Heather Johnson still has a hard time believing this is her life.

“I feel like I don’t deserve it,” she said, gesturing from the leather couch where she sat beside her husband Shawn in the couple’s sprawling two-story house in the upscale Legacy Ridge subdivision south of town. “I stand in the entryway when I get home each day and just cry and thank God.”

Her thankfulness has less to do with materialism than it does being grateful that she and Shawn are no longer hooked on drugs or in prison.

Just a few years ago, the couple was strung out on meth and heroin in Rock Springs, living from one drug fix to the next. Paranoid and ashamed, they lived the chaotic life of most addicts, putting meth and heroin above everything else – jobs, family, children – calling only when they needed bail money. As a dealer, Shawn was “not a nice guy,” according to Heather, and bears no resemblance to the smiling, kind man now at her side.

It would take several months and a huge awakening on Shawn’s part to get to where they are today. Back then, the pair had been together for about four tumultuous months before they spiraled out of control, eventually losing everything and ending up in prison.

“We were like Bonnie and Clyde,” Heather said. “Two flames joining in fire.”

“We loved to party,” Shawn said with a shrug. “It was only a matter of time.”

That time came much more quickly than either had imagined, and by the point they were arrested, they’d pretty much burned through everything and were staying in hotels or sleeping on couches because they’d lost everything they had once worked hard to earn.

Addicted

Heather’s drug use started early. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, by 18, she was already drinking heavily and popping pills, and doctor shopping to maintain her opioid addiction. By 23, she was an unwed mom with a 2-year-old son and living as an addict on the edge.

Distraught, Heather’s parents tried to intervene and sent her to rehab, but she had no desire to be cured. Instead, she escaped from treatment and thumbed it to Rock Springs in 2009, where she fell in with a familiar crowd. Eventually, she met Shawn, then a meth dealer, who kept the couple in constant supply.

“We basically traded addictions,” Heather said. “Shawn switched to heroin, and I started doing meth.”

From the outside, their lives looked kinda normal. Shawn maintained his oil field job, and Heather worked too. Both were from upper-middle class families whose names didn’t appear in the police blotter. The fissures, however, had nothing to do with owning a house and paying their bills on time. Rather the chaos was erupting in their personal lives and estranged relationships with their kids, ex-spouses and families, who no longer trusted either of them or wanted to be around them. 

In some ways, it was a lucky break when one of their customers turned on them to cut a deal with the cops, resulting in their arrest. Out on bail awaiting trial, the couple got a hotel room and continued to party, barely surviving on Malt-O-Meal, and eventually getting caught again and  sent to prison.

“It was the lowest point of my life,” Shawn said, looking down at his clasped fingers.

An end, and a beginning.

Now sober and behind bars, both finally woke up.

FINDING THE LIGHT

In the state penitentiary in Rawlins, Shawn was put into a pod with lifers, gang bangers and murderers. This was his second time in prison and up until now he had seen no point in rehab with drugs out there waiting for him as soon as he got out. This time was different. He’d always told himself he was in control of his own life and didn’t consider himself an addict. Now, those defenses were crumbling, and he admitted to himself that he needed help. Though he hadn’t grown up particularly religious, he now found himself reaching out to God.

“I started crying, and asked God for his help,” he said. “I had tried doing it my own way for the past 38 years and clearly wasn’t getting anywhere.”

In Rawlins, he started attending bible studies and met an older man, Arlen Price, who was doing life for killing his uncle, who Price claimed had sexually assaulted both he and his brother. The fact that a guy like Price, who was facing life behind bars for what he’d been through, struck a chord with Shawn who couldn’t believe he still had such faith and hope. Price took Shawn under his wing and helped lead him to God.

Shawn asked for forgiveness and also prayed for Heather, having no idea where she’d gone or would end up.

Over in Lusk at the Wyoming Women’s Center, Heather was also finding her way back. Two inmates in particular, Darla Rouse and Susan James, led Heather to God, where her life was beginning to take on new meaning as she sobered up. During her incarceration, she wondered about Shawn but figured they were both probably much better off now that they were apart.

Once out of prison in 2016, Heather was accepted at the Volunteers of American (VOA) center where Shawn had also been sent, and the two were rightfully weary of one another. They promised they were rehabilitated and wanted a much different life, but there was the residual fear of former addicts who knew too well the risk of a backslide.

The odds were against them. According to the American Addiction Center, the relapse rate for substance use disorders is estimated to be between 40 to 60 percent, a rate similar to rates of relapse for other chronic diseases such as hypertension or asthma.

Something was markedly different about Shawn, Heather noted, who no longer even talked or acted the same. Once a surly dealer protecting his assets, he was now a smiling guy who talked a lot about God and His plan.

“Shawn was already in his walk with the Lord and had completely transformed,” Heather said. “When I finally saw him, he looked so happy and great.” 

“The whole time I had been praying for Heather,” he said, smiling at his wife. “I wanted her to be loved like she should be loved.”

In Gillette, the two tentatively began to see each other against the advice of all of their family and friends, who feared the two would lead each other back down the same old road. They were a bit leery themselves and limited their time together to meeting at the library for bible study or just to talk.

After being released from prison in March, three months later, the couple married and began their uphill climb.

FIRST STEPS

Starting over was the hardest part. Not only had they lost everything, but they had nothing to go to, and for the first time in years, had no vices to lean on.

“For the past 18 years, there was nothing but drugs,” Heather said. “It was the starting over that scared me. But it’s different when you have God in your life. I knew He would take care of us.”

The first step was getting their family on board and to trust them once again. With their biological children living with their ex-spouses, both Shawn and Heather worked hard to prove they were no longer the same people. Luckily, the pair got along well with their, and each other’s, exes, who worked with them to slowly lead up to visitations and supervised visits, and finally, unsupervised longer stays. Likewise, with their own siblings and parents, and repairing all the bridges they had burned in the past.

As they worked on their personal lives, their careers were another area that they wanted to turn around. Despite their past, both had always been reliable, hard workers. Shawn had always wanted to work for Anadarko, where his dad had worked for 38 years and loved his job. Shawn had applied over the years, but now clean and sober, he was determined to finally land his dream job with the company. A position in Gillette opened, and Shawn applied. 

Along with the neck tattoos and felony record, Shawn didn’t think he really stood a chance, so when asked about himself in the interview, he point-blank explained that he was a felon and former drug addict. The two men interviewing him looked at each other in surprise, but the interview went surprisingly well, Shawn thought, who walked out feeling pretty great because he had told the truth and didn’t try to “B.S.” around.

“I think they respected that I was straight with them and just laid it out there,” he said. “But, when I asked what my chances were of getting the job, they were honest and said not good.”

He shook their hands and thanked them for the opportunity, he said, and moved on.

A couple weeks later, he was surprised when they called to say they’d created a contract position for him if he was interested. Had they hired Shawn for that first position, his new boss explained, he’d have been stuck with an entry-wage job. Now, with this new position, he would come in at a higher salary and could work his way up from there.

“They brought me on at two levels higher,” he said. “I called Heather crying. I was so happy.”

“I love that part of Shawn’s story,” Heather said with a big grin. “It shows that hard work pays off and it’s never too late to try again.”

For her part, Heather took a job at the Starbucks in Albertsons, and within a few months, worked herself up to supervisor at the coffee shop. Then, she just kept working until recently being promoted to assistant grocery manager for the entire store. 

Even more astounding to the couple was the visit with Shawn’s brother, a mortgage broker, who informed Shawn that he was able to afford the house in Legacy Ridge, which was much nicer than he’d ever imagined owning.

“I never thought we would live anywhere as nice as this,” Heather said, wiping back tears with the heels of her hands as she looked around at the arched, tall ceilings, granite countertops, leather couches and large square coffee table where a neat stack of magazines waited. Framed photos of family and crosses hang on the walls.   

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel blessed,” Heather said, while Shawn nodded solemnly.

MIRRORING CHANGE

That day, a sunny June morning, Heather’s daughter asked her mom if she could go outside for a bike ride, so the couple followed her out on the front lawn and smiled and waved as she jumped on her bike and showed off some of her new tricks as she practiced steering with one hand. 

At age 46, the couple is not taking any of this for granted, and both praise God for where they are now and have been. They in large part credit the Journey Church, Second Chance Ministries and the Mirror Program in Casper, as well as Shawn’s family, for helping them turn their lives around.

As far as they’re concerned, they attribute God for directly having a hand in their sobriety and success and are happy and content living a sober life at Journey Church and home. Neither miss anything about their former lives, and if anything, see their past as a good reason to remain sober.

“This is the first town I’ve lived in where I’ve never been to a bar,” Shawn said with a surprised smile.

They’ve had to cut off friendships with people from their past who are still in that world, but it’s a small price for where they both are today.

Instead, they’re working hard to help others turn their lives around, mentoring and offering bible study with the inmates at the Campbell County Detention Center, where they go a couple times a week. They also help mentor juveniles as well as other volunteer public service.

Some regrets don’t go away, however, and both have their share of those.

She watched her parents die thinking that they’d lost their daughter. Her mother passed away while she was in prison and her dad not long thereafter. Perhaps worse yet is the influence she had on her oldest son, who at age 26 is now in jail for drugs.

“He followed in his mom’s footsteps,” she said, covering her mouth with both hands as tears pooled in her eyes.

Shawn had to work hard to repair his relationship with his daughter. He knows he failed her and is doing whatever he can to make amends.

“Looking back on that life makes me sick,” Shawn said quietly, studying his hands.

Nonetheless, on this warm, June morning, Heather and Shawn cheered from the edge of their well-groomed, manicured lawn as their daughter pedaled figure eights in the street, enjoying the first day of summer.

Wyoming Addiction by the Numbers

5,000 (10.7%) Wyoming adolescents reported drinking alcohol within the past month in 2014-2015 (compared to the national average of 10.6%).

31,000 (6.4%) Wyoming residents over age 12 met criteria for an alcohol use disorder within the past year in 2014-2015 (compared to the national average of 6.1%).

3,261 Wyoming residents were enrolled in substance use treatment in 2015. This number was an increase from 2013 but a decrease from 2011, when 3,396 were enrolled.

Of those in substance abuse treatment, 18.7% were enrolled for a drug problem, 37.7% for an alcohol problem, and 43.6% for both drug and alcohol problems.

Adolescents
Aged 12-17

In 2017, approximately 4% of American teens suffered from a substance use disorder; this equals 992,000 teens or 1 in 25 teens

About 443,000 adolescents in this
age group had an alcohol use disorder

in 2017, or 1.8% of adolescents

An estimated 741,000 adolescents suffered from an illicit drug use disorder in 2017, or about  3% of this population.

Young Adults
Aged 18-25

About 5.1 million young adults
battled a substance use disorder in 2017, which equates to 14.8% of this population or about 1 in 7 people.

About 3.4 million young adults in this age group had an alcohol use disorder in 2017,
or about 10% of young adults.

About 2.5 million young adults had an illicit drug use disorder in 2017, or about 7.3% of this population.

Heroin use among young adults between 18 and 25 years old doubled in the past decade.

Source: American Addiction Center

 

By: Jen C. Kocher

 

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About The Author

Jennifer is a Wyoming transplant who can’t imagine living anywhere else. She comes to Outliers with more than a decade of community reporting experience from publications around the state. For story ideas and tips, contact Jen at jckocher@mcllc.net.

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