From Homeless Drug Addict Inmate to Family Man

From Homeless Drug Addict Inmate to Family Man

By Seth Ferranti 03/26/15

Stephen Sutler went from homelessness, drug addiction and prison to success as a spiritual, working and family man in recovery.

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Stephen Sutler, his wife Lee Ann, son Miles and daughter Selena

The journey to recovery is not easy. It is a road paved with many obstacles that can trip you up and lead you back to drug use. Whatever happens in life for addicts, whether good or bad, relapse is always an option. But to maintain sobriety, an alcoholic or chemically dependent person must buy into the fact that relapse is not an option. To live clean and sober is a battle that a former user must fight each and every day while temptation rears its ugly head as you fight down the demons of yesteryears. We hear a lot about the failures and the problems with addiction and drug abuse in society as a whole but what about the successes? Recovery should be celebrated, but not with a glass of champagne.

Success in recovery should be equally applauded. It is a path not often taken or achieved. Most addicts are just happy to be off the drugs. Being successful in life takes recovery to a whole other level. But the truth remains that you can never forget where you came from. Hitting rock bottom and coming to the realization that you are in the throes of addiction is a life-changing recognition. The first step of overcoming addiction is to admit that you are powerless. That is something Stephen Sutler does everyday.

In the eyes of a former drug addict, the simple family life is a dream and a life well worth living.

“Addiction has always been in my blood since I was a kid,” The 30-year-old Missouri native tells The Fix. “I remember my first addiction problem was food because I used to be an overweight kid. Once I got to be about 12 or 13 and got my hands on something besides food, like marijuana and alcohol, it was over.” Addiction is a progressive disease and many people suffering from it trade one addiction for another.

”I went through my teenage years abusing hallucinogens, alcohol, acid, ecstasy, and marijuana,” Stephen says. “It just fueled my addiction and I grew up replacing one addiction for another. Everything was all right for awhile with the drug use and school. And as a teenager, it was kind of acceptable but as people transitioned out of that lifestyle and started getting serious about school and stopped experimenting, I started stepping out of school and deeper into the experimenting. I was 16 when I first used meth with my father out in Las Vegas. I spent a year and a half out in Las Vegas and probably didn’t sleep more than a week or two, it felt like. That was the nail in the coffin, if you will.”

Like so many addicts, Stephen couldn’t control his usage. He dove into the drug world headfirst and immersed himself in the culture. There was no caution for Stephen, everything was balls to the wall. No moderation, only excess, the true mark of an addict. But, there is no brand or identifier. The only thing that sets an addict apart is their non-stop drug use and abuse; the urge to use despite the destruction of their life.

“It just went from one thing to the next,” Stephen tells The Fix. “I came back to St. Louis and hooked up with some people that were manufacturing. I started involving myself in that lifestyle and started cooking meth and running the streets.” The downward spiral so common with addiction was in full swing. It would take something drastic for Stephen to stop. He was in a free fall. 

“In the process I burnt all my bridges, lost the trust of my family, and lost the privilege of living under their roof,” Stephen relates. “Eventually, I just bounced from couch-to-couch, living out of a little Ford Escort with a smashed out back window and a meth lab in the trunk. Staying up for weeks at a time and sleeping in my car or on somebodies couch. It was just a cycle of self-destruction and self-hatred that was fueled by my past and all of the poor choices I made. It just turned into a complete disaster.”

In the grip of methamphetamine, Stephen only had one mission in life—to get that next hit. His involvement with meth led to a 2010 federal manufacturing charge and instead of getting cleaned up, Stephen went in the opposite direction and continued on his path to self-destruction like so many other addicts. He amped up his drug use by shooting heroin. It was the beginning of the end for Stephen as the junkie’s nightmare consumed him. 

“I quickly dove into heroin and I spent the better part of 2010 and 2011 shooting heroin three or four or five times a day,” Stephen says. “I was on federal probation at the time, under a signature bond and they were watching me. It took them almost two years to federally indict me and on February 27, 2011, I [would] shoot my last dose of heroin in my arm, driving 70 miles per hour down the highway right by the St. Louis Arch. I overdosed and crashed the vehicle into pieces all over the highway. They found me dead behind the wheel. Not from the accident, [but] from the heroin. They had a chance to deliver medicine to bring me back and reverse the effects of the opiates. Then they took me straight to the hospital and handcuffed me to the bed.”

A lot of people would think this was the end of Stephen’s story—addiction, overdose, death and jail. But this was Stephen's awakening. He had hit rock bottom. Now, it was time to put the pieces of his life back together.

“I hit my rock bottom so many times in my life that I always thought it can never get any worse than this, but at that moment, when I was laying in that hospital bed I said there is no way I can continue doing this,” Stephen tells The Fix. “I’ve got to find some other way to live my life or I’m not gonna live my life. I was just sick and tired of it. I couldn’t do it anymore. I just set out to change everything about me. I knew no way possible to live a life free of drugs and alcohol. I didn’t understand how to do it. I didn’t think it was possible. But I did know that I had to find some other way.”

Like many stuck in that "between" state of addiction, Stephen wanted help, but he wasn’t sure where to start. And to make matters worse, he was going to jail. His drug use had led him to a harrowing conclusion: a 42-month federal prison sentence for conspiracy to possess Sudafed with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. Sitting in a jail cell after his hospital stay, Stephen made a plan to get and stay clean once and for all; he wanted to get his life together. He knew the most important thing was to stay drug-free. But he wasn’t sure how to do it.

“I had some spiritual beliefs, but being on drugs and being in that lifestyle, God is the last thing on your mind until you sober up and you cry out, 'Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why the hell is my life like this?'” Stephen says. “I really just dove into breaking myself down to a real basic level of what three things would cause me to feel stable enough to make it through each day. I just focused on physical health, mental health and spiritual health. I worked on those three things everyday, just to feel like I could make it through each day. If I tended to those three things each day, I felt a little bit more sane and a little less addicted. I built off that.”

Stephen Sutler

Eventually, Stephen enrolled in the BOP’s Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) even though he didn't get anytime off for completing the program. “I thought there was probably some more tools I can use that were practical knowledge,” Stephen tells us. “Like things in your head and things in your mind about how to change the way you view things and think about things. I needed to change my perception in life. I didn’t really have any guidance to get pointed in the right direction. I went with this spiritual inner kind of path by myself and I was interested in what they had to offer.” After completing the program and being drug free for his entire incarceration, he was ready to reenter society—clean and sober for the first time in his adult life.

“I got to the halfway house and I got a job right away,” Stephen says. “I had really good family support because they wanted to see me succeed and they were so happy to see me clean and sober. It was a little hard to stay on course after being out of the world for so long. A lot of temptations, not to use drugs so much, but just to be out and involved with people and enjoying life. It pulled me away from the foundation that I had built in prison and I had to continue to balance that out and that was a pretty hard struggle.” But Stephen found something new to use as a center to his recovery.

“I have been involved in my church,” Stephen says. “I did the NA 12-step program before, but now I am more into my church and have surrounded myself with people that have good morals, values, integrity and dignity. I have stepped into Celebrate Recovery, which is a God-centered 12-step program. They have basically the same 12 steps, but they are based on the Bible.” Besides his continued recovery, Stephen has immersed himself in his work and family affairs.

“The biggest thing that helped me was that I met a man in St. Louis, Frank Papa, who owned a restaurant and he gave me an opportunity to put my foot in the door as a buser,” Stephen says. “I never worked in a restaurant before and this place was a fine-dining establishment. He gave me an opportunity and I took it and I ran with it. I worked hard and he let me step up to be a server in the restaurant.” Stephen was grateful for his second chance at life and he worked hard at it.

“That opened up another opportunity for me at one of the finest restaurants in St. Louis, Cafe Napoli, as a server,” Stephen says. “That's the key thing for ex-offenders reentering society, just that one opportunity to prove themselves and get their foot in the door. Frank Papa gave me that opportunity and I never looked back. Cafe Napoli gave me the opportunity to become knowledgeable and learn about fine wines, sell them and give guests a great dining experience.” But more important to Stephen is the success he has had with his family.

“I had an amazing woman by my side the whole time, even before I went in, and she was my biggest fan and my greatest supporter,” Stephen says. “She stepped right up as soon as I got out and she just wrapped her arms around me with love and supported me and helped me. We just fell right back in love with each other. She has two amazing children. I am blessed to be a part of their lives as a role model and a step-father.” For a man who struggled with drugs and relationships, Stephen relished the opportunity to be a parent.

Stephen and Selena

“I was able to step into an amazing family with a 12-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl that really love me and an amazing woman who is in love with me,” Stephen says. “I have gotten the opportunity to prove myself and to stand up and be [the] father in a home where there wasn’t one and to be a male role model in a home where there wasn’t one, which was one of the biggest things that I lacked as a child.” Not to blame a missing male role model for his drug addiction, but having two loving and supportive parents can help tremendously.

“I feel that not having a father can be a major deciding factor on whether children choose a good path and make a right decision, or chose to go down the path that I did as a child where it was rough roads and drug use and crime,” Stephen tells The Fix. “With no father figure in the home as a role model, and no loving father that is what can happen. I think it is crucial to have that figure and role model. And I now have the opportunity to give that back to two children that didn’t have that and I can stop the cycle that was my life.”

Therein lies the real secret of his success; a noble and true cause for Stephen. Because success in recovery cannot be made in monetary or materialistic means. Success is measured by quality of life. Stephen is going on daddy/daughter dinner dance dates, mentoring a young man and learning how to fly a plane. All things that he couldn’t have done in his previous life. In the eyes of a former drug addict, one who faces his demons everyday and keeps them at bay, the simple family life is a dream and a life well worth living. Overcoming drug abuse and living in recovery can be a success. It is just up to the former addict to define that success.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about being sober after 21 years in prison and how to recover from recoveryHe also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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