“Yeah, any drug put in front of me I’d use,” Jonathan Strayn, of the skinheads and Aryan Brotherhood, recalls. His story is not uncommon among violent extremists who not only got into hate but drugs as well. Hate turned outwards is a way to channel mixed up emotions, deep feelings of insecurity, shame and emotional pain over failures into blaming others. And drugs provide a common path as well to escape psychic pain.

Jonathan recalls a childhood of mixed up religious messages, statements of love mixed up with contradictory and painful punishments occurring in an environment of constant family moves and little external support, all leading to overwhelming feelings of shame, failure, isolation and loneliness. “That’s why I used needles the strongest, to escape this reality. Because in my mind it was uninhabitable,” Jonathan explains.

While some people use substances to party, a lot more use drugs to escape the pain in their heads. Jonathan doesn’t remember any particular traumas that haunted his mind, just his fundamentalist Christian upbringing with a father that was drunk a lot of the time. “I was really little, but I do remember picking him up from bars at night, getting phone calls that he’s wasted and can’t walk, [and] the whole excessive spankings with the Jesus in it. That really did something to me,” Jonathan explains. The confusion, fear, shame, and emotional pain shut him down in many ways and affected his ability to feel close with others, trust and enjoy relationships. “As far as personal connections with people, I’m very distant,” Jonathan says.

Although his father stopped drinking, it just got worse as the family moved from place to place disrupting any sense of stability and breaking external support networks. As his parents got hyper-religious, Jonathan found religion so confusing. “Dad would discipline me and tell me Jesus loved me at the same time. It grew and grew a big divide between me and my parents. All of the aggression, with the so-called love that he was speaking of…”

Eventually the hurt and anger started erupting in nearly every area of his life. I got in trouble at school, back talked, didn’t listen, didn’t clean my room, didn’t get up for church… The big problem was my brother was a really good kid and I was not. They didn’t know how to handle me. Spankings were the kind of thing to make your child listen…”

Jonathan’s slide into drugs was a natural way to cope with the pain of his homelife. “Highschool smoking a lot of pot, pills, eating mushrooms, cocaine a little, drinking. I just left [home] on my own. They really didn’t want me to be there anymore. Right after high school I was really into Satanism. That didn’t work for them. My hair was a Mohawk, and colors and piercings all over.
I was out there, on drugs, no one wanted to be around me.”

“Matt’s friends got us heroin, we tried it,” Jonathan recalls of his ultimate descent into drugs. “[I used] all drugs, any of them that I could get, but my drug of choice was heroin, needles. It did everything that nothing else could do. It took everything away. It took all my feelings that I had ever had and put them by the wayside and let me experience a sort of calm in the midst of a storm.”

That’s the beauty of drugs, especially heroin and other opioids. They deliver an effect, in this case, a peaceful suspension into a calm Jonathan desperately needed, but they also take away your freedom of mind, your ability to make good choices. And in Jonathan’s case, there were the skinheads and Aryan Brotherhood waiting on the sidelines. They became the family Jonathan needed, but all their hate directed outward came with the deal.

“I was angry at everybody and everything,” Jonathan recalls. “When I got around them, it was all directed. They showed you where to focus your anger.” Jonathan was extremely vulnerable and had already surrendered his mind to drugs. He recalls the radicalization process happening so fast, in a matter of months, changing him fundamentally. “I never even made the choice [to hate]. It kind of just happened because of the position I had put myself in because of my mental state with the drugs and everything, I had taken my conscious choice away a long time ago. It was a snowball effect, slip and roll and then at the bottom of the mountain. It’s so fast and quick.”

Now he realizes all the anger was covering over a deep hurt. Like him, most of his group had come from painful childhoods. “Yes, the anger comes from being hurt for the most part,” he explains.

When I ask Jonathan if he had fun for a while at least, going through women and drugs, he answers, “I thought I did, but it wasn’t worth it. I feel like I wasted all my potential. I could have been so much more than what I’ve become.”

Jonathan spent time in a rehab center, and in prison and tried to get clean. It wasn’t easy. Failures are part of the path for most.

“Detox – body aches, headaches, nausea, throwing up, terrible gut problems,” Jonathan recalls. “I felt like dying, felt like I’d been hit by a semi and then backed over several time, the bus was loud, bouncing around, stop and going. I didn’t hallucinate, just felt miserable. My head felt like someone hit me with an axe. Your guts are demolished. It’s excruciating, like hot pins and needles everywhere.” Despite detoxing multiple times Jonathan didn’t manage to get clean till he was in prison.

“I started to try to find some sort of peace instead of all of this chaos. I wanted to try and figure out what’s going on with me on the inside, some of my childhood trauma I felt I had, some sort of religion.” First, he had to break out of his hate group which often entails a brutal beating if not death. “I told the guys in Tennessee; I didn’t want to be around it anymore. Luckily, they didn’t have any knives. I just got beat by 6-7 people. The guards moved me.”

“That’s when I found a guy walking around the yard. He was chanting on beads. He started to explain what Buddhism is. When I found him, I was like wow this is really right on time! He said, ‘Do me a favor, I’m going to give you my mala beads. Just chant this simple mantra and see if it helps.’ It helped, gave me something to focus on that was super positive, unlike anything I’d done before. I did that for a month, then I met the Hare Krishna movement. That really intrigued me, changed my life. It was the compassion. The whole Krishna movement was about compassion. I had lacked that my entire life. When I found it, it was completely new. It’s Indian, something I never knew. It really changed my perception.”

Jonathan found a way to calm himself through meditative practices, to get back in touch with feelings he’d pushed away for years and to grant himself the compassion his parents had failed to offer. Slowly he started healing and got off the drugs. It wasn’t simple. He’s still on a path of recovery.

“It’s okay though. I still deal with depression, anxiety, and PTSD from my childhood. I can’t connect with people, have no sentimental value, don’t like family functions…” Yet he found a wife and she puts up with his avoidant attachment style, loves him despite it.

Now clean, Jonathan reflects. “I learned my lessons from things. I know where I don’t want to be. I can’t say where I’ll be in five years.”

Drugs have their purpose—they can numb the pain, but usually they bring more pain as addiction, surrendering choice and a downward spiral begins. To get free of drugs most people need to deal with the pain and shame that sent them into drugs and find another more positive way to cope with painful emotions. For Jonathan it started with chanting and feeling compassion for himself, belonging with people less toxic than the hate group. Eventually he found healthier relationships. His brain functions began to kick back in and he started to feel his emotions, but he still had to learn how to trust, attach in a healthy way, and find true joy versus live inside his protective shell.

Jonathan fought his way out of the prison of drugs and you can too. Many people find help in support groups and religious communities as knowing you are loved and not alone with your failures and frustrations and pain is good way to move past the isolating effects of shame. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous function in nearly every community across the U.S. and in many Western countries. Likewise, many religious groups offer support to people trying to get clean although some can try to control you in other ways, so its wise to take their support with a grain of salt and always evaluate if you are finding your freedom of mind or it’s still being taken from you.

A drug free mind is a free mind capable of choosing peace, joy and serenity in the face of any stressors and doing what’s best for you and those you love.

Give it a spin—try to love yourself and get clean, taking it one step at a time and day by day. You deserve to love yourself and live joyfully. You can do it!

If you need help exiting hate you can contact people who care here.

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