This is a much different post than much of what I have written. I usually like to unearth stories and personal reflections on hope within the mire. This post is slightly different, but I believe such tangents are sometimes necessary to bring attention to an issue and create a pause to reflect on how to respond to something which seems either too big to do anything about, or too far removed from me to care.
This morning I received a message from my girlfriend about her brother, Alex. Yesterday he had discovered a “friend” of his had broken down his door and stolen ALL of his valuable belongings. He is a mechanic and much of what was stolen were tools he needs for his trade. His sister created a fundraiser to help him replenish what he needs to move forward: https://www.gofundme.com/garupu3g.
Being stolen from is a very vulnerable and devaluing space to be in. Such feeling of being violated is very difficult to reconcile with. Apparently his “friend” had gotten into Meth. Another reason for me to despise this horrible horrible drug, and why my heart is broken by anyone who experiences the pains of being robbed in one form or another by this drug from hell.
Methamphetamine does more damage than solely the health of the user. It destroys individuals and dreams. It steals from friends. It corrupts community. It violates. It rips families apart.
When I was a youth pastor several years ago, a local initiative took place in our community to educate the youth about the downfalls of meth. The purpose behind the initiative was to challenge youth to not even try it once. The campaign utilized graphic horrifying images to “scare” youth out of any desire they might have to ever try it. Most of the images were of individuals who have used methamphetamine and displayed a series of photos from before meth to after. You have most likely seen such a poster hanging in a local community or government building. You know the image of the 30 year old woman who looks 65?
Even though I lived in a community which is plagued with this awful drug, I was working in a “bubble” with youth and families who were not directly impacted by meth, so I was in the category of folks who chose not to pay much attention to the signs or dangers of meth because I was not directly effected by it nor knew anyone who was.
Three years ago, my former wife and purchased a foreclosed home in a struggling, but hopeful neighborhood. We were aware of the crimes and some of the dangers associated with such a neighborhood battling the oppression of poverty, yet naive to exactly what we were walking into with the purchase and refurbishing of our home. After spending countless hours crammed into just a few weeks, we managed to remodel the entire inside of the house before moving in. I learned a lot in a few short weeks about sanding and staining wood floors, tiling a bathroom and laying linoleum flooring tiles. Our little family was happy and hopeful for our new home and it’s prospects.
I still have yet to experience the welcome and warm feeling we received from most of our neighbors. Our block had it’s own community watch. Families spent their time on their front porches or lawns. On one side of our little house was a family with two children, one was exactly our sons age. They were immediate friends. On the fourth of July, we sat on lawn chairs with our new neighbors in the middle of the street to watch our town’s fireworks. A few houses down the street was an adult foster home for men with mental disabilities. Many of them would daily ride their bikes throughout our neighborhood to and from work, shopping or just for a leisurely stroll. Preceding the move in, our soon-to-be neighbors would stop by daily to check on the remodel progress and give us status updates on the security of our home. We were flooded with praise and encouragement from folks who were elated to see a young hopeful family, like us, move in to their community all smiles.
These warm welcomes were also accompanied with some challenges. In the days following the final purchase and the beginning of the remodel, we discovered a power cord draped over our fence from another neighbor’s backyard through an open door in our back room plugged into our outlet. This house had been vacant for quite a while, so I could understand someone in a state of economic hardship taking their liberties with a vacant space. It was the same feeling I felt when we first looked at the house and noticed some of this particular’s neighbors random belongings alongside their camp trailer overlapping our property line and literally leaning against the side of what would be our new home. Regardless of the noise coming from inside this neighbor’s house, and the amount of traffic coming and going throughout the day, they would not open the door.
At one point I remember asking one of their “friends” (customers) on their way into the house if they knew who I could talk to and expressed my concern about the power cord. I told them I would be happy to give them 24 hours to find another source of power before politely asking them to unplug their chord. This request was responded to with a cackle. I never met whoever it was who lived in this house. Regardless, I allowed the 24 hours before unplugging the cord and neatly winding it up and placing it on the fence. The next day, when I arrived to do more work on the house, I discovered the same cord plugged into the same outlet. Frustrated, I unplugged the cord again, tossed it over the fence and locked the door, making certain this old door could not simply be pushed back open. Obviously, replacing this door with a deadbolt was on the top of the list before moving in. The next day I discovered a broken window in what would be our utility room with, you guessed it, the power cord pushed through the broken pain and plugged into our outlet. These people were relentless. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Fortunately, we had an entire block of neighbors who were fed up with this kind of behavior that they had our back. Collectively, we would watch and report such activity. After boarding up the window, I contacted the police who came by and investigated the situation. Unfortunately, little was done. Activity next door decreased and police would routinely drive by to check on the activity next door. The new city police station was literally two blocks away, what more could go wrong? We felt stuck with this decision since the purchase had concluded, discouraged but hopeful, we moved forward. Remodeling continued and traffic next door decreased. We moved in with caution and had hopes that our presence and comradery with the other hopeful neighbors would help cultivate change on the scary neighbors next door. It felt a little like being on set of “The Burbs”. Sometimes passion and a love for a community can cause us to put on hopeful blinders.
Shortly after moving in, we noticed some positive changes happening next door. The more we would report suspicious activity, the less activity we saw. Our neighbors were also excited and we honestly felt we were making a positive difference in this little corner of the world.A couple weeks after living in our new little home, however, our health began to fail. I experienced severe headaches with nosebleeds, my tow-year-old son developed mouth sores, and all three of us were experiencing respiratory difficulties and dry mouth. After moving out and running some tests, we discovered our home had toxins higher our our state’s determination of contamination. Test results showed significant traces of methamphetamine. We discovered that while we were distracted by the strange and disruptive activity next door, our health was being attacked by remaining residue from prior activity which occurred within the very walls we were living. We had no idea that our new home was a former clandestine meth lab.
Words cannot express the devastation which we experienced. I believe that most, if not every, story has a silver lining. Within a few short months, our story gained national media attention and what was a very desperate, lonely and painful situation became a national conversation and awareness thanks to a “little” petition I started on Change.org. In addition to a short trip to NYC to meet Anderson Cooper, we managed to get most of our losses compensated and we were later invited to participate on writing and pushing a bill through our state legislation process in efforts to prevent the sale of such homes to future homeowners, like ourselves. My friend posted on my facebook an image from Breaking Bad with my face cropped over the face of Walter White’s. He included the caption: “Jonathan Hankins – I always knew that meth would make you famous!” He knows I understand and appreciate his humor, but meth, in my opinion, is no laughing matter when we consider the amount of wreckage it has caused.
This is one small story of how meth attempted to steal, kill and destroy my little family and one square block in one struggling community.
A year later I began working with families who were working towards reunification with their children whom the state determined unsafe. While abuse and unsafe living circumstances were often reasons for children being removed from my clients’ homes, I soon learned how many of their stories had been violated by meth’s nasty fingers. Little did I know that my story of loss and redemption from being drastically impacted by this drug, which I never had a desire to even try myself, would impact families who had also been negatively impacted by the effects of methamphetamine. While learning these family’s stories and assisting them with transportation to and from appointments and accessing housing and other helpful resources, I would drive my clients by what became a hole in a ground. While staring at this ugly empty space in the middle of a residential block, I would share my family’s horrifying experiences with former users so they could see another side of the drugs destruction. I wanted them to develop an even deep understanding of the impact of meth on a community and not just the individual user and their family.
For the last few years I have seen the effects of methamphetamine and watched how it rips families apart and specifically children from the loving care of their parents who are incapable of parenting because of their addiction.
Hence, another reason I hate this terrible drug. It steals people’s souls, it tears families apart, it violates innocent bystanders and corrupts a community. Sometimes there is not much one can do before getting mad enough to say something significant enough to cultivate change. While I am not convinced stricter drug trafficking laws will do much to solve this epidemic, I am confident in the resilience and power of ordinary people who collectively say “enough is enough”. I, for one, believe it is time to talk about this issue along with the effects of poverty and abuse within struggling communities in our nation. Looking away or sweeping the problem under the rug is not the way to address issues of these magnitude. I looked away, and look what it got me. Our community’s law enforcement and real estate professionals swept it under the rug and we became a national spectacle. A community looked away and it cost us our home and nearly our lives.
Over a year after our own meth “experience”, we ran into one of the neighbors from the block. With tears in her eyes and a frog in her throat, she expressed sincere gratitude for shedding light on this issue. She was a recovering methamphetamine addict. She and her family had apparently called repeatedly, to no avail, to report suspicious activity from our neighbors and former residents of the house we loved and lost. She expressed that the block is peaceful now and the meth-heads next door had scattered. There are times in life I have learned that when you turn the lights on, the cockroaches scatter. Periodically I will go out of my way to drive down that street and try to process all that took place. The empty lot serves as a reminder of the damaging effects of methamphetamine.
While I have written this mostly for my own recollection and therapeutic release of psychological tension, or in other words “venting”, I sincerely hope it might resonate with a reader who is also pissed off by by the wreckage which is left by drug abuse and methamphetamine, in particular.
Over the last few years I have been contacted by homeowners across the nation inquiring about our experience and have been able to offer hope and assurance. I was fortunate to see a law pass in our own state to prevent the same thing from happening to future home buyers. Now I am asking you to consider what you can do to help turn the light on to issues in your own community. Perhaps all you can do is find ways to help those whose lives have been tainted by it in one form or another. One simple thing I invite you to do today is consider helping my friend Alex replenish what he has lost.On an even larger scale, I encourage you to learn what you can about ways you can turn the lights on in your town and community.