Getting back on track
Cassville man fighting seesaw battle with meth
Cassville resident Carl Cunningham is working hard at getting his life together after addiction took nearly half of it away.
“Until 15 months ago, about half my life was spent using meth,” he said. “I started when I was 16 years old. I was in high school, and I had a girlfriend who had friends that introduced me to the drug. I started skipping school and going to the trailer park where I knew it was available. I wasn’t thinking. I was just following the crowd.”
His parents realized quickly that something was wrong, and pulled him from school to join his stepfather in the construction trade.
“They knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know I was smoking meth,” he said. “So, there was a break between the time I was 16 and when I turned 18. When I was old enough [my mom and step-dad] couldn’t tell me what to do anymore, I found my real dad, got to hanging out in bars and drinking more than I should. There was lots of drugs in bars.”
Luckily, Cunningham found a good job in construction, which took him away from Cassville and the temptation to use meth.
“I started helping with the construction of Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Arkansas,” he said. “I spent three years clean. I was surrounded by a great group of people. It was a great opportunity.”
But, when the job was finished, Cunningham returned to Cassville, started drawing unemployment and running in to old acquaintances.
“A guy I knew came by the house one day and showed me how to make [meth],” he said. From there, [the problem] took on a life of its own. I really think he had nowhere else to cook it. So, I watched and learned as he did it. After I figured it out, it was almost impossible to stop using.”
When Cunningham caught his first charge for manufacturing, he cleaned up for about 11 months.
“I started using again, and my parole officer knew I was using,” he said. “He tested me, and when I left, I never went back. I went on the run and ended up living in a camper behind the house of a friend. The mother of the girl whose house I was living behind knew she was using, so she called to have officers do well-being check. The police found me there, in the camper, cooking. I took off at night, on foot, through the woods, straight down a 25-foot cliff.”
The sudden stop at the foot of that cliff ended with Cunningham being hospitalized.
“As soon as I got out of the hospital, I went right back to cooking again,” he said.
It was about that time that his then-wife, Amber, lost her mind.
“Literally,” he said. “She was snorting Percocet, oxycontin and taking meth non-stop. She was hallucinating. She said there were spiders under her skin. I took her to the hospital in Cassville, and they recommended she be admitted to a [psychiatric] hospital. She didn’t want to do that, so I took her back home. She called her mom, bought a bus ticket and went back to Alabama. I’ve never seen her again.”
Their daughter was left behind, in the custody of her father, who was facing jail time for his offenses.
“I was in Barry County jail for five months the first time,” he said. “I was in for a month the second time. That’s when I entered the Drug Court program.
“My mom got full custody of my daughter while I was in jail, and I haven’t been allowed to see her in more than five years. I’ve made my bed, there. It’s understandable. My step-dad knows I’m in Drug Court, and I’m taking the steps to reconcile. But, it’s going to take a lot before they believe me. I’ve spent most of my life living that way, and I believe they just don’t want to see my daughter be hurt. I have to respect that.”
His biggest regret also lies at the feet of his child.
“I was not able to quit meth, not even for my daughter’s sake,” he said.
Cunningham went even further into the lifestyle than he told himself he ever would.
“In the beginning, I knew people who were using needles to shoot it,” he said. “I swore I never would. I smoked it most of the time. But then, I couldn’t get high enough trying to smoke it anymore. It was then I started using needles. And I used them for a long time. I’d be up for so long, I’d be hallucinating. But, I knew what was going on.
“A lot of things happened during that time in my life. I knew another girl who shot up, only it wasn’t meth. We don’t know what it was. But she’s paralyzed now, and living in a nursing home. She’d still smoke dope even after being paralyzed. That’s the power of the drug. But you have to ask, at what level do you stop?”
The drug has taken a physical toll on Cunningham, as well.
“I’ll never have the body I used to have,” he said. “My lungs, because I smoked it for so long, the damage has been done. I have issues with severe pain and arthritis. My teeth are bad. The negative effects are starting to occur. I’m 34 years old and falling apart far sooner than I should be.”
Through Barry County Drug Court, Cunningham is starting to turn his life around.
“I have a good job and I’m starting a new family,” he said. “I have a promising life, a great lady. We’re building a life together. After I finish Drug Court, I plan to stay sober. I hope to show my family that I’ve changed and be allowed to see my daughter.”
It hasn’t been an easy road to travel.
“I didn’t have a driver’s license, and spent $3,400 to get my license back. I had $1,100 in fines in Seligman, and assault charges in Pea Ridge, Ark., that I had to address, along with $1,200 in tickets there. I’ve paid them all in the more than 15 months that I’ve been in Drug Court.
“I’m working hard to make a decent living for my family. I was raised to work hard. I had a lot of opportunities along the way, and looking back, I did a lot of things I regret. But, I’m trying to move forward.”
Cunningham said Drug Court, the peer support and relying on his higher power have helped restructure his life.
“I’m happy that I have been a part of establishing the Cassville chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, JADA, (Just Another Drug Addict),” he said. “Through Drug Court, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Toys for Tots program, and we collected more than 100 toys at Christmas. There are a lot of fun things to do through Drug Court.
“Somewhere along the way, a person has to decide they want to change. It all boils down to a choice. You have to choose to live that better life. When I started, I wanted both to be accepted by a peer group, and I was running from the pain of losing my daughter and not being able to help the woman I loved keep her sanity. I kept using the drugs because of the drugs, and I ran from facing all that.”
Cunningham said despite the past pains, he’s in a healthy, promising relationship and is family oriented these days.
“I work hard, pay my bills and I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to get into Drug Court,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones who can take what they have learned and progress with it. I’ve seen others who graduated and have gone straight back into it and landed back in jail within a week. I’m trying to live clean now.”
Cunningham is looking forward to life after Drug Court.
“It’s about structure,” he said. “[Drug Court] makes you be on time for meetings. They make you get a job. Structure, for a drug addict, is non-existent. People need structure and stability. Getting them there is another story.
“You have to find your higher power. With human beings, I think we have a hole inside us that we are searching to fill. Until you do, you’ll always be searching. Being able to pray, and let God work it out, is important. You have to figure out that you don’t have control over everything.”
Cunningham said for him, what it boiled down to was getting away from the people still using, getting with the right people and getting the right job.
“I couldn’t have done any of that without my higher power,” he said. “I will always have that weakness, but I know I have to shut it down before it takes control again. If a relationship is unhealthy, I eliminate it. It sounds cold, but it’s for my own self-protection.
“Keeping clean is a lifestyle, not a goal. When I started looking at it that way, things started turning around. Sometimes, I will see something or smell something that triggers that urge to the point I can almost taste it. But, it’s how I act on it, and pray about it, that helps me move on.”