There’s a joke Sam Miller uses to open almost every set.
He introduces himself by saying he’s 6-foot 6, 360 pounds and 12 years sober. Then:
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Sam,’ ” he says. “Why did you stop drinking and doing drugs?’ And I just show them this tattoo.”
He lifts up his shirt, showing off a large diamond in the middle of his belly, inscribed with the words, “Let’s dance.”
Miller hates dancing.
“If you want to know if you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, look at your belly,” he says. “What does your tattoo say?”
Miller is an established figure in the world of Puget Sound comedy, a regular at big Seattle-area shows, and he’s begun to branch out to the greater Pacific Northwest.
He also performs at Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous conferences, charity banquets for homeless shelters, and for at-risk youth. In his day job, he works as an outreach specialist for Comprehensive Life Resources, a homeless services and behavioral health provider.
His secret: Talking about a life of homelessness and addiction to alcohol and methamphetamine and laughing about it.
Miller’s story, and what his experiences taught him, are the focus of this week’s episode of “Outsiders,” a podcast collaboration between The Seattle Times and KNKX Public Radio. You can listen to the episode at outsiderspodcast.org, or below.
At first glance, Miller’s story is a common one: He did drugs, hit rock bottom and decided to change.
But when he tells his story on stage, he says the reason he got out of homelessness, while others stay stuck, is bigger than him.
To Miller, he only escaped homelessness because of his middle-class family and the privileges that afforded him.
His father was an alcoholic, Miller said, and alcohol was common in their house as a result. When Miller was older, he remembers his dad getting angry with him for huffing markers, glue and aerosol cans.
“Once I realized there was something outside of myself that could change the way I felt, that was a pretty big deal to me,” Miller said, “because I did not feel good.”
Miller was constantly afraid of his father, but when he passed away, Miller struggled with the grief and sense of being alone in the world. “He was a maniac, but he was my maniac,” Miller said. He was prescribed Ritalin for attention-deficit disorder when he was 9 or 10.
In junior high, he smoked marijuana for the first time, out of a soda can with matches, behind the school.
Then, Miller’s sophomore year in high school, a school resource officer arrested him in front of the whole class. Miller said he’d been trading his Ritalin to other kids for weed because he didn’t like taking the medication.
Drugs were more important to Miller than anything after that. Over the next 11 years, he went from weed to psychedelics to prescription pills to cocaine to methamphetamine — and of course, alcohol mixed in with each. He says he’s been arrested at least 15 times and, cumulatively, spent more than a year and a half in jail.
He tried to quit five times.
Each time, his mother would take him back.
“There was a part of me, I think, that really had to hang on to that hope,” said his mother, Mary Soehnlen, “that things for him could be different.”
But the people Miller met while he was truly homeless — a period he says lasted a little over a year — and the homeless people he works with now didn’t have family members who would take them back in.
Miller attributes this to the theory of “network impoverishment,” an explanation for the outsize numbers of homeless people of color. The idea is that because of racist policies like redlining and segregation, people of color facing economic struggles may not have anyone in their lives with the resources to help them, because the people around them are struggling financially, too. The result is it may not take much to push them into homelessness.
Though not all the homeless people he met were people of color, Miller says the poverty he saw out on the streets was generational, whereas his poverty was situational.
“The little things that you wouldn’t even think of, that I had access to, that I learned that other people didn’t have access to,” Miller said. “Like even something as simple as going to my mom’s house.”
That simple thing is why he thinks he could finally recover.
There’s another comedy bit he does, about working for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter in 2004. He was out for weeks fighting fires in rural Washington, and when he left he had $17,000 in the bank.
“And I went to upstate New York, and I spent it all on coke in a month and a half,” Miller says. “And that’s when I got a tattoo that said, ‘Let’s Dance,’ because at that point, I was never going to run out of money, I was never going to run out of cocaine, and I was never going to stop dancing.”
Then, one day 12 years ago, the dance did stop.
Miller woke up from an hourslong meth bender, and he was under a tarp in downtown, next to a homeless woman. He peeked his head out from under the tarp, and the sun was starting to come up, and he saw a woman walking her dog.
Something snapped. He didn’t want to be an addict.
So Miller got up and walked to his mom’s house. She opened the door.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to be a drunk anymore.”
She let him inside.