Editor’s note: This story explores thoughts of suicide. If you are at risk, please stop here and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support at 1-800-273-8255.
He took life for granted.
And then his lifestyle was taken away.
Now Stephen Staley, 24, is being held behind bars for drug and other offenses. He wrote me a letter from his current home, DC-4 in Davidson County Drug Court, to express his regret and to publicly declare he is a changed man.
March 9, he wrote, marked the day he had been clean of “all my substance abuse” for one year.
Staley said he wrote to me after reading the column I wrote about Christine French Cully, the editor of Highlights magazine. Her late husband’s motto was: “It’s a great day to be alive.”
That line caught his eye. So he penned me a letter.
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I wrote him back about my own father, who was, in his earlier life, a heroin addict who did time in a federal institution. My father, who died in 2013, did his best to shake the demons that had haunted him as a young man. It was a struggle for him.
I hope Staley understood my message: There is always a chance to turn your life around.
Maybe the saddest thing Staley wrote was that he felt “given up on … not just by loved ones and friends, but God and society as a whole.” He went on: “I’ve been viewed as a villain for so long.”
One’s world vie doesn’t get much darker than those two sentences.
Staley grew up in Cleveland, Tennessee.
At 12 years old, Staley saw his father smoking methamphetamine, and instead of being horrified, he “thought it was the coolest thing.” He didn’t start using then, but he filed his curiosity away.
It would come back later with a vengeance.
He said he started using alcohol and marijuana at 16. Drug use was followed by shoplifting. He was caught trying to steal an auxiliary cord for his car stereo from Walmart.
At 18, Staley tried amphetamines. And soon found himself surrounded by people who were hooked.
At 19, he was arrested for driving under the influence. And it wasn’t long before his old curiosity caught up with him. He tried meth. Within seven months, he was an intravenous meth user.
One low point Staley will never forget is when he stole his mother’s wedding ring and let her think the she had lost it.
Criminal charges piled up: Theft, possession, drug manufacture, resale, delivery. He was facing 18 years in prison when he was given a second chance. The court allowed him to try to get clean in a drug rehabilitation facility in Arizona.
“I thought I had my addiction beat,” he wrote. “I thought because I had God on my side, I couldn’t fail.
“More importantly, I thought I could still have one drink.”
One drink turned into a needle in his arm. Thirteen months of rehab was gone in an instant.
It was during this time, while he was blowing his second chance, that he met a woman named Denise. She was not a user.
“For some reason, she wanted to help me,” he wrote. “Til this day, I don’t understand why.”
On March 9, 2021, Staley was arrested again for theft.
He contemplated suicide. “I was ready to end it,” he wrote. “It seemed like an easier option. No one would miss or even recognize me gone.”
He was given a second second chance — 18 to 24 months in DC-4 in Nashville.
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Most importantly, Denise promised she would hold his hand wherever he went. And maybe that promise is what saved him. His mother has also been there to support him has he tries to stay sober.
Staley is approaching the halfway mark of his sentence, and Staley wrote he is “the happiest I’ve been in 20 years.” He will start a work-experience program, and then live in a halfway house.
“I hit my rock bottom, and I’m climbing slowly back to the top,” he wrote.
Staley is in a 12-step program. As he wrote to me, he was in his third step, which involved turning his life over to a higher power.
Staley is dreaming about the day he is free. He dreams about being a good man for Denise and her three boys. He dreams of reconnecting with family and friends.
In February, Staley revealed to his mother that he had stole her wedding ring.
“A weight lifted off my shoulders,” he wrote. “She forgave me.”
Staley has another, very specific dream. When he is free, he was to operate a food truck called “Uncle Bud’s,” featuring bakery goods.
“I will succeed,” he wrote. “One day at a time.”
Reach Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN.
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This story is part of Project 88, which is named for the 88 characters produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter. The Tennessean’s Keith Sharon types letters on his 1953 typewriter and mails them to people all over the world with an envelope and stamp so they can write back. This story originated with a letter Keith received. The question Project 88 is trying to answer is: Will people communicate the old-fashioned way, through heartfelt letters about the best and most challenging days of their lives. This project is not for political rants, and any kind of snail mail letter (typed, hand-written or computer printout) is acceptable. Please include a phone number.
You can be part of Project 88 by writing to:
1801 West End Ave.
Nashville, TN 37203