Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

'A big demon': Joe Johnson shares his story of addiction, getting clean, and the changed man he is today

1 / 7
Detroit Lakes man Joe Johnson has turned his life around after years of substance abuse. He now leads the Park Rapids-based, award-winning FATHER Project, helping struggling dads from around the area become their best selves. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)2 / 7
Johnson, third from right, joined Goodwill-Easter Seals staff at the Minnesota Capitol in 2017 to speak to the House and Senate jobs committees on behalf of the FATHER Project. They are pictured here with Senator Mark Koran, fourth from right. (Submitted Photo) 3 / 7
Raised in the foster care system and abused as a child, Johnson says he started using drugs in his youth as a way to run from his pain. Years later, he suffered a near heart attack as the result of prolonged drug abuse, and that became a turning point for him. He's been clean for a decade now. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)4 / 7
(Click to see full picture) Johnson, right, with Senator Paul Utke at the Minnesota Capitol in 2017. Johnson is an award-winning advocate for fathers and families in rural Minnesota. (Submitted Photo)5 / 7
(Click to see full picture) Johnson, in one of his favorite t-shirts. He prioritizes kindness and compassion in all his interactions with others. Learning to love himself unconditionally, he says, has given him the ability to love others in the same way. (Submitted Photo)6 / 7
Click to see full image7 / 7

Editor’s note: This story is the sixth in an 8-part series of feature stories written in conjunction with the ongoing “Inside Out” community campaign to normalize mental illness. This week’s “Inside Out” video by Leighton Broadcasting features Kristina Story talking about her battle with addiction.

Joe Johnson did not have a happy childhood.

Born in Rochester, Minn., he was placed into the state foster care system at a very young age and was then bounced from foster family to foster family around the Detroit Lakes area until he turned 18. Not all of those families provided the loving and caring environment that they should have.

Over and over again as a child, Joe was the victim of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the very people who were supposed to be protecting him. He felt abandoned by his biological family, betrayed by everyone else, and forgotten by God.

Other than his brother, whom he fiercely protected and “loved more than life itself,” Joe felt utterly alone. And he was full of rage.

“When I was little, I hated everybody and everyone,” he recalls. “I was seething and brewing with a visceral anger.”

He was told by one of his foster mothers that “no one should waste their time” on him, that he was “worthless.” And those words, he says, “took a light out of me.”

“That was a big demon,” he says. “There was a hole inside of me after that. I felt this worthlessness inside of me, and that’s not who I was, but it’s what I believed. When you get told hurtful things as a child, it can destroy your life.”

The only place where Joe consistently felt safe was in his therapist’s office, which he visited regularly throughout his childhood and adolescence. He was diagnosed with manic bipolar disorder, which causes extreme shifts in mood and energy level. He’d be “up for a few days,” he says, “and then down in the abyss for weeks.”

He was in a lot of pain, a lot of the time. To try and escape that pain, he turned to whatever mind-altering chemicals he could get his hands on. He was just a kid when the substance abuse began. Drugs, alcohol, household products… whatever was within reach that could get him high, he’d find it and use it.

“It’s easier for me to say, ‘What didn’t I struggle with?’ than ‘What did I (struggle with)?” he says. “If it could be abused, I abused it. It didn’t matter what it was. If it got me out of my mindset...at least I didn’t have to deal with the demons.”

Joe thought things might be different once he turned 18 and got out of the foster care system, but instead, his addictions got worse.

“I likened my childhood to 18 years of incarceration, and now the cuffs were removed,” he explains. “But there was no program for me to learn to live as an adult...to cope with the sudden responsibility… So then it was harder drugs and alcohol...crank, coke, meth...if I could get high, I did it, full throttle.”

There were some bad years when the bills didn’t always get paid. When he would sink his money into drugs while at home the power was getting shut off. There was always tension around the house then, and he became “a yeller” around his wife and kids. There were also some better years, when he managed to hold down good jobs and the collection letters stopped. But even then there was always some substance abuse going on.

Joe says he was a “master manipulator,” and he hid his addictions very well. If he did get caught, he’d lie and make false promises to never do it again.

‘We run and we run and we run’

For awhile in his early adulthood, Joe’s life looked pretty traditional. He married his high school sweetheart and they settled down, bought a house and had two kids. His father-in-law “saw potential in me that I didn’t know existed,” he says, and thanks to the unconditional love and support of that man — the first positive male role model Joe had ever known — he discovered religion, and got closer to sobriety than he had ever been.

He stopped using hard drugs and started behaving in less destructive ways in general, and yet, “I never really ever was fully clean,” he admits. “It was a rough road.”

“Every time I thought I’d get a hold of my bills, get a better job, get myself together, I remembered when that woman called me ‘a worthless piece of ----,’ and that was an excuse to keep using, because I didn’t want to face any of that stuff.”

Always, always, he was running from his pain.

“Anyone who’s struggling from addiction knows, there’s something we’re running from,” Joe says. “And we run and we run and we run, and there’s no finish line... I was afraid of that. I was afraid of those demons catching up to me.”

They did catch up to him, though, eventually.

In 2008, Joe’s brother, the person he had adored and felt personally responsible for since his youth, died at the age of 29. The loss threw Joe into a pit of despair.

“I went through hell the following year,” he says. “That up and down manic, it just stayed down. I was living in the shadows of my brothers’ death. I was consumed by agony.”

For five months, he hid out in his garage every day, isolating himself from everyone, screaming and breaking things and taking whatever drugs he could scrounge up.

“I used and I used and I used,” he says. “Didn’t matter what it was. I hid, and I ran… My wife and kids were afraid of me. I never abused them physically, but emotionally, verbally… I wasn’t a good man.”

Over the next six months, Joe lost his job, the house, and nearly his marriage. The one year anniversary of his brother’s death passed, and he continued to use “way, way too many stimulants.”

Then, while laying in bed one day, Joe says, “my world shifted.”

He felt his heart racing, and couldn’t catch his breath. He knew right away what was happening — his heart was failing; the result of prolonged drug abuse.

“I had been using too many stimulants, for too long,” he explains. “I felt like the Grim Reaper had his hands around my neck.”

In that moment, he looked up toward the sky and cried out for God, and his brother. He begged for his life, for another chance to do better, to be better. He didn’t want to die.

‘My awakening’

Lying on a hospital bed a short time later, Joe had a profound experience that to this day he can’t really explain. A voice spoke to him, he says. It told him he had two choices — to continue on the destructive path he was on, which could only lead to death, or choose a new, productive path, one that was already laid out in front of him.

Joe says he was unable to hear anything else as that voice spoke. The beeping machines in his room, the nurses busily walking and talking in the hallway… everything went completely silent, except that mysterious voice. And his ears were scorching, like someone was sticking a “hot poker” in them.

“It scared the hell out of me,” he admits. “That was my awakening.”

He started making some major life changes after that. He cleaned himself up, started shaving and dressing nicely again, and got a good job. He and his wife started rebuilding their relationship, and they found a new home to make a fresh start in.

Most crucially, he committed to dealing with his pain — without drugs.

“I stopped running and turned to face the demons, and you know what I saw? Me, in the mirror,” he says. “All this time, I’d been running from myself. I just had to face that. It was hard. It wasn’t my wife. It wasn’t my kids. It wasn’t that woman that told me that (I was worthless). It was me. Within me laid the secret, the tool, the key to change. I had to say, ‘Hey man, I love you, and I forgive you. And we’re gonna do this now, every day. Every single day.’ ...It’s the greatest decision I’ve ever made, other than becoming a husband and father.”

Joe has been sober for 10 years now, and has found his calling as a mentor and role model to other men who are struggling with their own demons. It turned out that there was, indeed, a second path laid out before him, just as that mysterious voice had said.

‘Hope dealer’

Today, Joe is the leader of the local FATHER Project, a program of CHI St. Joseph’s Health in Park Rapids. Launched in 2011, the program teaches healthy parenting skills to fathers in Hubbard, Becker and Cass counties, while also helping them overcome barriers — such as addictions — that have prevented them from providing emotional and financial support for their kids. Hundreds of local fathers have gone through the program, and have become better parents, and citizens, because of it.

Joe has been with the FATHER Project since its inception, and it’s grown and evolved under his leadership. He’s developed it into a nationally-recognized model for family service programs in rural areas, and in 2017, he received the national Outstanding Professional of the Year award in recognition of his work with the program.

Joe says the biggest thing he does in his role is “exchange life stories” with the other fathers. He prioritizes compassion and kindness in his interactions with people, and has a natural talent for remembering little details about everybody he meets. He’s learned how to love himself unconditionally, he says, and that’s given him the ability to love others in the same way.

“I love everybody I work with, everybody I talk to,” he says. “I don’t discriminate in who I love. I don’t hide it. I let them all know that they’re valuable… If you truly live to help people, they will not forget that. These guys know that I don’t condemn.”

His goal is to help guide fathers to become “great,” so they’ll “break the chain” of generational childhood trauma.

Joe feels like he’s doing exactly what he was meant to do, and that he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for “being burnt by the flames of addiction, of pain, of death.”

Though he’s not proud of everything he’s done in the past, he says he is proud of the man and father he is today. He’s 38 years old now, and he’s able to look at his kids and feel happy and confident that “the chains are broken” within his own family. Unlike he was at their age, his kids are not headed down a path of self-destruction. Instead, he says, they “reflect goodness and joy.”

Physically, Joe will forever bear the scars of his years of substance abuse, in the form of chronic health problems ranging from intestinal ulcers to sleeplessness. But emotionally, he’s made peace with his past and said “so long” to his harmful habits.

He has no desire to return to his old addictions, he says, as they’ve been completely replaced by one big new addiction — hope.

“I’m still an addict now, but here’s the deal: I’m addicted to dealing hope,” he jokes. “I’m a hope dealer. I deal in large and small quantities… I also deal hugs.”

MORE ABOUT ADDICTION

What is it?

Addiction is the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it causes, because of some sort of pleasure or value it creates for the person.

JoAnne Riegert, of White Earth Mental Health, says in the “Inside Out” video on addiction that, “Substance abuse is considered a mental illness… just like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder... It is labeled as such.”

People can be addicted to everything from drugs and alcohol to sex and food, with levels of addiction ranging from mild to severe. Often, addiction goes hand-in-hand with other mental illnesses, like depression or anxiety.

“There’s really a connectedness between mental illness and substance abuse for many people,” says Riegert. “They often have what we call in mental health a ‘dual diagnosis’ — substance use and mental illness that work collectively together. Oftentimes, they are very interrelated.”

How common is it?

40 million Americans ages 12 and older — or more than one in seven people — abuse or are addicted to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs. That’s more than the number of Americans with heart conditions, diabetes or cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Signs vary depending on the individual and the addictive disorder, but some common symptoms include withdrawing from loved ones, not taking care of one’s self as usual (not showering, not leaving the house), missing work, having depleted resources/finances, severe loss of control, preoccupation with using, and failed attempts to quit.

What causes it?

Areas of the brain responsible for stress and self-control undergo long-term changes during an addictive disorder, and the brain essentially “rewards” a person for repeated substance use by initiating rushes of feel-good chemicals whenever the substance is used.  

“And so, even though (the person) may have never started out wanting to have addiction, or substance use, as part of their life, their body and their mind become dependent on it,” Reigert says.

Substance use commonly stems from a traumatic event or events that occurred in a person’s life, she says: “People begin to use substances to quiet or shut down the feelings or emotions that might be happening as a result of something that may have happened to them.”

Can it be treated?

Addiction can be effectively prevented, treated and managed by healthcare professionals in combination with family or peer support. In cases of dual diagnosis, Reigert says, treatment programs address both the substance abuse and the mental illness at the same time: “We can’t heal them isolative of the other.”

“There is healing for, and hope for, people who are struggling with substance abuse,” she says. “There are programs that are very successful for people, long-term, and even if there’s a slip or a relapse, that doesn’t mean you go back to where you were. You go back to where you left off, and you pick up and go forward.”

*Compiled from the “Inside Out” video on addiction, American Addiction Centers, drugabuse.com, and the Center On Addiction

WHAT TO SAY - AND NOT TO SAY - TO SOMEONE WITH ADDICTION

DO talk to them about it.

“We can’t pretend that it’s not happening, because then the individual does not get the support that they need,” White Earth Mental Health professional JoAnne Reigert says. “Avoiding mental health or substance abuse concerns aren’t going to make them go away.”

Reigert suggests approaching the person with love, respect, and the desire for them to get well. Tell them you’ve noticed that something has been different lately, and that you’re concerned. Ask straightforward questions like, “Is there anything that I can do to help you?”

If that doesn’t open the door to a conversation, or if the person gets angry or resists help from you, then enlist another friend or neutral support person to broach the topic. Your role at that point may be to connect your loved one to another supportive individual and then take a step back.

DON’T make unkind assumptions.

Joe Johnson says he’s heard a lot of “cruel myths and comments” about addiction, and he reminds those who haven’t struggled with it themselves to refrain from judgment.

“As communities and people, we don’t ask, ‘What happened to you?’ We ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And that’s got to stop,” he says. “If you’re going to condemn people, and you don’t know what it’s like, you shouldn’t talk. Don’t try to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do.”

Putting more shame on the shoulders of people who are already hurting only makes things worse and lessens their chance of recovery: When people with addiction are shamed by their friends, families and community, he says, “How can we expect them to come out of that abyss?”

CRISIS HOTLINE

If you’re struggling with addiction, or know someone who is, call the Becker County and White Earth Reservation 24-Hour Mental Health Crisis Line, at 218-850-HELP (4357).

MORE ABOUT THE 'INSIDE OUT' CAMPAIGN

"Inside Out: A Step Inside Mental Illness" is a Detroit Lakes area project to raise awareness of mental illness and erase the stigmas surrounding it. A community partnership between local media and regional healthcare and crisis organizations, the campaign consists of a series of online videos, newspaper articles and radio discussions that shed light on some common mental health disorders, putting local faces to those disorders. Topics covered include depression, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, suicide and others.

Videos are being released once a week for eight weeks (the campaign started the week of Feb. 25), and are available to watch free on Becker County Energize's website, beckercountyenergize.com. There will also be a program airing each week on lakestv3.com. Newspaper articles are being published in the Wednesday print editions of the Detroit Lakes Tribune over the same time span, as well as on the newspaper's website, www.dl-online.com. Participating radio stations include Leighton Broadcasting's local stations, Wave 104.1 FM, KDLM 1340 AM and 93.1 FM, and KRCQ 102.3 FM.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 4-year-old son and toddler daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452