What does it mean to be free? At Beit T’Shuvah, we talk a lot about freedom—freedom from bondage, freedom from addiction, freedom from self-loathing. What we far too often forget is that freedom can be both a gift and a curse. Ben N.’s story goes from wide open doors to tightly locked bars. Through it all, he discovered what it truly means to be a free man.  

Ben was raised by his single mother in the San Fernando Valley, after fleeing Las Vegas to get away from his abusive alcoholic father. By the age of eight, his mother’s work schedule left Ben to raise himself. Quickly, he became a latchkey kid—running around the city, getting into all the mayhem and mischief a valley boy could dream of. At thirteen, he started a successful business, DJing for private school kids. This put some money in his pocket. Just what a latchkey kid needs, spending money. Despite the world being his oyster, he still felt great pain—alone in a massive landscape. At school, he was constantly bullied. “I had a hole in myself—what I now know as a God-sized hole. So, I reached towards things outside of myself to fill that.” That is when drugs entered the picture. Drugs led to crime and crime led to gangs. Jumping into the gang culture made Ben feel safe. He knew that, if he immersed himself in their world, the bullying would stop and girls would start to notice him. Both proved to be true. To keep himself close to the gang, without having to be jumped in, he became the unofficial gang DJ. 

After picking a college to go to based on the weed culture surrounding it (you know the one), he quickly dropped out to be with his high school girlfriend. After their breakup, he dove headfirst into harder substances like meth and pills—upwards of 50 Norcos a day. With a new group of private school kids, he stole prescription pads and started selling drugs. Once everyone in the group started getting locked up or overdosing, his family knew they needed to get Ben help. So, in 2003, his mom kidnapped him and took him to his first rehab. “My family let me get loaded to the point where I passed out. I woke up blindfolded in front of Beit T’Shuvah.” During Ben’s first stay at BTS, he did well…until he met a girl and lost complete focus. He would sneak out, go to clubs, and pop pills. Of course, he was eventually kicked out for this behavior. 

Back on the streets, immersed in drug dealing once more, Ben was trading a prescription pad for a gun. It was just like any other day, only on this day it was a setup. As soon as he reached through the car window, he was hit with a hammer on the side of the head crushing his skull. He was then stabbed three times and left for dead in a parking lot in North Hollywood. Thankfully, a woman found him and called for help. Two brain surgeries later, tubes sucking blood from his brain, and titanium fused to his skull, the doctors told his family that he would either be in a vegetative state or they would have to pull the plug. One day, when all hope seemed to turn to ash, his sister, while praying over him, witnessed him pop up and start ripping the tubes out. He was alive. He wasn’t well, but he was alive. Over the next few years, Ben had to relearn how to walk and talk—going through a toddler-like phase, late into his life. Even in this state of disabled helplessness, four months into his recovery process, he started getting high again…and this time, it was black tar heroin.

From this point on, his life was a blur of treatment centers and county jails. Back and forth and forth and back. During this time of drugs and crime, he had the bright idea to combine the two. This resulted in him overdosing in the middle of robbing a house. The homeowner came back to find him lying on the floor nearly dead. When Ben awoke in the hospital, a detective was standing over him. Eventually, the detective left and Ben knew it was time to book it before they booked him. Once the heat around him died down, he was able to check himself into another treatment center. This time, he managed to stay sober for three and a half years. While sober, he made amends for the robbery and, because of his clean time, was given an ankle monitor and a strike on his record. Within this stint of sobriety, he met a girl, moved to Orlando, and had two daughters with her. Things were going well for a while until he started to get high behind her back. Once he found out she was cheating, he left her and his daughters and came back to LA. Ben had every intention of going back to Florida to be with his daughters, but the shackles of heroin bound him from returning. Then, in 2012, he got a call from one of his friends telling him that a girl he had been with nine months earlier just had a baby boy who looked remarkably like him. Once Ben saw a photo on Facebook, it was time for a paternity test. This is how Ben found out he had a son. 

On August 15th, 2015, Ben was going to go to detox and decided to go downtown to get a little bit of heroin on his way in. His last hurrah. He was speeding through the city and then—red and blue lights. Motorcycle cop. Ben stops. Nervous. “I had no driver’s license, a stolen car, a backpack full of needles, three grams of heroin in my mouth, and a bottle of vodka on the seat. I knew if he saw it, I was going to be locked up. So, my best addict thinking was, ‘You need to hit the gas.’” The pedal hit the floor, the rubber hit the road, and before he knew it, he was in a high-speed chase through Downtown LA, pursued by multiple cop cars, motorcycles, and helicopters…all while drunk and on heroin. Ben turned around to see if the cops were still behind him, but, in that split second he took his eyes off the road, he ran over two pedestrians. “I saw two bodies fly off my car and I kept going. I knew the second that I hit them that I was going to prison.” He kept driving and then hit a car with four people in it. Finally, his chase came to an end when he ran directly into a wall. Ben was charged with a DUI and four counts of great bodily injury. “Thankfully, no one died,” Ben says with profound remorse. When the gavel fell, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. 

For Ben’s first four years in prison, he was involved in prison politics and was strung out on drugs. Locked away from his loved ones, his father, stepmother, grandma, uncle, and son’s mother all died. Behind bars, he couldn’t be there for any of them. During his stay, Ben got into some trouble and was sent to administrative segregation. You may know it as “the hole.” For seven long months, he was locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day. This is where his life changed. In the cold dark of his lonely cell, he felt the warmth of his white light moment. 

From this point on, his attitude had completely changed. The drug use completely stopped, he got his college degree and even started studying to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Thanks to this change in his behavior, he was released from prison after eight and a half years. Six months before he was scheduled to step foot outside of the prison gates, he called Beit T’Shuvah’s alternative sentencing department. They told him that he had a bed waiting for him. On the day of his release, he was picked up from prison by a friend of his who was released a year earlier. The friend pulled over and started smoking dope. Nervous of what the outside world had to offer him, he relapsed after four years. Instantly, he was filled with dread. Unlike what he would have done in the past, Ben decided to come clean and tell his parole officer and BTS. “I think the fact that I started everything off with honesty and surrender was super important for my recovery.”

This time at Beit T’Shuvah could not be more different than the last. During his first stay, he never truly took his blindfold off. Now, his eyes are open and he is living an honest life in recovery—freed from his bondage of self-doubt. Ben’s been working as a PF intern, is in school, and got his RADT, the next step on the road to being a counselor. Every week he goes to Vista Del Mar, as well as other schools in the area with Jessica and talks to troubled youths. “It is super rewarding. My relationship with my kids is fractured. Through doing [prevention], I feel like it is my way of being able to reach other kids even though I can’t reach my own yet.” Since coming to BTS he has been able to make amends to his daughters’ mom and has started the process of rebuilding his relationship with his children. He has gotten photos and videos sent to him as well as permission to buy them Christmas gifts this year. Ben credits Beit T’Shuvah with much of his success. “I have been to 12 treatment centers and I have been to jail 20 times and I have never been allowed to discover myself the way I have here. The place has helped me to save my own life.”

Finding the meaning of freedom, for Ben, has been a lifelong battle. He has known far too much—unsupervised, lost in the streets, debaucherous gang parties. He has known far too little—isolated in a jail cell for months on end, a slave to his addiction. A man like Ben, who fights every day to build a life that his circumstances never allowed him to have, knows better than most of us that true freedom—spiritual freedom— is not about where you are. Freedom is who you are. So, who are you?

Spotlight on Ben N. by Jesse Solomon

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