Almost exactly three years ago, Curtis Childers hid himself away in a Los Angeles hotel room to smoke crack cocaine. Addiction had taken control of the former Glen Rose valedictorian and popular student. Drugs steered him onto a paranoid path of destruction.
Childers was sure people were out to get him. He heard voices telling him that on the radio. He heard voices telling him that in his head. They urged him to run, run, run from the unseen demons chasing him.
When the maid opened the door to clean the room, Childers obeyed the voices. He dashed toward the window, hit his head and fell down, temporarily knocked out. The maid ran down the hall to get help. Meanwhile, Childers had regained consciousness. He was confused and frightened. One thought pulsated in his head: “I've got to get out of here!”
When help arrived, Childers ran to the window again. This time he jumped out. He was on the third floor. He landed on his head in the parking lot.
“I thought they were out to hurt to me,” Childers said. Smiling and still boyish-looking at age 37, Childers recently sat at the kitchen table in his parent’s spacious farmhouse in Nemo and recalled the accident that seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I don’t remember a thing about the fall,” he added. “What a blessing to forget.”?His family, however, remembers the event all too well. Childers’ mother, Linda Vineyard, recalled when she heard that her only son was near death.
“When I got that phone call, it was the worst thing that can ever happen to a mother,” she said. “It was very, very hard. They told me they had my son in the hospital and he might not make it.”
Linda, her husband, Charlie, who is Childers’ stepfather, sister Sarah and an uncle caught the next available flight to Los Angeles. When they arrived at the hospital at 2 a.m. Childers had just come out of surgery. Doctors had operated on his brain and had removed his spleen.
He was so bruised and swollen that he was unrecognizable to his family.
Late last month Childers and his family and friends gathered at the house to mark not only the the three-year anniversary of the fall that almost killed him, but also his comeback as a son, brother and friend.
“It's a celebration of life,” Linda said.
Last week also marked another anniversary. While in high school, Childers had served as president of the local, district, and state FFA organization and went on to become the national president. Last week the group held its state conference in Lubbock and Childers traveled there, too. Convention attendees watched a video about his ordeal and rebirth. It's been posted on You Tube under the title “2011 Texas FFA Convention (Vespers night) — Curtis Childers.”
Childers has been scrawling the number of days since his accident on his arm with a black marker. On the day of the celebration, he wrote: “3-0-0.”
A plate of cookies rested on the kitchen table as he and a visitor sipped iced tea at the farmhouse. Outside, ducks waddled and splashed in the sprinkler, chickens clucked, cows mooed, donkeys brayed. It felt like a world away from the hotel rooms and crack pipes and attempted interventions and rehab clinics that couldn’t help Childers even though he longed to kick the addiction. That finally took two events to get him clean and on a forward path.
First, it took a leap of terror. Then it took a leap of faith.
The golden child
Childers and his mother led the way up the stairs to Curtis' room. It is the repository of his past accomplishments and his future hopes.
Framed photos cover the walls. In one, Childers smiles in his red graduation cap and gown from Glen Rose High. In another one he's all dressed up in a tux at the senior prom. His Tigers band letter jacket hangs in the closet.
Childers seemed to have all the advantages. He grew up in a loving home, he was good looking, well liked, smart and was a good speaker. After graduation, he attended Texas A&M University and was elected president of the student body. He was the guy everyone considered the most likely to succeed and the last kid that anyone would ever expect one day would be a drug addict.
His friend Travis Rudolph, who went to A&M with Childers and roomed with him in Los Angeles, called him “one of the most gifted and charismatic people I know. He seemed to have the world at his fingertips.”
What Childers also had in his grasp was access to alcohol and marijuana.
“In high school, he did enjoy the drinking thing,” Linda said. “He was underage and we did have issues about him going to parties and drinking. And that was late high school, like senior year. It wasn't a consistent bad habit, but he was underage.”
While at Texas A&M Childers tried pot and drank at parties.
“I knew that Curtis had tried it once, but, as you do as a parent and child, you have the sit-down talk,” Linda said.
Childers listened, but he did not hear.
“You think, 'I can do anything,'” he recalled.
It was not until he moved to California that Childers got into hard drugs. He landed a job with a software company and by the time he was in his thirties, he was making a six-figure income. He had a beautiful girlfriend, Elaine, and lots of friends. But at night he immersed himself in the L.A. party life.
“It was already a bad behavioral addiction —not a chemical or physical addiction, but a bad habit — for a long time,” Childers recalled. “But when it really turned the corner for me was the first time you tried crack cocaine. The first night.”
Friends said they tried to get Childers to quit.
“When Curtis began hiding his drug use from me, I knew his addiction was serious,” said friend Tim Slaughter on the Watermark blog.
“We tried everything to reach out to Curtis, but nothing we did or said helped,” Rudolph added. “We prayed consistently that God would get Curtis' attention before he killed himself or someone else.”
Childers would smoke crack on weekends and then call in sick at work on Monday. It happened so many times that his company gave him a month-long leave of absence. He came back to Texas and went into a rehab center in Irving. ?“It cleaned me up for a while,” Childers said.
“He tried…it's a very hard drug to get off of,” Linda added. “And he wanted to so terribly bad.”
“Logic tells you, well, if you want to, then do it.,” Childers agreed. “But it changes your mind and you say well, everything is so bad.
“It controls you,” he concluded. “You're no longer in control.”
Paranoia haunted Childers. He would get in his car and drive fast to escape the feeling that someone was trying to hurt him.
“This was the scary part for me,” Linda said. “He'd call me and say he was getting away from somebody, but that somebody wasn't there.”
In the FFA video, Childers' sister Sarah Beneze said she knew her brother was in a lot of psychic pain.
“I knew it was his way of escaping that and that was devastating for me, too, as a sister, to see the pain he was in because I knew he didn’t want to be doing that,” she said.
At his apartment, Childers would think he’d hear someone trying to get in and he’d jump out the window and slide down the gutter.
Childers came home to Texas and stayed for a while, then someone called him about starting a rehab center. He had been clean for three months and the project looked promising. Childers wanted to help other people. He went back to Los Angeles.
When the partnership collapsed, Childers relapsed. The family planned an intervention, but that did not work out.
On the 24th day in June 2008 when Childers secluded himself in a hotel room to smoke and escape life, running and jumping had become reflexive moves. When he fell out of the hotel room window, it was if he jumped into a wormhole between life and death, between self-destruction and redemption.
Somehow, he survived.
“It was a horrendous experience to walk in and see my son all swollen and black and blue,” Linda said. “All I knew was that I was not going to give up hope.”
A comeback to life
As Childers' family mounted their vigil after the accident, doctors advised them to take him off life support. Linda refused.
“It had only been two days,” she said. She was not ready to give up.
Sarah said that Childers did not know from day to day why he was in the hospital.
“He was very scared,” she said.
The accident shattered the optic nerve in Childers’ left eye. His jaw was fractured but, miraculously, no other bones were broken. He spent weeks in a coma, then months in rehabilitation facilities. He had to learn to walk and talk again.
He also had lost his memory. When he awoke from the coma, he had no idea who his friends and family were, not even Elaine, who supported him through the ordeal.
He recalled that when he woke up, doctors pointed out the women in his room.
“Curtis, do you know who those five women standing right here are?” one doctor asked.
“Well, I know that one sister of mine…that’s Renee,” he recalled. “But I don’t know the others.”
The other four women were his mother, Elaine and his sisters Tammy and Sarah. He had to relearn who they were, his family history and the keys to his own identity.
“I had to relearn life,” Childers said.
His friends rushed to help him. The family received a multitude of phone calls from well-wishers. They started a blog to update everyone on Childers' progress.
“Curtis Speaks!” read one. “He’s Walking!” read another post. Or, “He Rode a Bicycle!”
The most difficult part of the recovery was “having connections with people and I had no idea why,” Childers said recently.
His girlfriend was “amazing,” Childers said. “She was so supportive. It was very difficult for her. She even let Mom live in her house for two months.”
For now, after such an intense experience, the couple is “taking a break,” Childers said. He added he hopes they can remain close.
As Childers' body healed, he also healed his soul. He considered himself a Christian before the accident. But in 2009, as he and Rudolph were driving on Interstate 35 and talking about challenges in life, he said he discovered the meaning of faith.
“I was being very open with him about the all the struggles I'd had,” Childers recalled. “Travis, I can't believe this is my life,” Childers told his friend. “Travis, why did I not die?”
Rudolph pulled over the car.
“Curtis, I've been praying about that for a long time,” Rudolph told his friend. “I've been praying about this so I could talk to you about your drug issue and so I could talk to you about God. God is why we're together.”
Childers started crying.
“Are you sure, Travis?” he asked. Then the friends prayed together. Childers said that's the day he was saved by Jesus Christ.
Living back in Nemo with his family and near childhood friends such as Rudolph, who lives in the Fort Worth area, have given Childers a new grounding. During the week he works as an office manager at Glen Lake Camp. He doesn't get paid, “but I get so much from it,” Childers said.
His career on weekends, though, is speaking to churches, youth groups and civic organizations. Last weekend, for example, he spoke in Liberty Hill near Austin. Last year he spoke to an assembly of students at Glen Rose High School.
“I try to tell them not to go down that road,” he said. “Talking about God feels very real to me now and the hardness to it is going to keep getting softer and softer."
Childers also wants to become a substance abuse counselor. He recently applied and qualified for a grant from the state Drug Assistance and Rehabilitative Services. That will allow him to go back to school and get a counseling certificate. That requires two years of schooling and a one-year internship.
Right now, the most rewarding thing for Childers is to learn that people who heard him speak have stopped using drugs.
“It really makes me feel like it's worth it,” Childers said. “If they're young, the good thing is that they can stop. Their bodies are such that they can stop. The good thing is I can motivate them to stop. When you get older, your body does not work that way.”
He's also going to the gym. And he's running again — this time not from anything, but because he enjoys it. He plays his guitar. Life is full again.
“What I do for work or how much money I make doesn't matter as a much as interaction with people,” Childers said. “Also, I really do want to help people, to keep other people from going down this road or help them get off the road before something tragic happens. It's like a story on TV. But this really happened to me.
“So if I'm sitting down talking to them, I hope they'll be open with their own issues,” he added. “Because I've been there. Needless to say, my life is so much better."