I did not grow up around gang violence–I was lucky. Not everyone is, though. For some people, joining a gang can be a matter of protection, or brotherhood, or lack of economic opportunity. I’d be willing to bet that more gangs than we think are filled mostly with people who are only there because there isn’t anywhere better for them. And once you’re in, it’s not always even an option to leave. These 13 AskReddit users were lucky: they got out. Here’s how.

1. “He wanted…to thank me for sparing his life”

I saved up enough money to put myself through school and to not have to work. All I wanted was enough money to get out. 5 years later I got my masters degree and now I work as an economist in the social services sector.

Haunt me…yeah. When I went to university I changed my Facebook name back to my real name. This guy who started a fight with me back in the day that I got word on and got the drop on got in touch with me asking if I ‘remembered him’. Seeing as how I maimed the guy instead of beating him (at the time I caught serious heat for this because it was construed as weakness) I thought he was getting ready to settle the score. I got in touch with my boys back home and they paid him a visit. Turns out he wanted to reach out to me to thank me for sparing his life and that he had turned his around. So my boys thought that was pretty funny and I had to paypal them all steak dinners and booze money.

2. Red Bandana

I got older and it all seemed stupid. Felt stupid representing a group of 7th grade dropouts. I wanted to represent myself. The ones that arent dead or in prison still live with their parents and all they have going for them in life is that red bandana.

3. So Dumb

Three things. A) Got too old for that stuff B) Joined the Army and C) realized – thankfully not too late – almost shooting someone dead for “talking crap to my boy” wasn’t in my best interest in the long term. I think back to that point and thank God I did not do something so dumb. Cringy.

4. “Most of my friends and enemies are either in jail, or working”

I was involved in one of the Vancouver gangs. I left around 2006 a few months after I got attacked on a rural road by 2 car loads of guys who had meant to shut down our delivery phone. They got one of our customers to call us on a Sunday morning, when they knew most of the people I’d call for backup would be sleeping.

If it wasn’t for some fancy driving on my part, I would have taken a beating from 8 guys with bats and batons. I’m glad I got out when I did, because even though people were killing each other prior to me leaving. They got really comfortable with it in the years after I left.

Past doesn’t really come back to haunt me, I moved away to grow weed in a different area and there wasn’t any “in it for life” mentality. In 2011 I moved back to the area. Most of my friends and enemies are either in jail, or working square jobs for the most part. I work in the hydroponic supplies industry, so I still work with a lot of gangsters from the marijuana industry, but they’re mostly chill dudes who want to work out all the time and play with expensive motorsports toys.

5. “I left it all that night”

I used to be a tag banger as a teenager. Think graffiti crew on the verge of being recognized as a street gang, due to it’s acts of violence and size. It was about 25 of us in a four block radius with a heavy presence in a half mile stretch of a main avenue. The night of August 22, 2003, I was in my room reading Luis Rodriguez’s ‘Always Running’. I heard gunshots a few blocks from my place. Thinking nothing of it I kept reading.

The next morning I found out it was an 18 year old named O, a close friend of mine. He was a member of a gang called 18th Street. He was caught leaving his pregnant girlfriend’s house by four enemy gang members, he was chased down and shot. I, along with three other ‘shotcallers’ from my crew, attended his funeral and burial. After the burial we were approached by an eighteener rep, he told us to show up to a party that night in O’s honor.

That night at the party we were taken to the back of the house were there was a meeting happening. My friend’s older brothers were big time in the gang, one of them calling shots from prison. And the latter wanted blood. The way they saw it O was killed in our neighborhood and as his friends we had to get back at his murderers. We were given an ultimatum, align with 18th street, drop our graffiti crew, and take care of any enemy members in our territory. In return they would provide guns, drugs, and the right to start our own chapter of the gang. If we refused we should either disband or consider ourselves in their crosshairs.

As silly as it all sounds, you’d be surprised how structured and diplomatic street gangs really are. So we gathered up all the guys and talked about it. We were pretty much split. I mentioned the book ‘Always Running’ because it showed me to consider the fact that the world is bigger than a couple city blocks. And O’s death made me question if dying for a few numbers and letters was worth it. I also had a girlfriend who I wanted to marry, not then at 18 but later down the line.

I left it all that night. More than half the guys took up 18 streets offer. Me and the rest were shunned. The following two months saw a surge of violence which capped off with two dumped bodies in the middle of a field. The police cracked down hard soon after.

I moved out of the neighborhood. Years later I married my girlfriend, we had a son, I worked hard while she finished her university studies. My dad still lives in that neighborhood, it is now an 18th Street bastion. I run into some of the guys when I visit dad. Most are in prison, dead, or strung out on drugs. The younger kids are the ones running the streets now. It’s a never ending cycle.

6. The Pattern

Personally, I ended up getting out cause I realized the pattern I was falling into. Before I even turned 18, I had 6 charges on my record, 2 of them felonies and I was on 3rd strike, which basically means if I commit another violent crime I can be locked away for life automatically and any non-violent crime, no matter how small it is, can be an automatic 7 years if they choose. As of right now, since my charges were all between the ages of 13-16, I’ve been told if I don’t get in trouble for the next 10 years after my last charge (2013), I can get my records expunged so that’s what I’m aiming for at the moment but it’s crazy knowing any little thing can send me back for such a long time because of how stupid I was as a teen. A lot of my friends never got the chance to get out, one of my friends is doing 12 years, he’s been in there since he was 17, and another one is doing life so I’m just glad I got out before that happened but I still have to be careful.