Daily Herald
Two parents rebound from their despair to find home, family
By Teresa Schmedding | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 12/28/2009 12:04 AM

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Second of two parts

David Johnson was stumbling down a Roselle street on a cold night in March 2008, aching for his next fix.

What happened to the guy who fell in love with Angela eight years ago at College of DuPage? What happened to his dreams of finishing college? What kind of father was he to his two young children?

"I was staying with my mother for a week and had stolen something from her house to buy drugs. I was getting phone calls from Ang, saying I was supposed to spend time with her and the kids, but I was too concerned with getting high to make time for my family," he recalls. "I'm walking down the street, and I hadn't gotten high yet and was still sober. - I was cursing myself. 'You're so stupid. What are you doing? You're walking, you've got holes in your shoes, it's raining outside, it's freezing. You could be warm somewhere with your wife and kids. What's wrong with you?'"

At the same time, Angela was moving out of a rundown motel and into a safe, clean apartment in Glendale Heights furnished by Bridge Communities, a group that helps homeless families in DuPage County. She finally had a home - at least for two years - and a break from the gnawing fear of how to protect her children from the reality that they were homeless.

In the dark days, the two hardly resembled the funny, beautiful, worry-free kids they were when they met in 2000 and fell in love as students at College of DuPage. Two years later, daughter Riley was born. Son Deagan came two years after that. David was working two jobs and Angela one. They were living paycheck to paycheck but found the struggle to live in the suburbs on only dreams and love too great when the recession started and jobs dried up in 2006.

David found an escape from his fears and insecurities in heroin and cocaine. Angela found hers in taking the kids out for dinner and movies - anything to keep them from realizing how horrible their lives had become. Both took separate paths away from their problems that only led them deeper into despair.

By 2008, David was deeply addicted to drugs and Angela was living with her children in a dingy, pay-by-the-week motel in Glen Ellyn, hanging by a thread. It would be a year before the family was reunited, a year of hard work and hard decisions, on their path to building a secure future.

David comes back

David's plans of a life as an artist, married to Angela in a swanky Chicago loft, were a distant dream. The reality was, he was a drug addict, stealing from his family and "doing terrible things," sleeping on the streets and wandering aimlessly during the day, craving his next fix.

David's memory of the time he spent on drugs is hazy. But he is crystal clear on his memory of that night in 2008 when he had an epiphany and walked away from his addiction.

That night, he quit using cocaine and heroin and sought help, starting with his father.

He went home, hat in hand, and came clean about his drug abuse. Jaded by David's past failures to quit, his father said he could stay just one night.

That one night turned into a week, then two weeks, then six months as David stayed clean.

During that time, he attended some Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but they didn't seem to fill the hole in his soul. He still felt lost. He was off the drugs, but his life was a mess. Filled with feelings of guilt and failure, he had little hope for his future.

"I was looking for something to fill my life. I had nothing," he says.

He hadn't grown up in a very religious household, but he knew he was looking for something. He finally found that something in Alpha Bible classes at Wheaton Bible Church.

"When I went to Alpha, I wasn't sure I was ready for this because I've done all this terrible crap," he says.

Alpha courses are contemporary Christian Bible classes that rely heavily on small, informal group discussions of basic questions: Who is Jesus? How does one resist evil in today's world?

In David's classes, he found good male role models who helped him see past his guilt long enough to stay clean and sober. "I felt really secure," he says.

And finding a way to get past the guilt, plus his faith in God and his love for Angela and the kids - and himself - keeps him clean, he says.

"I don't hold grudges against myself because God doesn't hold grudges against me. If I ever doubt, I just have to remember I'm forgiven."

David has worked hard to repair bonds with his family, Angela's family, and Angela, Riley and Deagan during the past 18 months of being clean. "I made these mistakes, but I'm not that guy; that's not who I am," he says. "You work hard to be better every day. That's pretty much what I did. I work harder at being me, everything that is me - a dad, a husband, a son, a brother - every aspect of who I am as a person. That's pretty much how I stay sober.

"If you make a conscious decision to go back to that lifestyle, what are you giving up? Your whole life for nothing. To make it worse."

Once David got clean, he realized how much wasted energy he put into drugs. The church and some freelance work gave him a new sense of confidence and strength. "It changed my perspective, and I put a positive spin on it and it started growing exponentially from there."

Angela also has forgiven David. They both look back on those days with many regrets.

"Looking back on it now, as a 29-year-old man, I was a child the first time I did drugs. A kid," David says.

Angela says: "I don't think anybody ever thinks they'll get to the point that they'd rather steal from their family than not do drugs. No one thinks that's going to happen."

But they don't blame the drugs for everything.

"I'd hate for people to think drugs equal homelessness," Angela says. "If we'd got caught at 20 and gotten help, we could have avoided this."

Angela's new hope

In March 2008, as David started attending Alpha classes, Angela was accepted into a two-year program at Bridge Communities, which helps homeless families rebuild their future through transitional housing, counseling and education.

David focused on regaining Angela's trust and Angela focused on learning how to achieve financial security.

Angela was living in a two-bedroom apartment owned by Bridge in Glendale Heights, undergoing intensive financial counseling and career planning sessions.

"At that point, I didn't even want him to be here. I wasn't sure how clean and sober he really was," Angela says. "I had an apartment and wanted my husband here, but wasn't sure it was right for the kids."

David was allowed to visit, coming over for dinner each night and all day Saturday, and slowly Angela - and Bridge - began to believe he finally had kicked drugs.

"After a year of my mentors and my case managers seeing I was on the right track - that I would make the hard decisions as long as they were right for me and my kids," David moved in, Angela says.

Today, Angela has been in Bridge for a year and a half and David has been in for six months. They meet with their mentors from Glen Ellyn Bible Church, who are Bridge partners, once a week for financial advice and emotional support.

"As a couple we had no idea how to budget money. We didn't think we made enough money, so why try and save? That's what our attitude was for a long time," Angela says. "Bridge has taught me how to budget our money, to save our money. Both our consumer debt is gone. All the water bills we couldn't pay over the years are gone."

The road still has not been easy. Angela, now 28, was working at a salon for $10 an hour in Wheaton but was laid off in October; David, now 29, still sends resumes out to find permanent work. He has been doing freelance art work, painting murals in people's homes and designing Web sites. Today, he has found retail work over the holidays and has started his own Web site, paperghostco.com, to sell unique T-shirts.

"It's harder for David with everything being on the Internet when you can't meet people face-to-face," Angela says. "On paper, no one wants to hire him with gaps in his resume (while he was on drugs)."

Angela and David know the future won't be all sunny skies, but Bridge mentors have given them the tools to handle their problems. "I've learned it's now how much money you make," Angela says. "It's about how much you spend."

Now, instead of going out to dinner to escape their problems, Angela and David love to take their kids for a hike in the woods, to the library to "investigate" subjects, or to free movies at the Glen Art Theatre. And they're happy to just spend time at home, together as a family - something they will never take for granted.

Through Bridge, Angela has taken aptitude tests to start a career in something more recession-proof than cosmetology. Truth be told, she hated cosmetology but thought it was her only career option. She'd rather be doing something that makes the world better. "Makeup doesn't change anyone's life," she says. "We were down and out, but to see people who are really down and out in Glen Ellyn (at the motel) is really sad. Even in all the situations we've been in, I've seen stuff that brings tears to my eyes. I want to help these people. I want to give back."

Angela's tests show that her top strengths are in political science, English, social work, event planning and interior design, all of which she's exploring with her newfound practical knowledge of what her career choice will mean for her family.

"I'd love to do something in the political science and English area, but don't know what I'd do with that type of degree," she says.

Bridge has also taught Angela and David about other programs that will help them, like the federal Workforce Investment Act that provides grants for adults and displaced workers to get additional education and training, which Angela is applying for to return to school.

Bridge is also keeping a close eye on Riley and Deagan, who are both in school and go to Bridge Learning Resource Centers twice a week to ensure they don't fall behind in their classwork.

While life has stabilized, David and Angela will never forget the dark times. They are ever grateful for their families' patience and help. They are willing to talk to openly about their past because they hope to help prevent others from following in their footsteps.

Both think part of the problem was keeping their troubles a secret and not knowing how to ask for help while living in the suburbs where everyone seems affluent.

"My friends never knew what was going on," Angela says. "Don't be afraid when you get in a bad situation to still say what you want to do. To say, 'I'm going to have this baby and I want to go to college and how am I going to do this?'" Angela says. "I didn't say that. I didn't ask. I just thought 'This is it, we're done.'"

The future

In March, their time with Bridge will be up. They're focusing on getting David a better job and securing a future home by filling out an application for a Habitat for Humanity House because they desperately want to stay in Wheaton to keep Riley and Deagan in their schools.

But they're prepared if that doesn't happen. They say they'd get an apartment in Wheaton and won't rack up debt or fall back into drugs.

Their love and commitment to their marriage is strong, their apartment filled with laughter and hope. Angela loves that David never gives up and helps her feel optimistic about the future. David loves that Angela balances his "ridiculous optimism" with realistic planning.

Riley, 7, and Deagan, 5, don't seem to bear any emotional scars from their separation from David or their time in the motel. Both are bright, happy kids who run around the apartment, playing and laughing. They are at ease with David and frequently run in the living room to give both parents hugs.

Riley loves art and her paintings and drawings cover the walls of the Johnsons' Bridge apartment. When she grows up, she wants to be an "animal rescuer, archaeologist, artist or singer." Deagan is obsessed with bison - and can tell you the difference between bison and buffalo. Like all little brothers, he parrots his sister's career dream, but also wants to study canoes and be a "volcanologist and a hunter."

"I think they're going to be fine. We've never told the kids, 'Bridge is for homeless people,'" Angela says. "I want to tell them eventually when they're old enough to understand. When we own a home and are in our own home, we'll tell them, 'Daddy worked really hard to get better and I worked really hard to get our family back together. And that's because of love.'"