Having once lived in a tent near the Ocmulgee River, Don Lance knows a good bit about lows.
When you have nothing, its hard to hit rock bottom, he said.
After nearly three decades of taking methamphetamine, or any other drug he could find, Lance also knows a good bit about highs.
He doesnt hide that fact. Im a junkie, he said. Im an intravenous-needle-using, methamphetamine junkie.
His life has always been one of extremes.
Just more than a month ago, Lance, 43, purchased one of the 6,500 raffle tickets sold for the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway. After waking up one morning, he said God told him to buy that ticket. He told his wife, Hope, to go buy it, but the $100 price was more than she was willing to spend.
Hope Lance said she blew off her husbands order to buy the ticket until he became more insistent.
True to form in his life of extremes, Lance won that 3,250-square-foot house in Warner Robins valued at $350,000.
While buying that ticket changed his life, an even bigger transformation began two years prior, he said, when he finally decided to give up drugs and follow Christ.
Through all the highs and lows, he said that decision was the best choice hes ever made.
Off to a good start
Before things went horribly wrong in his life, Lances childhood growing up in Macon was quite normal.
He was born and raised here. He attended the former Cochran Field Christian Academy, where his mother was a teacher. He met his future wife at the school when they were in kindergarten. He played Bloomfield Little League baseball. I cant say anything bad about it, Lance said of his childhood.
His upbringing at the Christian school instilled in him a strong belief in God and morals, even though he didnt always heed.
He went to high school at Windsor Academy and then transferred to Mary Persons High School, where he played football.
His father was a Macon-Bibb County firefighter before taking a job on the railroad. Lances brother followed his father and an uncle and also went to work for the railroad. Lance wasnt interested in that job.
I didnt ever do any railroading, he said. I did my own railroading. Mine was on the midnight train, he said with his wide smile revealing only three top teeth. The other teeth were causalities of nearly three decades of using meth.
I got a smile that kills, he said.
Lance dropped out of school his junior year. His parents were going through a divorce.
His life began to spiral out of control, even though for him his life was one big party.
It would take some time, but reality would crash that party.
The Deadhead life
Lance loved music. He loved it so much he and a friend started traveling around to nearby states whenever possible to see concerts.
Id go to Metallica, Poison, Bon Jovi, it didnt matter, he said. Music, the energy, the words made me feel better. It was like magic.
Lance then went to a concert that exposed him to a whole new world -- the Grateful Dead.
The jam band had a following of tens of thousands of people called Deadheads, who formed their own community and followed the group around the country.
There were 50,000 Deadheads out there, Lance recalled. When I first came around the corner, the scents hit you. The oils, the incense, patchouli. I was like, Whats that smell? And someone said, Thats the Dead scent. Theyre here.
Lance took to the Deadheads like a fish to water.
He dropped three hits of LSD at that show and a life of rampant drug use began.
Im very extreme with everything I do. Im not going to stop with just three hits. ... That whole experience continued to change my life.
He walked around that night tripping on acid around the Deadheads and turned to his friend and said, Can you believe these people live like this all the time? This is awesome to me. They go from town to town, show to show. Theyre almost like a family.
One of the Deadheads overheard his comment and replied, We are a family, and he handed Lance a beer.
The man then asked Lance if he wanted to come with them.
Lance responded, Where are you going?
Were going to Washington, North Carolina, Chesapeake Bay, Colorado ... he continued, rattling off all of the places where the Grateful Dead were scheduled to play.
Lance didnt think he could afford to live that life, but his new family told him it didnt take money. Theirs was a community where everybody pitched in to help each other. To earn their keep, some sold tie-dyed shirts, some sold drugs, some even did tie-dye readings, similar to tarot card readings.
Everybody in the parking lot comes up with their own little hustle, Lance said. His hustle was selling beverages. Id spend $30-$40 on Cokes, cans of cheap colas, something cold to drink, ice. ... When they come out of the show, theyve been dancing three-four hours out in the sun all day. ... Theyre totally exhausted. Theyre dehydrated. First thing they want is cold drinks and they dont care what it is.
As exhausted concert-goers flowed out of the arena, theyd buy drinks from Lance for $1, $1.50, and sometimes $2 a pop. Hed stuff his pockets with the money as fast as theyd give it to him. All you got to do is make it to the next day, the next show, he said. He always did.
Lance also sold LSD to earn his way.
Of course, he didnt only sell it. He took it. A lot of it.
I loved the hallucinogenics, I loved the speed. I liked the trip. I enjoyed the high of it. Ive done it for a long time.
Once youve explored everything thats good in your mind ... then theres another side to explore. And if everything thats good has been explored, then obviously youre going over to the dark side, he said.
Lance also turned a lot of people on to drugs.
You almost look at them like trophies, almost like a vampire type thing, he said of his converts. Id look around and say, I brought that one in here, I got him started, I got her started. ... If you used to hang out with me and I had a habit, youre gonna have a habit. ... I promise you that.
Reality buzz kill
Even with his addiction, Lance held a steady job as a stage hand with various production crews setting up stages for concerts. He and his wife, at the time his girlfriend, moved to the Atlanta area. He had a three-bedroom home, a garage and a couple of roommates who paid the lions share of his rent. He was still using meth and intravenous drugs heavily as he traveled around the country setting up stages, sound and lighting for acts like Aerosmith, Backstreet Boys, Destinys Child, Grateful Dead and James Brown.
He felt like he was living the life of a rock star, but thats what drugs led him to believe. You make yourself think you got more than you really have, he said.
Lance often did work for Buddy Lovell, owner of Audio Visual Services in Macon.
Lovell said Lance was a great worker, but the drugs made him not very dependable. Hed be clean on and off, Lovell said. I told him every time, you have an opportunity here if you can get away from the drug activity.
Lance couldnt give it up.
Everywhere he went, he carried his little bag, because my dope was in my bag, said Lance. Even at job sites, his trusty bag was always on his person.
One day while preparing a stage in Nashville, Tenn., Lance was 120 feet in the air putting up lights when his bag fell, crashing on the stage below. His needles and dope were strewn about the stage.
He lost that job.
Rock bottom to recovery
He continued to get work with other production companies, but the jobs slowed down.
Lance got his biggest dose of reality when he returned from a show and his girlfriend told him she was pregnant.
He knew his life would never be the same.
I flipped completely out, he said. He decided at that moment that he and Hope were moving back to Macon, a decision hed come to regret. His half-baked plan consisted of packing up all of his belongings in a truck, parking in his brothers carport and then finding work and a place to live.
His drug use continued. Work dried up and he never found a place to live. He and Hope had two more children and she eventually left him.
Motels along Riverside Drive became home for Lance. He even squatted in some vacant houses.
Rock bottom came about four years ago when he and a buddy got themselves a tent and moved to a spot near the Ocmulgee River close to Dames Ferry.
Its not fun living in a tent when its raining ... when youre stuck with the same person and youre coming down and cant get high and you cant really leave because youre stuck.
His mother asked him during that time, What are you going to do?
He responded, I just wanna die, momma.
She said, What about your kids?
Im not doing the kids any good, he said. Theyre going to grow up loving me for a little while and then hating me for the rest of their lives because of who I am and what they had to go through because of me.
After about five months of tent living, Lance grew tired of living.
I walked across the interstate and walked over to the Coliseum (Hospital) and told them, Im done with it.
A hospital employee asked Lance what he was done with. Everything, he responded.
A nurse asked him if he was going to kill himself and he told her, I just walked across the interstate and nobody would hit me.
The hospital committed him for the night and he was sent to a detox center in Dublin the next day.
From there, he ended up at the Next Step Program in downtown Macon, a Christian-based group home for male recovering addicts.
Hes been clean ever since -- about two years.
His girlfriend came back. They married a year and a half ago and had their fourth child.
When I first met Don, he was coming straight out of detox and he was in a pretty rough way, recalled Chris Carmichael, who runs the Next Step Program. He had made up in his mind he wanted to get straight. He voiced to us that he needed help for his addiction and he needed long-term treatment. He stayed with us over a year and started getting his job in order, his family in order.
Hes a very bright man, Carmichael added. He was raised very well with a mother and father who stuck by him through all of this.
Carmichael even made Lance a leader at the program.
That same influence he used before to turn people on to drugs is now being used to keep them clean.
We just offer a Bible study and a church to get to know the Lord, Carmichael said about the Next Step Program. In the addiction process, youll try anything anyway, so why not try God?
When the time came for Lance to move out of the Next Step house, he didnt go far. He moved into an apartment next door. I didnt want to move away from the program, he said. At the time, I was scared to leave. Here, I still have these guys, he said standing in front of the Next Step house, a few yards from his apartment.
The big prize
Lovell kept his word with Lance. Since he cleaned up his act, Lance has been one of his most reliable workers.
To see him where he is now and where he was has been positive. ... Don gives 150 percent (on the job), Lovell said.
He even gave Lance a supervisory role.
Lovell describes his relationship with Lance as a brotherly bond. It makes you feel proud to see anyone you know come that far, said Lovell.
It was Lovell who was watching television on April 28 when the drawing was taking place for the St. Jude Dream Home. He heard Lances name. When he couldnt reach Lance, he called his wife.
The couple was in their car driving when Lovell told them he thought Don won.
Lance looked at his phone and saw he missed a call from a number he didnt recognize. He called it and the person on the other end told him he won a house. They pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for 30 minutes, Hope Lance said.
A Telegraph story about Lances big prize was picked up by national media outlets. It turned out a lot of people around the country were interested in the story about the man who once lived in a tent winning a house valued at $350,000. There were a lot of negative comments (posted online), Lance said. People saying, He cant afford it. It bothered me at first.
Hes not moving into the house.
I kinda figured that day I wasnt going to move into it, Lance said. Its more than what I need and more far away than where Id like to be. ... I have to stay within my limits.
Lance needs to pay a $109,200 withholding tax to take ownership of the property title. Thats not including federal and state taxes.
Lovell is helping him take care of that obligation so Lance can sell the house.
Ill take the money and buy something thats more reasonable, pay (Lovell) back, and hopefully have something in the bank, Lance said. The fact I can sell it and buy something I can afford ... its still like winning a lottery.
Lance regularly attends Fresh Fire Community Church in Macon. They asked him to give a testimony about his story in front of the congregation, but he declined, saying, The story isnt over yet.
To contact writer Harold Goodridge, call 744-4382.