“I know God has a plan for me. If not, I wouldn’t have seen Shelly that day. She gave me Go Slow and it saved my life. My life has been on an upward journey ever since.” – William Jenkins
William Jenkins was resolved to build a better life when he was released from prison in 2015. He had been to prison before – he spent 34 years of his life in total behind bars – but this had been his longest sentence.
William got caught up in a life of crime and drug use after his father passed away at a young age. “I felt like I was expected to take care of my mom and sister,” he said. “I was looking for opportunities to make money and I gravitated to the street. Drug use was a part of the street culture.” He will always remember New Year’s Eve 1966; it was the day he tried heroin for the first time at the age of 14. It started his lifelong battle with opioid addiction.
At the time of his release from prison, William had the longest period of sobriety in his adult life. During this time the rest of the country was grappling with a devastating epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose. Shortly after his release William had to have surgery on both knees, and while he was still recovering he lost access to the pain medications he needed to manage his ongoing chronic pain. “I was in such pain and didn’t know what to do, so I reverted back to what I know best,” William said. “But low and behold, drugs have drastically changed.”
There was no real heroin anymore, only fentanyl. Fentanyl has a shorter high compared to heroin, is dangerously unpredictable, and has a significantly higher risk of overdose. Fentanyl has been one of the main drivers of the overdose epidemic that has taken so many lives in communities across America.
William said with fentanyl, “You never know what you’re taking. You could take the same amount you took yesterday and today it will kill you. I have had friends who overdosed from not really knowing what they were taking.” Despite the increased risks, once William started, he had to keep using to avoid withdrawal and to feel normal. He was trapped in a cycle of opioid dependency once again.
One day in August 2020, William was driving down Penn Ave in Baltimore and he saw an old friend of his, Shelly Johnson. Shelly was out with Bmore POWER (Peers Offering Wellness and Resources), a local grassroots harm reduction group that offers resources, support, and information to communities impacted by drug use. When Shelly saw her old friend, she wanted to do everything she could to help him be as safe and healthy as possible. She gave him a safe injection kit to reduce the risk of disease, information about overdose prevention and a mask that said ‘Go Slow.’
When William got home, he used the safe supplies to prepare his drugs. Then he looked down at the ‘Go Slow’ mask in front of him and it made him pause and take a moment to think about what he was doing. William said he thought “go slow; take your time, and that’s exactly what I did. If I hadn’t gone slow that day, I think I would have died.” He could feel that the dose was much stronger than he anticipated but he didn’t overdose because he had only taken a small amount.
Looking back, William said “I know God has a plan for me. If not, I wouldn’t have seen Shelly that day. She gave me Go Slow and it saved my life. My life has been on an upward journey ever since.”
Meeting People Where They’re At
Bmore POWER’s mission is to help people safeguard themselves and their communities from mental, physical and societal harms. By offering essential harm reduction resources, like safe cooking paraphernalia and narcan, they are opening a line of trust and connection to people who use drugs.
Bmore POWER created the Go Slow campaign to give practical, actionable tips to reduce the risk of fatal overdose from fentanyl. During outreach Bmore POWER will often go where no one else will to truly meet people where they are and connect them with lifesaving resources and information. William had a message to the Bmore POWER team that created Go Slow: “Your message will save lives. That day I listened and had I not I wouldn’t be here. You guys [Bmore POWER] are the heroes; you go down in them pockets and pass out that literature.”
Life in Recovery
That night was a wakeup call for William. He decided it was time to break out of the cycle of addiction and went to REACH Health Services for treatment. Now he has been in recovery for more than six months and he has been able to save more money than he ever had before. He says, “Every day I look back and see how far I have come. I know I will never go back,” Now that William is in recovery, he wants to share his story to help others. He wishes people had more empathy and understanding for people with substance use disorders.
He encourages anyone who is struggling with a substance use disorder to take one step at a time. Change and help can come from unexpected places and will look different for everyone. He encourages people to “Go slow. Pause to think. Stop looking out and start looking within.” If you or someone you love is looking for help for substance use, call Baltimore’s Here2Help Hotline at 410 433 5175.