It all started innocently enough.
Just before my freshman year of high school, my dad got a new job and we all moved to Oklahoma. I was an athlete, but by the time I arrived at the new school in the fall, the football team had already been established and there was essentially no room for me on the roster.
Mom quickly grew to hate it in Oklahoma and started pushing dad to move us back to Anaheim. So, just six months after moving, we were on our way back to our old neighborhood. By this time, it was late spring and my high school already had try-outs for the baseball team. It turned out, at least at my private school, once you missed your freshman year on a team, there really was no winning your way back. You were done.
With football and baseball now removed from me, I felt adrift. Now that my time and mind were unoccupied, I adopted a give-the-finger-to-the-man attitude and began the party scene in earnest. Just like that, I had a bunch of burnout friends and we got high on pot, speed, cocaine, and meth, drank like fish, laughed, cursed, and reveled in our we-don’t-care lives.
I was the first of seven kids, so when graduation came, I didn’t waste any time. I moved out of my parent’s house, who were so up to their necks in children, they may not have noticed I was gone. I had a job in the grocery business and even though I was partying every night, I knew I had to look unaffected during the day. It became my template for life. I began a slow but steady rise up the ladder of success based on this equation: I could be the happy-go-lucky stoner and drunk loser, passed out under a coffee table by night if I was the neat, efficient, hard-working businessman by day.
At age 26, I married a lovely girl who was raised in an unfathomably harsh and abusive environment. With her mind, spirit, and emotions lost in the fog of trying to figure out how much of her life was still hers, she offered no resistance to who and what I had already become. She couldn’t. We were absolutely and perfectly wrong for each other.
We maintained an I’ll-be-emotionally-fragile-on-this-side-of-the-couch and you be a stoned-out-drunk-on-that-side-of-the-couch life. We did that for a few years until she got pregnant.As I stumbled though the door one morning after a long night of getting high at a friend’s house, she was there on the couch, dressed for work, five months pregnant, waiting for me with that look. The one that is unmistakable to a user if you’ve played your last get-out-of-jail-free card: there was no emotion left at all.
“I’m done,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m leaving today, a week from today, or a month, but I’m leaving. I don’t want this for my child.”
“I’m done,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m leaving today, a week from today, or a month, but I’m leaving. I don’t want this for my child.” I wanted to be in my baby’s life. I stopped drinking and drugging on the spot.
Of course it was the right decision for all of us—but I quit for them, rather than for me. When you take away your only real coping skills without replacing them with something else, it causes you to resent whoever or whatever took away your only way to cope. The result was predictable: I walked around like a time bomb while my wife sat perched on the edge of her own emotional cliff. So when our beautiful little baby, Charlie, was born, it was like trying to start life in a psych ward with loonies running the show.
A few years later, I got into a car accident and busted up my knee. The EMTs prepared to shoot me with morphine. “You can’t. I’m a drug addict,” I told them.
Just then, my wife came to the scene. I was in such pain that she begged me to let the guy inject me. I gave in. I don’t really know why. I don’t know if I really wanted out of my pain or I was just intrigued enough by the idea of having a good excuse to feel that poison again. The EMT stuck the needle in my arm and once he did, I could feel the narcotic rush through my body and reclaim me. My eyes fluttered and my head fell back. Suddenly, I was a slave again.
After getting out of the hospital, I was in pain but that wasn’t my problem. I used the vicodin to normalize my body and mood. I went back to the doctor well after my pain subsided and gave him the song and dance about needing more. He knew I was trying to play him and said no.
Suddenly, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, my life as an addict had resumed in full.
So I figured out my wife’s treatment for her emotional condition, which included prescription drugs, gave me access to all the vicodin anyone could want. Suddenly, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, my life as an addict had resumed in full. Meanwhile, my wife spiraled into a deeper, darker place of despair. All her meds could not combat the horrors of her past. The more she did to stave off the onslaught, the more they chased her down.
For the next year, we had family gatherings and threw beautiful parties in our nice house, complete with two dogs and our cherubic little boy. We were fun-loving and generous hosts—so generous in fact, every guest had the feeling they were welcome to stay as long as they wanted—and they were. Because after everyone was gone and Charlie was put to bed, we shut the bedroom door and returned to the truth: our marriage was a tragedy—empty, hopeless and painful. We fought at night so that the innocence of our son would never be tainted by it—as if never letting Charlie see it was actually keeping it from him. But no matter how you slice it, our son was a victim of us.
Late one evening, I arrived home from work to find Charlie, now school aged, looking like a mess, sitting on the coffee table in his underwear watching a movie he had seen a hundred times and eating cereal. The house looked like a bomb had hit it, as if not one constructive thing had happened there that day. My wife was sitting nearby and so incapacitated by her own turmoil, she was unable to lift a finger to engage Charlie or me. And it just hit me; we cannot live like this any more. It wasn’t my wife’s fault—we had created this dysfunction together. But Charlie deserved a life. With my own issues so big, I knew I could not be responsible for all that was already nipping away at my wife’s heart and soul. I thought that in order to gain control, I had to file for divorce, kick my addiction, and place Charlie’s wellbeing at the forefront of everything, so I did.
I had just declared war.
Over the next years, between battling over Charlie in court, swapping him from apartment to apartment with the harsh coldness of two people enraged by each other, and sensing that Charlie’s mom was filling his head with your father is an awful person, it was like taking Charlie’s young heart out of a frying pan and throwing it into a blender.
During those early years after the divorce, God placed Tracey, a wonderful Christian woman, in my life. When I told her I was interested in more than friendship, she responded, “We could never be together because we are unequally yoked.” In my heart it was like, oh, no, you didn’t just say that. My ego took it as a challenge to show her that my Catholic upbringing had put us on the same footing.
The feeling of being washed of all my sins was more glorious than I could have imagined.
So I went to her church, Rock Church. Man, was I wrong. She was living out her salvation and I was only talking about mine. What I heard from the pulpit was something I hadn’t before: God loved me, a sinner, right where I was. Hearing Pastor Miles and his story of drug use and redemption gripped me. The feeling of being washed of all my sins was more glorious than I could have imagined. Jesus overtook me like a tidal wave.
Over time, I yielded everything, everything in my life to Jesus—the only one who could clean me from all that I had done. I began a season of discipleship and growth, which led me into volunteerism, and eventually, marriage to Tracey. Later, I even took a position on staff at Rock Church. I could hardly recognize my life. I had a new, transformed heart, transformed desires, and a passion to help others know Him.
What I didn’t realize was that it also increased my desire to see that Charlie had what I had in Jesus, and was willing to do it by force, if I had to. It caused an enormous amount of tension. In addition, my new life with God also made me think I needed to apply as much discipline as possible, as if being tough was the answer. I was so determined to wrestle away his child-of-a-broken-home beginnings and shape him into the boy I knew he could be—he had to be. I was heavy-handed and determined.
Through his teens, I fought the constant battle of trying to protect him from exposure to the things I had experienced at his age. I could see the early signs of him going in the wrong direction—just like me. I found out later, he had been slipping away, smoking pot and indulging in alcohol and drugs. He was following in my footsteps to a T.
At times I was paralyzed with fear about what looked to be my boy’s future and I would re-double my efforts. I just have to be more disciplined with him, I thought. It still breaks my heart to think of it.
At graduation time, when he was at a place to make a decision about where he would live, he looked at the fact that I made him do the dishes, homework, take showers and live clean—and chose to live with his mom. And why wouldn’t he? She offered few repercussions for his party life and asked almost nothing constructive from him. Looking back, I guess I wouldn’t have wanted to live with me either.
Not long after that, he overdosed on heroin and suddenly, there was a new urgency to my life. Charlie needed me now more than ever. I did what I thought was right—I tried to press in even more. I ultimately got him to go to twelve step meetings, but nothing helped. He seemed to be slipping further away.
I was so happy, as he was making friends, staying clean, and doing positive things.
But while my life was good, Charlie’s continued to spiral out of control. He thought he had things under control. Then, it happened again. I got another call that Charlie had overdosed. I brought him home to stay with me this time until I could get him into a recovery center. He ended up in the Fellowship Center in Escondido. Thirty days later, he had earned his 30-day sobriety chip and was walking strong. I had never been so encouraged about him and hope was animating my step. In fact, he and all the guys at the Center were going to attend and work an AA convention in San Diego. I was so happy, as he was making friends, staying clean, and doing positive things. My boy was making a come back.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was driving out of the Rock parking lot. I got a call from my ex-wife. She was weeping bitterly.
“Something has happened to Charlie,” she said.
“What? What happened?” My heart began to pound as my mind raced through all the things that could have happened. For some reason, none of them included what I heard next.
The medical examiner took the phone. “Your son was found in a car at a mall in Escondido, Mr. Franklin. He overdosed on heroin. I’m sorry. When we arrived, he had already passed away."
I pulled into a gas station, put down the phone, and like a man who had been stuffing down a cry for 50 years, I came completely apart. I cried so hard I thought the structure of my body was not strong enough to withstand it. Like filmstrip passing through my mind, Charlie’s life, his beautiful smile, his inquisitive ways, his willingness to do anything to get a laugh, his desire to get help for his addiction, and the precious things he did to show that he loved me—passed through my mind like a story in search of a happy ending. Suddenly, I was standing on a cliff with a sea of guilt crashing at the base and a stiff wind at my back. Were I to step wrong, were I to let my balance lean toward believing that I had set up the life and death of my own son with my own conduct, I would be lost forever.
I somehow made my way home, dazed, and I sat on the couch in our dark living room with the blinds drawn—and wept in tall towering waves. Some of my family from Rock Church came by to sit with me and pray and give me words of encouragement. I appreciated all of them, but I was inconsolable. There was nothing that my family or any human could say to reach me. If I was going to be reached, it would have to be by God.
Chuck, do you trust me? God suddenly said to my heart.
Do you trust me? He said again.
“Well…yes,” I said, confused. “What am I trusting you for?”
You don’t just get to trust me when things are good. This is what trust is for—for times like this. Do you trust me? I will bring good from this.
Suddenly I knew what God was saying to me—in that promise, there is no room for guilt.
Immediately I remembered the verse in the Bible that says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
Suddenly I knew what God was saying to me—in that promise, there is no room for guilt. If the promise was true, guilt could not survive. It was wiped away. I thought back to the day I received Jesus in my heart. He set me free. And here, in the middle of my darkest hour, He was doing it again.
In the years since, I have missed my son more than words can express. I don’t go long without thinking of him and longing for one more conversation, one more laugh, one more chance to play guitar with him, one more hug. But God has given me a very loving gift to sooth this pain in my chest: He has given me a love for drug addicts. I will meet with them any time, anywhere, to tell them about the love of Jesus. They don’t always trust me at first. But I just tell them my story, and Charlie’s, and they know I know their hell. And I have seen lives changed.
It has brought such joy and purpose to my life—especially because I can see how God is fulfilling His promise to me. He is making good from bad, flowers from the ashes.
But there is more. In the midst of all this, I am filled with inexplicable joy. It’s as if God is trying to tell me that there is no pain so bad that His love, promises, death, and resurrection couldn’t make up for, either in this life or the next. Which leads me to this. I believe in heaven now more than I believe in my earthly existence. Heaven is my home. And I believe there is the chance that Charlie is waiting for me there. Being at home with Charlie...just to think of it is almost more than I can bear.
If you would like to reach Chuck Franklin, email him at [email protected]