Ep. 6: Dana Smith

May 1, 2020

Dana Smith has a unusual job: She helps people in recovery reach their potential at a gym dedicated to sobriety and fitness. But she didn’t reach this point easily. This is the story of how she overcame her own addiction, found new purpose in life after a horrific accident, and built a career she loves.

Follow Vic Vela on Twitter: @VicVela1

Transcript

Vic Vela:
Hey, it's Vic. Want to give you a heads up before we start. There's some emotional stuff in this episode, including talk of heavy drug use and someone dying. It might be hard for some people to listen to, but I promise this episode has hope too, just like always on this show.

Vic Vela:
Hi Dana. How are you?

Dana Smith:
Um, so we were just gonna do a quick workout. This time of day it's typically staff working.

Vic Vela:
Dana Smith works at the Phoenix. It's a small gym with a really down to earth vibe, exposed brick, natural sunlight, lots of free weights and jump ropes. It's a gym that I actually used to go to when I first got sober. I went to visit Dana there recently. She was learning a new exercise and Thomas, who's one of her coworkers, showed us how it's done.

Thomas:
Now you have to pretend that there's a million dollars in there. The only way you're getting it out is slamming it against the ground as hard as you can.

Dana Smith:
Now you got me.

Thomas:
A million bucks.

Vic Vela:
Dana loves this gym and her passion for exercise is really inspiring. Watching her do her thing for a couple of minutes really motivated me to up my own exercise routine .

Dana Smith:
When I'm not at Phoenix, I go to other gyms and I like high five people on the treadmills and they like probably think I'm super weird, but I come from a Phoenix environment where that's what we do. We encourage and we motivate each other. So I don't know you but Sue, you go on that treadmill, you know, like I, we just get an … and so now it's become like, um, it's just become part of who I am, I think. So it's hard for me to, to be motivated if, if I don't have other people doing it with me.

Vic Vela:
I'm the same way. I used to get high in the basement. I don't want to go work out in the basement, you know?

Dana Smith:
I told my husband, it feels like a prison cell down there. It does. I don't need to work out in cells anymore. I don't have to do that.

Thomas:
Ok, one round and then we cue the music. You ready for this?

Vic Vela:
And Dana Smith knows exactly what it feels like to have to work out in a prison cell. I'm Vic Vela. I'm a journalist, a storyteller, and a recovering drug addict. And this is Back from Broken, from Colorado Public Radio. Stories about the highest highs, the darkest moments and what it takes to make a comeback.

Vic Vela:
Unlike some of the guests on this podcast, Dana Smith isn't famous. She's more like your next door neighbor, polite and soft-spoken. And there's another way she's not like other people I've talked to on this show. A lot of them can look back on their lives and perhaps even laugh at some of the things they did, even if they were really painful memories. But Dana doesn't do that.

Dana Smith:
Do you want me to try to keep my answers like sort of concise?

Vic Vela:
Um, you know, let's just go with it.

Vic Vela:
She's super matter of fact about the bad parts. The things that started when Dana was a bored teenager in the Chicago suburbs. She started using booze and marijuana, then cocaine and heroin. All this while she was still in high school. Then she overdosed. But even that, she just kind of shrugged off like, you know, overdoses just kind of go with the territory. Drugs became the center of Dana's life. A lot of her friends overdosed too. Her boyfriend actually died by suicide after all the problems that came along with drug use started to pile up. And in the midst of all of that is when Dana's first career took off, if you can call it a career. This was long before she got into the Phoenix gym.

Dana Smith:
in the community where I was raised in the suburbs, there were a lot of people using heroin, but they didn't feel so comfortable going to the projects to buy it. So for people to avoid taking that risk and pay somebody to do it for them is, is ideal. So I found myself in a position where I could run drugs back and forth between the, the projects and the suburbs where I was raised. And so I moved into the projects on the South side of Chicago and I just, I was living on the streets and sleeping on trains and sleeping on buses and, and staying in the projects where I knew that the convenience of getting drugs would be much simpler.

Vic Vela:
Dana was still in her early twenties at this point, and she put her suburban girl next door image to use. She excelled at drug running and it paid for her own drug habits. She was often mixing heroin with prescription drugs like Xanax and Klonopin. And that's an extremely dangerous combination. Sometimes she would black out completely and then one day something happened that changed everything.

Dana Smith:
I, you know, like so many other experiences from those year, it's a fog and there's bits and pieces that I remember very vividly and there's pieces that I don't remember at all. I don't remember how the day started. I do know that I was, uh, bringing drugs from Chicago to the suburbs like I did on most days and I was driving into the suburbs and I was going to meet a girl and rather than paying me for the heroin that I was bringing her rather than paying me in cash, she asked if she could give me Xanax.

Vic Vela:
So that was a good trade for you?

Dana Smith:
Yeah, and I mean, it depends on how you define good. It was, you know, um, it, it made sense at the time. And you know, the rate at which I was using, it was difficult for me to support my habit. So trading for other drugs, uh, made sense in my head and I don't remember how much I took. I just remember that transaction happening and I'm sure that I probably took all of whatever she gave me. And that night I was driving down a windy road in the suburbs, close to where I grew up. And I remember waking up in the ditch and I was, I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know if I had hit something, if I had hit something, I didn't know what it was.

Vic Vela:
So you've been in this fog all day and now all of a sudden you're in a ditch and what's going through your mind at that time?

Dana Smith:
Protecting myself, as sad as it is at that time, I only cared about myself. I wanted to get rid of the drugs that I had on me. I wanted to search the car to see if there's anything that was in the car that maybe I could get arrested for. I remember, you know, it's, it's the hardest part for me to admit, but I remember trying to start the car. I just was worried about going to jail and protecting myself.

Vic Vela:
But police arrived at the scene and Dana did end up behind bars. The drugs left her disoriented. So as Dana sat in her jail cell, she still didn't know what had happened on the road.

Dana Smith:
I didn't even know what day it was. I remember kind of coming to in jail and I had this little desk in my jail cell, just like this little wooden desk. And I remember finding a piece of paper on the desk and it was a, uh, an order for a court appearance and it had the date written on it sometime in July. And I remember thinking, you know, the 4th of July had passed. What had I done on Independence Day? I had no idea where I was or, or what time of year it was. And, and trying to piece that together really took about a month for that cloud to lift.

Vic Vela:
When you found out what happened, what did happen during that accident? I.

Dana Smith:
I was driving under the influence and I nodded out behind the wheel. I crossed the center line. Uh, a man was riding a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction and I, I hit him, ended up in the ditch and I found out later that he had been married for about 20 years and he had a 13-year-old daughter.

Vic Vela:
I'm so sorry. Did he die instantly, Dana?

Dana Smith:
I don't know. I don't know much. Um, but what I do know is that he seemed to have a very loving family.

Vic Vela:
Dana, when you finally started to emerge from that fog, um, what was it like coming to grips with what you had done?

Dana Smith:
Yeah, to say that it was difficult would be an understatement. I mean, it was, I wanted to just plead guilty on day one and like take responsibility. I did this, I want to apologize to this family and plead guilty. And my lawyer was like, no, you can't do that. That's not how this works. Like you plead not guilty. We go through this process. It'll take about a year. You go to court every month. And I didn't understand that. I wanted to just plead guilty and, and I thought that that would at least show them that I was sincerely taking responsibility for what I had done.

Dana Smith:
I was asked to read my apology, my statement in the courtroom, but I was asked to only look directly at the judge. I was told that that's part of the procedure and the court and the county where I was being sentenced.

Vic Vela:
I've covered courts. I've been in those courtrooms before where the judge instructs that. Yeah.

Dana Smith:
Yep. I was not allowed to look at the victim's family because that can be construed as intimidating a witness, was what they called it. I don't think that anyone told the victim's family that that procedure, you know, I can't fathom the devastation that I caused their family and, and the least that I could do is communicate with them directly and, and that communication didn't happen. So I imagine that it probably came across as pretty insincere.

Vic Vela:
You were sentenced to six years in prison?

Dana Smith:
Yep.

Vic Vela:
How many did you serve?

Dana Smith:
Five.

Vic Vela:
Did you think it was a fair sentence?

Dana Smith:
I was comfortable with the sentence. I mean, if, if that family had asked me to go to jail for 10 years, for 20 years, I was willing to do whatever it was. If they asked me to do another five years, that's what it takes. That's what I need to do.

Vic Vela:
Dana was convicted of aggravated DUI, which was considered a violent offense in Illinois. At first, Dana served her sentence at a maximum security prison where she spent most of her time in isolation. It was plenty of time for her to think about her addiction, how she could behave so selfishly,

Dana Smith:
Maybe it's, I, you know, maybe it's more of a biological and a physiological response than I'm able to offer. But it's sort of like when we blame people for their addiction and why can't you just stop? And there's so many people in the world who make what seems like such a conscious decision to be selfish and destroy their lives and the lives of others and choose alcohol and drugs. And I, it's just not that conscious of a choice at the time. And believe me, like I'm a rational, logical human. If I could think my way out of this problem, I would have a long time ago. And I think that's what's so true for so many of us is that we're not stupid. You know, if, if it had been a conscious decision to just like, 'Do you want to throw your life away today?' We might've opted for something else.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. There's plenty of Harvard and Yale grads with problems. It's not a smart and stupid thing.

Dana Smith:
But it's a great question because that is the logical piece of like, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Vic Vela:
How did you change in prison?

Dana Smith:
It was honestly like a light switch. It was like after that month, my first month in jail, what I had done to my community, what I had done to this family and I had no choice but to change my life and I was not willing to take the risk. If I use drugs and alcohol, again, I am bound to make the same type of decisions. I refuse to take another person's life and that means that I can't be the person that I was.

Vic Vela:
So how did you make that decision to never use drugs again? I mean, you sound like you were just set.

Dana Smith:
Yeah, I, I was, I, you know, it wasn't a matter of I'm just going to try, you know, there were a lot of times in my life where I was in that place where I just was going to try, I was going to commit to 30 days or I was going to commit to just today. This was different for me. I had to say I have hurt so many people and I'm done.

Vic Vela:
Dana was committed, but she still had years of prison time left. And by design there's not much to do behind bars. So she looked for a healthy way to spend her time. And this is the part in Dana's story where her tone changes a little bit, where she could finally look back on a memory and smile.

Dana Smith:
I knew that I needed to take care of myself. I needed to create routines for my life, and structure. And when the jail doesn't provide that structure for you, you kind of have to create it for yourself. And so part of that for me was physical activity and finding ways that I could exercise for an hour or so.

Vic Vela:
And how did that happen? Because you don't have a lot of space to do it in, right?

Dana Smith:
A lot of creativity. Um, you know, I had friends and family at home who would print out body weight, CrossFit workouts, and then they would mail them to me with a letter. So you know, it says 20 pushups and 10 sit ups and then do this. And it kind of gave me some instructions and some guidelines. And we did have playing cards while we were incarcerated. So I took a deck of playing cards and I would scatter them around my cell and I would do squats to pick up each card individually. So now if you've picked up all the cards, you've done 52 body weight squats. So I would kind of do activities like that just to, it's entertaining. It gives you a goal where you know that you have to pick up all the cards, but you're not necessarily counting to 52 and getting tired and feeling exhausted. Instead, you're just picking up the cards.

Vic Vela:
That's good. No excuses, right?

Dana Smith:
Exactly.

Vic Vela:
As you were in prison, what did you think you were going to do afterward?

Dana Smith:
I had no idea. Yeah. You know, I had never really held a full time job.

Vic Vela:
How old were you too?

Dana Smith:
I was a 25. So I was 25 years old and I thought, I knew that I wanted to do something and I needed to have this sense of purpose to give back to my community and I didn't know what it was.

Vic Vela:
After the break, how Dana found the answer to that question. Exercise and recovery meetings help Dana find herself, but she still spent a lot of time thinking about how she could give her life some purpose once she got out of prison, until the answer came out of nowhere.

Dana Smith:
One day I was working out on the prison yard and I went back to my cell and I was watching my little prison TV and CNN was on and it was an episode of CNN heroes with Anderson Cooper.

Scott Strode:
You're there in that moment. Everything else melts away and you're just there. It can fill that void that the drugs and alcohol left.

Dana Smith:
I saw this clip of Scott Strode in a gym in Denver where all of these people in recovery were working to change their lives and participating in these physical fitness sort of events and they were doing it together as a community.

Vic Vela:
And Scott himself in recovery.

Dana Smith:
Yes.

Scott Strode:
I just changed my self esteem. Start to think of myself as an athlete instead of an addict. Having that experience myself, it made me realize I can give this to other people and that's where Phoenix started.

Vic Vela:
I could picture the light bulb going over your head while you're in prison watching this.

Dana Smith:
Absolutely. I was, I was hooked. I was like, this is it. This is, this is what is missing.

Scott Strode:
I think when you come to Phoenix, it allows you to let go of some of that shame from your drug use and be whatever you want. You can become a climber, you can become a boxer and later on you become a good friend and a good son.

Dana Smith:
I immediately started calling my family from the prison phone, you know, and at the time I was pretty out of touch with technology, but I was like, you guys have to go on the computer and find this video and the CNN and this guy Scott Strode, you gotta find him. And uh, you know, they watched the videos and they thought I might be a little nuts. But, um, I, I was determined. I knew that this was, this was the way that I could give back to my community that I had so desperately been searching for and make a positive impact where in the past I had left such a devastating wake of destruction.

Vic Vela:
Dana's release date of 2014 was still far away and then she'd still had to complete a year of probation. But she finally had a goal to work at the Phoenix -- one that she never gave up on as she served her sentence. She knew it was going to take hard work to get there. Over time, she gradually increased her workout routine in prison, getting fitter, getting stronger, which led to Dana achieving things she never thought possible.

Dana Smith:
So the goal is to just go for a run today. I'm going to go for a run and today I'm going to jog for 20 minutes and tomorrow I'm going to jog for 30 and I'm running in circles in the prison yard along this like barbed wire fence. And I'm just a hamster in a cage. But, but it's a goal and the goal is 30 minutes and that's it. And a girl was running with me one day in prison and she, we're panting and we're running and we can hardly talk. And she says, we should run the Chicago marathon. And I was like, well, you're nuts. That's probably not going to happen. Um, but she was serious and she left prison about a year or two years before me. She was released and she stayed in contact with me and we had this goal. We were going to run the Chicago marathon.

Dana Smith:
So the few months leading up to my release, I was training for the marathon. I was in the prison yard. And two months after my release from prison, I completed the Chicago marathon with a girl that I was incarcerated with.

Vic Vela:
That's incredible.

Dana Smith:
So it starts as, you know, 30 minutes running on the yard on the prison yard, and that turns into completing the Chicago marathon shortly after, you know, getting an ankle monitor taken off. So I had an ankle rubbed raw from an ankle monitor, but I ran 26 miles.

Vic Vela:
And you would have never gotten there if you didn't take those reasonable first steps.

Dana Smith:
Exactly, exactly. And it would have been overwhelming. And if, if on day one, you know, I come out of this fog and I decide I'm gonna run a marathon. It wasn't like that. It was just, I'm gonna run 30 minutes.

Vic Vela:
When her probation was finally over, she and her husband moved to Denver so Dana could be near the Phoenix.

Dana Smith:
I started showing up and you know, I had some significant gaps on my resume due to a five-year incarceration, so I couldn't really demonstrate what I was capable of professionally. But they took a chance on me in 2016 and hired me for a coordinator level position.

Dana Smith:
This was just … it was different. It was people with similar interests. It was a support group. It was peers. It was people who I didn't need to explain myself to.

Vic Vela:
That's huge. That's it, isn't it?

Dana Smith:
It is.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. You just, whether it's a sponsor or a friend or who, whoever you, you don't have to give them the backstory of, of, because we get it.

Dana Smith:
Yeah. No one asks, you know, and if they do, it's because they care. It's not because they're nosy.

Vic Vela:
Yeah exactly. Well, we need them. Well, there's a lot of different kinds of recovery communities, whether they are recovery programs or whatever. What makes a gym a good recovery community?

Dana Smith:
For me, um, the secret sauce, if you will, is that it's a safe and welcoming and nurturing environment. So the gym that that's just an Avenue to get people together. The kettlebell class, the yoga class, those are just ways to bring us together and give us something to unite over and high five each other and sweat together. But really it's about the community and the community happens because we create a safe and welcoming space for people to feel comfortable connecting.

Vic Vela:
Four years later, Dana's still has that community at the Phoenix helping people find that connection that she needed. Scott, the guy she idolized while in jail is not just her boss, but is now a close friend. Dana is now a happy mom. She and her husband have a toddler at home and now she's able to take pleasure in the little things in life.

Dana Smith:
I try different things at home. I get into like home remodeling projects and these things that I previously would have thought of as kind of dorky. But I get, I get really into these like things that I can do that, um, you know, I, I never would have thought I would have enjoyed.

Vic Vela:
I would always joke with people who are new to recovery, who always come up -- we were there -- always coming up with excuses not to get sober. Like, how can I have fun without drugs? And I would tell them, when's the last time drugs were fun for you?

Dana Smith:
Yes, exactly. The last time I checked, the last time I sat in a basement, it wasn't fun anymore.

Dana Smith:
Some days I, I take out the garbage in the building just so I have an opportunity to stand in the alley behind the building because there's this moment in Scott's CNN video where he stood in the alley behind the building and he talked about how his goal was to bring people from the other side of the fence, people who were using and living on the street. He talked about how his goal was to bring those folks into the gym.

Vic Vela:
That alley's symbolic.

Dana Smith:
It was so symbolic for me. And so there's moments still to this day where I take the garbage out and I just go stand in that alley and it's this 'Man, I was in prison when I saw that and when I heard his goal and how that resonated with me and that light bulb that went off for me. That, that's it. That's the goal.' I dedicate my life to helping people get from that side of the fence into this building of recovery support.

Vic Vela:
Dana is comfortable telling her recovery journey, but she's uncomfortable with people praising her for turning her life around. She hasn't forgotten about the victims.

Dana Smith:
I always think about who might hear this conversation and how it might affect them. And the thing that is most important to me is my victim's family and the man whose life I took had a 13 year old daughter and she's probably about 23 now. And so what's important to me is that if she were to hear this, she knows that this isn't about me. You know, that this isn't about my story or look at me and how great I've done and how successful my life is. And I have a daughter now. None of those things are, are what matters. What matters is that what I took from that family I can never give back. And, and I hope that they know that my efforts and being public about my story is only about trying to do whatever I can to positively influence others so that they don't make the same bad decisions that I did. It's about, look at what we can do when we change our lives and when we get sober. And that's not unique to me. That's, that's so many people. It's millions of people in this country who are living in longterm recovery.

Vic Vela:
Thank you for your humility.

Dana Smith:
Thank you.

Vic Vela:
Back from Broken is a show about how we're all broken sometimes and how we need help from time to time. If you're struggling with addiction, you could find a list of resources at our website BackFromBroken.org.

Zach:
Hi this is Zach from Denver, Colorado. Here's what's been happening in my recovery. I've found out that the, that the people in the rooms that I go to when they tell me, um, when they tell me how they got and stay sober, I'm figuring out that if I listen to them, um, stuff works out.

Aaron:
Hey, my name is Aaron. I'm from Boulder, Colorado. And what is happening in my recovery this week is I definitely am feeling like I'm a different person from when I was actively using. I can feel it like more on the inside, not just on the outside.

Vic Vela:
We'd love to hear how you're doing in your recovery and we might share it on this podcast so everybody listening can give you a virtual pat on the back too. Record a voice memo or MP3 and send it to vic@backfrombroken.org if you know someone who might benefit from stories like this, please share this podcast with them. We spent more than a year building this show on research, interviews, production, editing because we know it'll help people, but it does cost money. But people who listen to this podcast, people just like you, make it a reality. You can support future episodes at BackFromBroken.org. Back From Broken is hosted by me Vic Vela, and it's a production of Colorado Public Radio's Audio Innovation Studio and CPR News. Thanks to people in recovery who helped us develop this podcast. Ben, Matthew, Sean, and Mateo. Thank you so much for your guidance. The Back from Broken team is Rebecca Romberg, John Pinnow, Matthew Simonson, Rachel Estabrook, Brad Turner and Kevin Dale. Thanks also to Daniel Mescher, Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen and Jodi Girsch. Please subscribe, rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find it, and thanks for listening to Back From Broken.