You, The Kids, a Smoke, and a Coke

One man’s journey through addiction


“I guess I finally decided to tell my story to somebody who would write it down pretty much like I said it. Before I get too deep in it though, I better set the record straight, in case it comes out somehow and you catch on to me.

I ain’t really from around here, at least not before about twenty years ago, and how I got here was from a job I took to take care of my babies. I used to move around a lot because that’s just what I learned to do. You chase the money when you can’t do anything else, and you have three little kids looking at you for food and clothes and toilet paper, and other stuff that they need and you’re the only one they can really count on to get it for them.

It Don’t Matter How Smart You Are if You Ain’t Got a Pot to Piss In

I always tried to better myself, just about every way I could, but nothing I ever did seemed to amount to much in the end. I got myself a college degree, and I ain’t gonna lie, I don’t have to talk like this. I just do it because it’s easier to dumb myself down than to take the trouble I get into for acting like I’ve got sense sometimes. It’s different around here. It was a pretty big culture shock when I hit this part of the state, and I’m not sure why I didn’t just turn around and run. Well, that’s a lie right there. I am sure, and it’s because it don’t matter how smart you think you are if you ain’t got a pot to piss in.

So anyway, I have a story to tell, and I ain’t gonna tell it all. I’m just going over the part that I think might do some good to help somebody else that might get in the same predicament that I got myself into. Maybe they can find the courage to get out before it’s too late. I guess I waited too late, but I didn’t know it, and I pretty much went back for seconds. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense unless you know the whole story. I’m gonna try to tell just enough to make you understand.

I got down here around ’98, and it wasn’t long before I met a man. To say that I was always “meeting a man” would be putting it mildly. I swear, there’s one around every corner when you decide that you can live your life without one in it, and I have come to that conclusion many times. Unfortunately, they always seem to be around the corner I’m rounding, and I run smack into them and fall head over heels in love every time.

To clarify that point, I don’t usually fall in love with the man, just in love with the idea of being in love with the man.  This time was different though. I had never met anyone like Johnny before. He said I was his “meant to be” and I believed him. Of course, I did. I was a single mother with three little kids and I was looking for salvation. Not the kind that God gives you—I had that already—but something a little more down to earth and touchable. We got married pretty quick, and I thanked God for him every time I thought about it.

He Could Pick a Deer Off at Just About Any Distance

Johnny was a strong, working man, and I thought that he was everything that I had ever wanted. When he wasn’t working, he would grab me and the kids and we’d go fishing, or he would hunt with his buddies. Most of the time he had a whole pack of boys following him around, trying to learn everything he knew about huntin’ and fishin’. Everybody said he was the best shot around, and he wasn’t too worried about killing the deer legally, just mowing them down every chance he got. He could pick ‘em off running through the woods at just about any distance and he’d do it driving down the road or walking—didn’t matter to him.

The Sun Was Going Down

It wasn’t that bad of a deal. He made you think that it was the law that was wrong, not him. He didn’t do it for selfish reasons like filling our freezer, don’t think that. Maybe it was just for the joy of killing or maybe for the joy of giving the meat to people who needed it, I ain’t quite sure. We never really had any extra fish or deer meat because he gave every bit of it away so he could go again. That’s just the man he was, and everybody loved him. Mostly me. I don’t think I could’ve loved him more if I tried. And he loved me too. He said all he needed in life was ‘you, the kids, a smoke, and a Coke.’ That’s a pretty simple life right there. It would have been enough for us.

Johnny didn’t believe in drugs or drinking. Well, he would drink, but only once a year. He’d go to the bar and get drunk on New Year’s Eve, and I would drive him home. He would do ridiculously funny things like put his toe prints on the windshield in the morning dew as the car warmed up and say, ‘Now you see it, now you don’t,’ or sing the National Anthem in Donald Duck’s voice, or something equally crazy but normal for Johnny. Then, the next day he would get up like always and go build a fence, or help somebody wrap their pipes, or fish, hunt, or something. He never just laid up with a hangover. That just wasn’t the kind of man he was.

Then Johnny Got Hurt

He was on the job and working just like he always did. He worked hard enough for two men, and one time he actually did do the job of two men.  Bob was an old guy who needed to retire but couldn’t afford to, and he couldn’t breathe very well, so my Johnny would finish his work and then do Bob’s work too. It wouldn’t have been that unusual except that my husband was the foreman of the job. He could have sent Bob home at any time, or even had someone else do the extra work. That just wasn’t him though. He was always doing for other people.

I’m pretty sure Bob was retired or dead by the time all this took place. If I remember the story right, a machine should have been doing the job that the hands were doing, but the bosses couldn’t wait, and they were told to go ahead and do it themselves. Somehow, they were supposed to pick up sledgehammers and knock some pieces in the track—I guess I forgot to mention that he worked for the railroad.

Johnny had always told me, ‘If you get hurt on the railroad, you just as well better pretend you didn’t, because they’ll fire you so they don’t have to pay you.’ The railroad was always bearing the brunt of lawsuits filed from people getting run over by trains and maintenance of way hands who weren’t looking when they stepped off backwards onto the tracks and a train was coming, and other reasons like that. Instead of waiting around for you to decide to milk the situation for all you could get, they would just go ahead and fire you on the spot. You were gonna sue them anyway, so it didn’t really matter. At least that’s what I understood their position to be.

It was for that reason that he waited a day before he told them that he was hurt. Well, just like he always said, they fired him. He had worked there for 12 years, and they just up and fired him like he didn’t even matter. Didn’t even give him a chance to get better, not that he could have. They said that it was because he didn’t tell them right away that he was hurt.

We knew they’d have fired him either way. Turns out “hurt” didn’t really cover it. Johnny broke his back. In the process of many X-Rays and MRI’s, we found out that the reason his back ended up broke and nobody else got hurt is because he had degenerative back disease. He was out of the game for good. Not just that game, but also the hunting and fishing one. Truth be told, he was out of the game of life for good too. We just didn’t know it for another ten years.

The Switch Got Flipped

When a man has everything that he loves taken away from him, or at least everything that he feels like makes him a man, it changes something inside of him. He lost his identity somehow–all the things that made him who he was to himself. That little switch that was flipped might have a lot to do with why everything else happened the way that it did. But whatever way you look at it, it wasn’t Johnny’s fault.

Doctors and lawyers got involved, like they’ll do. The railroad’s doctors and Johnny’s doctors. The railroad’s lawyers and Johnny’s lawyers. They all had different opinions on whose fault the accident was, and what should be done about it. During all of this, I kept on working and taking care of my babies. Johnny got money advances from the lawyers and pain pills from the doctors. I tried my best to hold our lives together. I wasn’t doing a very good job.

He got addicted. Like I said, it wasn’t his fault. When they send you to pain management, they don’t try to “manage” your pain. They give you a huge bottle of opiates, synthetic ones mostly, and a date to come back. After a while the vultures start circling the parking lot. As soon as Johnny would come out of his pain management appointment, someone would meet him in the parking lot to buy some of his pills. Then he’d be short what he needed, and he’d do the same to someone else. I guess he was dealing drugs, if you want to look at it like that. I felt like I just turned my head and let it happen. I tried to stop it, but what could I do? I couldn’t put my own husband in jail, and he never seemed to hear anything I said to him anymore. It became a vicious cycle that there was seemingly no escape from.

Pain Meds–the Beginning of the End

But there was. Somebody told Johnny of an easier way to manage his pain, or his addiction, or something. I guess that was the beginning of the end. Pretty soon he was taking pain pills, drinking, smoking marijuana, and doing meth. I knew about all of it but the meth. You couldn’t have convinced me of that to save my life. Or anybody else’s. Also, no one tried. I never had any idea that my husband was addicted to meth. It never crossed my mind. I still don’t know if he smoked it, ate it, shot it, drank it, or what. I never saw him do it one time and wouldn’t even know it if it jumped up and bit me in the butt.

I could tell you about the part where my youngest son got ahold of some morphine that had to have come from Johnny, either directly or indirectly, if I had the guts to do it right now. It’s a whole other story for a whole other day. I will give you the short version. He didn’t make it, and I lost my mind. I have to live my entire life without him now, knowing that I didn’t save him from a ship that I didn’t know was sinking. Because I was just working and paying bills and taking care of my kids I thought. I was just surviving and hanging in there and waiting for a better day. And a better day was not coming. And it is never coming now.

Did I blame Johnny for my baby dying? Of course, I did. He was only 16 years old. And Johnny had been the love of my life, and I couldn’t make it work in my head. I could say a million things to him and about him, but I couldn’t make any of it work. I didn’t know that Johnny was already dead himself. Or if he wasn’t, that was the last thing that he needed to send him over the edge. When the boy died, Johnny died too. He just didn’t know it. Hell, none of us knew it.

Johnny Wasn’t Johnny Anymore

I bet a lot of people don’t even believe that you can’t tell when someone who is addicted to meth checks out on you, and someone else takes their place. Johnny wasn’t Johnny anymore. He was already dead and gone. Pretty much a zombie to tell the truth. He didn’t get buried for another ten years, but he never showed up again. There was an imposter inhabiting his body after that. He fooled a lot of people. I can’t believe that one of them was me.

We couldn’t get through the death. I guess I should say that I couldn’t get through it. Truth be told, Johnny wasn’t really feeling anything. That body learned to fake everything that Johnny used to be. It would laugh, or cry, be happy or sad—pretty much anything you would expect from a real person, but it wasn’t one. I know that now, but I sure didn’t know it then.

We split up—divorced—went our separate ways. I struggled to get over the loss and the betrayal. I didn’t want to live most of the time. But I had the other two kids, and they were young adults by then, and putting pressure on me to live my life again. They didn’t know Johnny was dead already, what with him walking around and all. They harbored hopes that we would get back together and that things would be the way they were before. Everybody loved Johnny.

You Can’t Give Me Back My Son

I moved on with life and relationships and reasoned out my forgiveness of Johnny. I didn’t know the truth of how it had all happened. I didn’t know really if he had been responsible. Perhaps I had misjudged him. Perhaps it wasn’t his fault. To this day, I still don’t know the truth. The source of the morphine is still a mystery to me, one that I will never solve. I don’t need to solve it anymore though. I have released that need to God. “Why” is not a question that I need an answer to, and neither is “how.” It doesn’t even matter. My child is dead, and no amount of forgiveness or unforgiveness can bring him back.

After a few years of separation, my heart softened toward Johnny again. I remembered how I had loved him, and how my kids still did. He told me about the meth, that he had been addicted. I was shocked—it was unbelievable to me that he could be doing all that right in front of me and I wasn’t even smart enough to know it. See, I told you that my college degree was pretty much useless. Well, if that’s not what I said, I meant to. I was blind where he was concerned.

Maybe I Saw What I Wanted to See

I believed him when he said that all the drug use was over. He told me, ‘I can’t imagine how bad I made you feel,’ and I just knew he had changed. Johnny cared about my feelings—he wanted me back! I moved back in with him, once I shook off the guilt. It took a while to get past the idea that I was somehow betraying my son by going back. I still don’t know if I did or if I didn’t. The truth is in the ground with Johnny, and it’s best that it stays there. I’m finally getting better myself. It has been almost 13 years.

I think about what it took for me to leave the second time. There wasn’t much doubt after I had been there a little while that something was still very wrong. Johnny would sleep for days at a time and then he would stay up for days at a time. He would take things apart that he couldn’t hope to put back together because there were so many pieces. Trash would pile up around him as he sat in his chair. He stopped taking baths, and brushing his teeth.

I tried to save him. Even after everything. In a way, I think that’s why I was there. Maybe I knew all along that he wasn’t better. Maybe I knew that he was still on drugs, even though I didn’t know it was meth. I think I must have had some kind of inflated opinion of myself, or of what love can do.

Love is Not Always Enough

I’m here to tell you that it isn’t enough, no matter what you think. Love can’t beat addiction. Love can’t go down into hell and pull somebody out who doesn’t want to come. You think you can be a savior to someone you love who is an addict, but you can’t. You aren’t enough and you never will be. If they don’t want to be saved, nobody can save them, and God won’t do it either. He already sent His only Son to do the job. If Jesus ain’t enough, you sure aren’t. The only thing that happens when you go down to hell to get somebody out who doesn’t want to come is that you stand the chance of dying there too. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you.

Anyway, I cleaned up his house and made it beautiful, because I thought that stuff like that mattered. I told him when to bathe and brush his teeth. I became his wife again. I took care of his bills, and other things that needed tending too, and I was glad to do it. I don’t regret going back out there, even though it turned out badly. I needed to do it. I needed to know that Johnny was gone, so I could let his memory rest in peace in my own heart.  Everyone said how glad they were that I was back. Everyone was glad but me.

I struggled hard with my own feelings. My anxiety was out of control, and I had PTSD from finding my baby dead. I had taken to cutting myself to get some kind of relief from the hurts inside of me. I was angry and hurt and drinking all the time to try to make myself feel better. I’m just telling you all of this so you know that I’m not trying to make myself out to be a saint who always had it all together. I sure didn’t. I was barely hanging on to life, and I don’t think I was sane all the time. Still, you do the best you can do with the hand that you’re dealt. If I could have thrown those cards back in God’s face, you can believe me when I tell you that I would have. That ain’t the way things go sometimes though. Sometimes you gotta stand up, whether you want to or not, and when you’re the least able. And you do it for the same reason that you try to go down into hell and rescue someone.

But Sometimes It Is

There’s only one motivation that’s powerful enough to make you forget your own pain and heartbreak to the point where you will do as much as you can to spare somebody else from the same. That motivation is love. Don’t forget that. There might be a day when you need to call it to mind.

Johnny had never laid a hand on me before—hardly ever even got angry with me. Now the guy who pretended to be Johnny was violent and angry. He was paranoid and suspicious and controlling. I didn’t know that Johnny, but I couldn’t allow him to control me. He shoved me, threatened me, and pushed me out the door. He told me to leave, but when I would try to go, he would beg me to stay. I cried every day, but I stayed.

I would think about how good he could shoot. There was never a deer that I could remember seeing that Johnny didn’t gun down as it ran through the woods, and it didn’t matter how far away the deer was. He didn’t need to look in his scope to shoot it either. He would just look down the length of the side of it and use that as a guide as he lined the gun up in motion. It was an amazing thing to see—not so amazing to imagine yourself on the other end of it if he went crazy and you tried to run.

I guess the catalyst for leaving came when my little grandbaby came over to see me, and he scared her by yelling. I thought about how much I used to love him. And I thought about what it had cost me. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the truth is when it comes down to it. It only matters what happens. And what happened is, I lost my son. I wasn’t going to lose anybody else. I wasn’t going to let my daughter lose her little girl. I was going to protect my family with my life—the way I would have done back then if I had known I needed to. So, I thought about how much I used to love Johnny. And then I thought about how much I loved my precious grandbaby. There was no comparison. There wasn’t even a choice to be made.

Whose Fault is it, Really?

There’s a lot more to the story, and maybe one day I will let somebody write that part down too. But for now, I told what I needed to tell. There ain’t nothing good that’s ever gonna come from meth. The doctors that hand out those prescriptions for bottles of pills are finally getting regulated, but it’s not enough. I can look at some of my own relatives and know that they aren’t doing enough to staunch the flow yet. The blood of addiction is directly on their hands, theirs and the big pharmaceutical companies that make a profit off the misery they deal to hundreds of thousands of victims who just want some relief from the pain.

The Price We Didn’t Pay

It didn’t have to end the way it did. Johnny didn’t have to die of a meth overdose. He didn’t have to die an addict. He wasn’t that guy. He didn’t believe in taking drugs and he only drank once a year. He was a hard-working and hard-playing man who loved to hunt and fish, and he loved me and the kids, a smoke and a Coke. And by God, we loved him too. And now you know the price we paid for it, and the one we didn’t.”