Wearing an orange jailhouse uniform and talking on a telephone through a window in the visitation room, the Erath County Jail inmate spoke about his past. How, when he was a child, he dreamed of becoming a fireman or a park ranger.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors,” he said. “I love everything about nature.”
Today, those childhood dreams are a thing of the past - mere memories of a life he hardly ever thinks about anymore.
At 40, Joel Lewis’ life is one that never entered his dreams as a child. Swept up in the world of drugs and addiction, he has spent the past 22 years in and out of jail. Now, faced with an uncertain future that could keep him locked up for an extended period of time, Lewis said he wants to warn young people of the dangers of using drugs.
“I just want to do something good - I want people to know that drugs will destroy their lives,” he said.
Lewis’ troubles began, he said, when his mother died of uterine cancer when he was 17.
“She died two months after she was diagnosed,” he said.
His father was a long distance truck driver who was rarely at the family’s home in Morgan Mill. His mother’s death sent him into a downward spiral that shaped his future.
“I was like a leaf blowing in the wind after she died,” he said. “I didn’t have nowhere to go.”
Desperate and feeling alone, Lewis quit school in his junior year and began living in a motel he paid for with money he earned working menial jobs. It’s also when, in 1985, he used methamphetamine for the first time.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” he said. “Your heart feels like it’s going to beat out of your chest and your hair feels like it’s growing. Everything is intensified.”
Months later, that life of drugs would lead him into a life of crime. In 1986, he was arrested and convicted of burglary of a motor vehicle. He received five years probation, but the conviction wasn’t enough to straighten him out. He was arrested a short time later for violating his parole and was sent to jail for a year.
“But the day I got out, I started using again,” he said. “I got right back into the scene.”
By then, Lewis was smoking, snorting or injecting more than 3-grams of meth a day. He had little money and no direction. The money he did have was made working odd jobs. He bounced from house to house, living with family and friends until he was arrested again in 1988. This time he spent two years in the Tarrant County Jail.
His only stable and productive streak came after his release in 1990, when, determined to make a fresh start, he moved to Houston.
“I had to get away from my old friends - from the people who were keeping me tied to the drug world,” he said.
For seven years, Lewis held a job rebuilding turbine engines. He also managed to stay clean and sober, until an ATV accident rekindled his addiction.
“I had a collapsed lung and I think the pain medication made me crave the drug,” Lewis said.
This time, however, Lewis’ luck ran out, and when he was arrested for drug possession in 1997, the judge sent him to the penitentiary for 10 years.
“It was a lonely time. A scary time,” he said. “Prison is not a fun place to be. Every day you have to watch your back.”
Lewis said that while he was in jail, he got into several fights that ended with a broken nose and hand, fractured jaw and busted eye. He was finally released in September 2006, but by then, had lost hope that his life would ever get on track. He was right. It didn’t take long for Lewis to fall back into his old habits and he was arrested again this summer in Stephenville for drug possession. His bond has been denied, and, today, he sits in the county jail wishing he could change his past.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” he said, adding that he has not yet been indicted by a grand jury. “I know I need help for my addiction. I’ve never had any therapy to get over this.”
His sad tale is compounded by the fact that his four siblings - two sisters and two brothers - all have similar lives that involve drug addiction and prison stints.
As the interview came to an end, Lewis, displaying a sense of urgency in conveying the message he wanted to send, scooted up in the chair and placed his hand against the window.
“Just tell the kids,” he said. “Tell them that if they don’t get help for their addiction, they’ll get lost in the system like me.”
Then, he hung up the telephone, and shuffled back to his cell.
SARA VANDEN BERGE is Managing Editor of the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 240.