Finding the Light
Gillette couple triumph over addictions for new life
Heather Johnson still has a hard time believing this is her life.
“I feel like I don’t deserve it,” she said, gesturing from the leather couch where she sat beside her husband Shawn in the couple’s sprawling two-story house in the upscale Legacy Ridge subdivision south of town. “I stand in the entryway when I get home each day and just cry and thank God.”
Her thankfulness has less to do with materialism than it does being grateful that she and Shawn are no longer hooked on drugs or in prison.
Just a few years ago, the couple was strung out on meth and heroin in Rock Springs, living from one drug fix to the next. Paranoid and ashamed, they lived the chaotic life of most addicts, putting meth and heroin above everything else – jobs, family, children – calling only when they needed bail money. As a dealer, Shawn was “not a nice guy,” according to Heather, and bears no resemblance to the smiling, kind man now at her side.
It would take several months and a huge awakening on Shawn’s part to get to where they are today. Back then, the pair had been together for about four tumultuous months before they spiraled out of control, eventually losing everything and ending up in prison.
“We were like Bonnie and Clyde,” Heather said. “Two flames joining in fire.”
“We loved to party,” Shawn said with a shrug. “It was only a matter of time.”
That time came much more quickly than either had imagined, and by the point they were arrested, they’d pretty much burned through everything and were staying in hotels or sleeping on couches because they’d lost everything they had once worked hard to earn.
Heather’s drug use started early. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, by 18, she was already drinking heavily and popping pills, and doctor shopping to maintain her opioid addiction. By 23, she was an unwed mom with a 2-year-old son and living as an addict on the edge.
Distraught, Heather’s parents tried to intervene and sent her to rehab, but she had no desire to be cured. Instead, she escaped from treatment and thumbed it to Rock Springs in 2009, where she fell in with a familiar crowd. Eventually, she met Shawn, then a meth dealer, who kept the couple in constant supply.
“We basically traded addictions,” Heather said. “Shawn switched to heroin, and I started doing meth.”
From the outside, their lives looked kinda normal. Shawn maintained his oil field job, and Heather worked too. Both were from upper-middle class families whose names didn’t appear in the police blotter. The fissures, however, had nothing to do with owning a house and paying their bills on time. Rather the chaos was erupting in their personal lives and estranged relationships with their kids, ex-spouses and families, who no longer trusted either of them or wanted to be around them.
In some ways, it was a lucky break when one of their customers turned on them to cut a deal with the cops, resulting in their arrest. Out on bail awaiting trial, the couple got a hotel room and continued to party, barely surviving on Malt-O-Meal, and eventually getting caught again and sent to prison.
“It was the lowest point of my life,” Shawn said, looking down at his clasped fingers.
An end, and a beginning
Now sober and behind bars, both finally woke up.
In the state penitentiary in Rawlins, Shawn was put into a pod with lifers, gang bangers and murderers. This was his second time in prison and up until now he had seen no point in rehab with drugs out there waiting for him as soon as he got out. This time was different. He’d always told himself he was in control of his own life and didn’t consider himself an addict. Now, those defenses were crumbling, and he admitted to himself that he needed help. Though he hadn’t grown up particularly religious, he now found himself reaching out to God.
“I started crying, and asked God for his help,” he said. “I had tried doing it my own way for the past 38 years and clearly wasn’t getting anywhere.”
In Rawlins, he started attending bible studies and met an older man, Arlen Price, who was doing life for killing his uncle, who Price claimed had sexually assaulted both he and his brother. The fact that a guy like Price, who was facing life behind bars for what he’d been through, struck a chord with Shawn who couldn’t believe he still had such faith and hope. Price took Shawn under his wing and helped lead him to God.
Shawn asked for forgiveness and also prayed for Heather, having no idea where she’d gone or would end up.
Over in Lusk at the Wyoming Women’s Center, Heather was also finding her way back. Two inmates in particular, Darla Rouse and Susan James, led Heather to God, where her life was beginning to take on new meaning as she sobered up. During her incarceration, she wondered about Shawn but figured they were both probably much better off now that they were apart.
Once out of prison in 2016, Heather was accepted at the Volunteers of American (VOA) center where Shawn had also been sent, and the two were rightfully weary of one another. They promised they were rehabilitated and wanted a much different life, but there was the residual fear of former addicts who knew too well the risk of a backslide.
The odds were against them. According to the American Addiction Center, the relapse rate for substance use disorders is estimated to be between 40 to 60 percent, a rate similar to rates of relapse for other chronic diseases such as hypertension or asthma.
Something was markedly different about Shawn, Heather noted, who no longer even talked or acted the same. Once a surly dealer protecting his assets, he was now a smiling guy who talked a lot about God and His plan.
“Shawn was already in his walk with the Lord and had completely transformed,” Heather said. “When I finally saw him, he looked so happy and great.”
“The whole time I had been praying for Heather,” he said, smiling at his wife. “I wanted her to be loved like she should be loved.”
In Gillette, the two tentatively began to see each other against the advice of all of their family and friends, who feared the two would lead each other back down the same old road. They were a bit leery themselves and limited their time together to meeting at the library for bible study or just to talk.
After being released from prison in March, three months later, the couple married and began their uphill climb…
Finish this uplifting true story by Jen Kocher at 82717life.com.