18 Jul GRACE STORIES: JJ Free
“It is Exponentially Harder to do the Wrong Thing When Surrounded by the Right People”
When I first started this project, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on former City of Faith residents who were out there being super successful and living a better life. Then I found myself as a guest speaker at Redeemed Recovery, surrounded by people who were just living lives better than they ever imagined. So, why limit our stories? I met J. J. Free at the Redeemed Recovery meeting and could not wait to have him tell you his story.
So, please, meet J. J.!
TW: Thank you so much for being here! I have heard a little bit of your story and I’m so glad you’re here to share more of it. I’d like to start at the beginning. You’ve had a long involvement with the criminal justice system and I’d like to begin there but you tell me, is that the beginning of your story?
JJ: I actually started using when I was 12 years old. Me and my buddy would steal weed from his parents who smoked and then when I got into junior high and high school the drug use became more of a sport for me. It became a game of “who could do the most.”
TW: Were you involved in any other activities at school?
JJ: Yes! I was involved in all sports. School came very easy for me. I made great grades. I was able to do school even though I was high most of the time. My mom would hear (even when I was very young) that I was going to have to have more to do because I was so easily bored. I would finish my work and just have nothing to do waiting for other kids to catch up. I would get bored and get in trouble just because I had nothing else to do. But honestly, drugs became my sport. I liked the way I felt when I was high. I started doing meth when I was 16. Put a needle in my arm at 17. I always said I’d never get to that point but there I was, at that point.
I lived with my grandmother from the time I was in junior high school for the plain, simple fact, I was able to pull the wool over her eyes more than I could my own parents. She only lived about 2 miles from us. My little sister was born at that time and I believe that’s when a lot of the separation from my family took place. She was their first little girl, you know? My grandmother saw they were paying more attention to her so she stepped in, as grandmothers do, and took me in. She passed away a couple of years ago but I look back and some of the best moments of my life include my grandmother. All she wanted for me was to have a better life but she wasn’t able to see it before she passed. I know she’s smiling down on me today. I know she knows I’m ok.
TW: So, you went to college. What was your major?
JJ: General Business. I had no idea what I wanted to do because my mind was so cloudy. I was still actively using drugs. There was a lot of culture shock for me in Monticello. I went from being popular in high school, I was always playing sports, had all the girlfriends and then when I got to college, no one knew who I was. An ego shock. No one knew me and no one cared. It threw me into an isolation I wasn’t used to. I failed out of college my first semester. My parents and my grandmother paid for another semester. They paid for everything, totally enabling me. They gave me a car, money. I wasn’t required to have a job. Pretty much handed everything to me. Extra money went to the liquor store and to buy drugs. It was just a set up for disaster. The whole time.
TW: They thought they were doing the right thing?
JJ: Oh of course they did. They wanted me to succeed and I don’t blame them for any of it. I was the one making the decisions but I was still a kid. I failed that second semester too so they brought me back home. At this time they knew I had a drug problem and they thought they would be able to keep an eye on me. This didn’t work either. I didn’t do anything they wanted and I knew how to manipulate them.
I got my first possession charge when I was 17 and had three DWI’s by the time I was 21. My parents always bailed me out of jail. These charges led me to being on probation, which I could never finish, never could pass a drug test because I just couldn’t stop using. This led to my parents trying to show me some tough love like, “next time you get in trouble you’re just going to stay in jail.” I’ve been arrested at least 20 times. We could get lost trying to figure out all the times I’ve been incarcerated and it was never that I was out there selling drugs, carrying a gun or any kind of violence. It was always just having drugs on me or under the influence.
TW: Did any of these times in lock up make a difference? Did anything help?
JJ: It made a difference but not enough. Every time I got incarcerated the more I learned how to get better at this behavior. It’s true and that’s the sadness of it. I just loved the lifestyle and I loved the way the drugs made me feel. Not that I wasn’t raised right, not that I didn’t know any better. I just went headlong into the life that it brought. It was just a mischievous way of living and I thrived off of that. I don’t know why.
TW: You became an adrenaline junky too.
JJ: I did.
TW: Just dodging all those bullets became a fun game?
JJ: It was fun and I did love it but pretty soon the bad was outweighing any fun I was having. You’d think it would be enough to want to change but at the time my family was always bailing me out, always sending me money.
TW: Did you count on that though? Did you think there was always going to be a way out?
JJ: Yes. I had a pillow around me all the time and I knew if I fell and bumped my head, I could spend 3 months in jail, clear my head and then get back to them where I could talk a good game. I could manipulate them and I knew I’d being going back inside. I always knew. I just didn’t have any desire to change.
TW: Tell me what changed. Tell me about that moment. Were you at the end of your rope? Had you hit rock bottom?
JJ: It was a moment of desperation for me. I was sitting in the Pulaski County Jail for over the 20th time, knowing I was going to be there for a while because at this point, with every stint, the placement got longer and longer. After being there for about 3 weeks, I remember sitting there on my bunk, having spent time trying to sleep off the drugs and I vaguely heard what I thought was my own voice saying, “Is this really how you want to live?” I had a complete feeling of helplessness because at that point, my family was pretty much done. That was my moment. I honestly think God was speaking to my heart saying, “Are you tired of this yet?” There’s so much that had happened to me like getting my face bashed in, breaking my teeth, a car wreck that resulted in an intensive care stay for 7 days and having to get two blood transfusions because I had taken so much Xanax.
TW: Did you grow up in church? Did you have a seed planted in you of who God is?
JJ: Yes. I was always in church with my grandmother. I sat on the back row with my grandmother whose name was Mary, her friend Ruby and her friend Blanche. I grew up sitting with the Golden Girls in church and all those ladies loved on me. They were super spiritual women. Even now when I hear old hymns I can hear those ladies singing. Looking back I believe that’s where I felt true love in the church was those three women embracing me as their own.
TW: So you were taught about Jesus, that you could have a relationship with Him and He would speak to you?
JJ: I was definitely presented the gospel. I was active in youth groups and things like that but I just had to go my own way. There had to be a time when my grandmother told me these things because anything I knew about Jesus or the church came from her. I know she prayed for me. She went to church because she loved it. I remember the good feeling of just riding in the car with her to church.
TW: Does your mother see the changes in you?
JJ: Most definitely. I’ve been able to talk to her and share with her about where I am now and things I’ve gone through. She sees the change. In the past they would come around and they’ve seen me do well for short periods of time so it’s been hard for my parents to trust me. They would be pretty stand offish. But now my mom says I don’t look the same and I don’t talk the same. In all of that, the only scripture that comes to mind is Romans 12:2 – Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Because that is exactly what is happening to me. Since the day I rededicated my life to the Lord, my eyes have been opened to some things I didn’t recognize before. That’s just what God does. When we submit to His authority and to other spiritual leaders, things are just seen differently. I do talk differently and I do carry myself differently but I WANT to be different. I want to follow the Word. That’s why I’m now in a School of Ministry because I want to educate myself more and more in what the Word of God has to say and how to apply it.
TW: Let’s go back to that day in your jail cell when you heard the call. When your new life started. What were your next steps?
JJ: Well I felt like God was asking if I’d had enough and He was saying, “Can we move on now? You’ve literally taken yourself out of life.” I had been locked up over and over for 10 years. I took myself out of life and life had gone on without me. I had to decide if I wanted to be a participant in life or not.
TW: What did you do?
JJ: I just started praying. Over the years I had tried to figure myself out. I had plenty of time for self-reflection but this time I just went back to the basics, just stuff my grandmother had taught, you know? Like, “in all things pray and keep your mind open, don’t be so closed off.” So, I started praying, literally getting on my knees finally. It was a moment of surrender, a moment of desperation and I got on my knees every night. I didn’t know how to pray properly. I was just like, “God I’m here. I don’t know what you want me to do but I don’t want to be this way.”
TW: You know it’s those moments where His power meets your potential?
JJ: YES! And through the process of several months of getting on my knees every night, opening my Bible and actually reading it and trying to understand it. Like James 1:19 – Be quick to listen, slow to speak and even slower to become angry because anger doesn’t produce the righteousness God desires. Just listen. Don’t speak and especially don’t get angry.
TW: How was your body handling this physically? No drugs, this change of heart? Was it hard? Or did God just do a miracle?
JJ: Well at this time I had not been using heroin or anything like that. I’ve had a withdrawal from that before and I do not want to do that again. It was just the worst thing I’ve ever been through. So this time, it just wasn’t that hard. My body was just so malnourished. I starting eating all the food I could and even though it was county jail food it didn’t have all the additives. It’s very bland but I just ate all I could. I got a job working as a trustee in the kitchen so I could load up. I went from 165 pounds to 200 pounds in no time. I was able to get my strength back which helped me a lot.
TW: You are reminding me of that scripture in Matthew when Jesus teaches about an unclean spirit going out of a man and when he returns he finds the man empty so he goes and gets seven more spirits and the man is actually worse than he was to begin with. However, it seems you have actually filled the empty space with the Word of God. Have you seen this principle play out in a negative way with others?
JJ: Oh yes. Definitely. I have seen some guys get clean and never replace it with anything positive and a few of them have actually died. They won’t be coming back. I am very much aware that could easily have been me and I am very grateful. I will tell anyone. I will tell anyone who will listen that you can be lost, be completely broken and hopeless and your life can be changed.
TW: What year was this turning point for you?
TW: You know that’s not been that long ago?
JJ: I know. But I feel like I’ve had God’s hand on me for a very long time. I’ve dodged so many bullets. It actually reminds me of the story of Jonah and the Whale, when God has a plan for Jonah and he goes out of his way to not fulfill God’s plan because it’s uncomfortable but he comes full circle and submits.
TW: How would you like to end this conversation? What do you want to say that has not been said?
JJ: I guess for me, it’s important for me to remember how low I was. I was homeless, addicted, too much pride. I feel what’s even more important is the fellowship and connection I have cultivated with other people who have my best interest at heart. There is a saying that I stole from Blake Polston who was a spiritual leader in my life, “it’s exponentially harder to do the wrong thing when you are surrounded by the right people.” It’s just so on-point. That’s the core of my recovery, just who I surround myself with. Right now I have 21 months sobriety which is the longest I’ve been clean since I was a teenager. But God.
When J. J. released that last time from jail, he participated in a local program in Little Rock called M18, is enrolled in a School of Ministry through New Life Church and leads a very successful recovery meeting in Little Rock called Redeemed Recovery. Refer to the blog notes for information on these ministries.