Who are you? No one on this big blue marble has a simple answer to that question. That is why it is always the first question asked in a spotlight interview.  Some may respond with their job title or their greatest passion. Around here, it is quite common to identify directly with one’s greatest regret or derogatory label. “I am an alcoholic.” or “I am someone who has done this or that.” But, we are more than the worst thing we have ever done…and we are more than the best thing we have ever done. People are complex. Today’s spotlight subject, Jerome M., is a perfect example of the beautiful complexities that make up an outstanding human being. 

Initially born here in “The States,” Jerome moved to Puerto Rico when he was two. Although he was the second eldest of six children, none of them really ever grew up together. Not one of them shared the same mother and father, making spending time together difficult. Addiction has been a part of Jerome’s life from before he was even born. “My mother and my biological father were both addicts. My mother was a crack addict and my father was a crack addict.” Jerome was mainly raised by his stepfather. After his biological father was arrested and put into jail, the arresting officer saw his mother with a small baby and knew she needed help. Growing closer and closer to her every day, the officer and his mother connected on a deeper level—that officer was his stepfather. Unfortunately, his mother’s habit progressed and they separated. Thankfully, Jerome has his stepfather to stay with during this trying time. “He is my father to me.” 

For most of Jermone’s remaining childhood, he was raised by his grandparents. “Life was carefree, I would run the streets at a young age. I was out and about doing all sorts of mischievous things I probably shouldn’t have been doing at the age that I was.” This was included (but not limited to) stealing, doing drugs, and drinking. Drugs first truly entered the picture when Jerome was thirteen. “Whenever there was a family party, my uncles and grandfather would give us a little bit of alcohol from a cup. That set the scene for how I could escape.” Although earlier on Jerome said that his “life was carefree,” that wasn’t entirely the truth. 

For years, Jerome grappled with his sexual identity. A factor that contributed to this struggle was the fact that from the age of five to eleven Jerome was molested. “I struggled with my whole sexual identity because I didn’t know if that was who I was or if that was the cause or effect of the trauma that I went through. Regardless, I am who I am at this point in my life and I am very proud of that.” 

By high school, he had returned to The States. By that point, everything changed. Jerome wasn’t drinking or using drugs and had resigned himself to a life of sobriety…without even knowing what that really meant. Once he went to college, that resignation turned into detonation as he rediscovered his love for escapism. Jerome attended a culinary arts program and if you aren’t aware, kitchens are filled with much more white powder than just salt and sugar. Coke, Xanax, and drinking—the frat party lifestyle consumed him.

This fast-paced restaurant lifestyle was normal to Jerome for many years. He even got a great job as an executive chef in Texas. There was even talk of investors helping him open a restaurant of his very own. At this point, he was still stable and everything was looking great. I think you see where this is going. 

On a hookup app, Jerome met a man who introduced him to meth. “I had no idea what I was smoking. I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that when I did it, I fell in love with it. It took over everything. It became priority.” The beautiful apartment. Gone. The job. Gone. The prospect of a new restaurant. Gone. He was soon introduced to shooting up meth and was eventually caught with syringes and meth in his car. He was arrested and ended up going to jail. “I was only there for a month, but it was the worst month of my life. I was assaulted numerous times. I actually because HIV positive because of that experience.” The heartwrenching news of his diagnosis plummeted him into a state of hopelessness. “Once I found that out, I said, ‘Fuck it. I am just going to use until I die.’”

During Jerome’s trial, the judge sentenced him to go to a drug treatment program. This was his first experience with serious sobriety. He stayed sober, met somebody, got married, and things started to seem like they were on the right track once again. I think you see where this is going. The marriage was unfortunately incredibly toxic. Although Jerome was still sober, his husband was addicted to crack cocaine. The stress of work and his home life became a burden he felt only a bottle could solve. Within the week of his first drink, he was back on meth. Before long, he knew he needed help. This was the music cue that started his dance between rehabs—seventeen to be exact. Within this period, his marriage fell apart as well. He moved to Florida to be with his now-sober mom. “She’s the one person who understands me.” Later, he contacted a sober house in Palm Springs who offered to pay for his plane ticket out there.

Once insurance ran out, he was out on the streets. Jerome came to LA, expecting to find a safe housing placement. Instead, he was put into a shelter that was anything but safe. Jerome was beaten by a group of men for his homosexuality (colloquially referred to as “gay bashed”). So, he left the shelter and moved somewhere he felt was safer— Skid Row. While living in a tent on the street, he tried to commit suicide multiple times. “I didn’t want to contact my family. Once you become homeless, there comes a point where you reach this threshold of homelessness where there is so much shame and guilt and embarrassment about how you look and your smell and how you navigate—you’re not living you’re just trying to survive the day.” 

Eventually, he knew that the pain and abuse he was enduring on the streets was too much. “If I don’t do something, I’ll die.” Without the proper medication, HIV had gotten to a near fatal and he knew that it was his last chance to grasp for help. At a needle exchange, he met someone who would change his life forever. His puppy. “There was this little thing I had to take care of now. It got me out of myself.” Jerome found housing and then treatment. That is where he met Cameron, a member of our development team. They were both trying to get into this place they had heard of called Beit T’Shuvah. Jerome called constantly, came to Shabbat services, and CMA meetings that were held here. Eventually got the call to become a resident.

Once Jerome entered our community his eyes widened to what recovery could truly mean to him.“I didn’t know it was a Jewish-based program, but what is funny is that that was what was missing in my program…I had lost all my faith.” For decades he had lost himself. Lost to the drugs, to the drink, and to the doubt. “This place didn’t just give me that peace, but it gave me that peace of mind. It gave me internal peace. It gave me the best gift I could ever have and that is myself.” 

The struggle to find ourselves is never easy. Jerome has done such incredible work over the six months he has been here (the longest time he has had sober in twelve years) to rediscover who Jerome is. The road to our doors has certainly not been straight nor paved in gold, but he made it into the arms of our community nevertheless…and we are so grateful for that. Today, Jerome is a man who brightens rooms with his contagiously genuine smile. A smile you believe. So, right at the beginning of the spotlight interview, when I asked him that question, that simple and incredibly complex question, he said to me with his chest puffed with pride…

“I’m grateful, I’m in recovery, and I’m a resident at Beit T’Shuvah. That’s who I am.” 

Spotlight on Jerome M. by Jesse Solomon

If you were moved by this story, please consider making a donation to Beit T’Shuvah today to help ensure the life-saving work we do continues.

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You can make a donation by going to https://beittshuvah.org/support/donate/
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If you would like to reach out to the subject of this spotlight to show your love and support, please email: spotlight@beittshuvah.org