With 28 years of sobriety under his belt, the addiction struggles of Evan “Bullet” James may seem like a lifetime ago, but he remembers them clearly. Rock cocaine use left him homeless in Hollywood as he contemplated suicide. But through what he sees as divine intervention, James got sober and decided to devote his life to helping others do the same.
After holding several jobs in the recovery world, he went on to launch Extreme Intervention Services. The aggressive methods for intervening and transporting addicted teens and young adults to rehab are also the basis of a new A&E show, “The Extractors.” James’ hope is that the show will raise awareness for Teen Adolescent Placement Services, a non-profit organization he helps run that gives troubled youth – and their family members – access to treatment.
In this exclusive interview with Recovery.org, James talks about the moment that led him to sobriety, working in the recovery world and producing reality TV with a purpose.
Q: When did your drug use first begin?
A: I grew up in Spanish Harlem in New York City and had a really great childhood. Things started to fall apart when I was 13. My sister took some actions with her own drug use that were unacceptable to my dad and caused a big rift with my mom.
My sister got sent away and my mom took off, so my dad decided to move us to California. We went to Hollywood and I immediately found out about gang life. I saw it was a way to fit in.
Because of my athletic process, I was an all-city baseball and basketball player and had lots of scholarship offers to mid-level schools. But there was a park across the street from where I went to school and it was “home” to a gang. I got along with all of them because the family of one of the guys on my team ran that gang. Unfortunately for me, I chose to run with them and got introduced to drugs…and eventually rock cocaine when I was 19.
By the time I was 23, I was robbing and stealing and doing everything that someone who is addicted to rock cocaine does. I was actually living in a gas station bathroom in Hollywood. I’m not sure if the station owner was scared of me or felt sorry for me, but he let me stay there for weeks and occasionally slipped candy bars underneath the door.
Q: Yet that wasn’t your rock bottom moment. When did you know something had to change?
A: On Oct. 26, 1987. I reached a point in my addiction where nobody wanted to do anything with me and I didn’t want anything to do with myself. I was looking in the mirror and it was apropos that it was a splintered, fractured mirror because that was exactly how I felt about myself.
…nobody wanted to do anything with me and I didn’t want anything to do with myself. I was looking in the mirror and it was apropos that it was a splintered, fractured mirror because that was exactly how I felt about myself.-Evan “Bullet” James
I had always believed in a higher power, but just assumed He had forgotten about me. I begged God to just let me die and then decided to wander out into traffic and get hit by a car. I said, “God, if you’re not going to let me die, then please help me.”
There was a church on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and figured I’d go to a place where He could hear me better. There were a bunch of people congregating in front of the church and drinking coffee. Something about it felt inviting and safe. This guy with a speech impediment came up to me and said it was a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and he asked me to join. That was the last time I ever got high.
There’s been a lot that has happened in my recovery since then, but what kept me from getting high was knowing that I couldn’t disrespect God leading me to that church on that night. If I did, I’d be disrespecting the magnitude of that moment.
Q: Once you got clean, did working in the recovery world come about shortly afterward? Or it did take awhile?
A: It happened almost immediately after. Truthfully, what kind of job could a guy like me get? That was the only field where it was almost encouraged.
Once you got clean, you could get a job working as a tech in recovery, so that’s what I did.
Q: You founded Extreme Intervention Services. What’s the difference between an “extreme intervention” versus a regular intervention?
A: It’s the method; it’s the people. I’m certainly trained in standard intervention and numerous intervention models. I pioneered the extreme intervention model 17 or 18 years ago and it meets the addict where they are.
Normal interventions are generally thought out and well conceived. We’ve all seen the show “Intervention,” where they write letters and it’s therapeutic and the addict is offered this incredible opportunity. It’s beautiful when that happens and it works, but life doesn’t always work that way.
Sometimes you have to meet the addict coming out of an alley or a jail, or take a troubled girl away from a group of guys who don’t have good intentions for her. I thought there was a missing element to interventions. With my background being from the streets and running with gangs, yet also having a clinical component with a background as an intervention specialist and working for years as a counselor at the Betty Ford Center, it meshed a couple of different practicalities together.
Q: Now you have “The Extractors” on A&E. Shows like “Celebrity Rehab” and “Intervention” have gotten bad press for being exploitative and taking advantage of people at their lowest moments. Was that a concern for you before filming began?
A: It’s always a concern when you’re illuminating someone in a vulnerable spot. But my objective from the very beginning in making this show, which has been a 16 or 17-year process, was to raise awareness for a non-profit I help run called Teen Adolescent Placement Services (TAPS).
The great thing about A&E and “The Extractors” is that we were able to help eight kids, including brothers and sisters, who would have never been in a position to get help.-Evan “Bullet” James
Our mission at TAPS is to help kids and families in peril access the help they need, but wouldn’t normally have access to. That continues to be my motivation and I’ll continue to fight for them until I have no more breath.
The great thing about A&E and “The Extractors” is that we were able to help eight kids, including brothers and sisters, who would have never been in a position to get help. When I think about the trade-off of illuminating these youngsters in a vulnerable spot and getting them access to treatment, as opposed to them not getting help, my conscious tells me it’s still a good thing.
Q: What has the show done in terms of raising awareness for TAPS? Have you gotten more donations or website traffic?
A: It’s still a work in progress. There’s certainly been some benefit, but I feel that we’re still a very important and underfunded resource. We continue to run on fumes.
You have presidential candidates who all speak of the need for preventative medicine, which I think falls under what we do because we’re plucking people from the depths of addiction, but it hasn’t translated into funding for us. I’m eternally grateful to A&E and everything they’ve done for us, but we have a long way to go.
Q: Do you feel like you’re running on fumes because there’s more of a demand for the services you provide?
A: We’re running on fumes because we have 38 cases on backlog. Those families have no resources to help their teenage or young adult children who are dying from their addiction and have no help in their community via local resources. We have solutions and answers where we’ll intervene, extract and therapeutically transport them to a treatment facility that we have negotiated scholarship rates for.
We have the ability to likely save a kid’s life for $20,000-30,000. That’s a ton of money for a family living paycheck to paycheck or receiving government funding, but it’s nothing for a lot of non-profits that have millions in their piggy bank. If we had millions, we’d use every bit of it each year and save all those kids. Why it’s so hard for an organization like ours to get funding and why we fall through the cracks is a microcosm of why these kids fall through the cracks.
Learn more about the available treatment options for alcohol abuse and addiction in your area.
Image Courtesy of Evan “Bullet” James