“As dirty as you can imagine,” says Randy Byrge. “I was that dirty.”
Those are the words of someone who has been to the bottom and found his way back. They’re words that would be difficult for most to utter about themselves. And, yet, Byrge doesn’t shy away from his past of substance abuse. He wants to tell his story, in fact. He’s told it in schools, in churches. By telling it, he hopes to convince people that he’s no longer the person he once was. By telling it, he hopes he can help others who might be where he once was.
Where he once was, was a pit of despair. No longer trusted by those who mattered most in his life. His name had been dragged through the mud, printed on the pages of newspapers — including this one. He had literally lost everything.
If you spend much time around Randy Byrge, who these days is a Peer Recovery Specialist for the Scott County Recovery Court, you’ll hear him say those two words — “But God” — a lot. Those words are scripture. More than that, they’re the words that put his feet on the path to recovery. And they’re words that provide hope, he says, for countless Scott Countians who struggle with addiction.
A basement to the bottom
Your bottom has to have a basement. That’s what Randy Byrge believes. There has to be a point when you realize you’ve sank as far as you can sink. Then you can look up.
Byrge’s rock bottom was sleeping in his parents’ driveway. By that point, they couldn’t trust him enough to let him sleep inside. It’s something that sticks with him.
“My grandma died, and I had been there maybe five minutes before people started coming out and locking their doors because I was there,” he says. “That’s what I remember.”
It wasn’t always that way. Byrge came from a strong family. He recalls a point early in the rehab when someone tried to convince him that he had an addiction issue because he came from a broken family background.
“Most people say all this bad stuff they’ve seen their family go through,” he says, “but I don’t have those stories. I don’t ever remember my mom and dad not being at my ballgames or my school events. As far as a good upbringing, I couldn’t have asked for better. My dad is a third-generation ditch-digger because that’s what he likes doing. Everything he does, he does for his family. I call him the greatest man in the world.”
No, it wasn’t a broken family that caused things to go off the rails for Byrge. In fact, he started his high school days with a promising future. In 1995, he was named a starter on the Scott High football team as just a freshman. It’s an honor few freshmen receive.
“I thought that made me somebody,” he says. “To be honest, I was a jerk. I just thought I was better than everybody.”
Then he and his girlfriend had a fight, and the decline started, though he wouldn’t have realized it at the time.
It started harmlessly enough: smoking a little marijuana. Soon, though, it had spiraled out of control. It wasn’t like he smoked weed and immediately started craving heroin, he says, but “it got me started staying out late at night. The weed crowd got me with the pill crowd. That’s how it started.”
By the time he was a high school senior, Byrge was hopelessly addicted. He liked the highs, the escape that came from getting high. He still remembers how many pills it took him to become “an addict.” The first time, he says, “I threw up and I hated it. But I tried it again the next weekend.”
The third time was the charm. It was his turn to buy. The street price of an oxyaden pill was $120. A ridiculous price, he remembers thinking, but he forked over the money, anyway. And soon he was forking over money from anywhere he could get it to buy that next pain pill.
“Boy, it didn’t take no time,” he recalls.
That began the downward spiral of 12 years of addiction. It was a 12-year period that cost him everything.
“I grew up with Big Mur (Daniel Murley), Ronnie and Donnie Phillips,” he says. “I had good friends. But something happened. I wanted to change who I was, I think, and that’s what I did, apparently.”
By the time he found the basement to his bottom, Byrge had lost three jobs because of failed drug tests. He had started shooting up. No one trusted him.
“The people I thought were my friends were people I was running drugs with,” he says. “When I ran out of money, they didn’t care. Really, I didn’t have a friend in the world.”
But that wasn’t the tipping point. It’s the tipping point that still makes Byrge emotional to speak of.
“Did you ever look at your dad and see that he’s disappointed that you’re his kid?” he asks, choking back tears. “That’s where it got. I shamed him. He wouldn’t say it, but that’s where it got to.
“Dad always told me that if you look a man in the eye and lie to him, you’ll never get it back, and I lied to my dad a lot.”
In 2012, Randy Byrge was ready to seek help. He credits Teressa Braden. She was, he says, perhaps the last person in the world who believed in him. He had pushed away everyone else, everyone who tried to encourage him or help him. Even his parents didn’t believe him when he promised them he was going to rehab.
“Teressa had nothing to gain by helping me, but she did,” he says. “And to this day, she’s my best friend. People think we have to change the whole world, but if everybody would help one person, it would make a big difference.”
Braden steered Byrge to Corpus Christi, Tex., and to a faith-based rehab center called Roloff Homes.
Byrge didn’t take to rehab like a fish to water. He tried to escape; might would have if Corpus Christi had been closer to Huntsville. Eventually, though, he found his place. Maybe that’s because he discovered Ephesians 2:4.
He still remembers the date his life changed — remembers the very moment, in fact. It was a Sunday night. Nov. 11, 2012, at 7:17 p.m. It was at that moment that Christ entered his life.
Ephesians 2:4 was the scripture that changed things for Byrge. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grae ye are saved;)”
“I didn’t believe there was a God,” Byrge says. “I’d gone to White Rock my entire life. Every time my mom or dad could forcibly make me go, I went. I’d heard of God my whole life but honestly thought it was a fairy tale — something people told their kids to make them be good. That’s what I thought.”
That changed on that November night in 2012.
“Everybody else was ashamed of me,” he says. “They wanted rid of me. But what Ephesians 2:4 says is He loves us when nobody else does. That’s what changed it for me. He still cared about me.”
They used to have to drag Randy Byrge to church. Now they can’t drag him off the front row.
“I had tried seeing what I could do with my life and it didn’t work,” he says. “I was 31 and I had nothing. But God…”
By the time Byrge completed his nine-month program, he was named the assistant director of Roloff Homes. They cleaned out the luggage closet to open up an office for him, created a title. It had been a remarkable turnaround, and he had become a big asset to others who were trying to turn their own lives around.
“They even set me up an old computer,” he remembers. “There was no internet or anything. It was just to make it look official, I guess. But I got to sit there and love on the guys. The superintendent got to be the law, and I got to be the grace. I liked doing it.”
His nine months came and went, and still Byrge stayed on. Word had reached back home: Randy Byrge had found a new life at Roloff Homes. Scott Countians who were desperate to escape the grasp of substance abuse were making the trip to Corpus Christi.
“Every time someone from Scott County came down, it was like, I’ve got another nine months,” Byrge says. “I didn’t want to leave anybody down there by themselves, because I remember what it was like when I was down there by myself.”
Support is critical. Byrge realizes that now. One thing he had was the support of his family. At the midway point of his treatment, the family was supposed to come for a three-day visit. They rented a van, and everybody piled in to make the trip. They wound up staying for a week.
“That was my family’s very first family vacation,” he says.
Byrge keeps a list of people he owes a debt of gratitude to. He knows he can never repay all the harm, but that's in the past, and this is the future. He lists God first, followed by White Rock Baptist Church and Ron and Teressa Braden. Then his daughter, Adaleigh, and his family. He speaks highly of his father, James Byrge, but he's also quick to mention his mother, Mitzi.
"I call her Sunshine," he says of his mom. "She used to be my worst enemy. Now she's my biggest fan."
A helping place
When Randy Byrge came back home, he didn’t want to leave the house for a while. He had a place to stay, had regained the trust of his family.
But eventually he started stepping out. And when he did, he sought to share his story with others. There are 88 Baptist churches in Scott County, and Byrge has been to 20 of them. He’s also been to all the area middle schools and both high schools. He has a message. More than that, he wants to be an example.
“I want them to know, without me even having to talk to them, that something is different,” he says.
Then he wound up where he could perhaps do the most good — helping those who are in the place he was once at; those whose bottom have reached a basement.
Byrge took a course that trained him to the job he’s doing now. It isn’t altogether different from what he was doing when he was in Corpus Christi. He started working with the Recovery Court under a grant. When the grant ended, Scott County General Sessions Judge Jamie Cotton realized the impact Byrge was having and hired him permanently.
Byrge could probably make better money somewhere else, but he’s fulfilling a purpose.
“I like helping the place I hurt the most,” he says. “That’s really why I’m here.”
Sitting inside his office, along the railroad tracks across the highway from the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau, Byrge jerks his thumb towards the other side of the tracks, towards one of Oneida’s most renowned drug neighborhoods.
“I spent $30,000 right here behind this building,” he says. “Now everywhere I go, I run into people I bought from. And everywhere I go, I want to tell them my story. I don’t want people to try to sell me pills. I don’t want people to try to slide me dope. I want people to notice something about me real quick.”
Life is different for Byrge these days. He still hangs on to those arrest warrants and newspaper clippings, but those are reminders of an old life. These days, he’s reunited with his family. He has a 20-month-old daughter who is the light of his life. “I have more than I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.
It isn’t that there aren’t struggles. There are. He’s spent five years fighting to get his name back, and it’s a fight he still fights. When someone calls and asks him for help, he takes his dad along — “I gotta keep accountability,” he says. “I came from a place where nobody believes a word that comes out of my mouth.”
Still, it’s a happy ending that is far too uncommon in a community plagued by substance abuse. Byrge estimates that half of the people he was in rehab with eventually went back to abusing drugs again. But, he adds, “I know plenty who didn’t.”
And there are plenty more who could find the same happy ending — the same way back — that Byrge found. That’s why he does what he does.
“If we do anything right here in this office, what we do most is respect them,” he says. “Nobody else believes them, and rightfully so. But somebody’s got to.”
When he’s asked how the community can help others find their way back, Byrge pauses. He’s silent for a long time.
“Do you remember when they were doing the Stand in the Gap march?” he asks. “I was in Texas (in rehab) at the time. I kept all those newspaper clippings because it looked like everybody really cared.”
For a while, it seemed like everybody did care. But the movement ended. People drifted away. Byrge says the community has to care, because it’s a fight that belongs to the community.
“What difference does it make what church they go to?” he asks. “What difference does it make what school they go to? Nothing matters except we’re all in it together. Every school I go to, when I ask how many people have been affected by drugs, every kid raises their hand. One person cannot fix this alone.”
But an entire community of people? But God?