1982 was a big year. ET and Fast Times at Ridgemont High were playing in theaters. Tickets cost $2.75. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was at the top of the charts, and John Belushi had died tragically of an overdose.
In the small mountain town of Logan, Utah a woman who was told she would never give birth, did just that.
She had a boy.
My parents were devout Mormons. Their parents were devout Mormons. My dad wanted a sports hero but got a drummer. My mom wanted an intellectual but got someone who thinks Palahniuk is a far better writer than Salinger.
They got a stubborn baby who had a habit of chucking bottles and pacifiers on the floor and never touching them again. They ended up with a kid who got lost in his own world playing in fields with grasshoppers and jumping in ponds to catch tadpoles.
They grudgingly replaced many pairs of new shoes.
In high school I didn’t have much trouble passing tests or making grades, but going to class was a chore… especially when breakfast or a matinee movie seemed far more important.
I won Best in State for drumming and had scholarships to a few different universities. In the end I decided on Southern Utah University in beautiful Cedar City.
The magical Mormon age of 19 was rapidly approaching. My family expected me to serve a mission. Those boys you see in ties and name tags whistling in the street… well, they’re on a rite of passage of sorts.
Oh… and virgins. All Mormon girls are told to marry a return missionary. Do the math.
Between drumming, mudding in my Bronco, trying desperately to maintain my virginity and stealing fraternity signs to make BMX ramps… I spent a lot of time at the Fire Chief’s house.
“Workman, an adrenaline junkie like you would make a helluva smoke jumper.”
Get paid to jump out of a plane and cut down trees?! I haven’t been this turned on since I rode my bike up your bumpy driveway.
Missionary or smoke jumper?
The previous summer I’d had the opportunity to spend a month in China. I loved getting to know a new culture and while I was there, our Visas came through to spend a week in Tibet.
Forget seven years… seven DAYS in Tibet will change you.
For me it was the kids. We couldn’t communicate through more than simple scratches in the dirt. But damn could we play some baseball with sticks and rocks. We raced. We wrestled. They climbed me and outnumbered me. Little cheaters.
I loved every second of it.
So… I told myself, “Put in your mission papers. If they send you inside the United States, smoke jump. If they send you to another country to learn a new culture, go.”
I spent two years in Puebla, Mexico.
This isn’t a missionary story, but it’s not just a drug story either. The point is contrast. The point is how far anyone can fall with drugs on their side. And, while I may have had many things confiscated (skateboard, boxing gloves, guitar) during my mission, I worked like a maniac. I loved the people with every fiber of my being and I did a lot of good.
Unfortunately, I also had some failures.
And Then This…
About 18 months into my mission I was called to a small village to visit a new mother with a sick baby. Cute little guy was about six-weeks-old and hardly more than swaddling. He had these huge brown eyes that look right into your very core as only the young and pure can.
Never before in my life did I put 110% of myself into something like that. Upon hearing that the mother had requested the blessing from ME SPECIFICALLY, the honor and responsibility immediately drove me to my knees to pray and fast.
“Okay Old Man, ‘Thy will, not mine’ and all that jazz, but please, oh PLEASE help heal this child.”
Despite my countless imperfections, I’d never felt more prepared or worthy. I anointed and blessed the boy the next day, feeling inspired to bless him with “a long and fruitful life.” The moment I said “Amen” and lifted my hands from him, he looked up at me and smiled.
I could have high-fived God.
The following morning his mother found him dead in his crib.
I sat there on the phone, still fasting thinking that the small sacrifice might aid the healing process.
“What?! He… died??!” It didn’t make any sense. I was dumbfounded. I tried desperately to redirect my focus. Okay, Workman. Okay. Maybe you weren’t meant to save him. Maybe you are just meant to be an instrument of comfort to the mother in her time of grief.
So, I kept on fasting. “Father, please help me bring her peace. Please.”
She asked me to speak at the funeral. So, I continued my fast to day three. I did my best to share a message of hope, but the words felt hollow and terribly inadequate.
She asked me if I would carry his coffin. They lifted the tiny casket onto my shoulder. Again, I gave it my very best. I was 20. I was strong. I had God on my side. I was practically invincible.
My best wasn’t good enough.
I made the first mile and a half just fine, but during that last 500-yard stretch, (HAUNTINGLY within sight of the cemetery) something happened.
My vision swam. My legs stopped working. I fell.
That poor, poor mother got to watch her dead son drop six feet before spilling out of the broken casket and rolling to a stop in the dirt.
Oh, God… how I wish you would’ve let me blackout completely. I wish I’d never seen his gray and cold face in the dust; seen his empty, milky eyes; seen his tiny lifeless fingers that had gripped my thumb just 48 hours earlier.
For 13 years those sights and the sounds of the mother’s screams have plagued my nightmares on repeat.
I couldn’t have failed her more if I tried.
I was confused… lost… pissed.
Where Are You?
“You seriously couldn’t give my legs 500 more yards?!!! All powerful creator and you decided to give my guardian angels their lunch break at that particular moment?? Are you fucking kidding me?!”
I started to suspect I was just shouting at an empty sky. The nagging question became:
“Which is more likely?” One, that God, in his infinite wisdom decided that was the best use of his servant? Or, two, that an over-confident 20-year-old convinced himself that he had magical powers and that his body would run on happy thoughts and fairy dust and the natural law of gravity simply took over?
What if I’d called home and rallied resources to get that kid to a hospital??
Eventually the only thing I wanted was to shut my brain off. I didn’t care how. After you start going three or four sleepless nights because you’re terrified to dream, well… if you have a better idea than knocking yourself out, my hats off to you. I sure didn’t.
I completed the two years with honor. I put on a happy face and spoke in a number of different church meetings about my “success” as a missionary. They started asking me to speak at larger services.
I declined and lied about my reasons. I faked it as best as I could. I’d been given a hero’s welcome home and felt like a fraud and a failure.
I never mentioned the baby to anyone.
Faith began to erode at an alarming rate. The doubts. The questions. The guilt. They literally ate at me for months until – 25 pounds lighter – I gave up. The hints of certainty had escaped me completely.
“I’m not sure I really KNOW anything,” I confessed. So, feeling unworthy, I left the church to the dismay of my family and friends.
Years later I was bankrupt, divorced, unemployed and a raging alcoholic. I even called Dr. Drew on “Loveline” to ask him how to know if you’re drinking too much. He told me flat out that I was “using” and that the rehabs in San Diego were full of return missionaries who couldn’t party in moderation either. He also said that our Utah gene pool was especially high in the addiction gene. (I have not since been able to prove or disprove either of those claims.)
Then I Met the Girl
She was fun. She was chaotic. She was sexy, exciting and exotic. She liked bad boys (which I strove diligently to become… or faked it the best I could.) Most of all, she always knew what to say or what button to push to make me feel validated. Hell, she made me feel like a Rockstar.
Rockstars do drugs, right?
I’d turned down drugs plenty of times, but I was starting to turn yellow from the booze and I was on hour 100 of no sleep and fighting a killer hangover. That’s when she invited me to her hotel room. I walked in to find her sitting on the edge of the bed wearing lacy, black lingerie and holding a cooking spoon in one hand and a lighter in the other. On the mattress next to her sat a bag of new needles.
Welcome to the perfect storm.
“You wanna try some?” she asked. “I should warn you there’s a 50-50 chance you won’t wake up.”
Either side of that coin seemed preferable to the state I was in.
Like I said, she always knew what to say. The skydiving, bungee-jumping, adrenaline junkie side of me stuck out my arm. The needle slid in painlessly. Within three heartbeats I was a believer.
I’ll tell you what… NOTHING has ever shut my mind off so well.
Here’s the brutal truth, though. I started using even on nights I didn’t have the baby nightmare. It became an excuse. I am an addict and before long all I really cared about was getting my next fix.
I promised you a cautionary tale. So, here it is…
HEROIN. STEALS. YOUR. SOUL.
Sure, at first it was a party. There’s the thrill of the forbidden chase. If they sold heroin at Walmart I never would have found it so enticing. But, like they say in the movie “Candy” starring Heath Ledger (R.I.P.) “when you can quit, you don’t want to. When you want to quit, you can’t.”
So, there you are, a few weeks into your new favorite hobby and suddenly your dealer won’t answer the phone, or you get sold a balloon of brown sugar, or you’re out of money…
Then the cramps start. You start puking green sludge. Your bowels loosen so much you better not trust the smallest fart. Or, worse, you’re farther in and you DO manage to score but your veins are so trashed that you can’t even get the relief you want. You count and look at all the blood and realize you’ve stabbed yourself over 100 times and now the rig is a clogged, coagulated waste. Then you end up shitting your pants anyway.
Some party, right?
Welcome to the tip of the iceberg, my friend. You’ve become a slave to the chase. With that realization comes the suicidal thoughts.
“I’ll never get off this merry-go-round” you think. “Maybe I can get enough in one syringe to just end it.”
Then come the attempts, because, “Hey, if it doesn’t kill me at least I’ll get really high.”
You get really good at lying about your diabetic mother-in-law to get fresh needles.
You get really good at CPR watching your friends stop breathing and turning blue.
You get really good at self surgery to deal with the abscesses.
Honestly, if you try heroin and only land in jail… consider yourself lucky. It drives people to do things they never would have imagined.
It kills the rest.
I’d give every penny I’ve ever earned to go back and turn down that first shot.
But, here I am. I don’t blame God for making me the way that I am, but I was mad at Him for a long time. I don’t blame the girl for sticking me with that first shot. I was beyond willing. I don’t blame the judge or the prosecutors or the system for having landed in jail. I thank them.
The gratitude becomes overwhelming. Gratitude for the walls that keep the bad influences and bad substances out. Gratitude for the time to reshape a better version of yourself. Gratitude to God for keeping your heart beating long enough for you to learn a lesson.
After one of my failed suicide attempts involving 3 full bottles of pills chased down with half a gallon of whiskey and a sloppily scrawled “Sorry. Cremate the mess.” on a napkin, the doctor said, “If you don’t believe in God, you should start. What you took should’ve killed a rhino.”
Hope gives the gift of humility and a shift in perspective. Hope has the power to transform you. It focuses you, cleanses you, makes you grateful for the little things. It makes you feel reborn.
It’s such an amazing feeling, I really wish I could bottle it and sell it.
Just not at Walmart.
What I’ve learned since is that I am capable of surprising myself every day. I do deserve life, happiness, success, and most importantly… sobriety. We all do. It’s never too late to stop punishing yourself. If you’re still breathing, you’re still in a fight you can win.
I might not be religious, but I still pray. I need an outlet for the gratitude and have one more request: “Thanks for everything, Old Man. Please help me turn this story into a positive. Let me use my stupidity and failures to deter someone from this misery.”
You might never “beat” your addict brain, but you can make it work for you. It is a determined, stubborn little shit. Point it away from the dope and towards work, service, exercise, hobbies… whatever helps you keep the needle out of your arm.
Wonderful things will happen. I promise.
You might have 5 years clean. You might only have 5 minutes. But you matter. You are capable of beautiful things. And, if you’re reading this, it means you are probably at least toying with the idea of reaching out for support.
Do it. There’s light at the end of that tunnel… and you’re worth it.
Keep hoping people.