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Home » In a choice between 'death or penitentiary,' an addict discovers recovery and parenthood – USA TODAY

In a choice between 'death or penitentiary,' an addict discovers recovery and parenthood – USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS – John Asher’s drug addiction started as a teenager
“I was addicted to everything you could possibly think of,” Asher said. “That’s what happens when you live on the streets, live with one parent that don’t really care what you do.”
When he was 41, homeless and estranged from his ex-wife and children, Asher was arrested for selling meth to an undercover officer and sentenced to six years in prison and four years probation. 
Now 49, Asher has earned his GED diploma, owns two vehicles, is renting a home for the first time and is preparing to become the primary caregiver of his 17-year-old son, who is nonverbal.
“If I weren’t where I am right now, I’d probably be homeless, a drug addict, in jail,” Asher said. “I’m super proud of myself. I never thought I’d be this far, never.”
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At home growing up, Asher lived alone with his father, who was addicted to drugs – his mother and brother lived out of state and weren’t in the picture. By the time he was a teenager, Asher found himself falling into the same habits as his father. 
Asher married and had two children, but his addictions persisted, driving a wedge between him and his family. He separated from his wife, and for a span of four or five years, Asher said he “made it a point” not to visit his children. He didn’t want them to see him in the throes of addiction.
“I was never their dad,” Asher said. “I brought them into the world and essentially abandoned them.”
He started dealing meth as a way to stay high and get his drugs for free, Asher said. He felt like he had already lost his wife, children and parents, and there was nothing left to fight for, he said. 
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Eventually, though, that lifestyle got old. When he was 41, he got caught selling drugs to an undercover cop.
“I used to say ‘I wish there was a way out,’ ” Asher said. “Well, I got my way out: I went to prison. I ran with it and never looked back.”
He was sentenced to 10 years, four of which would be probation. But less than a year after his sentencing, Asher petitioned for the remainder of his time to be served as probation. To his surprise, the judge granted his request. 
On Oct. 9, 2014, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, Asher walked out of the prison. He borrowed a phone to call a friend whose number he had memorized, and that friend picked him up and let Asher crash at his place for a couple of days. 
Again, Asher was homeless. He was “running around, not doing drugs, but I was drinking a lot,” Asher said. Something had to change, he told himself.
“That lifestyle, I had done it for years, I watched my dad do it,” Asher said. “I knew what that lifestyle was about: death or penitentiary. I didn’t want either one of those. I wanted to have something that I could call my own. I wanted my kids to be proud of me.”
Carolyn Leffler met Asher when he was homeless and sleeping outside a local social services organization, Southeast Community Services, where she works as a career coach.
Asher grew up a quarter-mile from the center, so when he decided he wanted to earn his GED diploma, Southeast was as good an option as any. 
In 2020, 506 inmates earned their GED diplomas while at an Indiana Department of Correction facility, according to the department. The number of people eligible to earn high school equivalency fluctuates daily with the prison population, but on July 1, 2021, more than 5,000 inmates were eligible for GED courses, the department said. 
The Department of Correction doesn’t track convicted felons who earn GED diplomas after they’re released. 
What immediately struck Leffler was that Asher was “incredibly honest,” she said. 
“He would tell me, ‘Look, I’m scared here, scared that I’m going to relapse, scared I’m going to go back to jail, just scared,'” Leffler said. She told Asher, “If you’re honest with me, I’ll help you in any way I can.”
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In addition to the GED classes, Leffler invited Asher to join her career preparation course. It wasn’t until she mentioned participants receive lunch every day that Asher agreed to attend. 
While Asher worked through Southeast’s courses, the center put Asher up in a hotel room when funding allowed and gave him Goodwill vouchers to buy clothes, Leffler said. He needed a job, but multiple tickets for not wearing a seat belt had suspended his driver’s license, and he didn’t have a car to retake the driver’s test.
Leffler let him borrow her car, “which was scary,” she said, but Asher passed. Later that day, he hopped on a bus line and got a job at AMVETS, a veterans’ service organization, driving a truck and picking up donations. 
Soon after, a job opportunity in construction opened up. Asher declined to even consider the position, not once, but twice. He was “comfortable” working for AMVETS, he said, relying on its consistency and routine.
What finally convinced Asher to give the new job at Riley Area Development a chance was the safety net Southeast extended if the job didn’t pan out. He’s been working at the development corporation about five years now, managing maintenance on the company’s affordable housing units, small businesses and other buildings. 
“(Asher) just needed an opportunity to be a stand-up guy,” Leffler said. “He just needed an opportunity, and he took it. We didn’t give it to him – he took it.”
While Asher was in prison, a primary factor motivating his rehabilitation was his two children: a daughter and son, now 18 and 17, respectively. 
For much of his children’s lives, neither Asher nor his wife were present. The role of caretaker fell to Asher’s former father-in-law, who recently had heart surgery and no longer wants the responsibility of caring for Asher’s son, Asher said. “Little John,” who is nonverbal and has autism, would likely have gone to child protective services if Asher didn’t reclaim his role of being a parent, Asher said. 
Preparing for his son to live with him, Asher expects to move into a two-bedroom home on the southeast side of Indianapolis by the end of the month.
“To be honest with you, I’m literally scared to death,” Asher said. “Can I take care of a mentally handicapped child? I can’t say yes or no. But what I can say is I’m going to give it my all. He deserves a chance.”
With his daughter, Asher said it’s “still a little rocky.” He was hardly around when she was growing up, and now that she’s an adult, she’s “doing her own thing,” he said. 
His daughter hasn’t forgiven Asher for his absence during her childhood, he said. Asher tries to remind her that he is her dad, and he loves her, despite hardly being a parent to her before. 
“I still regret not being around,” Asher said. “I missed a lot of things that I will never get back.”
Asher has been sober for more than six years, and he no longer feels the craving to use drugs. Since being released from prison, he has built up a savings account and aspires to one day own a home he can pass down. He oversees maintenance at more than 300 residential and three commercial buildings, and he still stops by Southeast regularly to help out with food distributions or chat with Leffler. 
Still, Asher said he must be vigilant every day to keep himself busy. Asher believes that “an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” he said.
“Being bad, doing the bad life for me, that’s super easy,” Asher said. “Being good and doing what I’m doing today, it’s very, very hard, but I do it.”
Follow Clare Procter on Twitter: @ceproctor23.


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