VALPARAISO — Herb Stepherson was laying in his bunk bed at the Porter County Jail when he made the decision: He was going to commit suicide.
He was 29 years old, facing 35 years behind bars. He'd been hooked on heroin for most of his adulthood. He was tired of life.
He planned to save up his commissary money and, once he got to prison, buy enough drugs to overdose.
"I was going to go to sleep and I was not going to wake up," he said. "There was this eerie comfort in it, that this is how it's going to end."
Fast forward to two years later, and Stepherson is telling this story in his home in Valparaiso, his son by his side, about to publish his first book.
Stepherson represents one face of the opioid epidemic that takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, including dozens in the Region, every year. His story illustrates that, besides death and institutionalization, there is a third way out of addiction: recovery.
"My being so open and honest about everything is hopefully going to provide some folks with hope," he said, seated on his couch, 5-year-old Lucas in the crook of his dad's arm, playing video games on an iPhone. Stepherson, 31, wore a baseball cap and beard stubble, dipping tobacco between his bottom lip and gum.
"So many people think every addict is just destined to die or go to jail or work at McDonald's the rest of their life. That's just not true. People can get clean and turn things around and have a pretty awesome life."
A decision to change
Stepherson, who has been sober almost two years, isn't sure there was a breakthrough moment. One day, he just decided to try. At jail, he went to church and recovery meetings. He helped with a renovation project at the facility.
Somebody saw his potential, because, rather than prison, Stepherson was sentenced to a Valparaiso halfway house for recovering addicts, Respite House.
That's where he began writing about his experience with heroin addiction. He started a blog, called Junkbox Diaries, where he told vivid stories about being in the throes of opioid dependency: living in abandoned buildings on the west side of Chicago, eating out of dumpsters, almost losing his right foot to a staph infection, being robbed at gunpoint, overdosing twice.
He noticed that his blog was getting thousands of page views. Readers commented that he should write a book.
Stepherson started contacting publishers. He left a message with one, Chicago-based Joshua Tree Publishing, and the owner got back to him: You must be calling about Junkbox Diaries, the man said.
"When he first submitted his story, I was struck by the authenticity that he captured. He puts the reader right into the situation, as it was happening," said John Paul Owles, president and publisher of Joshua Tree Publishing. "Because of his authenticity, I thought he could help a lot of people by giving them hope that they can also overcome their addiction."
The book, "Junkbox Diaries: A Day in the Life of a Heroin Addict," was released Friday. Stepherson is set to do a book-signing later this month in his hometown of Valparaiso.
Brooks Culpepper, the assistant director at Respite House, isn't surprised that Stepherson has a book out. He said Stepherson articulates the experience of addiction better than just about anyone he's ever met.
"He has this fluent way of talking. He talks with his heart," Culpepper said. "One man can't change everything, but he's doing a lot to open the eyes of the community."
An example for recovery
Stepherson not only tells his story online and in print, but speaks before community organizations and recovery groups. He's also putting his history to use in his new profession: He recently started working for a Lowell-based addiction intervention company.
He's doing his part to solve Northwest Indiana's opioid epidemic, which has killed roughly 40 people he knew personally. But he says it's going to take a Region-wide effort to truly make a difference. There aren't enough detox centers and recovery facilities to meet the demand, particularly places that accept addicts without insurance.
Most of all, he believes people need to hear the horror stories about addiction: the death, the sickness, the homelessness, the bloody syringes, the begging for money, the complete and utter lack of hope. The "Just Say No" approach just hasn't worked.
That's why one day, standing in line for lunch in the Porter County Jail, he decided he was going to tell his story.
"The idea just came to me. I said, you know what, I'm not going to hide from this anymore. I'm not going to sweep it under the rug. I'm not going to act like it didn't happen. I'm going to share it. I'm going to own it. I'm going to put it out there," he said. "It kind of has multiple benefits. One, obviously I hope it helps somebody. Two, it reinforces my own accountability. I've outed myself. I'm front page. I'm writing a book. I'm sharing my story. I'm speaking to agencies. I have to keep going because I've solidified myself as the recovering person."