I wrote my book Lessons of Redemption for a couple of reasons. The first was that I wanted people to understand the plight of a drug dealer, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about people who sell drugs. Secondly, I wanted young people to understand what they were really getting themselves into if they decided to deal drugs. And, it was therapeutic to me. Writing was a way for me to heal the old wounds that I had received while I was in the streets, while I was dealing drugs, while I was in that business – the friends that I lost, the relationships that I lost, the trust that I lost, the people that were killed, the people that went to prison, the people that were addicted for the rest of their lives. And they were lost too, in a sense. It was helpful in so many ways, and I had so many good reasons to actually do it.
I began to understand my actions in the community a lot better when I was incarcerated. Of course, when I was dealing drugs, I knew it was wrong. I knew that basically selling poison to other people was wrong. But, at that time, I wasn’t that much concerned with that, and I buried it away. Later on in prison, I had a lot of time to think about the things that I had done, the things that I was involved in, the mistakes that I made. I don’t care what kind of poverty situation you come from, I don’t think it’s OK to harm other people to better your life. I just don’t believe that, whether it’s drugs or something else.
The other people that you’re hurting, the people that I harmed, have mothers and brothers and sisters who have to deal with all the consequences of your actions, and all the things the people you hurt are going through. When I look at the life of an addict, I wouldn’t want to put that on anybody. When you’re adding to that pain, you’re playing a big role in a detrimental society. I really started to understand my role in this whole equation when I was in prison.
It was one thing for me to have said “I don’t want to sell drugs” or “I don’t want to go back to prison” but the big question I had to ask myself was: “How are you going to eat?” If you’ve been selling drugs your whole life, like I had been, and you think you don’t have any other job skills, and you have to eat, and feed your kids, the decision to just leave that business becomes a lot more complicated. I had to figure out other ways to make a living. I took college courses in prison, to educate myself so that I could make a better living and take care of myself and my family.
One of my first jobs was actually working in a mortgage company. I ended up excelling at that work, and I was only roughly four months out of the penitentiary, after a total of almost 12 years. Looking back, I didn’t realise at the time how big it was. That was huge, for a guy coming from that space, doing those things. That was a big deal.
The fear that I had internally – with dealing, with the streets, with seeing violence, with dealing with prison – had to be masked. We all wear a mask at some point, where we cover up the pain. We keep on a smiley face, but inside we’re dying. On the streets, I had to wear a mask. I didn’t love selling dope. I knew it was wrong. I loved the money, but I didn’t love the process, and I didn’t love the baggage that came with it. I had to wear the mask of a tough sociopath that, if you owed him money, he was going to kill you. I was far from that.
“I remember the very first time I saw a guy get shot, I was terrified. Then the second time, I didn’t feel anything.”
In the penitentiary, when there are sociopaths, psychopaths, predators all around you, they’re literally the same people that were on the streets. If you can survive the streets, you can survive prison. But you still find yourself wearing a mask, saying ‘This environment is OK” or “It’s no big deal”. But it’s a huge deal. Your freedom has just been snatched away from you. So if that doesn’t bother you, then something else is really going on.
On the streets, early on, you wear a mask. But as time goes on, you get numb. You get numb to the violence. In Baltimore, you grow up with violence. Whether it’s in your immediate space, or far away, it’s still on the news all the time. And after a while, you get numb. You don’t feel the pain anymore of what’s going on on the streets.
I remember the very first time I saw a guy get shot, I was 16 years old. It was in a club, in the dark. I was terrified. Then the second time, I was about 19 or 20, and I saw a guy get shot in the head in the park. And I didn’t feel anything at that time. I was literally numb by that period. Violence was nothing new to me, I grew up with it at home, but by then I was getting shot at in the streets, and I was shooting back at the other people, to protect myself. By then I was just numb. I didn’t feel the pain anymore.
I had buried all those feelings, but when I started writing Lessons of Redemption, all those feelings started coming back. I was starting to remember these situations – what it felt like to get shot at, what it felt like to shoot at somebody else, what it felt like to see a dead body.
Writing was a very good way for me to address my personal demons. Once those thoughts were down on paper, I was no longer hiding, because now the whole world could read it. It was no longer something that I was concerned about other people finding out. That was a lot of weight off my shoulders. Writing the book changed me dramatically, because I didn’t even realise that I had buried all of these feelings. I was amazed that I could hide all of that from myself. All of these memories were coming back. I could smell the gunpowder; I could smell the block; I could smell the cooking of all the old ladies in the area. Writing made me a better man, because I was able to deal with all of that stuff, and get it off my chest.
My book is a true story. Everything in it is true. The events actually happened, and this is the sort of stuff that’s still going on in our neighbourhoods and cities across the world. I think it’s important to understand the plight of the underground business of dealing drugs, as well as the disease of addiction, and how it affects families and people all across the world.
Lesson of Redemption – A Story of Drugs, Guns, Violence and Prison by Kevin Shird is out now (Maverick House, £8.99). In this week’s Big Issue North we interview Laura Lippman, whose novels fictionalise the Baltimore violence Shird lived