Interviewsand Articles


Give Back What Was So Clearly Given To Me: Conversation with Matthew Kowalski

by Kathryn Sterbenc, Jul 13, 2010



On June 26, an artist will hang 16 abstract paintings in a bustling downtown restaurant in Oakland, Calif., preparing for a one-man show. To passers-by, the scene probably will look routine. But the artist is Matthew Kowalski, and his story is anything but ordinary. Kowalski was a homeless drug addict and alcoholic who lived on the streets of San Francisco for 27 years, battling addiction and mental illness. At age 42, he decided to get sober and began the long journey toward recovery. Today, Kowalski, 54, is a certified addiction counselor and professional artist. He is healthy, sane, happily married and a homeowner. He's come a long way from the meth addict who walked the streets all night, blowing the cracks of the sidewalks "looking for diamonds." Coincidentally, June 26 will be the ninth anniversary of Kowalski's graduation from Walden House, the San Francisco inpatient treatment facility that taught him how to eat, dress, wash, sleep, communicate, and, most important, free himself from addiction and self-hatred. Every day, Kowalski seeks ways to do service. "I want to give back what was so clearly given to me."

What made you choose to finally get sober at age 42, after a lifetime of addiction?
I had worked as a nurse's aide and learned a lot about how to stay away from normal diseases and sickness. I helped people stay clean with needles and survive the AIDS epidemic, and I thought I had survived the hepatitis C epidemic, too. Then one morning, I went to the bathroom and had a white stool. I know that means hep C. I thought, "Here I am, a junkie, and someone used the needle I hid and gave me hep C." I got really mad, and I decided I'd had enough of the lifestyle. People were dying around me, rolled up in plastic bags and thrown into garbage trucks. I decided I wanted to stop.

So many people don't make it off the streets, out of addiction. Looking back to the early years of your recovery, what helped you make it?
It takes a village to raise a child. It took the whole city of San Francisco to raise me. I needed shelter, food, clothing, education, therapy, medical help, bus rides. I had to learn how to live with others, after being a rogue and having authoritative combative syndrome and institution phobias. I couldn't go into public places. I had to learn to ride the Muni without freaking out. A lot of programs and a lot of loving people helped me make it.

Once you got sober, you worked full-time and went to night school for five years to earn certification as a recovery specialist. It would have been easier for you to get into other lines of work. Why did you want to be a counselor?
I learned early on in recovery that only one out of 100 makes it to sobriety. I wanted to change that. I wanted a higher yield of people getting help. And in 12 Step programs, you can't keep your recovery unless you give it away. At Walden House, the facility where I lived for two years and then worked as a counselor, the philosophy was, "Each one, teach one." Each citizen should be responsible to his own community. I want to give back what was so clearly given to me.

You've been on both sides of treatment programs - as a client and a counselor. Do you have any advice for recovery programs that are trying to reach homeless addicts?
Yes. Realize that these are very intelligent people who have learned an alternative way of survival. If you can transmute and translate all of their negative societal skills into positive attributes, you will have put the burden of change back into their capable hands. In other words, a dealer could be good with money, merchandising, etc. People who are good with their hands can have tactile jobs. People who are creative can get in the helping arts. They have all the answers. We are the caregivers and guides, without agenda. This is hard to do. (laughs)

You have a long resume as a professional musician. You are writing your memoir. You are a prolific abstract painter. What do you think of the romantic notion that addiction somehow fuels creativity?
When you first drink or do a drug, it lowers your inhibitions, and the world seems different. You feel more creative. As you progress toward addiction, you have spurts of creativity - and some consequences. When you're addicted, you have more consequences than creativity, and your life is unmanageable. It's a vicious cycle. I'm very lucky that I was able to take my art, which I started doing in the midst of my addiction, and reclaim it as an integral part of my recovery.

You have been living in recovery for 12 years now. What keeps you sober?
I get a daily reprieve based on my spiritual maintenance. I give back to the community. I help with the community, men and women struggling with recovery. And I honor my elders and the sages in the community as having wisdom and pertinence. I give back to the children on the street because I want to have contributed in their lives. My wife and I live in an underserved area of Oakland, and we work to strengthen our community one relationship at a time. We reach out to the other neighbors on the street and help with yard cleanup and house repairs; we grow vegetables and share the surplus. There are many children on our street, and I encourage them to come into my music studio and learn to play music, individually and together. I fix their bikes and skateboards. Sometimes we just give them hugs and ask them what's happening in their lives. It really is about being willing to do what you can do, as an individual or as a couple or as a family, to make things better.

You're building a career as a professional artist; you're a homeowner; you're healthy; you've reunited with your family; you're happily married - all things that must have seemed unreachable to you at age 42. What do you tell people who are still trapped in addiction?
Sometimes I say, "If I can do it, so can you." Sometimes I say, "Do you want the good news or the bad news? The bad news is, you're screwed up, and you've got a lot of things to change in your life. And the good news is, you're screwed up, and you've got a lot of things to change in your life." (laughs) You have everything you need to change your life, right now. This is all we have, in this moment. And we build on little moments, on little moments, and little moments become minutes, hours, days - and our lives are changed.

Finish this sentence: Every morning when I open my eyes -
I say, "I will serve you, God. How can I serve you?" When my thoughts wake up wanting to take over the world, get, command, I state the words, "I restart my day in recovery," over and over again. "Your will, not my will." As long as it's not my first thinking, I have half a chance, because my ego wants to kill me.

What are you most grateful for?
I'm most grateful for my lovely wife, my family reunification, my ability to participate as a human being on the planet and feel as if I belong. In all this hectic, chaotic, unpredictable stuff that goes on in the world, I still belong.
For more, visit Matthew Kowalski's art website.



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