The sound of a car pulling into the yard interrupted Christmas dinner.
John Cunningham jumped up, offering little as an explanation on why he was leaving. His family sat around, silent. They didn’t have to ask; they knew why he had left.
Up until that moment, Cunningham had been irritable and quiet. He was suffering from withdrawal, his body crying out for heroin. The pangs got so bad that he contacted his dealer, asking him to come right to the house so he could get high.
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“Everyone was so upset. I told the family, ‘Stop it, let him go. This is what he does, this is who he is,’” said Ginny Kelp, Cunningham’s mother. “We had just accepted it.”
That was the final Christmas Cunningham spent with his family before he was arrested and sentenced to prison for burglary. Throughout his addiction, he served time in five different county jails and two state prisons. He’s a three-time felon.
But for the past six years, he has been sober. At one point he faced decades in prison for stealing from people’s homes to buy more heroin. He now has a steady job, his own apartment in Edinburgh and a renewed connection with his family, mostly his 13-year-old son, Cassious.
“I believed I was going to die that way. I had no hope,” he said. “The fact that that’s not the way it is today proves a power greater than myself.”
Heroin used to be the all-encompassing obsession in Cunningham’s life. In sobriety, he’s had to fill that void with something else.
An athlete growing up, Cunningham stopped working out as his addiction deepened. Now, exercise has become a central part of his life.
He goes to the gym every day, mixing cardiovascular workouts with strength training. In his free time, he plays pickup basketball and softball. He has finished marathons and done other organized obstacle races to test himself.
Often, Cunningham can be seen jogging through the streets of Edinburgh.
“I love it. I put motivational speeches on, and listen to what they have to say about being successful while I run,” he said. “That’s been such a staple. I can get in there, and really face myself. I’m not trying to out-do anyone else in there, it’s just me-against-me. And I really look at that like me against my addiction.”
Everywhere in his new life, reminders of what addiction had done to him stare Cunningham in the face. A framed letter hangs in his apartment, near his bed. The piece of paper contains 10 promises that he made to Cassious when he was released from prison.
He pledges to never again use drugs, to never break the law, to put his mind and his heart entirely into his sobriety. Cunningham wrote the letter while in Branchville Correctional Facility in southern Indiana.
After his release, he and his son both signed it. The document is a constant reminder of his past, and that any relaxation of the standards he’s set for himself can annihilate everything he’s worked so hard to repair.
“What my recovery is truly for is the people’s houses that I burglarized who will never meet me. It’s for my mom, so she can sleep now. It’s for my son — when he walks down the streets of Edinburgh, I don’t want people to say to him that his dad is a junkie,” Cunningham said. “That’s what it was really for.”
Cunningham knows that addiction is most insidious in the way someone can seem like they’ve kicked it, and have their life put together, only to re-emerge and pull them back into its depths.
Everything that he heard and read was that relapse is part of recovery. He credits his mother and sister for providing the support and structure upon his release from prison so that he didn’t fall back into drugs.
“Relapse can kill you. I avoided it by fully understanding that life is up and down. There are ebbs and flows to it,” he said. “If I get into this illusion that life is going to go the way I want it to, I’m in trouble. When bad things happen, and I know they will, I choose to see the bright side of it.”
Descent into addiction
Cunningham can look back into his past and point to the moment of pain and sadness that sparked his descent into addiction. In 1995, he watched his father, Leon Cunningham, died of a massive heart attack. Cunningham was 15 at the time, losing the person he considered his best friend.
“From that point on, life changed for me,” he said.
Following his father’s death, Cunningham moved to Brown County with his mother, Ginny. He left Edinburgh, the community he had known for his entire life, and had to start over with a new group of friends.
“I think what happened with me was, I felt like I was abandoned. I was looking for acceptance and for a new group of friends,” he said. “That’s where it started.”
Cunningham started slowly with drugs and alcohol, drinking and smoking marijuana with his new friends. Over the next five years, he kept using recreationally, getting in trouble for possession of marijuana and other drugs, resisting arrest and other minor charges but still in control of his life, he said.
But when he was 22 years old, he tried hydrocodone — a type of opioid pain pill better known as Vicodin — for the first time. Cunningham was introduced to opioid pain pills by his girlfriend at the time.
“The first time I took one, it made me really sick. I was scared of them. But I loved her, and she talked me into doing it again. At that point, it was like the sun had risen in my soul. I was hit,” he said.
His dependence on opioids took off from that point. Hydrocodone led to morphine, and then to OxyContin. The addiction kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
To support his addiction, Cunningham started burglarizing houses. He was arrested in 2008 for stealing jewelry, cash and other items from homes in the Columbus area, and was given a 10-year suspended sentence. He was in jail for three months, but as soon as he was released, he returned to using drugs again.
For his family, watching Cunningham spiral deeper down was agonizing. They tried to help — bailing him out of jail, making ultimatums about quitting, angrily pointing out how his behavior was hurting them.
“I remember wracking my brain, asking what I wasn’t getting right and what I was missing in terms of making him do what I wanted him to do,” said Hailey Combest, Cunningham’s sister. “All it was, the whole time, he had to decide to give it up.”
Between 2008 and 2012, his addiction to opioid pain pills grew. When it became too difficult to track down prescription pills, he took heroin for the first time.
“For me, heroin lasted for about one-and-a-half years before it completely wrecked me,” he said. “I’d be able to ‘maintain’ on pills, and my life was bad. But heroin, in no time, I couldn’t control anything. It took my soul.”
Combest, who lived in Columbus near where Cunningham was living, found herself in the pathway of her brother’s addiction more and more. He would call for rides or for money. She would give him $5 here and there, enough to buy something to eat but not enough for heroin.
She started to dread hearing her phone ring.
“It got to the point where I’d ignore his phone calls,” she said.
Combest and her husband banned Cunningham from their house. That didn’t stop him from stealing from them. If he could fit something in his pocket , he’d take it, Combest said. He took two separate Nintendo DS systems from his nephew, and a piggy bank.
Cunningham also stole larger items from his sister and mother multiple times. He would make it look like a random burglary, as if someone they loved hadn’t violated their trust.
“Every time something went missing, I would deny that it was John. There was no way it could have been John, because I was trying to protect him from everyone else’s opinion,” Combest said.
Cunningham knew how deeply his addiction was destroying his life. At one of his lowest points, he and Kelp were sitting together on the couch. He looked over at her and laid out the vision for what he assumed would be the rest of his life.
“He told me that he was either going to jail or was going to die. At that point, I knew that something was going to happen,” Kelp said. “And it did, when he went to jail.”
In a span of eight months, Cunningham was arrested twice for burglary, first in Bartholomew County and the second time in Morgan County.
His family had stopped talking to him, and refused to send him any money for bail. He faced a sentence of up to 70 years in prison.
Path to recovery
This is where the path to recovery started for Cunningham. For the first month behind bars, he was in denial about his role in his situation.
“I was still acting like a crazy addict: Angry, saying this was everyone else’s fault, that I didn’t belong here,” he said.
A conversation with his girlfriend at the time forced Cunningham to re-assess his viewpoint, though. She told him over the jail phone that she was pregnant, and it likely wasn’t his child.
Returning to his bunk, he laid down and just thought.
“For the first time, I didn’t get angry. For the first time, I thought maybe this was my fault,” he said. “I realized that I was completely alone. I had two choices: I could go jump off a pier, or I could finally face myself. That’s the first time I truly surrendered to this thing.”
Left with no idea of how to start his recovery, Cunningham found help in the Narcotics Anonymous handbook. He read it from front to back. At the same time, when the inmates were released into the jail’s day room, he would run. Each day, he’d do 200 or 300 laps in the small space, just to give himself something to do.
The exercise sharpened his mind, he said. He started feeling something he hadn’t in years: self-esteem.
Cunningham began to see the pieces of addiction more clearly. He had been selfish for all of the years he was using drugs, forcing his family and people into a hellish way of living just so he could continue with his habit.
“Selfishness was the common bond that I had with everyone else in jail. I realized that was the core of what was going on with me, so I needed to flip it,” he said.
But his transformation would take time. Cunningham was still in jail facing a lengthy prison sentence. He and his lawyer had worked out a plea deal that would mean serving a 20-year sentence.
The judge would have final say on the total amount at the sentencing hearing, and Cunningham fully expected to get the full 20 years.
“My lawyer told me before we went in to expect no less than 18, with none suspended,” he said.
To his surprise, the judge settled on a 14-year sentence, with seven of those suspended. He already had one year of served time — with good behavior, he could be out by 2014.
“It was an absolute miracle. At that point, I knew I was so grateful, I’d never spit in that judge’s face and go back to drugs,” he said.
Cunningham spent nearly two years in Branchville Correctional Facility. He joined recovery groups in the prison, eventually serving as a facilitator for the groups. He would stand in front of 100 or 200 other addicts and tell his story.
He would play basketball at the prison gym and continued running as much as he could.
“I’d never really believed in myself and what I could do. I hurt so many people with the burglaries and everything else,” he said. “For the first time, I finally started believing in myself.”
On May 17, 2014, he was released from prison. Leading up to it, Cunningham had applied for a job at a local McDonald’s, and three days after his release, he was working a steady job.
Every day, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and walk to his job. Cunningham was on house arrest, but wanted to keep the routine that had worked so well for his recovery while in prison. So he started running around the rooms in his mom’s Edinburgh home.
“I didn’t want to change. I wanted to stay in this process,” he said.
Cunningham still attends recovery meetings regularly. In December, he moved into his own apartment in Edinburgh. He works as a server at Montana Mike’s, and was able to buy his first real car, a 2013 Honda Civic.
“In six years, I never dreamed I’d see him like this,” Combest said.
Cunningham has shared his story throughout the Columbus area and elsewhere in Indiana. He has addressed Narcotics Anonymous events, and has spoken for large companies such as Cummins’ Lunch and Learn program.
For him, sharing his experience is a way to show that addiction can be overcome. Feb. 17 marked his sixth year being sober. That was worth a celebration, he said.
“I’m always proud of every year that goes by. I’m proud of myself. I’m humble about it, but I never thought I’d have six years of sobriety,” he said.
Neither did his family.
“His sobriety day is like a birthday. It’s important to us, and it always will be,” Combest said.
The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.
Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are killing Americans.
The Daily Journal is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and crosses all socioeconomic lines, from families who lost loved ones to health and law enforcement workers on the front lines.
Addicted & Dying also will explore solutions and a path forward.
This week, we share the stories of two men who died from their addiction disease.
Got an idea for our project? Contact us as 317-736-2770.
Addiction: Addiction is considered a brain disease and a chronic, relapsing condition. Opioid drugs change the brain.
Stigma: Families affected by cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease get help and support from the community. Families affected by addiction often struggle in silence due to the stigma attached to addiction, which is an obstacle to recovery.
Number of deaths: 32 in Johnson County in 2017, not including people who die at an Indianapolis hospital.
Hospital visits: 105 people in Johnson County went to emergency rooms for treatment of an overdose in 2015, which is similar to numbers reported from other, larger counties, such as Allen or Hamilton counties.
Prescription rate: For every 100 residents in Johnson County, 84 opioid prescriptions were written in 2016.
Sustained recovery: When a person in recovery from an addiction has been in remission from use for at least one year.