Coming back from rock bottom

Thanks to tabloid and reality TV, we know that people are sometimes prone to self-destruction. Watching it can be morbidly entertaining, but more intriguing than the train wreck is the rare story of one who manages to pull himself out of his pitiful existence — the drug abusing, jailbird celebrity who finds lasting sobriety and subsequent success or “Biggest Losers” who shed hundreds of life-threatening pounds. These are the stories that move us, and you don’t need to turn on the TV to see them. These true tales of redemption are being lived, and touching lives, right here in our neighborhood.

Read and watch their stories below.

Tom Stephens

Tom Stephens is not supposed to be here.

He should be in jail, or in a coma, maybe. Dead, probably. But not here in this coffee shop on a sunny afternoon.

Decades of drinking and drug abuse gave him brain damage when he was 51. He had contracted hepatitis C from shooting up cocaine. And he was in rehab again, addicted to booze, painkillers and methamphetamines.

“Your only thought is, ‘the best thing I could do is die,’ ” he says with a Buddha-like smile.

Sipping coffee on the patio, Stephens, who is 58, could pass for 10 years younger.

His story starts at 12. That’s when he says he started having suicidal thoughts, and that’s when he started drinking. By 16, he had been kicked out of a Dallas high school and sent to a military boarding school.

By that time, he already was an intravenous drug user and daily drinker. But he finished high school and studied journalism at Stephen F. Austin State University. He graduated and obtained a job in advertising. And he drank every day.

Sometimes, he would sit at home and drink until he passed out. Other times, he would go to a bar, shoot pool, get drunk and “drive home with one hand over my eye”. He says he slept with women he doesn’t remember. He lied to his family and made excuses to his wife and daughter when they woke him up on the kitchen floor.

He started smoking methamphetamines, and he became addicted to painkillers — vicodin and oxycontin.

The behavior went on for decades, he says. “I never expected to live,” he says. “I truly expected to die from this disease.”

Then seven or eight years ago, fresh out of rehab, he went on a drinking binge. And it was too much for his brain. His head throbbed constantly, and his vision became blurry. Part of his brain was dying.

“I couldn’t read,” he says. “I could see words on a page, but I couldn’t hold a thought in my head.”

So his family sent him back to rehab.

While he was there, he says a guy came in to talk about the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Something about the man’s story — hearing from someone who had been in his shoes — touched Stephens.

“Something started happening right then,” he says. “So I talked to God, and I said, ‘I dare you to show up.’ ”

What he found, he says, is that God was with him all along. So he made the decision to get clean and have a normal life, whatever that meant. After all, he was a lifelong alcoholic/drug addict.

“If you don’t know that a normal life is available, why would you try?” he says.

But after that day, he says, the desire to drink and take narcotics was gone. He has been clean since November 2003.

“It took a long time for recovery,” he says. “I was really damaged.”

He had to teach himself how to read again. And it took many months before his ears stopped ringing and his vision returned to normal. Today, his body has cleared the hepatitis C virus.

His daughter was only 12 when he became sober. He and his wife, Elena — to whom he has been married 26 years — now live together as best friends after many years of cohabitating but ignoring each other. And Stephens works with his older brother, an antiques dealer, with whom he’d never had a brotherly relationship.

Stephens speaks to AA groups and in rehab centers whenever possible. He volunteers in detox units, the most anguish-filled, ugliest parts of drug rehabs.

“I want to find the weakest guy in the room, the most low-down punk in there and help him,” he says. “Because that’s who I was.”

Kelly Wiley

Kelly Wiley lives in a big old house on Tenth Street, which she shares with four other women who need a hand up in life.

Wiley, who owns the Rose Garden upscale resale store, says she has always been the type to open her home to others. But about 10 years ago, helping formerly incarcerated women became the 51-year-old’s life work.

If things had turned out differently for Wiley, she would still be behind bars today.

When she was 30 years old, she was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

“I was not the drug person. I was not the alcohol person. I was never involved with any of that,” she says. “And it was so shocking to everyone.”

In 1990, she says she was charged with illegal investments after a guy she was dating drove her car to a drug deal. He thought he was buying three kilos of cocaine, but really it was a set-up with undercover officers.

At the time, Wiley was a fashion designer who made clothes for high-profile clients that included professional athletes, people in show business and, as it turned out, drug dealers.

Wiley says she was so preoccupied with her business and making money — she goes so far as to say she was “addicted to making money” — that she had blinders on. If her acquaintances were people who could get her into trouble, she chose not to see it.

She didn’t take the charge very seriously at first.

“I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything,’ ” she says. “I was always sewing, and I didn’t know any of this was going on.”

So she says she hired the same lawyer she used to take care of traffic tickets. Soon, she found herself in Lew Sterrett, separated from her 12-year-old daughter and a convicted felon facing decades of hard time.

The conditions in the county jail at the time shocked her.

Women with few or no connections to the outside world were pitiful, going without underwear or sanitary supplies.

What was worse, they had no hope for themselves after their release.

After 12 months in county jail, Wiley was transferred to a prison in Gatesville. And conditions there weren’t much better.

“You could work, but most people didn’t work,” she says. “Instead, they would take these classes on, like, hygiene and ridiculous things.”

There was nothing in prison to help women improve themselves, Wiley says.

“How do we expect them to do anything different?” she says. “Prison is a billion-dollar industry for free labor, and if you’re rehabilitated, you’re not coming back.”

She promised that if she ever got out, she would do something about it.

Wiley says she twice turned down an offer to accept 10 years’ probation for her release. One month after she arrived at Gatesville, her new attorney, Peter Lesser, got her out on time served.

“I had to start from square one,” she says. “I had no money, and I didn’t want to continue my fashion line.”

So she went to beauty school. Later, she became a top saleswoman for Laureland Funeral Home. And she became involved with a prison ministry.

She was living downtown, and she bought the house on Tenth Street because she thought it was a good investment. But she says as soon as she closed on the house, she was fired from Laureland.

So she decided to make the house a shelter for women getting out of prison, and she started working at Voice of Hope thrift store in West Dallas to support herself and her charity, 2000 Roses Foundation.

She and the women of 2000 Roses also worked concessions at Texas Stadium, sold cookies, held fish fry suppers and did anything else they could to earn a buck.

After two years, she bought out Voice of Hope and opened her own shop, the Rose Garden, at Tyler and Davis.

At first, the purpose of the shop was employment — everyone who lived in the Tenth Street house could work at the shop and get a paycheck.

But she says that quickly proved to be the wrong tactic — giving a person a job is not enough. So Wiley went to San Francisco and visited Delancey Street Foundation, where formerly incarcerated or drug addicted residents must get along, work together and learn from each other. That became the new model for 2000 Roses.

Now women can stay in the house for up to two years. They receive free room and board, and they are expected to do whatever they need to do to pull themselves up, whether it’s school, job training or work. In exchange, they volunteer at the store or make things to sell, including the handmade candles and jewelry the shop is known for.

They live by the adage “each one teach one”. If a woman, for example, needs help filling out a job application, studying for a GED or applying for college, she can find help from other 2000 Roses clients who have done it before.

Everyone is expected to give back in some way, learn to get along with others, show up on time and take care of herself.

“It’s a place where people can come and feel good about where you are,” she says.

Bobby Wheeler

Bobby Wheeler spends each workday counseling adult probationers who are court mandated to drug treatment.

He counsels a roster of 120 female clients, most of whom don’t want to be there.

It’s mostly a thankless job.

But Wheeler, 42, does it with enthusiasm because he knows drug addiction is a prison.

Wheeler says he grew up in Oak Cliff with a sweet mom and a friendly dad who was a functioning alcoholic. As a kid, he would fetch his dad beers from the fridge, always taking a sip or two on the way.

In 1988, he started experimenting with drugs.

“I always felt like an outcast,” he says.

Sometime in the early ’90s, he tried crack for the first time.

“It was off to the races then,” he says.

Soon, he had a $1,000 a day habit. Even though he held down a job, he had to support his habit by stealing and, eventually, prostitution.

Always a “mama’s boy”, he remembers stealing the grocery money out of his mom’s purse at night, then going to the grocery store with her the next day, “knowing she didn’t have any money because I stole it.”

He was in and out of Lew Sterrett for prostitution, drug possession and other complaints. And he was in denial about his problem, never admitting he used crack.

“I would always say I did weed or I drank,” he says. “I would never say I was a crack head.”

All those charges finally caught up with him. And the day he went to court for a crack possession charge on Aug. 6, 1994, he knew he was going away. Before that, though, he had started praying for God to help him.

And he kept praying during a one-year stay in county jail.

“I was a praying dope fiend,” he says. “I prayed ‘God, take this away from me.’ ”

After that, he went to “Safe-P”, a prison that focuses on intensive drug rehab, in San Diego, Texas. A friend of his, Randall Pearson, was transferred from Lew Sterrett to Safe-P at the same time as Wheeler.

Pearson was an illiterate heroin addict. And his health was so bad that he had a massive heart attack and died in Safe-P. Wheeler was there to watch him die.

A few days later, Wheeler says, Pearson “came to me in a dream”.

In the dream, he asked, “Would you live for me?”

That changed everything for Wheeler.

When he was released from prison, “I came home running because I knew how much a white substance could hold you for years.”

He found comfort in the Winner’s Circle Peer Support Network, a meeting space and clubhouse of sorts for recovering substance abusers. It was a place he could go and talk about his feelings, fears and experiences and not be judged.

Now he’s executive director of Winner’s Circle Dallas chapter. He’s in his 17th year of sobriety. He even quit smoking cigarettes 10 years ago.

He’s a licensed counselor with Texas Department of Criminal Justice clearance, and he visits prisons throughout the state, speaking to drug addicts. He’s working toward clearance for federal prisons. He takes night classes at El Centro College, and next, he intends to finish a bachelor’s degree.

He attends AA meetings regularly, and he makes no predictions about his future sobriety, but he still has no desire to go down that road again. He still feels like an outcast, he says, “but come to find out, that’s not such a bad thing.”

Through his job, he has counseled more than 3,000 women. Sometimes, they curse and yell at him. But eventually, most of them graduate from court-mandated rehab.

“It’s rewarding to call their names at graduation, and their faces light up,” he says. “And they say, ‘Thank you for working on me’. Helping other people is what helps me.”


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