After prison sentence, 34-year-old Brett Baker learning to live life “on life’s terms”
Today, Brett Baker’s only child is 12 years old.
The last time he saw his son, he was around 4.
“That’s really a difficult pill to swallow somedays,” the 34-year-old Cartersville resident said. “But sometimes what you want for yourself shouldn’t necessarily outweigh the best for somebody else.”
Baker lost his parental rights about eight years ago. It’s one of the many things substance use disorder has cost the 2004 Woodland High grad.
“I had lost my wife, I lost my kid, I had lost trust of my family, I had lost everything,” he recounted. “And I had to take a long, hard look at what I wanted to accomplish in life and what direction I needed to begin to take.”
For Baker, that required a roughly three-year prison stay, with time split between the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson and Hancock State Prison in Sparta.
Baker said he turned to crime to support his substance abuse in his mid-20s.
“I had stolen from my family, then I moved to another state and I proceeded to steal from other people,” he said. “It just snowballed, you know. There was no care for anything else.”
He said he was arrested at least three times and was ultimately convicted of burglarizing a pharmacy and a post office in Alabama.
“For what reason?” he recollected. “There was no reason, you know. Pure stupidity.”
What put Baker behind bars for so long, however, was a probation revocation. Although he said a judge ordered a six-year prison sentence, Baker found himself a free man — in a strictly physical sense — in about half that time.
“You get in trouble in one place, you go to another place thinking it’s somehow going to be better there, like there’s some kind of geographical cure to this,” he said. “I kept moving and just kept getting in trouble.”
He recounted his incarceration as a “demeaning” process — albeit, one that wasn’t without its edifying benefits.
“All individuality is taken away from you,” he said. “But if you take it seriously, it’s actually a very good learning experience, if you actually work the program that they have set out for you to work.”
During his prison sentence, Baker said he participated in the Georgia Department of Corrections Fire Services and Life Safety program — even getting nationally certified in the process.
He said he hopes to one day put his firefighter training to use professionally.
“You’ve got to wait five years post-conviction, before a fire department will look at you, or even to get hired on,” he said. “So I’m kind of waiting a little bit.”
Baker went through a few life skills classes, but said he had little in the way of substance abuse treatment services while incarcerated.
Nor was he free from the presence of illicit substances. In fact, he said drugs were just as widely accessible behind bars as they were on the local black markets.
“You could get as messed up and stay as messed up in prison as you can on the streets,” he said.
In many ways, Baker said his imprisonment served as something of a trial by fire — if not bodily, then certainly spiritually.
“If I can come from the circumstances and the situations that I’ve come from and God restore me to the person that I was meant to be,” he said, “I truly believe that anybody can, if they want to.”
IN THE GRIPS
Baker was 13 when he started smoking marijuana. It wasn’t long before he was using other drugs — pain pills, cocaine and, eventually, methamphetamine.
“If this makes me feel this good, let’s see what this makes me feel like,” he recounted. “Then it just became habitual. I had a constant access to it, and having a constant access to it, I just continued to use it.”
The “counter-culture” of drug use, he said, greatly appealed to him as a teenager. Nor was it difficult for him to find such substances throughout the county.
“If you were looking, and knew where to look, you could find it,” he said.
In hindsight, Baker said there are many other factors that drew him to substance use.
“There’s definitely underlying issues that contribute to your addiction,” he said. “The drugs were really only a symptom of my problem — dealing with insecurities, dealing with self esteem, maybe my parents getting divorced and me not understanding that as a child.”
Baker’s dependency on Oxycodone and Oxycontin ultimately sent him to a methadone clinic. His first stint in rehab occurred before he was even 16.
Another rehab stay in his early 20s was likewise ineffective.
“A rehab program only works if you’re willing to apply yourself 100% to that program,” he said. “And I just wasn’t at that time.”
Even then, Baker knew he needed to stop. But he just didn’t want to.
“You get so inundated with just the lifestyle, the people, the places, and you tend to completely cast aside anybody that might love and care about you in order to obtain that,” he said. “It definitely changed my perception on the law, because it got in the way of my agenda, it definitely changed what was truly important in my life, it just superseded everything.”
Baker was released about nine months ago. When he got out, one of the first things he did was thank the probation officer who, effectively, sent him to prison.
“Because it was a very enlightening period of my life,” he said, “regardless of how painful it was.”
“ON LIFE’S TERMS”
Baker now resides with his father and step-mother. He considers himself lucky to have something that many individuals released from prison do not — a loving family and a support network waiting for him on the outside.
He’s a member at Sam Jones Memorial United Methodist Church. He also does work with The Tranquility House and is involved with several Narcotics Anonymous groups throughout the community.
“I’m more fortunate than some that have been incarcerated,” Baker said. “Being involved with the church and other organizations here in Cartersville, maybe I would call them inside tracks to some avenues in Cartersville that maybe others don’t have.”
Baker said that he believes Bartow County's substance abuse epidemic is so severe, in part, due to families continuing to perpetuate the problem.
“It’s entrenched in the community," he said. “The people that are stuck in the way of thinking that the law isn’t for their benefit, and I thought that way for a long time.”
He said the community could certainly benefit from more substance abuse treatment services, such as detox centers and rehab facilities with transitional housing components.
“A program that would help a convicted felon find housing here in Bartow, or maybe even surrounding counties, would be super beneficial,” he added.
For the time being, Baker said he finds himself simply learning how to live life “on life’s terms.”
“People need to realize that this is a problem that really needs to be addressed,” he said, “and it needs to be addressed early.”
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Baker said he’s concerned by the “glamorization” of drug use in media and social media.
“A rapper might talk about doing this or doing that or having done this or have done that, but a lot of the rappers aren’t going to tell you about how much time they’ve done, who they hurt, what they’ve lost, how it’s affected them,” he said.
From a cultural perspective, he said he believes the nation’s substance abuse crisis should be examined as something much larger than a drug dependency problem.
“We live in a very materialistic world, where I believe kids aren’t taught the importance of spirituality and getting to know just who they are,” he said.
Nor does he believe the drug crisis can be remedied by simply shifting those with substance use disorders to other forms of pharmaceuticals.
“The only cure for this drug problem is abstinence,” he said. “There are certain circumstances where I think medication should be used therapeutically to help relieve some of the pain of coming off some substances, but being a person that’s had to come off of these substances … you’re prolonging their pain, and I believe that’s something that really needs to be addressed in any conversation having to do with recovery, from opioids to marijuana.”
For the first time in many years, Baker said he feels as if his head is clear — and that opportunities abound, pending he remains committed to his recovery goals.
“I’m seeing that the sky is truly the limit,” he said. “As long as you’re willing to do whatever it takes … and the first thing that it takes for me is just being clean.”
One day he said he’d like to harness his entrepreneurial spirit and start his own business. Baker said he would also love to support substance abuse treatment and recovery options throughout the community, whether in the form of new 12-Step programs or offering services at rehabilitation facilities.
When discussing his plans for the future, Baker circles back to the biggest missing piece in his life today.
“I made the decision I made with my son, because the people who took custody of my son are really, really outstanding people,” he said. “They have taken the responsibility of raising my son when I couldn’t, and they’ve done such a wonderful job doing that that I believe me taking him out of the situation he’s in would’ve maybe had an adverse effect.”
That situation, Baker acknowledges, is one that is simply beyond his control. For now, all he can do is hope — and pray — that he and his son will eventually be reunited.
“Maybe one day, when some legalities go through in court and whatnot, and I truly believe if I continue down the right path, and he wants to see me, then I’ll see him,” he said. “It’s all about God’s timing.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.