive behavior that you’ve been able to use in a positive way now that you’re sober?
Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a certain drive and hustle that’s required to maintain an addiction. It’s a different kind of intelligence, one that I think it tremendously underestimated by non-addicts. They might be able to study it in universities, but they’ll never be able to learn it. I’ve heard some shit from other addicts, things they did to get their drug, or get money to get their drugs, that was borderline genius. I mean, some seriously innovative thinking. Getting clean, you don’t lose that way of thinking. In fact, the parts of your brain that used to be consumed with those thoughts is still active and needs something to do. I’m grateful I found a mentor in my early recovery who taught me to utilize those abilities, but always under the belief of ‘do no harm.’ That’s something I still ask myself from time to time. Will this idea hurt anyone? Will this be harmful to anyone? I really believe that in the same way we used to do damage to our communities through drug abuse – not only directly, but indirectly as well – we can now do the equal amount of good in our communities while using that addict mindset to perpetuate life instead of death.
What’s next for you in your writing life?
Right now I’ve co-founded a website, http://www.therealedition.com, where we facilitate connection and storytelling for addicts and those affected by addiction. It’s a place for people to share their story and in the process connect with someone else who might be going through something similar. I’m also working with an agent at ICM on book #2, and I’m still trying to narrow down how I want to do it. I’m getting a little tired about writing about drugs, but that could just be temporary burnout of promoting the book. As the summer wraps up, I’ll start to really focus on putting together a solid proposal, and see if anybody wants to pay for it.
More about Jason Smith and The Bitter Taste of Dying can be found at http://authorjasonsmith.com/.