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Larry Butcher/For The Herald-Dispatch Joe Tackett stands by his vinyl record collection Wednesday, June 14, 2017, at his home in Ashland.

ASHLAND - Last week during a group session, Joe Tackett, 64, of Ashland, realized he had been in recovery for 10 years. He went out and purchased a new watch - adding to his collection of 22.

"Everything used to go to drugs," he said.

Any length of time in recovery is something to celebrate, but when you compare how long Tackett was in active addiction, 41 years, it's miraculous he's even alive to have 10 years of recovery under his belt.

"I amaze people because people who do it that long don't live," he said. "I was given life for some reason. I feel that."

Tackett was raised by his grandmother, but was left homeless at age 16 when she died.

"I was beating the streets and I saw an Army recruiter," Tackett said. "I told him I would be 17 in February, and this was the end of December or the first of January. And he said, 'Come on in, son.' I took all the tests. I did everything but swear in. I had two forms that had to be signed by my mom and dad, but I just went to the public library and scratched some names on it. I went into the Army two days after my 17th birthday and stayed in for eight years."

Although it was in Vietnam where Tackett first tried heroin - his primary drug of choice - he says it was not the cause of his addiction.

"It was an honor to serve," the veteran said. "... I just had all this pressure in my head. But it didn't have me in its clutches yet. I could lay off of it for weeks, mainly because the guys next to me depended on me. I dabbled in it for a year."

It was over when he woke up with "the worst flu I'd ever had." He called his friend to ask him what was going on.

"You're dope sick," his friend told him.

"What do I do?" Tackett asked.

"Don't be stupid; do a shot," was the reply.

Thus began 40-plus years of doing drugs, which led to selling drugs and the violence and desperation that comes with it.

"I was homeless three times," Tackett said. "Once, I was living under a bridge with $1,900 in my pocket waiting for the dope man from Detroit."

"Joe Joe Dancer," his street name, ended up in prison three times, all drug related.

"I had a guy once steal a bag of ramen noodles from me, and I had to beat his ass," Tackett said. "If I didn't, they would have taken everything I had. That's not a good way to live, but I put myself there because of heroin."

He often had to pack up and leave everything behind as law enforcement moved in on him, including leaving behind a home that was gifted to him and his two children. He also had to give up his children, placing them in the care of family members in order to protect them from his lifestyle.

"It's like injecting a demon into you every day," he said. "It makes you do things you would never do or want to do."

Life for Tackett was like lying in a casket watching people pass by in slow motion, he said.

Tackett tried to quit using hundreds of times - "literally hundreds." Once he even entered treatment just to cut back on his habit, something he is remorseful about.

"It was wrong, very wrong," he said. "I had people that were helping me."

But one morning, Tackett woke up to do a shot of heroin next to his 22-year-old wife who was also addicted.

"The day I decided to go to treatment, you would have thought it was a movie set with all the drugs in the house," he said.

"I looked at her wrapped in those sheets and started to cry. I thought, 'I'm killing her.' I got on my knees and started praying to God for help. I said, 'God, give me the strength to do this and I will do the rest to make you proud of me.'"

He called the Huntington VA Medical Center for help.

"She asked me when I wanted to go and I said, 'Today,'" Tackett said. "Not tomorrow, but today. Not in a week, but today while I have the nerve to do it."

Tackett was put on hold. He did a shot of heroin while he waited. Then she came back on the line and asked if he could be there by 3 o'clock.

"I woke (his wife) up. She started crying. We smoked some crack, smoked some heroin, smoked some more crack," he said. "I gave her $1,500 or $1,600, and I said, 'Please go get help.' But she didn't."

When Tackett came back to his apartment after completing treatment, everything was gone, but for him, it was a blessing.

"It was all bought with pain money," he said.

Through the VA, Tackett entered a treatment program and started Suboxone, which he is still on today. The medication keeps the "wants and desires" away while also helping him manage his pain, which he has plenty of, mostly related to his drug use.

"I'm paying for it today with my body," he said.

Still, Tackett says he never has a bad day. He has a home. He has a relationship with his children, as shown by the massive box of chocolates that sits over his stove that says "Happy Father's Day!" that's from his daughter. He was also able to reconnect with his father before he died.

"You can define happiness by looking at me," he said. "I refuse. I never have a bad day. No matter how crappy my body might feel ... I can be freezing ... in the house and I start laughing because at least I have a house to be cold in."

He has the support of his brother, Mark, and is especially grateful for the doctors, counselors and others who never gave up on him, including Dr. Pennington at the VA, Rochelle and Paul and Sherry Vernier.

He is proof recovery is possible for everyone.

"It's hard to get clean," Tackett said. "You have to want it more than anything in your life because if you don't, your life is going to end. It took me 41 years."

For those still struggling, Tackett had this advice: Come on over for a cup of coffee.

"I'll ask you, 'When did it stop being fun?'" he said. "Recovery is a wonderful life."

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook

@TaylorStuckHD.

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