By Echo Lee Menges
I remember it perfectly. I remember making the decision to evacuate from our situation, from our lives as we knew them and from our addictions to crystal meth. For several years, I had been in a drug-induced emotional and mental coma, but I remember that moment with complete clarity – like it was yesterday.
Stan, who was my boyfriend at the time, and I were sitting on a dusty bus stop bench in Sun Valley, which is a suburb north of Reno, Nevada, my home town. Between us, we had been struggling with homelessness, recidivism, poor health and depression. We knew we were at a crossroads. The fates were telling us something – continue down this path and you will die.
For the past six months, we had been going through the motions of trying to get clean. We moved into a Reno halfway house. We attended 12-step meetings. We tried our hands at non-drug related jobs. We could go a spell, maybe a few weeks at a time, without using. But whenever we left the safety of the halfway house and ventured out, the same thing would happen. We'd see someone we knew, someone we ran with un-clean, and we would get high. It happened over and over again and again.
It seemed like we couldn't go anywhere. I was too well known. At the bus station, the grocery store, a McDonald's, it didn't matter, there was always someone shoving hundred dollar bills in my face whispering, “Echo, go get me the good stuff. I'll kick you down.”
I wasn't strong enough to say, “No.”
I was unconcerned with my own deterioration, but I was with a man I truly loved. Despite the meth induced coma, I believe watching him deteriorate is what finally woke me up. Knowing the exacerbated rate his health was slipping, and knowing it was my fault cracked the shell of the person I had become.
It happened on that dusty bus stop in the valley. We had come down from a week-long bender and our bodies were feeling the effects of the withdrawal. We were broke and on the verge of being kicked out of the halfway house. Despite it all, we made our first good decision and finally said the words out loud- “Let's just get the hell out of here. Let's go somewhere we've never been before, where no one knows us and we don't know anyone.”
That conversation changed everything because we meant it. We genuinely wanted to change. It was the hardest decision I've ever made, and the most important. It was the first good choice either of us had made in too long to remember.
Looking back, it was such a half-cocked idea. Where will we go? How will we get there? What will we do for money? Where will we live? How is this ever going to work? We had no idea. All we knew was that one way or another – we were leaving Reno. That was the only goal. We're getting the hell out of here as soon as we possibly can.
Once the decision was made, the first good choice, the first and hardest step toward something different, a cosmic chain reaction began. I believe it was God--who has had His hands on my shoulders my entire life. Once we found the motive, a genuine desire to change, the means and the opportunity presented themselves to us.
The means came in the form of an out-of-the-blue phone call to the halfway house we were living at, just as we were being kicked out. On the other end of the line was the voice of one of Stan's longtime friends. He told Stan, “I've been looking for you all over the place. We're in Missouri and we're clean. You guys can do it too. Come to Missouri. We've got plenty of room.”
A few weeks later, by now homeless and bouncing from one friend's house to another, we were managing to stay high, but still not completely grasping the means to the end. Our opportunity came in the form of a $1,300 jackpot I hit gambling our last ten dollars at Diamond's Casino in Reno.
The last piece of the puzzle came in the form of blessings, as in others giving us their blessing to leave. It came from a loosely woven band of brothers and sisters, of aged outlaw bikers and their counterparts, arguably the Godfathers and Godmothers of the west coast drug trade, people who I have known as uncles and aunts nearly all of my life. They are the people who watched over me from the shadows during the lowest points of my life and of my addiction.
After I sabotaged and destroyed every iota of a connection with my bloodlines, my family, in the end the uncles and aunts were all I had left for reasons I still don't completely understand.
The bloodlines watched me flush a promising college education and journalism career down the toilet. They had to back away when I crossed over to become a criminal, a thief and a liar as a young woman. Incredibly, the uncles stuck it out. My 20's were the most brutal.
Why they didn't give up on me – why they kept fishing me out of the gutter and nursing me back to health – why they seemed to be constantly stepping in and saving me from prison, from death – I don't understand. I didn't deserve it. Through all of it I was selfishly beating them to a pulp – giving them their punishment for loving me by forcing them into a front row seat to watch me slowly kill myself – proving no one can hurt me as bad as I can hurt myself. How twisted is that?
I remember being surprised to hear my Uncle Joe say, “Echo, I think that's the best idea I've heard out of you in a long, long time.”
And hearing my Uncle Johnny say, “It'll be for the best, baby girl.”
It's only in retrospect I can see how utterly disappointed they were at what my life had become. How disappointed all of them were, bloodlines included. I would have never been able to leave without those blessings from my uncles, those nods of approval and their act of letting go. I think they knew, deep down, this time was different too. They were tired of watching me kill myself. They were bloodied from trying to save me from myself.
They spoke in unison when they said, “Go on girl. Get out of here. Don't look back.”
We spent about $400 on two one-way bus tickets to Rolla, Missouri, the closest bus station to our destination of Birch Tree, another $100 on a cheap motel room in the middle of downtown Reno for a week, paid off some of our debts and used the rest of the winnings to get high.
I spent my last week in my hometown crunching crystal shards into a few drops of vodka at the bottom of a spoon with the end of a syringe, sucking liquefied meth up with the needle through a small piece of cotton pulled from cigarette butt, then pushing the needle into my vein, pulling back the plunger, seeing that a hint of blood was mixing with the syrup inside the barrel and plunging it into my bloodstream slowly and methodically – over and over again.
The truth is ugly.
On May 2, 2008, by some miracle, Stan and I got on a Greyhound bus headed for Missouri. Two days later, we loaded our rigs and slammed crystal into our veins one last time while sitting in a dirty public restroom along the way. Two days after that, we arrived in Rolla. We got off the bus with one stuffed suitcase and five bucks between us. How I'm here to tell about it – I don't know. Like I said, God.
The chain reaction of our first good choice continued. We bunked up with our friends, who were running a little motel in the little Southeast Missouri town of Birch Tree, population of about 600. The Colonial Lodge Motel is one of only a handful of establishments in Birch Tree. Our friends paid our first month’s rent at the motel, gave us food and a place to sleep for the time being.
The first couple weeks were tough. We couldn't find work or another place to rent or to room. I think I slept for almost two weeks straight, and I've never been so hungry in my life. We applied for housing assistance, food stamps, put up fliers for work and for a more permanent place to live, but no one ever called.
We were blackballed in Birch Tree almost immediately. No doubt it was because the town's only cop got ahold of a housing application we filled out, ran our names and inspected our criminal records. Not knowing that our friends, who invited us out, knew us from the streets, he paid the motel a visit and told them quite pointedly, “How well do you know these people? You know, they're not good people. They shouldn't be here.” We quietly held hands and listened to his warning perched atop a staircase and just out of sight.
That visit from the cop should have been the icing on the cake, saying this will never work, but it wasn't. Fortunately for us, he also stopped at the home of the owner of the Colonial Lodge Motel, Tom. The then 60-year-old man looked like he could have been one of my uncles, and can be labeled a great many things. One of them is being a man who prides himself on deciding what he believes about a person for himself – and the least likely of all to take a cop's word for it.
Stan and I also showed up on Tom's doorstep unannounced. When he opened the door, Stan handed him his criminal record in its entirety. Tom took the stack of pages and read through a laundry list of charges and convictions carefully. And then he stared straight through us with a cocked bushy gray eyebrow and said, “You don't scare me. All I see are two people who want a better life. You know that cop doesn't like you very much. He already came by.”
Tom spent about a week in close proximity, getting to know the two of us better. He gave us rides to appointments to set up things like food stamps. He invited us to go to church with him and he eventually confided in us that he needed new people to run another motel he owned in Northeast Missouri, in Edina. It's pronounced e-die-na.
On May 23, 2008, just a few short weeks since we left Reno, we were on the move again. Tom packed us and our suitcase up, along with a few pieces of furniture, and delivered us to Knox County. We rolled into Edina from the east on a Friday afternoon. It was a warm spring day, and I remember being taken by its charm, its quiet beauty and by the flurry of spring green, which was everywhere. What better time to find a new home than in the spring – when everything is new and coming back to life. When I saw Edina's quaint little town square for the first time I told Stan, “Look how pretty it is.” And I thought for the first time since arriving in Missouri, 'Maybe we can do this. Maybe we'll be okay.'
Moving from Reno, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a population of over 200,000, to Edina, in a predominately agricultural landscape with a population of around 1,200, was literally like landing a spaceship on another planet. Every single thing was different – the climate, the scenery, the people, the pace. We were the aliens.
One day after we “landed”, we were put in charge of the Bon Air Motel, given a nice two bedroom house on the property to live in, and told by Tom, “You take care of this place,and I'll take care of you as long as you want. Just don't steal from me.”
The responsibility bestowed upon us, having a safe place to be while we got our heads together, and Tom's undeserved trust in us was monumental. We didn't steal a dime from the till, cleaned the rooms, kept the books, took the reservations, paid the bills, did the laundry, mowed the lawn and everything that comes with caring for a 20 room motel while we slowly came out of the crystal meth daze.
We were like hermits in that little motel for almost a full year. Sometimes, especially at first, some of the town folk would wander in and ask questions like, “Who are you? Where are you from? Who is your family?” We echoed the Birch Tree cop's warning, “We're bad people. You don't want to have anything to do with us.”
And they would say, “Okay” and go away.
We started from scratch at a legitimate life. We had no birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or Social Security cards. We walked to and from Edina's only grocery store because we didn't have a vehicle. We slept on the living room floor, because we had almost no furniture in the house. But we had every basic necessity and then some – a roof over our heads, power, a phone to use, cable TV to watch, food to eat, somewhere to be, something to do. Those simple things were our building blocks.
Over the first year, we struggled with the change – withdrawal, massive mood swings, depression, and often questioned our decision. Stan had the hardest time with the withdrawal. He missed meth the most. I replaced my urge to use with something else – food.
It took about a year of being clean for our wherewithal, mentally, to come back and for our thought patterns to level out. Before that, we were plagued with racing thoughts, bouts of anxiety, temper flair ups, emotional breakdowns, lack of motivation, nightmares and dreams about getting high. The opportunity to attend 12-step meetings presented itself, but we opted out because we didn't know anyone in Northeast Missouri, and we didn't want to meet other people who were just like us. We kept to ourselves.
I wrote letters to my Uncle Johnny almost constantly, about our adventures running the motel and our lives in tiny Edina. I poured out my homesickness on tear-soaked pages in letters to him, Uncle Joe, Uncle Dave, Uncle Scotty, Uncle Pat, my brother Steve and in letters to my surrogate brothers in prison.
They wrote back or called and said, “I'm so proud of you and of Stan. Don't come home. It's worse than ever.”
I wrote my way through the pain and doubt. Writing has always been my outlet and ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a writer. In truth, this article is part of it.
We had to do so much more than just show up. We had to continue to make good choices. It was hard at first, but every time we made a good decision for our lives,the next good decision came a little bit easier.
We had to face very brutal realities, and take good hard looks at ourselves- the things we had done, the regret, and the guilt.
Not long after we arrived, I learned that, while we were making our first good choice, my grandmother, my late mother's mother, the person who knew and loved me more than anyone else on the earth, died. I wasn't there. I missed it. And before she passed all I did was break her heart over and over again. At the same time I learned of her death, several months after the fact, I realized I had
irreparably severed my Reno bloodlines completely. They would never have anything to do with me ever again, because that's what I deserved. It's over. I own up to that. And I'll carry those regrets for the rest my life.
Through the toughest times we held fast to each other. We got to know ourselves again, and we got to know meth free versions of each other. The fog began to lift and we started to heal.
Eventually we got our birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, an old beat-up pickup truck, an inexpensive computer, a cell phone in our names, a bed to sleep on, a bank account, a routine. Every single thing we accomplished in our new life, however small, felt like a major victory. We were grateful for every single thing we had because we paid for it with blood, with tears.
Soon enough, the townsfolk stopped heeding our, “stay away from us because we're bad people,” warnings. They started coming in to invite us to join the Knox County Chamber of Commerce and to the United Methodist Church and to get to know us better. I joined Chamber. We started going to church.
By the time those things started happening to us, we were grounded and we were ready to surface from our hermit hole. We chose to be honest with everyone, and offered up full disclosure, “We came here to get away from crystal meth. Be warned. We're damaged.”
It was hard to say out loud, but we choked out the words anyway.
It was hard to face everything we had done to damage our lives, health and credibility and to attempt to repair it – sometimes unsuccessfully. Some of the damage we caused on ourselves is permanent.
It was embarrassing to be gaining so much weight so fast. For a period of time, every time I left the motel, someone would ask me when I was “expecting.” It was humiliating to have to say, “I'm not pregnant, just fat.” It took me about 13 months to gain 100 pounds finally peaking and tipping the scales at over 330 pounds.
It was equally humiliating to face the dentist with a mouth half-full of rotted teeth, and painful extraction after extraction over the course of several years. Each time it was time to remove another tooth, we both knew what caused the rapid decay – that it was “meth-mouth” – and I had given it to myself. Every time I smiled at myself in the mirror all I saw was missing teeth – a constant reminder of my transgressions.
We had to scrimp and save for my partials after nearly a dozen expensive extractions, which is also a constant reminder. Every time I take my teeth out, or fish them out of a cup full of soapy water I'm reminded – I did this to myself.
As more time passed, more amazing things started to happen. Our priorities sorted themselves out. We began to set goals. Our inhibitions returned. Our judgment evolved.
On June 11, 2009, we drove our beat up old truck to the courthouse and got married in the courtroom. Stan gave me something I needed desperately – a bonafide family. I needed someone to be related to – technically.
In 2010, I started writing occasional articles for the local newspaper, The Edina Sentinel, and submitting them to the paper's publisher, Mike Scott. My passion for journalism was rekindled. I wasn't getting paid, but just getting published-sometimes on the front page-was exciting and it was enough. Another victory. I was writing again. I was sending my articles to Reno to the uncles and to my brothers in prison. I offered them as proof of progress and I began to experience something I thought was gone, pride in my work.
Two years after we arrived in Edina, almost exactly, after submitting a handful of news stories, I was invited to the Sentinel office for a meeting with Mike. He needed a new reporter in Knox County and he offered me the job. I started reporting about a week later. It might sound simple, but it was a major event in my life. Taking the job marked the official re-start of pursuing my dreams and of becoming a writer, a real one.
A few weeks after taking the job, the Chamber Board of Directors elected me as president, which sounds a lot more prestigious than it is, but was so exciting to me I called home to Reno immediately. And, from what I've been told, Uncle Johnny threw a party.
I still tear up when I remember hearing his words, “President of a club, huh. Baby girl, I'm so (expletive) proud of you!”
“It's not that kind of club, Uncle Johnny.”
I will cherish that conversation for the rest of my life and getting to hear those words, because he passed on in 2011. Another painful reality I'm proud to say I faced without using. Another miracle.
Stan had his own astounding victories. After nearly 17 years of complete radio silence, he slowly began to communicate with his parents. He had to take it slowly, because they'd been hurt too many times. He had to rebuild trust. It was a painstaking process for everyone.
At first, he called them every few months to say, “Hi. I'm still doing good. I'm still clean.”
Eventually, they were talking on holidays and birthdays, then a few times a month, then every week and eventually every day.
In the fall of 2012, he saw them for the first time in over 20 years.
Since then, we've had nearly half a dozen visits with each other, over a thousand phone calls and online video conversations, and Stan has been blessed to hear his parents say out loud hundreds of times, “Son, we're so proud of you. We miss you. We can't wait to see you!”
After three-and-a-half years at the motel, we saved up enough to move out and on our own. Tom hated to see us go, but it was time. We grew out of the motel and we were ready for more freedom. We were moving forward in life. We also grew out of food stamps and government assistance programs. We rented a cottage on the edge of the town, got a better vehicle, began to save for emergencies and packed more onto our list of accomplishments.
Almost seven years after getting on that bus, we're still meth free. We're active in our community and belong to a number of local organizations. Stan has cultivated a passion for saving and re-homing rescued animals. I've taken up quilting, and we both dabble in gardening. We like to spend time at home and we socialize with solid people.
I'm married to a man I adore. This summer we will celebrate our sixth anniversary. I continue to love my job as a reporter, which I've had for almost five years, and I've written hundreds of stories. I still send my letters, which continue to be some of the most important writing I'll ever do.
We have responsibilities. We've established credibility. We've earned the respect of the community we live in, and we're surrounded by people who support us. As more time passes, the life we've cultivated becomes more precious, more worthy of preserving and fighting for.
I think I will always be haunted by some of the terrible things I have done, and said, and the people I've hurt. I get that God forgives me. I accept that my bloodlines are likely to never forgive me. In truth, even after all this time, I still struggle with forgiving myself.
Working at the paper has opened my eyes in ways I never could have predicted. Every time I write a story about a crime, put someone's mug shot in the paper, or sit in court for a story--I face a harsh reality: how easily it could have been me. I'm not better than any of them, and in some cases I've done or been accused of so much worse.
I've watched families go through the painful process as their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers are carted off to prison and to jail, faced the embarrassment of having their charges and mug shots published in the paper. My own embarrassment bubbles up every single time.
I know exactly what it's like to be the mug shot in the paper, and the cause of all my own problems, while being blind to that fact. Every time I got arrested, beaten up, ripped off, shamed – I saw myself as the victim. I saw my mistakes as things that were happening to me instead of seeing what was really happening. It was me doing these things. There was no one else to blame. I've come full circle and I know the truth. It's ugly.
Every single time someone asks me, “How did you get all the way out here from Reno?” I'm humbled.
I force the words out, “I had to get away from meth. We had to change everything.”
Over the years, people have come to us asking for advice, for wisdom. They come looking for a glimmer of hope for their loved one, for themselves.
All I can say is what I've experienced firsthand.
“We had to want to change and we are willing to do whatever it takes. We're still doing it. It might never be over. We're still fighting for it. I expect this fight to last a lifetime. Some things will never come back. This is the hardest path I've ever taken. Every single day is a blessing. It's all been worth it. Being honest with you helps me stay honest with myself. We're not perfect and that's okay.”
And, maybe most importantly, “If I can do it so can you. It is possible to survive and thrive. There is such a thing as a life after meth. Don't look back.”
This story was featured in the April 8, 2015, edition of The Edina Sentinel.
Posted on Saturday, April 25, 2015