My nightmare began on a summer school morning. It was August 8th, 2002, and I was a normal 21-year-old college student who stumbled to class with a drug hangover.
After class, I called a friend who had partied with me the night before. His roommate answered the phone. He sounded strange and shaken. All I heard was, “He’s dead, he’s dead!” I dropped the phone. His next sentence spun me around like I was hit by a bullet — “The police are here, and they’re looking for you!”
I scanned my apartment. Drug evidence from the last night’s party was everywhere. I wanted it to be a joke. But the longer I stood there, the more I realized this nightmare was really happening. I ran out my apartment not knowing what to do. The police officers were already standing in the hallway. They stopped me because I fit the description of the person who brought the drugs to the party.
“But he was Ok when he left…” I was in shock, “He was my friend.”
They put handcuffs on me. “You’re in a lot of trouble kid.”
They walked me to the squad car and I looked out the window as they drove me to jail. As we passed my college campus, I stared out the window and watched the last moments of my free, easy, youthful college life flicker in the sun until all the color faded away and I entered my first jail cell.
Hi, I’m Will and I used to be a party addict. I was fascinated with drugs ever since I was old enough to know what they were. During my teenage years I started to believe that God must have given us these powerful substances to supercharge our imaginations so we could reach deeper into our life meanings. I would take crazy drugs, hallucinate, and I was convinced that in these moments I was meeting God. How could such experiences not be of God? I was seeing things normal people don’t see. I began to imagine myself as a windmill, and drugs were the power that could help transform me into a genius.
But I had to keep myself from being noticed in my suburban surroundings, so I made the decision and split my life in two.
I created a “Public Will,” and a “Drug Will.” “Public Will” was an Eagle Scout, a dean’s list business student, and a kids ski coach. I made it look like I was a perfect young man, but this was really just camouflage to hide who I really was.
My other side was the “Drug Will,” and I just wanted to get as high and have as much fun as I possibly could. I didn’t think I was doing anything that bad. I just wanted to live my life, on my terms, and I thought as long as I was doing what everyone wanted me to do, then I could do what I wanted to do. I thought I was smart enough to pull this grandiose experiment off and be happy forever doing it.
I was 20 years old the first time I walked onto my first college campus. I was amazed when I saw how awesome it was. It was like I’d dropped into a foreign country where everyone was young, ambitious, and pursuing their dreams. I fit right in. The freedom to be myself overwhelmed me, and my two lives split and ran in different directions. I mingled professionally with my professors during the day, and at night, I became a leader in the late-night party circles. I was high all the time, and I loved it. I was so happy. My ego boomed as I slid between the two lives effortlessly, and I thought I was a hybrid who could redefine what the new-age student could be.
I made the dean’s list my first semester. Getting on that list was a thrill – the success felt like its own drug – and I wanted more. I decided I should stop partying so much and devote more of my time into building an exciting future. But my “drug side” tackled me as I contemplated my next moves and it hissed in my ear, “Why work so hard, when you can experience the highs so much easier?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. So I went and found a party and returned to my old habits that night.
When second semester began, I changed. I had grown older, and was always looking for new ways to party. One night a friend called me and asked if I could get some ecstasy for her and her friends. “Sure,” I replied. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. After years of using, I had connections all over the place. She gave me the money and instantly a new adventure came alive. The adrenaline rush of an entrepreneur hit me, and a new form of excitement rushed into my veins.
I started selling drugs because it was fun to party with my friends. We were all having a good time together, and the small money I made paid for my lifestyle. I didn’t need money. Free partying was just more fun than paying for it. As my deals got bigger, my network expanded, and I became better at navigating the drug world. I didn’t pay much attention to the risks I was taking because I was having so much fun taking them. We, as humans, enjoy engaging in activities we’re good at, and I was good at this.
I was 21 the first time I attended a hippie summer music festival. It was like walking onto campus for the first time, except there were no rules here. The camping area was a giant party that stretched on for what felt like miles. Thousands of people had gathered to have a great time, and I fit right with the orgy of music, freedom, and drugs, and these three-day events became business opportunities for me throughout the summer.
I became addicted to this lifestyle. I found there was no better high for me than selling drugs in the camp sites all day at these shows, getting higher as the day went on, and then dancing all night when the headlining band came on.
I didn’t sell drugs because I needed the money. I did it because it was a rush – another way to get even higher. College became my base camp, and these shows where the spokes that kept spinning me higher and higher. I thought living this lifestyle was my purpose in life. But really I was drifting away from reality. I started losing touch with what was normal. I forgot that normal people didn’t do this. I thought I knew where I was going, but I was lost. I had no idea that even during all this fun, I was sleeping with the devil every night.
As I was entering my senior year in college, a veteran drug friend called me with a proposal. He asked if I wanted to try a new drug called ‘fentanyl.‘ He described the drug as a “super-pharmaceutical painkiller stolen out of military hospital wards.” The exotic story fascinated me. It made me want to try it.
That night I bought a small bag from him and went to a party to try it. In a back room, I snorted the tiny bump of powder and waited. But after ten minutes nothing happened, and I called my friend, “Your stuff sucks,” I said. The drug must’ve heard me, because it shot back like a sniper hidden in tumbleweed and blasted me in my face. I slumped into a chair because I suddenly lost the ability to stand up. A horrible itching sensation spread across my skin, and I felt an uncontrollable urge to throw up. I prepared for the worst: An overdose. I held onto the chair and refused to die. I was afraid, but thirty minutes into the experience, the drug slowly mellowed, and it felt like warm waves of energy were rolling into the room, and swallowing me into a different reality as I closed my eyes.
A 3D landscape appeared. I couldn’t tell the real parts from the parts I was dreaming. It was like I was watching a cerebral movie, and seeing hints of my ultimate life meaning in the distant images. That night was so bizarre. It made me forget the fact that I was on the verge of dying.
The next morning, I woke up and decided that the drug was almost too powerful. I’d never experienced anything like it. I couldn’t remember much from the night before, which made me want to try it again, so I bought another bag to show my friends back home.
A few months passed, and my grades dropped from A’s to B’s. For the first time in my life, it became difficult maintaining the two lives I was living. I began to realize that this new drug was a form of heroin. College kids generally didn’t do heroin because of the horrible things associated with the name. But by that time, I’d already become comfortable using it, so the shock of the name was gone.
Since none of us were using needles, I thought we were still ‘being safe,’ and just ‘experimenting.’ I started splitting the bags with my friends. We were all buying, selling, and trading drugs together. The party we were living had gotten out of control without us realizing it. We always thought – “As long as we don’t use needles, we’ll be Ok… We are good kids.” That cocky, invincible attitude made the risks we were taking seem insignificant. I figured there was always a chance we could get caught, but that August morning, when they found my friend’s dead body on a couch after dying in his sleep, I knew we’d miscalculated the risks we were taking, and now I was the only one alive to answer for it all.
The newspaper reported that I was charged with 11 felonies and faced 187 years in prison. Wow. It still shocks me today. One moment everything about my life was fun and games, and the next minute I was in this nightmare. I walked into the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. I stumbled between the rows as the victims of the family were crying on one side, and my family was crying on the other. The judge glared at me as I sat at the defendant’s’ table. I hoped that he could see my potential, but I had created too ugly of a scene for him to contemplate my potential.
After my arraignment, I was brought to the county jail and walked into my first cell block with twenty other men. As the cell door slammed shut behind me, I buried my head in a pillow so the other men couldn’t hear me crying.
I took my first step back to sanity by buying a notebook from the jail store. I felt a deep calling to start a journal and document my feelings. I began by writing down my feelings in my cell, and the artistic expression allowed me to explore who I really was. I opened myself up like a surgeon in my notebooks, and saw all the areas where I had been sick for many years.
The environment of jail transformed from a nightmare of suffering into a new world of self-exploration. These journals became a new education that was way more powerful than college had ever been. It took some time to face the truth, but I finally admitted that I was a spoiled, ungrateful, lying, jackass jerk, and I desperately needed help….
Damn. Damn. I didn’t know how it had gotten that bad, that fast. The truth will set you free, and I wanted to be free so badly. I started by searching for more truth, and that became my new addiction.
That first year in jail flew by, and it became the most important year of my life. All of life’s distractions had been taken away from me, and my new purpose in life, to discover who I really was, became as clear and uncomplicated as a calm lake under a summer’s blue sky. My mission everyday when I’d wake up became: Discover the new talent inside me by looking in the mirror and being honest with who I really was. Then I’d spend the rest of the day reading books, and writing, and then trying to develop a new personality around this talent.
I became supremely motivated when I realized that I could make an incredible impact if I devoted my life to this quest. My journals grew in size that I had to build a bookcase in my cell. Filling that bookcase became my new goal, and in those journals I found a new identity to be proud of. I was a writer now. I embraced that identity, and I shed my old drug-persona like it never existed at all.
Then, after I’d been in jail for a year going through trial, I woke up one night and my old “drug side” was on top of me hissing in my face. “Those partying days were a blast weren’t they?”
I pushed the demon back, “Get away. Can’t you see where I am?”
But the nightmare licked my ear, “But I have a party waiting for when you get back to the outside.”
I got up and looked myself in the mirror, “What’s wrong with me? Am I insane?”
My new personality fought back, “Nothing’s wrong with you Will… But don’t expect a simple little fight to get out of here.”
I didn’t know what to say − I stared in the mirror as multiple personalities inside me were at war for my future.
I whispered back at the mirror, “But I was an Eagle Scout. A successful college student. I was respected −”
“You stupid fool. You should be dead. Dead! Those accolades you used to use to deceive people with are useless. You’ve been so disorientated by drugs and lies for so many years and it’s going to take a war to get it all out of you.”
“Why, what’s happening to me?”
“You’re getting a new life. Everyone will be watching closely to see if you can make it mean something.”
“But I want my old life back.”
My new personality grinned in the mirror. “That old life is dead. If you return to it, you’ll be dead too.”
“So this is the gateway between the old and the new?” I asked.
I stood up straight in the mirror, and remembered the story of Moses from the bible. He had to climb a mountain to hear his purpose from God. I had to stare into a jail mirror in the middle of the night.
My reflection spoke back, “This is your moment. Your mission. You’re going to have all the time you need to figure yourself out, prioritize your goals, and develop strategies for you to execute them. You’re the hero in your own story now, so your success is up to you. What are you going to do? Stand up and fight for it, or fail? How you respond to the upcoming challenges will determine how far you get into your life purpose, which I promise you, has the potential to be incredible.”
“Is the worst over?” I asked.
“Not even close.”
I ultimately took a plea bargain for the reckless homicide charge. They had a massive pile of evidence against me, and the only thing they had to prove was that I had provided a portion of the drugs that led to his death.
After a year of waiting in jail, and a three hour long sentencing hearing, I was ultimately sentenced to ten years in prison for the death of my friend. It was a shock at first, but I realized the only way out was to go through it, and I slowly adapted to my new life.
Two years into my decade of incarceration, I was walking the prison yard with an older man who was doing a life term for first-degree murder. He had just completed his twenty-fifth year incarcerated.
I asked him, “How did you get through all those years?”
He glanced my way, “The secret is that life goes on no matter what happens to you. The world may forget you when your down in a slump, and your family may die and disappear, but as long as you know you’re alive in here and still pursuing a goal, you’re existence is just as important as anyone else’s in life.”
Now that’s grace. I deserved death for the crimes I committed. Yet I still had an opportunity to feel like my life meant something.
Prison time can cripple a man. I saw it on all the men I passed every day. But prison can also empower a man. This is the journey I chose to take. Men who walk this road in prison are rare, but I’ve met a few. They’d teach me all they knew about life in the little time we were together, and then they’d vanish back into the rotating the prison system doors, leaving me more prepared to conquer the challenges in my way.
Looking back on it now, prison is the most peacefully blissful place I’ve ever been, and the most hellishly frustrating place at the same time.
I can remember what it was like now… I used to love watching the sun rise over razor wire from my cell window every morning. It was a brilliant moment where I could almost hear the voice of God I could hear speaking to me. But then minutes later, I’d hear my cell neighbors pounding on the walls and yelling through the vents to each other like two caged animals. This is what a typical day in prison was like: the good moments flowed right along with the bad, and the human waste was scattered all around.
Beginning at 6:00 AM every morning I lived virtually the same day for ten years. I’d dress myself in prison clothes, sit at my desk, and refused to believe that my experience was less than anyone else’s. I’d then choose the next story I would write. My writing would whisk me away to a different reality, and it was a heck of a ride that kept me moving forward every day. That’s how I got through all ten years. I always knew I’d have a chance to share my story with others, and the hope of being even more interesting because of my experience, allowed me to endure my suffering with patience and class.
Prison is just a landscape they throw you into. I don’t think prison alone taught me anything at all. The journey I went on with God taught me everything I know. It taught me what a true challenge is, and it sobered me for the next adventure.
There’s only one me now – the writer of this article. I was released August 21, 2012, and I’ve been putting my life back together every day since then.
My motto is: We are all living in our own prisons, weather it be financial, spiritual, peer pressure, or self-esteem.
We all have the power to break free and escape into a new life.