ADAM SWIFT'S ESCAPE FROM NOTHINGNESS
Words by Seth Richards | Photography by John Hebert
There are some caves too deep to crawl out of, some nights too dark to see past.
“If it’s an escape you want,” the voice says, “you may give your life for it. You will coil inside of yourself and choke on your own bile. You will hate it there but go back again and again until it is the only place for you, this Nothing you’ve desired. Do not feel, do not feel, do not feel.”
Then one day the voice is silent. Maybe not gone, but quiet for just long enough – long enough to witness your hollowed-out insides and to not want to plunge within them again.
“At 21, I woke up in rehab – a state-run facility in North Boulder,” Adam Swift says. “I had no clue how I’d gotten there and couldn’t remember any events leading up to it. Which wasn’t unusual. I wouldn’t say I’m religious, but this part of the story is kind of wild. For whatever reason, when I woke up, the desire to use drugs had been completely lifted, and at that point I would have done anything to get sober. Anything.”
Swift has been sober for 24 years now. He owns a thriving residential painting and finishes business with 32 employees in Denver. He has an enviable collection of cars and motorcycles and lives in a beautiful home he designed with an architect. Several times a year, he goes on epic rides in far-flung places around the world. From the outside, it looks like he’s living the life, like he’s got it all figured out. If there’s such a thing as redemption in this life, maybe he’s found it. Maybe he hasn’t. But he’s here, while countless others who’ve fallen down the black hole of addiction aren’t. And he never forgets it.
“One of the ways I try to give back is to just be who I am and be open with the struggles I’ve had,” Swift says. “It’s shocking how many people come out of the woodwork who’ve been affected by addiction. [A willingness to be vulnerable and honest] is one of the reasons I’m still here. Because I shouldn’t be. By any stretch of the imagination, I shouldn’t be. What I did…I shouldn’t be around. I’m supposed to be here to share my story.”
Swift grew up in Duxbury, Massachusetts, about 30 miles south of Boston. He was an outgoing kid who played soccer and raced BMX nationally. The son of a Harvard graduate, he was provided for, privileged even. He was a normal kid in a normal East Coast town: a familiar origin story of American addiction.
“I was a really sensitive kid, and still am,” Swift says. “I’ve always felt on an intensely deep level. At a really young age, I was really overwhelmed by that feeling and didn’t know how to handle it. I found a need to escape from it. At nine or ten years old, I started acting out. I started cutting at a really young age and then that evolved into drugs and alcohol. I really started becoming an absolute terror at 11 or 12. All the passions I had fell by the wayside as feeling the need to escape from life really took over.”
“Escape, child,” the voice whispers. “Be afraid of all the things you have to fear. You are right to fear them. Place this tourniquet on your arm, lest you bleed your sorrows into oblivion. Close your eyes and go.”
By age 14, Swift’s parents had checked him into rehab for the first time. They didn’t know what else to do, and who can blame them? Resentful and inveterate, he sat in the folding chairs half-listening and wholly ignoring the stories of the other patients.
“I was hearing all these stories and was like, ‘Fuck this, I dont need to be here,’” Swift recalls. “It’s ironic because ultimately my life took the same paths as a lot of those people.”
“If you are to bear the yoke of their scorn, why not let it be weightier still?” the voice cries. “See how you bow beneath it? Do not struggle against it, for is not your struggle what got you here to begin with?”
By his late teens, Swift was living in a halfway house and painting condos to earn some money. “I fell into painting because I was too fucked up to do anything else,” he says. He couldn’t see it yet, but it was his future trying to pry him out of his present. If only it got easier from there.
“Ultimately, I knew in my gut I wasn’t ready to get sober,” he says. “My mom used to joke that I was the most honest junkie she’d ever heard of because I was fully aware that I had an addiction problem. I was fully open about it, and it was the lifestyle I’d chosen and what I wanted to do.”
His honesty and evident self-awareness masked his self-delusion. Choice is a feature of freedom, but addiction is a prison. Choice implies one has the power to stop. Addiction replaces power with compulsion. Swift’s life was becoming a runaway train.
“I was on a bender in Boston,” he says, “literally hopped-up on speed, and I got in an old Volkswagen GTI and drove across the country. I got to Colorado and was really strung out for the three years I was there. I would basically paint part-time because there was really nothing else I could do in my condition.”
“Looking back, there was always a pit in my stomach. I don’t know if it was loneliness, I don’t know if it was fear, or awkwardness, or low self-esteem. But it was this pit I just felt this incessant need to escape from,” he explains. “I wanted it to go away, but the only way I knew at the time was by using drugs. Obviously, you continue to use and all it does is counteract the desire for it to go away. If anything, you’re making it worse. I can’t tell you how many times you draw a line in the sand, like, ‘I’ll never do this,’ and that line continually moves and moves and moves. You keep perpetuating that: doing things you said you’d never do and making decisions you said you’d never make. It’s so hard when you’re in that spiral, and you continue going down and down and down to figure out how to get out of it.”
“Come,” the voice beckons. “Rest your face in the mire, down here where it is cool, where your bones can sink quietly, your trembling body can doze until it forgets the feeling of wakefulness, until it detests the comings and goings of the world above.”
For three years, he was using daily, including meth and heroin.
“The last year of my using, it really escalated,” Swift says. “When the IV drug use started, it sent me full tilt. I was in my early twenties, and I was just resigned to the fact that this was going to be my life.”
“There was no question that I was going to OD at some point in time,” he adds. “There were a few ODs where I ended up in the hospital and recovered, but ultimately I accepted this was how I was going to go. And I was okay with it in a weird way. Like, I thought this is my deal, and this is the hand I’ve been dealt.”
“Now you see your fate. Now you know what you are. You are only carrion. Be ashamed of your filthy flesh. Fasten the straps of your yoke to the ground and loosen your grip. Pity will not save you now. Soon you will find where this black hole leads. And from there, there is no escape.”
But then another voice. A pure, bright voice:
“Wake up, for you are not lost to this world. You have a story to tell. Do you not see it? You are no different from the rest. Do you not know what you are for? You will find it in the faces of children in places you cannot begin to imagine, in the love of friendship, and in the passions you have forgotten.”
When he awoke in that Boulder rehab, not knowing how he got there, or what had come before, he was given back the freedom of choice. He was no longer resigned to fate. He returned to Boston and checked into a halfway house to begin his recovery.
“When I got sober,” Swift says, “I was so fucked up the thought of hope was something I couldn’t even conceptualize or conceive of for myself. I was fortunate to be broken enough where I didn’t have a choice but to rely on other people.”
He fixated on returning to Colorado, to prove to himself that he could be successful there and be sober. To succeed where he’d had his darkest days of addiction would be to reclaim power. He began working part-time at a painting company, where the owner took him under his wing and became his mentor.
“I owe everything to those first five years,” Swift says.
During that period, he started his own company, Painting Plus of Denver, specializing in high-end home finishing.
Swift says: “I just always had this quest to deliver the best product possible, even if that meant that I would run the job significantly in the red. We’ve refined specific
processes that allow us to achieve cabinet-grade finishing on a very large scale.”
In one of its many concurrent projects, the company has invested 22,000 man-hours in painting. Twelve employees have worked on it for over a year. This is cost-is-no-object kind of work.
The business has thrived for 20 years and has afforded Swift the opportunity to work on his own passion projects, usually car- and motorcycle-related. His single-minded approach to pursuing his own aesthetic means every detail is considered.
He currently has a fully built Porsche 964 and is in the process of restoring and modifying a ’76 BMW 2002. He also has a 1967 Ducati 350 that was an AHRMA race bike in a previous life, a ’67 Norton Atlas, a 2000 Ducati S2R, a ’67 BMW R 60/2, a 2012 BMW R 1200 GS Adventure, a 2013 KTM 990 Adventure Baja, and a 2020 Defender 110. He says he can’t leave well enough alone, so they’ve all gone through some level of customization to meet his specifications.
Swift formerly road-raced a Triumph 675 Daytona and did a lot of technical trail riding, but a slew of injuries has meant he’s more recently gotten hooked on adventure riding, reveling in the places it’s taken him: Africa, Vietnam, India, Colombia, and Costa Rica. He’s close friends with Wesley Hannam, who runs a motorcycle adventure company called Moto Safari (see “Ballad of Baboon Valley” in the SU/23 issue), which is a convenient justification for heading out on far-away adventures a few times a year.
“I’m fully cognizant that I’m an addict through and through, and I’ve just found things that are less harmful to me,” Swift says. “The thing I love most about riding is when you’re on that edge. I don’t think I’m ever more present than when I’m on that edge. It’s like a form of meditation. If you want to survive, you need to be present.”
Present: It couldn’t be further from his days of using, when his desire to escape from time, to be subsumed into Nothingness, nearly claimed his life.
“It is not for nothing that our hearts are knit so closely to this time and this place, where friendship and love bind us one to the other,” that good, sound voice says. “Falling out of time and space, down that black hole where there are no others but you, you, you – it may take the sting from the cold, but there, where no other can feel its bite, no other can share their warmth, nor you yours.”
“I feel grateful that I’ve been able to live the extremes that I have,” Swift says. “I’ve been fortunate to build a successful company that allows me to do a lot of things that I love. I’ve got projects that I love, people that I love. I get to travel.”
Each year on his sobriety anniversary, Swift marks the occasion with a big trip with his friends. He recalls one trip in Namibia, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, where his group rode into remote villages without running water or electricity. Children gathered around the group of bright orange KTMs, laughing and smiling. They owned so little but were filled with joy. “It’s something that always leaves a beautiful imprint on my brain,” he says.
To be so affected by beauty means ugliness is equally affecting. As a young man, Swift’s sensitivity made him look for a means of escape, but now, sober, it gives him overwhelming empathy for others – for the unhoused, the lonely, for those like him who struggle in the desert and can’t find their way out.
“We all struggle,” he says. “And for whatever reason, it’s not socially acceptable to struggle. If we could be more open about how hard shit is sometimes, about how much we all struggle, we’d be so much kinder to one another.”
The voices may never vanish. One day, one is soft; another day, one is loud. Tune them out or listen. One voice comes from Nothing; the other goes to Nothing. Which voice will you hear? Which one will you heed?
“The turning point for my own self-image, my own self-worth, was in my late thirties when I had this awe-inspiring realization that I’m okay,” Swift says. “I look back at myself through all the years and know that I was doing the best that I could with the tools that I had at that point in time. Maybe I needed to do the things I did in order to make it through another day. That level of acceptance within myself was the most freeing thing I’ve ever experienced. Truly.”