Recently, I began corresponding with a young man who once walked down a dark, destructive path. Eric is sentenced to twenty years in a Jamestown, ND prison for his third drug offense. He tracked me down through Ascension Press, the publisher of my co-authored Amazing Grace books. After reading Amazing Grace for Survivors and discovering that I was also from Bismarck, ND, he wanted to let me know how inspirational he found the book and to share his own conversion story.
I contacted Fr. Justin Waltz, a priest in our diocese who was friends with Eric while attending the same Catholic high school my children attend. "What is your impression of Eric?" I asked him.
"I knew him in high school and considered him a friend," Fr. Justin explained, "But I lost touch with him when he got involved with meth."
He has visited Eric in prison and again considers him a friend. "Eric is a gentle, loving man and got himself in a pile of trouble," he said. "His conversions is one of the most heartfelt I've seen in my prison ministry." Fr. Justin has shared Eric's story in homilies and says it is changing lives. "Eric’s life is touching others in a powerful way, even people he knows nothing about find hope and healing in just hearing about him."
Here is Eric's story in his own words.
From Altar Boy to Addict
For many, youth holds memories of good times with friends; sporting events, concerts and plays…. a carefree time before the bigger responsibilities of life set in. For an addict however, it is a time of missed opportunities, pain, and delusions. I was addicted to methamphetamine and was caught by the law three times. My third offense at the age of thirty earned me twenty years in the North Dakota Penitentiary. I am serving my third year at the medium security James River Correctional Center. In 2018, I will be eligible for parole. Although it is six years down the road, I think of it with thanksgiving. Through God’s mercy and love, he allowed me to live and repent so I have a chance of life with him. Had I died and went to hell, there would have been no parole in eternity.
Locked away from friends, family and the outside world, it would be easy to feel sorry for myself or blame others. Alcoholism runs in my family. My parents often argued with each other over how to handle me. At times, I thought that everyone was against me. Now, I understand, that I was against me. Those who really loved me never abandoned me even when I gave them no reason to still love me. And God, was always there--waiting, waiting, waiting until I finally opened my heart up to him.
I was once an altar boy, oblivious to life beyond my day-to-day desire for a good time. The teachers at St. Ann’s found me challenging; always talking and goofing off. In third grade, a teacher moved my desk up near hers. It seemed to be the only way to keep me from disrupting class.
In high school, getting drunk was just another way to have fun. I did not understand the battle waging for my soul. Perhaps “battle” is not the right word since I put up no resistance and willingly joined the ranks of evil. Sex, drugs and rock and roll took away my feelings of insecurity and a tendency towards depression. I added marijuana to drinking and gradually tried other drugs, settling on methamphetamine as my drug of choice. Selling drugs made me cool and gave me friends—or at least my idea of cool and friendship back then. By high school graduation, I was using needles. That August, I was charged with two offenses—one for selling marijuana and one for meth--and put on probation.
Probation did not go well for me. Feeling isolated an alone outside the drug world, I quickly slipped back into it. During my time on probation, my girlfriend dumped me. I thought I had acted heroically—confessing that everything was my doing and getting her out of trouble. Her response was to break up with me.
Shortly thereafter, I was driving around with someone I thought was a friend looking for meth one evening. He asked me to drop him off at our buddy’s house. I recognized cars of old friends and my ex-girlfriend wanted to go in with him and hang out. “You can’t come, Eric,” he informed me. “Just drop me off and leave.” (The buddy whose house it was died in the Nineties from a heroin overdose.)
Loneliness burned through me. I would be better off dead, I thought. The feeling of failure and worthlessness intensified as I was coming down from meth at that moment. I drove home and then argued with my parents. After the argument, I admitted to my mom that I wanted to kill myself. She took me to the hospital. When the nurse rolled up my sleeves, black and blue marks from bad aim with needles, spotted my arms. I was put in the psychiatric ward for a couple weeks. Unfortunately, I soon worked my way back into the same old drug seen, making new friends and living for the next high.
Eventually, I was caught for violating probation and sentenced to eight months in the Missouri River Corrections Center, (MRCC) a low-security prison.
Time to Grow Up
My parents were divorced by the time I was released in 1996. I went to live with my Dad and slipped back into the same druggie lifestyle. In 1999, I was busted again and went to treatment for ten months then sent back to the MRCC where many of my friends were. My fellow-drug using girlfriend had gotten pregnant but thankfully sobered up once she realized she was expecting. Our son was born while I served my sentence. It’s time to grow up, I decided. Even when friends had drugs smuggled in, I abstained. After my release, I enrolled in welding school at Bismarck State College and made the President’s Honor Roll. I then added a certification in pipe welding.
It seemed my life was finally headed in a good direction. My girlfriend met up with another guy, but I saw my son often; we were very close. Then, it all faded away. I started getting together with old friends and one night gave into the temptation to get high again. One time won’t hurt, I thought. But the old pull into darkness took over and I fell back into the drug scene. I lost many high paying jobs due to my drug usage, began dealing again, and eventually got caught again. This was my third offense so I knew it meant a mandatory twenty-year sentence.
While the charges were pending, suicide seemed my best option. I had failed as a father, as a son, as an employee, and even as a dealer by getting caught three times. A complete feeling of worthlessness filled my every waking moment. I considered different ways I could kill myself. One particularly low night, I went into the garage and started up my truck with the garage door closed. Soon, it will all be over, I thought. I took a deep breath and wondered how long it would take the carbon monoxide to kill me.
Sitting in the dark and waiting for death, the putrid smell of exhaust began to sicken me. What if hell is like this; with this sickening smell, sitting in darkness forever? I suddenly thought. I had ignored God for so long, but looking death in the face, I thought of eternity. How could I enter eternity like this? I realized. I belong in hell. I turned off the engine and went into the house. I didn’t want to go on living but I realized killing myself wasn’t the solution.
A Way Out
Shortly thereafter, a family friend who knew my situation began visiting with me and encouraged me to turn to God. I felt too unworthy to ask God for help. “Jesus died for your sins,” he told me. “He wants you to go to him.” I had nowhere else to turn. So, I found the courage to pray.
“Dear God, I don’t deserve your help,” I prayed. “I am sorry for what I’ve done with my life. Please help me to get through this. Please give me the strength.” It was like reconciliation with a friend I had not spoken to in a long time. Once the communication began, I kept talking to God and began to feel his presence. I was no longer alone.
The lies of my life fell away. I saw how wrong I had been for so many years as the light of God shone through. My mother, who I had once hated, had been right about so many things. It amazed to me after so many years of hurt, she and other family members still stood by me.
Going to prison loomed before me, but through Christ, I began to celebrate life as a gift. Many of my friends were dead from drug overdoses and suicide. I had been seriously beaten up and left for dead more than once. My mom once received a terrible phone call from the hospital at 2:30 AM. She was told I had been in a serious car accident after leaving a bar drunk and would probably not make it through the night. But for some reason, I was still alive. God still has a plan for me, I realized. Even in prison, he has a plan for me!
It was agonizing walking into prison in 2009, sentenced for twenty years. Leaving my poor innocent son, even now breaks my heart. Yes, I was afraid but I did not feel alone. I felt God’s presence with me.
In prison, I have the opportunity to attend Mass and catechism class. I have some amazing spiritual leaders here, a wonderful counselor and boss, and access to many great Catholic books. For the first time, I learned how truly amazing our Catholic faith is, and about Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. I am especially fascinated by St. Padre Pio who I had never heard of before. The spiritual life is so much richer than the small world of an addict. In prison, I came to truly understand that when we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving Jesus Christ. I compare that to the times I got drunk and used drugs. How foolish I was, opening myself up to the devil when all along I could have been receiving Jesus.
Now, I pray for the people from my past, even those who hurt me. No one is to blame but me for the bad choices I made. I am blessed to have family that still stands by me; writing, visiting and praying. I have not seen my poor eleven-year-old in over a year. His mother returned to a life of drugs and ended up having other children. Fortunately, his grandparents are raising him with lots of love. Still, my son is struggling with feelings of anger and abandonment to have a father in prison. I love him so much and pray for him to heal from that hurt I’ve caused.
I don’t want to be here, but I know I needed to be put in here. God must still have a plan for me that he has allowed me to live. I am so thankful for all he has done and I hope to spend the rest of my life serving him. To some, it might seem my life was over when I was sent to prison, but through Christ, it has only just begun.
Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Copyright 2013 Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.