HUNTINGTON - Jeffrey Els' son never wanted for any material thing. For Christmas, he would have the latest toys and electronics.
"If I'm able to go home with clear eyes, that's all he wants anyway," Els said. "He's told me that. He's not in this for materials. I know for a fact he would be happy with me just sitting there watching a movie."
Els, 34, of Marietta, Ohio, has struggled with drug and alcohol use for more than 20 years. This year, he is four months into recovery and plans to visit his son with a new hope that he is finally on the right path.
But it has been a long and difficult road.
Els says he started using drugs when he was 12. By 14, he was drinking every weekend and smoking pot. By 15, he was experimenting with cocaine and prescription pain medication, and by 16, he was drinking and getting high every day.
At 17, he tried heroin for the first time. Heroin took everything else's place.
"The rest of them gave me what I wanted as far as fitting in and different things like that, but heroin gave me the release of self, the relief of not being uncomfortable anymore," he said. "I was social with the rest, but I remember the day, the car, everything about (the first time he tried heroin). From then on, I was just trying to chase that."
In 2002, the loss of a friend to an overdose and the birth of his son made Els realize he wasn't living the life he thought he would have.
"I never thought I couldn't do great things or be something great, but I could never get rid of that feeling that I couldn't get through the day without some sort of relief, some sort of way to handle those situations," Els said. "Obviously, when you start using at 14, you never learn coping skills or ways to handle life's stresses or ways to handle anything, because of that."
He joined a 12-step program. He had a management job, a home and his son had all that he needed. From the outside, everything looked great.
But in 2005, he caught his first charge for trafficking heroin after picking up heroin for a friend.
"I was thrown into a program through the court system in Ohio, and that was probably the biggest realization that I might actually have a problem and I might need to fix it," Els said. "At this point, I had quit jobs, I'm getting arrested, it's getting to the point where life is getting unmanageable. I got into the program, but I didn't want to get clean, because I didn't know any other way. I didn't know how to get that relief. I would get sober long enough to make some people happy and get people off of my back, but no one ever showed me there was relief without using."
More difficult years
By 2008, he was using heavily again. He was failing drug screens with his probation officer and was destined to go to prison, he said.
"I went to my PO and said I can't live like this anymore," Els said. "At this point, I had two suicide attempts with overdoses, one time with heroin, one time with Ambien. I had been hospitalized in the psych ward for a week. I was just tired of back-and-forth use, tired of stopping and starting. I went into her office and gave up for the first time."
He went to a rehab facility for the first time and entered another 12-step program once he was out. He got involved, but he didn't clean up the wreckage of his life.
"I started working, and I didn't do what was suggested of me," Els said. "And it didn't work. When I got out of that rehab, it was the first time I realized my son knew I had an issue. He picked me up, and I was like, 'We never have to do this again,' because at that time in my heart I knew I didn't want to be this way again. But he told me, 'It's OK. You'll be back.' That sticks in my head because he was 7 and he knew the destruction that was coming."
After 10 months of sobriety, he started drinking again until he was drinking daily and drinking himself to sleep.
A year after entering rehab, Els was charged with his first DUI. By 2012, he found himself facing a felony third-offense DUI charge.
The state made him a good deal, but while out on bond he was caught driving under the influence again.
"Everyone on the outside will say, 'What were you thinking? Why were you doing this?'" Els said. "I still don't really have an answer other than I didn't know any other way."
Life continued to spiral. After spending a year in prison for the DUI, he started another program but continued drinking. He made it off parole, but shortly after got another DUI and went back to prison.
After getting out, he spent time in a halfway house that was "filled with any drug you could imagine." Els said he has no one to blame but himself, but he started using again. Although he was still able to get a job and keep up appearances, in February of this year he got his seventh DUI in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
"All through all of that, I still think I'm doing a good job for my son," Els said. "If you were to pull me off to the side, I would have been like, 'I'm here every day. I'm showing up. I'm working and doing all this great stuff for my son, and he's taken care of.'"
But he was drinking a liter of vodka a day, injecting a gram and a half of heroin, and by this point was also dabbling in meth.
He was offered drug court and was sent to another rehab facility. Els said he learned a lot, but when he got back, he went back to doing the same things.
Two weeks after getting back from rehab, he left a 12-step meeting and decided he didn't want to do it anymore. He bought a gram of heroin and a gram of meth, but he woke up from his overdose.
"There wasn't a moment I thought my kid might not see me again," Els said. "I gave up on everything. I didn't have any way out, and I didn't know how to stop."
In July, he went back to jail.
"By the grace of God, they did that because I couldn't stop," Els said.
After getting out of jail, Els found space at a 28-day program in Mason County through Prestera. He had been trying to get into a long-term program from Prestera, but was told there was no way he would get a bed.
"The Monday before I came (to Huntington), it was the first time I had really decided I was going to trust a higher power," Els said. "I was sitting outside the 28-day program and said, 'All right, I've done everything I know how to do. I'm out of ideas. I'm out of everything ...' That was at about 6 in the morning, and by 9 o'clock that morning, Scott Harrison called me and said, 'We have a bed.'"
Before Els left for Huntington, his son told him all he wants is his dad back.
Now four months into his recovery, Els is getting ready to go visit his son.
"What I look forward to the most is being able to sit on the couch and not have to get up to go use to be able to sit there," Els said. "I don't know how it's going to turn out. Do I know he loves me? Absolutely. Does he have a right to be angry? Absolutely."
But Els has a plan and he has found the relief he always searched for - the God of his understanding.
Els is learning how to be OK with who he is and how to live correctly, and he's doing it so he can make his son proud.