When he was a young teen, he made a promise.
He says: “I told myself ... I’ll never use drugs, never use coke, never use heroin; I’m never going to use any of these hard drugs. I hope I don’t drink.
“But if I drink, I’ll only drink. I’m not smoking pot.”
The story of his life, however, is a stark, almost laughable, contrast to that youthful promise.
“It didn’t happen. I dove right into them (all) head first.”
From the first shots he and his buddy stole from the liquor cabinet when he was 15 until he was arrested two years ago for possession with intent to deliver, Chris Johnson’s life has been intertwined with alcohol and illegal street drugs. Even after he was sentenced to mental health court, his disentanglement from addiction has been neither miraculous nor straightforward — and certainly not easy.
“One year, three months, 25 days clean. ... Oh, I’m counting. I’ve got a thing on my phone, a clean date calendar, that counts your clean date. My clean date is May 7, 2014.”
Chris credits that youthful promise to himself as a small flickering light of hope — sometimes only a pinprick — through the “long, treacherous road of a lot of wreckage” as he calls it, the terrible cycle of addiction.
“(Telling my story is) a project to ... give back to the community. I hope that it sheds some light on , not the tragedies, but the hardships of people in mental illness and addiction. And that there’s hope.
“The legal system is not all about sending people to prison. I mean, they gave me a choice. They said you could have probation or you could have (Mental Health Court); I chose the program. Although it’s a very strict program, it still had a learning curve to it. I got to learn how to get out of my addiction. I got to learn how to be comfortable with myself again. ...
“It’s just giving me more hope ... for a life without drugs. It’s inspired me to believe there is a chance I can create that life.”
Usually in trouble in elementary school, Chris went through life with kind of a chip on his shoulder, rebellious to authority. His father was an alcoholic; his parents divorced. Even when his mother remarried, he didn’t feel included. After those first stolen shots, he learned that alcohol helped it all. So did marijuana.
“I wanted to fit in. ... (Over time), other drugs were involved, like crank and peyote, like hash and more alcohol. I lost interest in school, my schoolwork went down. ... I was an average student, but when I started doing drugs, my attention went down.”
Part of his feelings were normal teenage angst. Part of them were something else as well. Although he didn’t know it then, by his junior year in high school, Chris was starting to feel the effects of his mental illness. He has words to describe that time now, words like “delusional” and “psychosis.” But he didn’t back then, and drugs helped him cope with inexplicable feelings.
“I couldn’t think through a day and remember and recall each day; and my thoughts were very unclear. I couldn’t put things together, I felt very out of place mentally. And I started feeling really awkward and really uncomfortable when I was around family or friends without the drugs.”
Confused and scared, he asked his mother for help. She took him to a psychiatrist, who started him on medication for what he knows now is schizoaffective disorder. It’s a complicated mix of mental disorders, still not well understood, and getting the proper medication and dosage was an equally complicated process.
“The street drugs didn’t have the symptoms like the medicine I was taking for my mind. Pharmaceuticals had side effects but the street drugs didn’t.
“If I just burned out on the street drugs, I got tired, I went to sleep. (But) the pharmaceuticals had all these different mental (side effects) — feeling slow, feeling uncognitive and all that. It was my mind being healed by the drugs, but I didn’t see it that way. ...
“I would get off my medication and use street drugs. (Then) I would fall into psychosis. Nothing was right; I didn’t know what was going on when it was happening.
“I just knew something wasn’t right. Mentally, I knew I was out of my mind.”
After a while, Chris committed to staying on his medication without street drugs, and for several years, he was successful. This is the pattern of an addict. Because, when he was about 20, a conflict with the mother of his 2-year-old son sent him into a tailspin. It’s one of his triggers, he now knows.
“I was using (drugs) to escape from conflict. I had a conflict with her, I didn’t want to get angry, so I went out and I used. That was my justification. There wasn’t much guilt to it. ...
“I started smoking coke and it was this rush. It felt like the lifestyle hadn’t left me, you know; the drug addiction had been there the whole time and it was me just participating and using again.”
That little light inside him, though, remembered his promise to himself.
“I remember saying that and I remember mentally saying that and I remember meaning it.
“But ... this is not a conscious decision I make. It’s a physical reaction and my body craves drugs and I respond to it. I realize I don’t want to be doing it — and it’s too late. I’m already doing it. ...
“Part of myself says yes, this isn’t a very good, productive activity to be participating in. But the other part says yeah, but it’s fulfilling, it’s satisfying, it’s temporary and it’s a high.
“Part of me says no and part of me says yes.”
For a while, his life was in chaos, full of drugs and alcohol again. Steadfast through his entire life has been his father, his mother and stepfather, his stepsiblings and his brother, and the mother of his son, from whom he is now separated.
“Even with a supportive family, it’s hard to overcome the mental health and addiction challenges — and to even recognize that there are people that love and are there for you.”
But he found a dual addiction recovery center in Boise and recommitted to taking medication for his mental disorder. And for six or seven years, he was again clean and sober. He got his high school equivalency. He attended 12-step programs.
“I really did have a bright future and the support I needed to achieve almost any goal. None of that was enough to overcome my inner turmoil.”
One by one, his friends started relapsing into drinking.
“At that point, I said said, excuse my language, f*** it. I’m just going to do the drugs. I had five, six years sober and clean. But I couldn’t find work. I was unhappy; I didn’t have money in my pocket to spend, I was always going to my mom for gas money for cigarettes. ...
“I just gave up. ...
“I started just smoking (meth) but, progressively, as I smoked a bit more of it, I started snorting it and started shooting it. That was over a three-year period. I ended up using so much and not having the money for it that I ended up dealing it.
“That was the worst I ever got with drugs. I never dealt drugs until this last go-round.
“It’s like a war story, epidemics where these situations break out and everything goes crazy, and they lose everything. (And) I’m the bad guy, the person who’s causing all this.”
And so, one day in December 2013, a police officer pulled Chris over for a minor traffic infringement.
“I get all wound up, I’m talking fast, getting loud a little bit. He’s suspicious.”
For tucked in the pocket of his car door was 5.8 grams of meth, worth about $700 on the street. Plus a little bag tucked into his sock.
“I knew prior to getting arrested that was what was going to end up happening. ... The problem wasn’t getting the drugs, the problem was I couldn’t stop using the drugs.
“I was only dealing so I could use drugs. If I made a certain amount of money, anything over that was mine to keep, whether I wanted to sell it or use it. I usually used it.
“So it was just like I knew I was caught in a vicious cycle and I didn’t have a way out because I didn’t have the desire enough to stop getting more drugs.”
After his arrest, Chris was released on bond — and immediately started using.
“I asked myself that, too. I really did. I said, ‘Why would I sit there and do that?’ Because I was obsessed. I had an obsession for the drugs.”
Chris pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year fixed and five years of probation. But he knew he wasn’t going to stop using. So he made one of the hardest — and best — decisions he has ever made. He asked that his felony probation be to mental health court.
“I went to jail on the first day of Mental Health Court because I was high. They tested me, I came back high, so they arrested me and took me to jail. That was the beginning of my Mental Health Court experience. ...”
In and out of jail, it took him four or five months that included two intensive classes while incarcerated, before things started clicking. He learned about his behavior, his attitudes, his addiction. He learned moral and cognitive skills. He learned about triggers and learned skills to deal with them.
He took his medication; he learned he had support for his mental illness. He attended 12-step meetings. He has strict accountability. It was all eye-opening.
“It helped dramatically because it helped me identify my weak points and my strong points, helped me identify my limitations ...
“I just have a better compass, where I can map out the way I should handle things a little bit better, with a little better foundation than I have in the past.”
Now, he sees himself as a person with an addiction and with a mental illness — a person living with those things, rather than being ruled by them.
“I’m setting myself up so I don’t have to worry about (those); I can work on (them) daily but they can be a functioning part of my life. ... That those two areas of life won’t own the day. I look at my future as a chance to do that — to live with my mental illness and my drug addiction — but still having a chance to live my life.”
He’s got plans. He has about $5,000 in debt that he needs to pay off and then maybe school. Maybe study art, maybe learn to be a welder. Maybe he can get off disability.
“The future is a more manageable situation to work with. I feel I have more skills to work with. Setting myself up to start something, like going back to school — I can do that. I can schedule it out, I can plan it out, I can start acting on it.
“I have more motivation to do things the right way.”
It’s sort of like: Finally.
“I am (grateful) now, but I wasn’t (when I was arrested). I have more momentum and more motivation now to see life without drugs. In the beginning, I couldn’t get my mind off of obsessing about using. ”
There will always be challenges ahead; Chris knows that. It’s one step at a time, one day at a time. He lets out a deep sigh.
“I like the sobriety and the clean time a lot better. I do.
“I just like the opportunity to have normal experiences, normal life experiences created by life, rather than trying to drown out life with drugs and alcohol.”
In December, Chris will graduate from Mental Health Court. A quiet man inclined to be alone, he is facing up to his fear of public speaking in hopes that telling his story will both help him — and others.
“There’s another way to live outside that addiction. Although addiction is still strong and pertinent to your life, there’s still hope.
“And there’s till tomorrow that you can be off drugs. Never give up.”
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.