Downright Beautiful

photo by Matt Cornelius
photo by Matt Cornelius

The struggle you are in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow. Richard Turner could not have known when he overcame alcoholism and an addiction to prescription painkillers that he was developing within himself a strength that would be invaluable in the face of a second struggle. Cancer, as it often does, unexpectedly burst on the scene, threatening all his renewed hopes and dreams. However, that practiced and abundant strength showed up at the perfect time. “I find tranquility in the trials of life,” Richard shared. “I live my life now with the idea that life is a gift from God. Today, when I hit my knees to ask for help, I don’t see it as an act of humiliation. I see it as an act of surrender.”

Richard was born and raised right here in the Ark-La-Tex area. His parents were divorced when he was very young, but they both remarried, giving him four parents instead of two and siblings who did not share DNA, but were siblings in every other way. Despite hating school, he still did well at it, but the only diversity he saw was in himself! “Even at a young age, I felt like the odd man out,” he said. “I never felt I belonged and knew that I was somehow exceptional. Of course, it would take years for me to know how I was unique, but I was unique, nonetheless. I doubt my story differs much from thousands of others, but today I know I have a voice that can help others know they are not alone.”

Because Richard felt chronically different, he recalls escaping into fantasies, dreaming of being anyone other than who he was. I was a freshman in high school when the first drop of alcohol touched my tongue. I remember a tingle at the back of my throat when I swallowed. No gagging. No burning. The liquor slowly made its way down. Instant alleviation. A wave of instant gratification came over me. For a teen that always felt alienated, with alcohol, I did not care what people thought of me. I’ll be so bold as to say I didn’t even care what I thought about me. My biggest fear, which had been not being accepted, became a fleeting thought. The pool of emotion I felt with my first drunk experience became quite a fervor of mine throughout my teens, lingering to plague my twenties as well.”

“Like any budding alcoholic would,” Richard continued, “I sustained.” Being a senior in high school, what should have been good times hanging out with friends became an excuse to “drown my demons.” He recalls going to a party shortly before graduation, intending to drink a few to “fit in;” instead, he drank everything in sight. This was the first of many blackout episodes. “You would think being violently hung over would be a wake-up call,” he said, “but no!” His only thought was “when do I get to do that again?”

After graduation, Richard took a job at a new hotel opening in town. He did well at the front desk there, but in September 2008, he needed some dental work. He was prescribed narcotic pain medication and took it as directed, but soon, his addictive personality proved problematic when “as prescribed” turned in to “I wonder what two will do?” This began the downward spiral of three, four, five and even ten pills at a time. “I was hooked,” Richard shared, “but oblivious to the fact that I was in trouble. The only problem I could see was whether or not I would have enough to make it through the day.” Richard might have seen these red flags and rationalized them, but those around him also began to take notice. They could see the Richard they knew, with his larger-than-life personality, had now morphed into a full-blown “Broadway production.” When he added alcohol to the “cocktail,” he lost himself, displaying a complete lack of regard for everything and everyone around him.

At 24, he woke up at CHRISTUS St. Michael Hospital after his first overdose. This event led him to his first local treatment center. He stayed for four days, but he believed he could stop the drugs with little trouble. After all, that was the real issue, wasn’t it? He convinced himself the alcohol was no big deal. So, he went straight from the treatment center to the bar. This lasted for about a year until he came face-to-face with his sister, Whitney. “In E-True Hollywood fashion,” he said, “this was to be the first of several ultimatums to address my addictions.” Whitney, standing tough in her love for Richard, expressed, “It’s treatment or out of my house.” Richard chose treatment, and this time he completed it. It was by now the winter of 2012, and the day he came home from treatment was the day he went right back into the bar. “Again,” he convinced himself, “alcohol was legal, so it most definitely could not pose a problem.”

Despite years of multiple failed relationships, multiple run-ins with law enforcement, multiple rehabs, and multiple moments of harm to his friends, family and co-workers, Richard still lacked the ability to admit he had a problem. “I was a cyclone. I ripped through lives with no regard for anyone or anything other than my own selfish desires and habits. This is how self-centered I am capable of being. I used everyone and offered nothing in return.” By May 2015, Richard found himself homeless, jobless and most of all helpless. “I lived at the precipice of death,” he continued, “and knew it all too well. Today, I can tell you at that juncture of my life, I made peace with the fact that I was an unfortunate soul, and this is how I would die. My family suffered the most, I think. They suffered things that they should have never had to endure. I sought to hurt them, and I succeeded. To this day, I maintain that the most awful thing I have said to anyone, I said to my mother—the lady who bore me. I live every day attempting to make that right, even though she says she has forgiven me.”

Treatment centers did not work for keeping Richard sober, but hey planted seeds for him that slowly grew over time and survived many more overdoses and trips to psychiatric facilities. Richard’s day of grace came August 11, 2015. “I was so broken, tattered and riddled with shame when I got sober. I literally had nothing but my life and a willingness to do something different.” That willingness from day to day eventually turned into months and then into years. Sobriety is now his friend. It led him to go back to school and in December 2020, he graduated with an Associate in Criminal Justice Degree with honors and became a first-generation graduate. He is currently a junior at Texas A&M University-Texarkana where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and was recently inducted into the National Honor Society for leadership and success.

“Addictions are everywhere and in the form of everything. Sometimes it’s not as easy to spot as the person that we see wondering around vacuuming the concrete. Sometimes, it is the lady, dressed in business casual attire, sitting at a desk, carrying a designer Louis Vuitton purse that has half of the Walgreens pharmacy in there and enough Xanax on hand to sedate a Clydesdale. It is rarely black and white and that is where the stigmas need to be shattered. People, not meaning to, throw around jokes about a ‘crackhead’ or a ‘drunk,’ while remaining blithely unaware that the ‘crackhead’ or the ‘drunk’ are someone’s husband, brother, aunt, grandparent…add your own title. More than 70,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2019. That is too many. Help is literally everywhere, whether it be at a rehab, outpatient services, 12-step groups or church. We all know someone suffering. Odds are, they are suffering in silence.”

“You will never see me shame someone for battling addictions,” Richard humbly shared. “Instead, you will see the grace of God in motion. I remain vigilant in my efforts to stay sober. Everything that has been gifted to me will fit in a shot glass and that is a fact! Bottle in hand, I will ruin everything in my wake if I ever backslide. So, when I say that my story is full of broken pieces, terrible choices and ugly truths, I mean it! It is also filled with major comebacks, peace in my soul and a grace that has saved my life.”

On February 19, 2021, little did Richard know, another test of his fortitude was about to begin. He thought he had kidney stones and went to Wadley Regional Medical Center. Turns out, he was right. He did have kidney stones, but he also had acute appendicitis, which required emergency surgery. He was admitted to the ICU and kept for five days. Two days following surgery to remove his appendix, his doctor came in and sat down in his ICU room. Richard instinctively felt the dread of bad news. His pathology from surgery had revealed a goblet-cell carcinoid tumor in his appendix.

“As he began to talk,” Richard said, “I looked away, and the room went black. I heard nothing past the point of ‘we’ve found cancer.’” The surgeon continued to talk for what must have been 30 minutes and finally left the room. Richard immediately picked up the phone and called his sister, Whitney, a nurse at Wadley. “Whitney could tell by my voice that I was disturbed. I ultimately broke down and told her.” Plagued by the thought of telling his partner, Terry, Richard could not bring himself to utter the words “I have cancer” to anyone else. Thankfully Whitney stepped up and did that for him.

After being released and sent home, Richard confessed, “I was so lost. I could think of nothing but cancer—nothing. He ended up having a total of five surgeries to remove the cancer and his large colon and a port placement in his chest. He underwent four months of daily chemotherapy, including both pill form and infusions. He finally finished chemotherapy July 11. He still will need routine scans for the next five years, but he is cancer free!

When reflecting on his struggles and what he has learned from them, Richard shared, “I have survived alcoholism, addictions, cancer and chemotherapy. If I died right now, I know exactly where I would spend eternity. Here is what I have to say! Bring it! I am a child of God! There is a lot to be said for people who come out on the other side of obstacles. People with substance abuse disorders are not weak, nor are they weak-minded. They are the most resilient individuals ever created! We get up daily and tackle what has been genetically designed to kill us. So, when I think of heroism, I do not have to look too far. I simply glance in the mirror and say, ‘I see you trying, and I think it’s downright beautiful. Now chin up, bro! Otherwise, the crown slips.’”

Richard’s chemotherapy regimen and medication to combat the side effects during his battle with cancer.

 

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