Decades of addiction, multiple incarcerations, homelessness and HIV couldn't prevent Freddie Williams from fulfilling his life's purpose—giving back to his community and healing lives.
Today, Freddie Williams is a busy man. He's a full-time mental health clinician for Los Angeles County, specializing in the treatment of addiction. He also does counseling work at The Design for Living treatment facility in Lancaster, California, where he sits on the board of directors. He spends his Saturdays at a youth camp for repeat offenders, helping teens with substance abuse issues while teaching them tools to make positive life choices. He donates time to groups advocating HIV education and prevention. And all this is in addition to his doctoral studies at California Southern University, where Freddie is enrolled in the Doctor of Psychology program.
It’s a grueling schedule, but Freddie wouldn't have it any other way. He's doing what he loves, helping others improve their lives. His is the sort of peace and satisfaction that comes only to those who live in the absolute certainty that they are doing exactly what they were born to do.
But in the case of Freddie Williams, it’s also a matter of knowing what he has overcome.
It would seem Freddie Williams had no chance. He was born into poverty in South Central Los Angeles. His father was abusive and an alcoholic. In and out of jail, the elder Williams was unable to provide for the family of eight. Freddie became the family’s most reliable breadwinner—at eight years old.
“I gravitated to the street in search of male role models. Older guys took me in. They taught me how to hustle.”
It started innocently enough. Freddie shined shoes downtown for five or 10 cents a shine, but it soon became apparent that the shoeshine business wouldn’t bring in nearly enough money. So he graduated to shoplifting, burglary—whatever it took. He got caught a few times, but was so young and so respectful to the police that he was always let go. He was making a substantial contribution to his family; it allowed them to survive.
He was precocious when it came to other adult activities, too. The story of his first drink would almost be charmingly nostalgic—if it weren’t so heartbreaking. At a house party, Freddie's father gave him a beer and encouraged him to dance. The adults laughed and cheered Freddie on. “I remember the feeling of that first beer. It went all the way up to the top of my head and then down to the tips of my toes,” he remembers. “All my fears and shyness went away. I danced and the grown-ups praised and encouraged me. Immediately, I knew I wanted more of this stuff.”
He was seven years old.
Freddie continued drinking and began smoking pot a year later. Next, it was barbiturates. “I didn’t want to be an alcoholic like my dad,” he says. “So I added the drugs. I guess I thought I’d figure out a whole new way to kill myself.”
Freddie’s drug and alcohol use intensified, as did his criminal activities. By age 27, Freddie was a full-blown heroin addict. He was arrested and convicted of burglary, incarcerated for the first of what would be many times. He overdosed frequently. He was once shot point-blank in the chest in a domestic dispute. He was broke. Homeless. Hopeless. And then, in 1994, he was diagnosed as being HIV positive.
“I suppose the years that followed my diagnosis marked the low point,” Freddie says. “My plan was to kill myself day by day, by living the life of a heroin addict. Really, I was a coward. I knew that if I cut my wrists or shot myself, well, that would hurt. And knowing me, I would probably mess it up and be forced to live the rest of my life as an invalid. So I figured I would just continue my lifestyle and either overdose or die of AIDS.”
Another arrest—this time for possession—landed Freddie a court-mandated treatment program. He’d been through many such programs—most of them court-ordered—but this one was different. This one had a counselor named Rico Cruz.
“Mr. Cruz was not my assigned counselor. But we talked and he was the first counselor I met who had had similar life experiences. He was like me and had been through what I had been through. He met me where I was at.” Freddie and Rico struck a deal: Freddie would teach Rico how to operate a computer and Rico would teach Freddie recovery.
Freddie made progress fairly quickly, but it was one particular conversation that changed his life in an instant.
“I was at rock bottom. I was middle aged and had accomplished nothing. I had no legacy. I was broke. I was an addict. And I was going to die of AIDS—at that time, HIV was a death sentence,” says Freddie. “But Rico told me this, and I’ll never forget these words: ‘You are not going to die of AIDS. You aren’t going to overdose. You can try all you want, but I’m here to tell you that you aren’t going anywhere until God is ready for you—and He’s not going to be ready until you’ve fulfilled His purpose for you.’”
At that moment, the light went on for Freddie. He threw himself into recovery. And, once healthy, into his two passions.
“It sounds incredible, when you consider the type of life I was living, but I always had a love for education,” Freddie says. “Even when I was on the streets, I always went to school. In jail, I took college courses. I had accumulated 120-some community college credits, but didn’t have the discipline to complete a program. In 1991, I was even accepted into the University of Arizona, but never went, even though scholarship money was available to me. I was scared; I didn’t think I could compete with the college kids.”
Freddie's other passion? “I’ve always had a giving spirit. I love to help people. That’s what drove me to provide for my family at such a young age. And even when I was living the life of an addict, I instinctively helped those who were worse off than me. As horrible as my life was, there was always someone worse off. I was never that successful of a drug dealer; I was always giving it away to people who were drug-sick and didn’t have any money. Amazingly, I was never able to kill or drown or drug that giving spirit over those many years.”
With the clarity that came with sobriety, Freddie saw his destiny: to improve the lives of people who faced the same sorts of obstacles he had faced. And to do this to the best of his ability was going to require that he get more serious about his education.
After earning an undergraduate degree in human services, he enrolled in the MA (Psychology) program at CalSouthern, where he excelled, graduating cum laude in 2012. He then enrolled in the university's Doctor of Psychology program. “Although I was anxious at first, I came to realize that my life experiences were actually an asset in my studies. I had lived what I was learning; I just needed to attach names to the experiences. This allowed me to bridge the educational gap.”
Today, almost 15 years clean and sober, Freddie is using his doctoral studies to help refine an innovative wrap-around treatment modality for addicted individuals, while he maintains the busy work schedule described above. He has also served on the L.A. County HIV Prevention and Planning Committee and was the chairman of the California HIV Planning Group. He recently was named the recipient of the 2013 CalSouthern Difference Award for his outstanding—and tireless—community work on behalf of those suffering from addiction and HIV infection.
He also is an increasingly sought-after motivational speaker. A recent client was an organization that Freddie has had ample experience with, the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD hired Freddie to speak to a group of cadets about making positive life choices.
The irony is not lost on Freddie. “Speaking to LAPD cadets about life choices,” Freddie says quietly, with a glint in his eye. “Can you imagine that?”