After shooting up a half-gram of heroin and swallowing 40 Xanax pills in a small wooded area behind Clinton Memorial Hospital, Skip Shields leaned against a tree and waited to die.
The area was quiet, peaceful and serene, something the 61-year-old nature-lover had always enjoyed.
“I figured that would be as good of a place as any and they’d find me eventually,” he explained. “I was disgusted with my life.”
It started 50 years ago
Born in New York, Shields moved to Columbus, Ohio, with his family when he was 4 years old. He had a happy childhood for the most part. He graduated high school fourth in his class in 1967 and was involved in athletics as well.
He began attending classes at The Ohio State University, and it was then he had his first encounter with drugs. While sitting at a McDonald’s restaurant in Reynoldsburg, a girl came in and asked if he wanted to try marijuana.
“Being a curious person I said yeah,” he recalled.
The group was busted by his mother back at their home.
Shortly after, he moved out of his parents’ house and quit school. He lived on Ohio State’s vibrant campus, smoking pot, taking LSD, pills, downers — anything he could get his hands on.
“I was one of those typical hippies,” he remembered.
He and another drug user heard about wild marijuana growing in Indiana fields. He made six trips west during the summers of the late 1960s and early ’70s, picking plentiful, low quality marijuana and selling it back home. The brothers made nearly $100,000 a year.
“We used that money for wine, women and song — you know?” he said. “We didn’t save any of it.”
The law gets involved
His first run-in with the law was during the early 1970s when he was busted for running a drug house, but he was later acquitted of the charges. During that same era, he was introduced to heroin.
In 1968, he was working as an ice cream truck driver when he decided to swing by one of the hippie bars. A rebellious girl asked if he wanted to go to California that night. Shields agreed. He handed out most of the ice cream to the patrons at the bar before leaving the cooler plugged in and heading southwest for three months.
“They had the munchies, so they appreciated that,” he recalled with a grin.
Over the next 10 years he lived in Ohio, doing drugs (less heroin, more hycodan cough syrup) and working dozens of odd jobs until he was arrested in the early 1980s for picking wild marijuana again in Indiana. That time, he spent six months in jail.
Shields moved back to L.A. in the early 1980s and rediscovered heroin. He continued his habits using heroin off and on over the next 20 years, but began occasionally attending church and beginning a relationship with God for the first time.
“I was raised Catholic and thought Mass was a good place to take a nap,” he said with a giggle. “I was not religious at all.”
Shields later returned to Ohio and eventually moved to Wilmington. He worked for six years as a “dedicated” employee for ABX before being laid off when DHL left. About six months before his last day, a co-worker gave Shields a cap of heroin one night — breathing life into an old drug habit.
“I got buzzed and I thought, ‘Man, I remember this high,’” he said.
It kicked off his last — and arguably worst — bout with heroin. With severance, retention and vacation pay, Shields left ABX with nearly $100,000. And, it all went up his arm. He spent several more stints in jail for possession, trafficking, DUI and probation violations. Although Shields had a record, none of the charges were for theft.
“I was a user, not a criminal,” he said.
Not his time to die
Leaning up against the tree in the shadow of Clinton Memorial Hospital that day, Shields was ready to end his life.
But, he didn’t die there. In a high stupor, he somehow walked a few blocks to the Clinton County Homeless Shelter where someone called the squad. Three days later, he woke up in the hospital — shocking himself and hospital staff with his survival.
He went on to overdose four more times after that in 2012 — each time being rescued by others.
“The only way I figure I lived through is because God has something special for me,” he said.
His life took a turn near Christmas 2012. Shields was panhandling near United Dairy Farmers in Wilmington, sometimes making $200 in four hours to support a $80-a-day drug habit. He was sleeping in shelters and on random couches when a man stopped his car one chilly day and handed Shields a scarf and pair of gloves.
The man, Ron Cordy, also was in charge of the recovery ministry at Sugartree Ministries.
“That random act of kindness made me realize some things,” Shields said.
He started coming to Sugartree Ministries, attending staff meetings, serving food and staying at the emergency shelter. He also did something amazing: Quit using drugs for the first time in nearly 50 years. Thanks to God, he said, there was no withdraw like there had been the other times. He hasn’t used since.
Now, he gets choked up even discussing his relationship with God.
“I asked for God’s help, and he answered my prayers,” Shields said, wiping tears from his eyes. “Heroin is a satanic drug. It’s the devil’s tool. Satan uses that feeling to keep people in bondage to it, but God is more powerful than Satan and he delivered me.”
He’s not worried about relapse either, he said. Shields, now 64, has been clean for about 15 months. It’s the first time since he was 18 years old.
Shields now helps run the ministry’s men’s shelter, offering prayers and recovery meeting reminders to those struggling. He calls them his “spiritual kids.” He also lives at the shelter, and is hoping to get a job and be invited back to family functions in the future.
“It’s been a really satisfying experience,” he said. “I mean, there’s life after heroin addiction. There are ways to get out of it through God.”
Andrea Chaffin may be reached at 937-382-2574 or on Twitter @andeewrites.