Thanks to tabloid and reality TV, we know that people are sometimes prone to self-destruction. Watching it can be morbidly entertaining, but more intriguing than the train wreck is the rare story of one who manages to pull himself out of his pitiful existence — the drug abusing, jailbird celebrity who finds lasting sobriety and subsequent success or “Biggest Losers” who shed hundreds of life-threatening pounds. These are the stories that move us, and you don’t need to turn on the TV to see them. These true tales of redemption are being lived, and touching lives, right here in our neighborhood.
Read and watch their stories below.
Bobby Wheeler spends each workday counseling adult probationers who are court mandated to drug treatment.
The neighborhood resident counsels a roster of 120 female clients, almost all of whom don’t want to be there.
It’s mostly a thankless job.
But Wheeler, 42, does it with enthusiasm because he knows that drug addiction is a prison.
Wheeler says he grew up with a sweet mom and a friendly dad who was a functioning alcoholic. As a kid, he would fetch his dad beers from the fridge, always taking a sip or two on the way.
In 1988, he started experimenting with drugs.
“I always felt like an outcast,” he says.
Sometime in the early ’90s, he tried crack.
“It was off to the races then,” he says.
Soon, he had a $1,000 a day habit. Even though he held down a job, he had to support his habit by stealing and, eventually, prostitution.
Always a “mama’s boy”, he remembers stealing the grocery money out of his mom’s purse at night, then going to the grocery store with her the next day, “knowing she didn’t have any money because I stole it.”
He was in and out of Lew Sterrett for prostitution, drug possession and other complaints. And he was in denial about his problem, never admitting he used crack.
“I would always say I did weed or I drank,” he says. “I would never say I was a crack head.”
All those charges finally caught up with him. And the day he went to court for a crack possession charge on Aug. 6, 1994, he knew he was going away. Before that, though, he had started praying for God to help him.
And he kept praying during a one-year stay in county jail.
“I was a praying dope fiend,” he says. “I prayed ‘God, take this away from me.’ ”
After that, he went to “Safe-P”, a prison that focuses on intensive drug rehab, in San Diego, Texas. A friend of his, Randall Pearson, was transferred from Lew Sterrett to Safe-P at the same time as Wheeler.
Pearson was an illiterate heroin addict whose health was so bad that he had a massive heart attack. Wheeler was there to watch him die.
A few days later, Wheeler says, Pearson “came to me in a dream”.
In the dream, he asked, “Would you live for me?”
That changed everything for Wheeler.
When he got out of prison, “I came home running because I knew how much a white substance could hold you for years.”
He found comfort in the Winner’s Circle Peer Support Network, a meeting space and clubhouse of sorts for recovering substance abusers. It was a place he could go and talk about his feelings, fears and experiences and not be judged.
Now he’s executive director of Winner’s Circle Dallas chapter. He’s in his 17th year of sobriety. He even quit smoking 10 years ago.
He’s a licensed counselor with Texas Department of Criminal Justice clearance, and he visits prisons throughout the state, speaking to drug addicts. He’s working toward clearance for federal prisons. He takes night classes at El Centro College; next, he intends to earn a bachelor’s degree.
He attends AA meetings regularly, and he makes no predictions about his future sobriety, but he still has no desire to go down that road again. He still feels like an outcast, he says, “but come to find out, that’s not such a bad thing.”
Through his job, he has counseled more than 3,000 women. Sometimes, they curse and yell at him. But eventually, most graduate from court-mandated rehab.
“It’s rewarding to call their names at graduation, and their faces light up,” he says. “And they say, ‘Thank you for working on me’. Helping other people is what helps me.”
There is an old brick two-story building in a residential White Rock neighborhood where women go to heal. It’s called the Magdalen House, and those who end up there are alcoholics who have, in most cases, lost their families, jobs, homes and dignity.
By the time they meet Michele Derrington, who runs the place, they are often dirty, sick and broken, yet she welcomes each new arrival with marked compassion. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that she was in the same dismal spot.
At 43 years old, Derrington has a commanding yet gentle presence — residents and workers at the Magdalene House listen to her intently when she speaks. It comes as some surprise, then, when the well-spoken, smartly dressed director shares that she has spent more than a few days in jails, treatment centers and psyche wards.
She says she grew up in the White Rock area in a sporadically violent home where she remembers having her first alcoholic drink at age 5.
Throughout her youth, drinking and dabbling in drugs was normal. When she was in her late 20s, Derrington tried cocaine. From that point on, she says, she just couldn’t get her head straight.
“Once I [tried cocaine], it was all I ever thought about.”
Until then, she had been working toward a promotion at her job, but since she was hooked on drugs, she could no longer function.
“I left the job, spent all my savings, and things got really bad,” she says.
The addiction landed her in perilous places, including the scene of a murder.
“I witnessed someone getting shot over $20 worth of drugs,” she says. She was subpoenaed to testify against the gunman and showed up in court wrecked after a night of cocaine use.
“Fortunately, I was never called to testify,” she says.
Seems like that would be rock bottom, she says, “but I had many bottoms … I would tell myself, ‘I am never doing this again,’ but by the next night, I was doing it again. I couldn’t hold any type of job — call centers, restaurants, the simplest of tasks — I just couldn’t work.”
In 1999, she entered rehab for the first time, but there was “still a lot of denial going on,” she says.
The rehabilitation center population included burglars and homeless people, she says.
“I was not like them. I wasn’t willing to do what [the counselors] told me to do. I just didn’t get it.”
She soon relapsed, and things became worse, she says.
“I resorted to desperate acts. I did whatever I had to do to feed the disease — looking back, I should be dead today.”
Derrington experienced periods of sobriety; she even landed a job with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for some time, but she couldn’t hang on. She says she just wanted to be normal — have a drink now and then. She didn’t understand why she had to be different.
Finally, family members intervened.
“My mom told me we were going to the Arboretum. I knew something was up.”
They were actually staging an intervention, after which they drove Derrington to the 24-Hour Club on Ross.
“I cussed at them the whole way, and when they dropped me off, I looked at the director and said, ‘I hate this place.’”
The 24-Hour Club, which provides transitional living for alcoholics and drug addicts, is located inside a dusty, well-worn hotel.
“It is the last house on the block,” Derrington says. “I was pretty disturbed to be there.”
Again, she looked around at her bedraggled new dorm mates. Only this time, rather than saying to herself, “I’m not like them,” she said, “I am like them; this is me.”
Once you make it to this point, you basically have to choose to change or die, Derrington says.
So she changed.
For awhile, she worked in the kitchen at the 24-Hour Club.
“I sat there thinking about how my mom used to say, ‘Get an education so you don’t wind up flippin’ burgers,’ and there I was, in my late 30s, flipping burgers at the 24-Hour Club.”
But it was better than the alternative; she was sober.
Today she loves the dusty old 24-Hour Club, where she says she realized that the key to staying sober was helping others.
In 2007, she took a job at Magdalene House, where she is now executive director. When women come in with feeling like trash, she says she helps them understand that they are worth saving. That they aren’t bad, but sick. And she is living proof, for them, that recovery is possible.
She says her job gives her the opportunity to stay connected to the recovery community and the 12-step recovery program on which the Magdalene program is based.
“I’m not actually doing service work here, because I get paid, but it gives me the unique opportunity to be among women who have been where I have been.”
Work with alcoholics isn’t always happy — a day earlier, Derrington received a call about a former Magdalene House resident who relapsed and died.
It’s a reminder of the seriousness of alcoholism and addiction, she says.
“You can’t take this lightly. If I don’t stay connected, that could be me. With this disease, you are either working at living or dying. I still have to work every day to maintain my serenity and sobriety.”
Dale Rettman has keys. Keys to every door in the Jubilee Park Community Center, keys to his church, keys to his apartment and keys to his truck.
He pulls them from his belt, holds them up like a bell and makes them jingle. The key that most astonishes him, he says, is the one to the police substation a block away from Jubilee Park, where Rettman is facility asset and security manager.
“They hired me to empty trash cans a year and a half ago,” he says. “It was my second job out of prison.”
It was in prison where Rettman learned what he says are the keys to a successful life: consistency, dependability and being Christ-like.
Rettman was a lifelong criminal, addicted to methamphetamines for 17 years, and he manufactured meth for about six years.
He held down a job making $75,000 a year at a collision repair shop, but he spent all of his money on drugs. Once his two daughters grew up and left the house about 10 years ago, he says he went wild, dealing drugs and doing them nonstop.
Finally, he decided it was time for a change.
“I was tired of it,” he says of the drug-addict life. “I was tired of the lifestyle, the people, everything.”
Rettman had a rap sheet “this long” for unpaid tickets, possession of drug paraphernalia, trespassing and lots of relatively minor offenses.
He was on probation for drug possession when he finally was charged and sentenced to 18 months.
“I prayed that I would be in there long enough to get better,” he says.
He decided to turn his life around and learn the Bible even before he was sent to Hutchins Unit, south of Dallas.
His wife left him, his adoptive parents were dead, he lost contact with his children. He had no one. And he says he had no contact with the outside world during his sentence.
But he was placed in faith-based dorms at Hutchins, one of the first residents in a new rehabilitation program.
In prison, he says he learned to become a leader and to watch his language, which was peppered with curse words. And he learned those three keys.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says of prison. “It took that controlled environment to help me. You have nothing but time to work on anything you need to work on.”
The day of his release, he had nothing but the clothes and shoes he was wearing — not even a toothbrush. But he was placed in transitional housing, a group home exclusively for the men from the faith-based dorm, in South Dallas.
When he arrived, members of an East Dallas church were there to help, at least to give him a toothbrush and toiletries. And this group, from Skillman Church of Christ, would become his new family.
“I hadn’t been to church in 35 years,” Rettman says. “But there was a huge amount of love there.”
His comeback was a struggle. He earned less than the minimum wage in a collections call center. It took him more than an hour to get there on the bus, but he was always the first one there in the morning, and soon, he had the keys to the building.
Slowly, he saved money and bought a truck.
A church member recommended him for the job at Jubilee Park, whose staff was willing to try out one more ex-convict after several had been fired.
His job was to pick up trash, but Rettman took a sense of ownership of Jubilee Park, which has a park, community center, teen center and offices.
He created a community garden and started teaching neighborhood kids about nutrition and how things grow.
His part-time gig turned into a full-time job, and he rented an apartment near Mockingbird and Central.
Now he’s in charge of the $6 million community center and all of Jubilee Park’s assets.
He has all those keys, a $48,000 salary and a debit card he uses to buy things the center needs.
“They trust me with that,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
Rettman hopes he is an example for employers, showing that ex offenders can be great employees. About 75 percent of prisoners return to jail, but Rettman has made it.
He’s reconnected with his daughters. And the greatest joy of all: he has six grandchildren.
“I’m not here to get anything,” he says. “I’m here to give something.”
An eating disorder can be like a person. Like a deceitful, controlling, jealous, very bad best friend whose secret plan is suicide.
At least, that’s the way Abbie Chesney talks about her disease. Chesney, 34, grew up in Lake Highlands and lives in Lakewood. Now she is a counselor specializing in eating disorders.
“I strongly believe the connection I have with my clients maintains because I have spent a lot of time in their shoes,” she says.
She knows what it’s like to be afraid of pain and failure. And she knows what it’s like to be afraid of eating.
Her struggle started as a middle school misfit, where she learned at the lunch table that eating less and being thin was “better”, so she challenged herself to eat less than her lunch mates.
She always judged thin, boyish figures to be “better”.
In high school, she says she dated “the bad boy” just to fit in somewhere, lost her virginity and then was dumped.
She says she was devastated, full of guilt and self-loathing. So she tried drinking to numb the pain, but that didn’t catch on.
Soon, she found that if she didn’t eat, she thought about how hungry she was instead of how she felt about herself.
And by not eating, she earned compliments for being enviably skinny.
“I was also doing what I learned at the lunch table every girl should want to do,” she says. “Every girl should want to lose weight. Smaller had to be better.”
Sometimes, she would eat enough so that people weren’t suspicious.
“Snuffer’s cheese fries were safe as long as it was a few bites,” she says.
That was at first, but the “rules” of her eating disorder kept changing.
By the time she was really sick — her senior year of high school — she sometimes ate a bowl of rice with parmesan cheese for the day.
“I’d even go through the drive-through of Taco Bell to create some evidence to show my parents I had already eaten,” she says.
She was so thin, she had to wear two pairs of pants to keep warm.
At 5-foot-3, her weight dropped to 76 pounds within a year. By the time she started getting help for anorexia, her body was deteriorating so rapidly that all four of her heart valves were leaking.
“I was headed for a very slow suicide,” she says.
After that, her parents did not allow her to drive, go to school, ride horses or do any other activities. She was either with them or she was in a treatment center.
She gained weight and was able to attend SMU (instead of Texas A&M as planned). She struggled with eating throughout college.
“What I didn’t know through my initial treatment, but soon discovered, was that what I wanted was to disappear,” she says. “For me, to be seen meant getting hurt. I never wanted to be hurt again.”
She realized she was afraid of men and of being attractive to them.
She lost much of her identity in the disease. It cut her off from friends and family and most of the joy in life.
But slowly, she started to realize that some men are OK, and one of them fell in love with her.
“I stumbled into a relationship with someone who I wanted to be with more than I wanted to be with the eating disorder,” she says. “You can’t have both. It’s impossible to be in an intimate relationship with an eating disorder and a boyfriend.”
So she spent much of this romantic relationship just observing — how to eat normally, how to interact with friends, how to enjoy sitting on the couch watching television on a Saturday afternoon.
“I had gotten tired enough and seen through most of its lies by then,” she says of anorexia. “All the hurt it claimed to keep me from really just kept me from life.”
Her whole self needed restoration. Like a jigsaw puzzle, she took pieces she liked for the picture of herself, and she left behind the ones she didn’t. She got back in the saddle, literally, and returned to things she liked before the eating disorder. That’s when she decided to get a master’s degree in counseling.
Eating disorders are tricky, she says. You can’t take your eyes off for too long, or “it’s gonna get ya”.
“So, I decided to make it my life’s work,” she says.
She knows what it’s like to lose herself in an eating disorder. But now she is restored, and that gives her clients hope. They can believe in her before they can believe in themselves.
“They can see I’m not any different from who they are. I’ve just worked at it longer.”
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