Last summer, while I was visiting through Fort Worth, I shared a drive with an old friend, whom I will call Leon. Leon and I had not spoken in years. While we caught up on old times, he shared an interesting story. In it, he described a car drive he had taken years earlier, and how in that drive, he had never driven so carefully. In that drive, he kept both hands on the steering wheel at all times, and followed the posted speed limits without exception. In that drive, he knew that had a police officer pull him over, it probably would have meant 20 years behind bars. Possibly even his life. Had a police officer opened the trunk of his car, he would have found it filled with bricks of cocaine – and Leon was operating on strict instructions, “If you get caught, you’re on your own.” Leon was one of the most ambitious men I have ever known. However, in his story, while he nervously drove that car years earlier, he was a mule and a crack-head. He was also a father, a husband, and a former Navy man.
Leon and I had known each other since high school. Back then, he had sought me out because he was interested in the martial arts. We began working out together and quickly became friends. There were four of us in that circle of friends, Leon, Ira, Tong, and me. Each of us had a talent that made us stand out: Leon, the former singer in a boy’s choir, photographer, school journalist, and martial artist; Tong, the elite gymnast from Taiwan and future assistant coach under Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conners, at their gym in Norman, Oklahoma; Ira, the future golf pro; and me.
Leon once stood amongst the four of us and declared aloud, “With all the talent in this room, one of us has got to make it! There has got to be at least a million dollars in this room right now!” At the time, we barely had two nickels to rub together, but we were all ambitious, with no noticeable vices. We also were equally prejudiced against the common obstacles, drugs, alcohol, and thuggish behavior.
While I listened to Leon’s story, more than twenty years has passed, and in that time he had transformed himself from the ambitious teenager I knew, into a disparate crack-head mule, and then finally into a successful self-employed photographer and journalist with one published book under his belt. I was intrigued; and I wanted to know how the proud Leon had ever allowed himself to fall to drugs. More importantly, I wanted to know how he so amazingly climbed back from where many fade away.
When I asked him, he told me about his time in the Navy, the trips to the Philippines, and throughout the Far East. He talked about life at sea, and the boredom. How boredom led him to smoke, and how smoking led him to drink. He also talked about his transition from alcohol to narcotics, how easy narcotics were to find in and around the foreign ports, and how he discharged from the Navy after 4 years.
By the time Leon arrived back in Fort Worth, crack cocaine had become very popular, and Leon saw it as a way to make easy money. He soon found himself connected to the local kingpin, another old schoolmate of mine, whom had grown into a brilliant but roofless man. Their union began Leon’s life as a mule, and in time, Leon gave in to sample the product. It was something he had promised never to do, and he quickly found himself utterly addicted.
His life became a living hell, in where he lost the respect of everyone around him. Crack entangled his soul and smothered out his character, leaving an untrustworthy thief whose only mission in life was to achieve his next hit. Traveling down that dark path, Leon eventually found his rock bottom. He says it is what all crack-heads must find, before they are able to change. For Leon, rock bottom was his own reflection in the mirror, holding a photo of his young son. “It was pride that made me realize I had to change,” he said, the FBI was closing in, and the kingpin had put a hit out on his life.
While he stared into the bloodshot eyes of his reflection, he reminisced, and saw how far he had fallen. In that moment, he decided to change his life. He surrendered himself to the FBI and turned states evidence against the men that hunted him. He then enrolled himself into a substance abuse rehabilitation center and recommitted himself to God and family. It was a long difficult journey, back from where he had gone, but he found his way back.
Leon finished his story just as we arrived at our destination, a church where I would listen to Leon give a presentation to the minister in the back office, promoting his book. Had Leon never told me about his time as a mule, I never would have guessed it; or his recipe: (1) hitting rock bottom, (2) making a decision to change, (3) seeking help (rehabilitation, council, and spiritual guidance), (4) committing to the change, and (5) fighting with all your might.