‘Run with it’

How Red Birchfield took advantage of his last chance to kick his heroin addiction

written by Chris Horne; photographed by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Red Birchfield in his kitchen, in the same spot he was in when we met him a year earlier. His hair’s shorter. His recovery is now two years long. The biggest difference now is just how much more active he is helping others. And he’s just getting started. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

It’s the day after Christmas and the Birchfield household hums with people having a good time. There’s crosstalk and laughter and random bursts of activity whenever one of the kids comes to the kitchen needing something. David, the oldest, walks in and Red nods in his direction, pointing at the newspaper clipping on the fridge of a high school football team’s perfect season. He says, “That’s my son.” The youngest, 4-year-old Cadence, shows grandma her new kiddie kitchen, then pivots quickly with a Rolo in her open hand, offering it to anyone in need of a treat. Evangelina, the middle child, peers into the viewfinder of a digital camera, squaring up the funny faces her parents make.

As family gatherings do, this one turns to storytelling about their shared past. Cady, on one of her visits to the table, brings a tiny photo of Red fished from a box of memories. When Red’s mom, Chris, sees it, she notes she also saved an old picture of him.

“It was the one from Illinois,” she clarifies.

“Oh, yeah?”

“All the blood,” she says, trying to coax his recollection as casually as a mom might otherwise note that green sweater you always wore in 2nd grade. Nothing still, so she adds, “The police had beat you up.”

It clicks. “Oh!” Red chuckles. His wife Melissa lets loose a short peel of laughter.

This was, as he describes it, when he and his mom were “running amok” in Chicago. He’d been pulled over by a cop, who figured out Red was a parolee-at-large from California. He was arrested and his mom bailed him out but he didn’t intend to show up for his court date. The day he was due in court, he was pulled over again and assumed they had a warrant already.

Red holds his old prison ID bracelet, which he’d given Melissa. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

“The police pulled us over and he says, ‘When he starts walking to our car, I’m going to take off.’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’,” Chris says, offering a resigned snicker. “You know, we’re blasted out of our minds. So we get out and he asks which way to run, and I say, ‘Left.’ Well, there was a barbed wire fence there.”

On cue, Red says, “I ran right into it.”

That’s what he’s always done. He’s run. And that’s how it’s always ended for him. Badly. Tangled up in the barbed wire, Red says the cop started laughing, so he spit at the officer, who then, Red alleges, grabbed his club and “mollywhopped” him.

“My scalp sort of flopped over and then there’s another altercation after that,” Red says. “I can’t say I didn’t assault the officer because I sure tried to but they got me pretty good.”

At the hospital, he was stapled up and taken to get x-rays, which is when they uncuffed him for the first time. That’s when he ran again, just as soon as the x-ray tech stepped behind the protective wall. It was winter. In Chicago. All he had to keep him warm was a hospital gown. He was so cold he wanted to surrender but the police had moved on by the time he came out. He was re-arrested trying to step into a cab his mother called.

Red’s mom, the Chris whose name appears tattooed on his forearm, has been in recovery for six years. For a while, she was here every day following her grandbaby’s birth. That’s because Melissa was afraid to leave Cady with Red when she went to work. His condition strengthened Chris’s resolve to stay sober, but it was too much for her to keep witnessing.

“I’d gotten to the point where I was coming here, watching the kids, watching Cady, and I told her, I can’t do this anymore. It was killing me. I was here alone with him during the day. Lots of times, he was — ”

He finishes her thought: “High as fuck.”

“It totally broke me to watch him do what he was doing. And I’m holding his baby and I’m watching his other two kids, and I’m watching his wife, and we were all drowning,” Chris says. When she starts to cry, Melissa does too. For the first time, it’s obvious their wounds have barely scabbed over. Red doesn’t try to defend himself. The look on his face suggests he knows he can’t. He listens instead.

Chris pauses occasionally to wipe her eyes and catch her breath as she continues, “All I could say to him was, ‘Look! Look at what you’ve got. You’ve been through so much but look at what you have. Can’t you find happiness in that?’ You’d come here and it was just like you’d be sucked into a black hole. This is the person I love more than anybody. This is my first-born, you know? When he was born, it was like, ‘What can you be? The President?’ And I come here and I’m watching him lay on the floor. There was nothing. You are hopeless, helpless. ‘Is he going to die? Is he going to be here tomorrow?’”

When Chris arrived, Cady ran and jumped into her grandma’s arms for a hug. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

Melissa says she had reached the end of her rope when Red was charged with possession and ordered to detox by a judge. Even then, she wasn’t sure what she should do. They’d been together for three years and up until this point, he hadn’t been that bad. In fact, unlike addicts they’d known, Chris and Melissa say Red didn’t take money from his family. He kept a job even when he was using. Whatever money he needed for his addiction, he obtained other ways, either “trying to hustle” as his mom says, or as is insinuated, through potentially extralegal means. Regardless, something had changed.

“He’d gotten a lot worse,” Melissa says. “He was so bad when he went to detox that I honestly thought if I kicked him out, that would be it. He would end up in a ditch somewhere.”

It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was something. Like the opening of the movie “Raising Arizona,” except Melissa isn’t a police officer. Instead, she was paying a traffic ticket when she first set eyes on Red. She couldn’t miss him either. He was dressed entirely in bright orange, a jumpsuit he was given from the jail in Kent where he was shackled and waiting to be sent back to California. Before he was carted off, Red slid his contact information to Melissa. For the next year, they exchanged handwritten letters.

“You really get to know someone that way,” she says. That was almost a decade ago now.

It would take a few years before they would see each other again. After he was released, Red stayed out west and they drifted apart. By the time he came back to Ohio, Melissa was in Florida but they’d reconnected thanks to Facebook. Eventually, she made a trip here to visit a friend, and so they agreed to meet. They still clicked and a while after they’d started dating, it was time to introduce him to her two kids. Red got in the car and the very first thing little David said was, “Are you going to be my dad?”

“I don’t know,” Red answered, “but let’s try to be best friends first and go from there.”

Melissa is just as good at cracking jokes as she is at laughing at them, which she does often. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

Seeing them together, Red and Melissa make a lot of sense as a couple. She’s good natured, generous and clearly dedicated, but she wields biting sarcasm like a weapon, as she demonstrated when one of his swords came off the wall above their closet, smacking her, hilt-first, in the face.

“One of the dangers of being married to a viking,” he deadpans, displaying his sneaky wit and easygoing charm. Between the wisecracks, he checks his wife’s face and apologizes, staring at her with the warm affection of a puppy who knows he’s in trouble but is looking for a way out.

It’s hard to believe how close Red was to losing all this.

“Honestly, it was really close there at the end,” Melissa says, “because everything was making me mad. Everything. Like, just looking at him. I mean, he’d be so happy after he got his fix and everything, and he’d just want everything to be great and laughing, joyful — and I was like, ‘You know what? You’re a fucking asshole. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t play and smile, and so then that would piss him off because he didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy.”

She had heard his promises before. She had seen him detox before. How would this be different than before?

“He told me, I think, for the very first time I’d ever even heard him use the word, because he hates it — but he told me he was a junkie. He just seemed very sincere about all of it.”

After Red had been to a few meetings, at least one every day after he was released, he says Melissa asked if he’d need to do that a lot.

“I said, ‘If you remember, I got high every day, at least once a day’ — and I was miserable if I only did it once — ‘So that means I’ve got to go to at least one meeting every day.’”

Melissa was at home when the police came to their door looking for Red. He was wanted for a first-degree felony, which could put him away for upwards of 10 years. Chris tipped him off so he went to her house after work, in case his place was being watched. This was on a Tuesday in May 2015. It was his mom’s birthday.

“I wanted to run,” Red says. “That’s what I’ve always done.” Instead, he called his sponsor and asked for advice.

He was about four months into his recovery at this point. He had just turned his cell phone on again. The guys in his program told him to surrender it to his wife to avoid the temptation of his old life.

“I thought I was living life to the fullest by getting high and partying every day,” he says. “I thought I was making up for the all the time I’d lost from the time I was 13 to 30.”

On January 11, 2015, he agreed to listen after “an old-timer” named Ralph told him, “Your rock bottom isn’t going to be an incident. Your bottom is a decision. The bottom is when you make a choice that no matter what, you’re going to do whatever it takes to never pick up again.”

Initially, Cady was shy around us, so she tested the waters with little trips to the table where we sat to talk. This was one of the first times, a little hug and cuddle with Red who never shooed her away to limit the distraction. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

From that moment on, he’s done what he’s been told. He says, “For the first time, I submitted. When they told me to do stuff, I did it.”

Those same people were now telling Red to turn himself in. He called the police to ask for mercy. He didn’t want out of the charges but if they gave him until Friday, he could clock a full work week, which would help because Melissa didn’t have a job at that time. They agreed. Red told his boss and the guys at his meetings. Unlike other times, he didn’t smuggle any dope inside or get high one last time. Even facing a long stretch, he was committed to recovery.

“I’ve always wanted to be successful. So, I surrounded myself with guys who had what I wanted and were willing to show me how to get there,” he says. “I went out and found the guys who had 2, 3, 5, 20 years (of sobriety), that were successful in business, life, marriage — that were successful in everything they did.”

These are the people who spoke up for him in court and wrote letters to the judge, which may be why he isn’t behind bars today. However, that wouldn’t matter if Red wasn’t willing to do whatever it takes to stay in recovery.

“I went in front of the judge, and I said, ‘Look, I take accountability for this. I’ve never gotten a chance in my life. Y’all have been throwing the key away for years, and honestly, I don’t blame you because I didn’t deserve a chance. I’m not saying I deserve one now, but I think that if you were to give me a chance right now, this would probably be the best opportunity in my whole life because I think I can run with it.’”

He pleaded to a lesser charge and was sentenced to a year of intensive probation and four years of general probation on the condition he complete a treatment program, submit to random drug testing and maintain a full-time job. Failure means four years in prison.

His boss at Spectrum Diversified, a model for how employers can help people in recovery, took him back immediately. Melissa also works at Spectrum but she’s in a different department than her husband, who supervises a crew of 11 workers — 10 of whom are ex-offenders. As Red sees it, having a job means having an opportunity, not just for himself but his guys too.

“I want people to see it’s possible. The biggest reason I didn’t get clean before is I literally didn’t have any hope,” Red says. “It’s not like hope just bursts into a huge flame in your soul one day. It starts out like a little ember and you’ve got to nurture that ember. Sometimes shit happens and that flame goes out, and you’ve got to start all over again. But you’ve got to have hope.”

Is it worth it — all the struggle, the challenges?

Red smiles and looks around at the kids, at his wife and mom there with him.

He says, “What do you think?”

Red and his family on a surprisingly pleasant day outside in December 2016. (L to R): David, Evangelina, Melissa, Chris, Red and Cady. (photo by Ilenia Pezzaniti)

You can read more about William “Red” Birchfield in “Put the shovel down when you hit rock bottom,” originally published in the December 2016 issue of The Devil Strip and available online at bit.ly/RedsStory1

Chris Horne is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Devil Strip, a monthly arts and culture magazine that builds community through narrative placemaking by telling stories about the people who make Akron, Ohio unique, connecting us to each other, our city and a bigger purpose so we can collaborate on our future together.

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