Paying the price
“It got to the point where I was smoking [crack] before I went to work, and I was smoking after I came home from work,” he said.
“And over the years it got to the point where, after a failed marriage, I was drinking more. And after I drank, I wanted cocaine. And after I did the cocaine, I wanted a drink. Cocaine would take me up and I wanted a drink to bring me down.”
Williams’ life became unmanageable. He can’t count the number of times he took the train from Lawrence into Boston to smoke hundreds of dollars worth of crack, returning home only when he’d run out of money.
“I realized I wasn’t handling my business, I was no longer following through on interviews,” he said. “I’d promise to write a song for somebody and forget about it.”
In the 1980s, Williams quit the entertainment business and started working in different jobs, looking for a way out of his addiction. He worked as an engineering inspector, raised funds for the Special Olympics and attended several substance abuse programs, with no success.
“It was not that the program didn’t fix me — I didn’t fix me,” he said. “I came to the programs and it was in my head already — what I was gonna do when I get out of there … I wasn’t trying to help myself. You have to be ready.”
More personal and health problems piled up for Williams in the 1990s. His second marriage ended, he suffered injuries sustained in a fall from the icy stairs of a bus and experienced frequent seizures, the result of undiagnosed epilepsy.
And he kept drinking. Sometimes Williams would wake up naked or with no shoes. Sometimes he would be on the floor, in a shelter, or in jail.
“During the time when they kept putting me in the nuthouse, I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe I am crazy,’” he said. “So I drank even more.”
From drinking half a pint of vodka daily, Williams went to a pint, then a fifth, and then a half-gallon. By that time, he was rarely eating and hardly ever changed his clothes.
“It seems like I was always in bed, and the jug would be sitting by the bed,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t have to think of anything. I didn’t feel sad or hurt when I was drunk.”
Looking back, he knows that was “the wrong way to try to solve” his problems, and that entering counseling would have been the best thing for him. But at the time, he “knew nothing about that.”
What Williams did know about was getting high, regardless of the risks involved. The pursuit taught him something else: Where there are drugs, there’s violence.
One day, he remembered, he was “getting high in a crack house” when a bullet darted through the wall.
“We looked, and went on doing what we were doing — getting high,” he said. “We just didn’t care.”
But something changed when Williams was hospitalized after drinking the rubbing alcohol. He started to care.
“I had enough,” he said. “I had enough for everybody.”
Weeks later, Williams started treatment at one of hopeFound’s substance abuse programs, located at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
“You have to make a move to try to save your own self, because no program can save you,” Williams said. “You have to be ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to stay sober. And that’s when the time is right.”
And once you’re in the right frame of mind, he added, the dangers become easy to recognize.
“If you listen to your own self, you know that when you are doing that stuff you can die in a minute,” he said.
Williams remembers well the day a man from a group in Brighton came to speak at hopeFound’s program. He told the audience that only 10 percent of the treatment-seekers in that room were going to make it.
“It shocked me,” he said. “I was sitting way back. I got up all the way to the front and I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna get in that 10 percent. I don’t know about them, but I came here to hear what you have to say, because if you made it, I can make it.’”
After 10 months of intense treatment, it was clearer than ever to Williams that he needed the change.
“I can’t remember — not once — that I had a good time when I was high,” said Williams.
Admitting you need help is the first step to recovery, said Williams. But it’s not the last.
“Then you recover by staying sober, and by certain rules that you have to live by in life,” he said. “You don’t go hang around with those guys who have no interest in being sober or being around you if you’re sober, because they want you down in the gutter with them.”
He believes the best thing to do is associate with people who are sober and are making an effort to stay that way.
“I have learned it the hard way,” he said.
These days, Williams is a completely different person. He walks wherever he wants to go, always well dressed and accompanied by the book he is reading. When his health allows him, he works and volunteers at the South End Technology Center — a venture between the Tent City Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — helping train people in computer-related technology.
He also keeps up with his talks at the substance abuse meetings he attends, at conferences like the 2007 East Coast Conference on Hunger and Homelessness, and to students from local schools. Last year, he spoke at the Beaver County Day School, St. Mark’s School and Boston University.
What he loves most, though, is just being at home by himself, reading. He lives alone in a studio apartment in one of the brick buildings on Worcester Street in the South End. He gets help covering the rent from hopeFound.
Mary Nee of hopeFound said it’s lucky that there are people like Williams out there who have “a very strong sense of [helping] the next guy behind [him] get on this path.”
“And Money will tell you,” she said. “Now he feels like a million bucks.”