Chris Herren told a heart-wrenching and compelling story when he spoke Thursday to nearly 2,000 students at Champaign Central High School.
There’s an equally heart-wrenching and compelling story he didn’t address. It’s how the lives of friends and family of drug users are affected, the agony and devastation they endure and the guilt they live with for years.
My best friend was like me, except he was a Cardinals’ fan. We came from good, caring families. We became friends from the time our mothers shared the duties of taking us home after our half-day kindergarten classes had ended. We co-wrote stories for our hometown weekly newspaper while in junior high school.
His name is not important. His story is.
We grew up in he country, a few miles apart. Sometimes we were on the same bus route.
Two days after high school graduation, I had in my possession $175 cash, thoughtful gifts from adoring aunts, uncles and other relatives. It was the most money I’d ever had, at that time. My friend came by to visit. He was going on a trip, he said, and was $200 short.
I gave him all the money I had, even some loose coins, He promised to pay me back.
When he died a couple months after his 40th birthday, I hadn’t been reimbursed, but that’s not the point.
Before my first wedding, when my friend was to be the best man, he said he’d be delighted. He also said words, I’ve never forgotten.
“Fred, you’d better stay with me the night before the wedding. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to the church and it would ruin your day.”
That night, the one before my first marriage, he told me about his years of drug use. I never suspected he had such an extensive problem. The trip he took with my high school cash was to see a drug dealer.
I listened. I didn’t know how to help him.
Counselors? I was in my 20s. I thought they cost money, and I didn’t personally know any at the time. I knew he needed help, but I didn’t know what to do.
A few years later, I visited him in state prison at Menard, where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, while under the influence of drugs. He needed the money to purchase more drugs.
He promised he’d change. I still didn’t know what to do to help him. I listened.
He was released from prison about 5 years later and wanted to make good on his second chance. No one would hire him. He was a convicted felon.
Finally, he got a job at a small Christian book store. It was near Christmas-time. He did well and, I truly believe, was staying clean.
One day, a customer who knew his family recognized him. She asked the manager why a convicted felon was working there. He was fired.
Again, I didn’t know how to help my friend.
When he died from a heart attack, I cried; not as much for the loss but because of the overwhelming guilt. I had not helped my friend.
How could I cover a ball game, return to the office 15 minutes before deadline and write a coherent story, but not give my friend of more than 35 years the help he desperately needed? I still haven’t figured that one out.
This is the story that Chris Herren couldn’t tell, but I can. Chris Herren has to live with his past, and I must live with mine. Every day.