After landing in jail, she now leads a Celebrate Recovery ministry.
- Posted on Sep 25, 2019
The Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona, Iowa, has more than 1,700 slot machines. The machines are in an 85,000-plus-square-foot gambling hall that looks and sounds like something out of Vegas. The action is 24 hours a day. No matter when you go, you’ll find people hunched in front of screens, punching buttons with a hungry look in their eyes.
I used to be one of those people. The first time I went to Prairie Meadows, I was young and carefree, out for a good time with my husband and some friends. The last time I went, I was a forty-something gambling and methamphetamine addict, who sold drugs to support my addictions. I’d lost jobs and mortgaged my house and my father-in-law’s house to pay gambling and drug debts. I’d been arrested for dealing and had thoughts about killing myself. Now I was on probation and my driver’s license had been suspended.
Late one night, I was running low on meth. I drove to the edge of the city where one of my dealers lived.
I was on an unlit back road, driven by the same bottomless need I always felt. The need for more drugs, more money, more something to fill the emptiness.
Tonight I felt a new need. I wanted out of this dead-end life. To be clean. Free from those hypnotizing slots and the financial chaos they caused. Free from debt, addiction, crime and shame.
Out of nowhere, I spoke a prayer into the night sky. “God, I can’t go on like this. I need help.”
I was not a praying woman. Why should I be? My mom was an alcoholic when I was kid, then died of emphysema soon after she sobered up. My dad left our family when I was four. I reconnected with him as an adult, and we grew close. Then he died of cancer. I loved my husband, but drugs became a bigger priority for him than I was.
Everything and everyone I cared about got taken away. No reason for God to start listening to my prayers now.
Headlights appeared on the road ahead. Some instinct warned me it could be a cop. Sure enough, a sheriff’s patrol car came into view.
Now I was praying it would pass me by. Meth makes you paranoid. The half gram of meth in my car might as well have flashed a beacon out the window.
The sheriff’s car rolled past. Just play it cool, I told myself. Keep driving. I looked in the mirror. Brake lights came on. The sheriff slowed, turned around and began following me. He sped up. He’d be on my bumper any minute. How did I sink so low? When I was a kid, I swore I’d never drink or do drugs. I wanted to be like my mom—when she was sober. Mom was a hard worker who’d served in the Korean War. She had a small gold cross necklace, a catechism gift. She loved that necklace. I think she fell into drinking with my dad, who was in the Army National Guard.
She always had a job, and we were never destitute. But I used to find her passed out. And alcohol fueled bad choices, such as cheating on my dad. It’s my dad’s name on my birth certificate, but Mom later told me he might not have been my biological father. She didn’t tell me who the other man was, and I never asked.
Dad cheated too. When they divorced, Mom told him he wasn’t my father. He broke off contact with me, even though he kept in touch with my siblings. The pain of rejection was unbearable.
Despite my vow not to become an alcoholic, I partied a lot in high school, especially with friends I met on a stock car pit crew. I’m a gearhead, and pretty soon I was drawn to a crew member whose marriage was heading toward divorce. We began dating after the divorce went through.
My first gram of cocaine was a graduation gift from my boyfriend. We married and fell into a life of working hard and partying harder.
We went to Prairie Meadows soon after it opened in 1989. It was a horse racetrack then, but later the county—which owns the facility—got permission from the state to install slot machines.
I was intoxicated by those slots. The gambling hall sucked me in with lights and music and seemingly endless rows of blinking, pinging machines. People shrieked when they hit the jackpot. I lived for that moment. What if?
When does partying and playing the slots turn into addiction? One day I woke up and realized I cared about only two things: getting high and returning to the casino, so I could win back everything I’d lost the night before.
I graduated from coke to meth—cheaper and easier to get—but gambling was a beast all its own. Gambling makes you think you’re a spin away from solving all your problems. Early in my gambling days, I put in my last five dollars and out came 200 bucks. That memory alone cost me thousands of dollars in failed attempts to do it again.
Another time, my husband and I had a lucky run and netted $23,000, which we used to pay off massive credit card debt. Then we went back and lost that much and a whole lot more.
My work performance suffered, and eventually I quit. We mortgaged our house, then my father-in-law’s house. I cashed in my retirement and even gave up my beloved white Camaro Z28 to pay off a drug debt.
I needed money and drugs, so I started dealing. I cheated on my husband with a guy who sold meth for a network of dealers. I became a low-level dealer and promptly got arrested for selling to a state narcotics agent.
It was my first violation. I got off with just probation.
I went right back to dealing. What else could I do? For so many years, I’d felt rejected and battered by life. Drugs and gambling numbed my pain and kept me functioning. The slots especially gave me a momentary hit of euphoria and the illusion of control.
You can’t stay numb forever. Especially not when a sheriff’s deputy spots you driving late at night on an unlit back road.
I turned into a convenience store parking lot, hoping the sheriff would keep going. He turned into the parking lot too, then followed me when I left and turned on his flashing lights.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the car,” he said. He’d run my license plate and seen I was on probation with a suspended license. It didn’t take him long to find the meth I’d hidden under the gear shifter. I was arrested.
This was my answer to prayer?
My lawyer persuaded the judge to place me in an in-jail drug treatment program. I spent the first three days on suicide watch and the next two weeks detoxing, practically out of my mind. We were allowed to go to a Bible study. I would go anywhere to get out of my cell, so I went and began reading a Gideon Bible with a gold cover.
I hadn’t read the Bible much before. I can’t say I understood a lot at first. I just liked the way it made me feel. As if there was something large and good out there that cared about me.
After detoxing, I had to pass an evaluation to be admitted to the drug treatment program. I fell to my knees the night before the evaluation. Alone in my dark cell, I raised my hands to a God I barely knew and asked him to take control of my life. I had no idea what would happen. Anything would be better than where I’d come from.
The first thing I noticed when the evaluator walked in was his necklace. It had a small gold cross, exactly like my mom’s. He sat in front of a window. The sunlight made it hard to see his face. All I saw was the cross.
That was the moment I knew I would be okay. I knew God was real and had a plan for me that did not include getting high or gambling. I passed the evaluation, completed the treatment program and was released from jail five months later.
I wish I could say healing from addiction, especially gambling addiction, is as easy as completing a treatment program. I struggled for months after getting out of jail, especially since my husband refused treatment and continued using. Eventually we divorced.
My sister invited me to her Lutheran church, and I joined something called an Alpha course, designed to introduce people to Christianity. The more I learned about God, the more God I wanted. Without God, I was powerless over my addictions.
There were so many times I could have relapsed, especially after creditors started hounding me. At one point, I all but decided to give up and get high with my husband.
Something told me to go to church instead, where my Alpha group was holding a retreat. When I got there, a woman from the group ran out of the sanctuary, shouting, “Melissa! You’re here! We were just praying for you a few minutes ago. We knew you’ve been struggling, and we prayed you’d be safe and find your way back. Here you are!”
I’m still there. Today I work as a full-time minister at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, leading the Celebrate Recovery program. I tell my story—even in testimony to the Iowa state legislature years ago, when the state debated allowing slot machines in grocery stores—in hopes that others can avoid the addictions that nearly killed me.
I still struggle with thoughts of gambling. It’s everywhere these days, and I’m often tempted to buy a lottery ticket or slip a few dollars into a slot machine. What could it hurt? It’s legal!
I have to remind myself there’s only one sure bet in this life. God is always there, always true. Knowing that, I don’t have to gamble on anything.