From the outside looking in, James McNorton had it made.
James came to Boise in 1982 to play basketball (and a year of football) at Boise State and stayed. Always an athlete, he enjoyed the kind of notoriety that sports brings; his gregarious, easy-going nature made him a natural leader.
He and his wife had three kids, a beautiful home in Hobble Creek, nice cars, lots of toys.
He says: "You look at it, you'd say, oh, they're kind of a black Ken and Barbie. They've got it together."
He was a trustee at church, active and well-respected in the community. He provided well for his family; he had worked his way up to being a purchasing manager at a company he'd been with for 20 years.
"But at the end of the day, I was just empty. (I'd think), 'what's that about?' "
In the midst of all that - totally related, he later sees, but it wasn't at all clear then - he and his wife got a divorce. He was 40 years old when it seemed like his entire world crashed down on him.
"I remember talking to God going, 'OK, I'm your right-hand man. I work in the church, I help in the community; I do everything I can. I'm nice to people. And how can I be getting a divorce? How?' I just couldn't find any answers.
"I told my pastor, 'You know, I've done it God's way all this time. I'm going to do it my way.' He told me, 'It can get worse.' I said, 'It can't get any worse. I'm divorced.'"
And then, James says, "I got on this journey." A glass-of-wine-or-two drinker, he found himself at bars, getting drunk and partying. Even now, he can hardly fathom why he made the choices that he did: drinking, versus his reputation, his nice home, his family.
"Who would not want that? Who would want this (other) shallow existence, drinking every night, womanizing; losing cars because you didn't pay, losing the house, living on couches - it's a no-brainer.
"But at the end of the day, I always chose that. I always chose that because I was bankrupt. (He touches his heart.) It just blows me away today - dude, who was that (making those decisions)?"
In four intense years, he lost everything - his hot rods, his Harley, his house; his relationship with his kids, his own inner compass.
"I didn't know it at the time, but it was a tough period of searching, searching, searching. (I'd ask myself) what's going on? How come I'm doing this selfish stuff? I could not figure it out.
" Then I'd (just go) get drunk, I'd find a party and everything (would be) all right. Then come morning and (I'd be asking myself again), 'What the heck are you doing with your life?'
"Nothing of my human power could get me out of that state."
It took, he says, divine intervention. "I said, 'God, help me.' And bip, bam, boom, he did." James was arrested one night when a police officer pulled him over and found drugs in his car - a felony offense.
That was just the first part of the divine intervention. A first-time, nonviolent offender, James was offered drug court as an alternative to prison. Intense, the program isn't for everyone, and the strict discipline is demanding. For James, it became his lifeline.
"You go to different classes and I listened to (other people's) stories. They started (drinking and drugs) when they were 12 or 14. Now they were like 45 or 50 years old - holy smokes. (I thought) shoot, I shouldn't even be here. The first time I ever did drugs was at 44 years old.
"But I belonged."
Looking back, he reflects that part of his hollowness stemmed from a multitude of life experiences that accumulated and festered - his own parents' divorce when he was young, growing up in the South during forced busing, the unrealistic expectations of sports and family.
"I had a lot of stuff that I struggled with (over the years) - I pacified it with sports.
"In treatment, all those things came to light. More and more, I said, 'I think I need to be here.' Even without the drinking and substance (abuse), I had issues. I had stuff that was unresolved. I had all these things I did not reconcile.
" It amounted up in me to the point where I couldn't tell someone that I loved that I loved them. I couldn't say I was sorry. I couldn't say, 'It was my fault, how could I fix it?' Simple enough, isn't it?"
In treatment, some of his classmates had been there before, stuck in a cycle, but for James, the insights were astounding.
"It was all new to me. I was like a sponge. I knew I could do something different and better with the rest of my life. I knew I could; I knew I should. I didn't know how to go about it. It was just laid out to me.
"It's been quite the journey. I needed the humility piece of it, of having everything then having nothing. Today, my mantra - everyone knows me by - is, 'It's a beautiful day. It's a great day to be alive and free.'"
One of the most profound discoveries was unearthing himself.
"(In a class) this counselor was saying, 'Why do people like you?' I go, 'Well, I have a Harley, hot rods; I'm tall, black, an athlete.' I was just naming all these things and he was going, 'Nope, nope, nope, nope.'
"He goes, 'Because you're James. People like you and love you because you're you.' And that was like an epiphany for me: It was OK to be James.
" It was a breakthrough. I wanted to be what my father wanted me to be. I wanted to please my mom, what the coach wanted me to be, what my ex-wife wanted me to be. All these people, it was killing me because I had to wear the mask everywhere I went.
" I'm free from so many things. I'm free from wanting to have a big house and nice cars and the American dream and all that. If it happens, it would be nice but it doesn't drive me."
Hand in hand with understanding himself, James rediscovered God.
"I believed in God, but for whatever reason, I could not tap into the power of God. It always had to go through the choir, the pastor, the usher, the deacons, to get to me. It wasn't a direct channel, as I perceived it.
"So I got to a place of brokenness with the divorce and was not truly believing that there was a God, a spirit of the universe, that could handle all my problems.
" Working through the steps in (Alcoholics Anonymous), I found that I can have a personal God all-knowing, all powerful - and I can tap into that power, personally, to help me not drink or drug, and it can relieve me from my 'insane thinking.'"
In 2007, the same year he successfully graduated from drug court, James was offered a job at a residential treatment program for teens. That job marks the direction James is taking his life - inspired by his own drug and alcohol counselors, he's returned to Boise State for a degree that will allow him to become licensed, too.
"Time and time again, having the counselors tell me, 'You have some purpose in life and you have some gifts that God's given you. You need to start using them.'
"I'm thinking, what? I've always been able to inspire, I've always been able to motivate. (But the question is) What are you going to do with it?
" It's kind of weird that all this stuff had to happen (for me to) get to this point where I'm open to helping people. I understand (now) what my purpose is here ultimately: to help people."
Now 50 years old and clean and sober for six years, James is in his second semester at BSU, taking five classes and making good grades ("That was probably the first time since high school that I've earned the A's. I mean, I've gotten some, but I earned these. "). He has a self-imposed schedule to graduate in 2014.
He's got a new love for his now-grown children based on healthy relationships, a supportive and honest network of friends who understand recovery - and he loves the work he does.
" I 'Google Earth' my life and I see how every (positive) connection I had has led me to this point in time now all these things I've done (have) prepared me for this moment.
"This is just a total miracle. Just to see that, I get chills. Holy smokes, there's something out there. Something's happening.
"I reflect on that - and every day is a beautiful day."
Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.