Talking with David Parnell

David Parnell has spoken publicly for years about his past drug addiction, but until a few weeks ago, he’d never been asked only about the times he’d tried to kill himself. He was part of a live segment on The Huffington Post about attempt survivors.

A decade ago, he woke up in the hospital and found his face shattered. At some point in the following months of recovery, he scribbled down a promise: He wanted to tell people the truth about drugs. But then he hesitated, embarrassed. “No, go now,” his wife told him. “Show them what the drugs have done.”

Here, he talks about finding religion, giving graphic but well-received presentations and happily turning into David the Dad.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m David Parnell. I’m 46 years old, a recovering meth addict, and a suicide survivor. I’m
also married, and my second wife and I have seven children together.

How old is the oldest?

The oldest is 20, the youngest is 9. I actually have a daughter who has already graduated
college, 26 years old, from my first marriage. So actually, I have eight altogether.

How did you get to the point where you’re here talking with me?

Well, I had been on drugs for 23 years by the time I attempted suicide the last time. I
had tried three years earlier. I hung myself, went unconscious, and someone found me
face down in the dirt in a barn. The rope had broken after I went unconscious, that’s
what saved me. I stayed sober five months, then went back on meth. Then, three years
later, I ended up taking a rifle, putting it under my chin and pulling the trigger.

I started like most kids, experimenting with drugs as a teen, and by my early 20s I was
introduced to meth in Dallas, Texas. I liked it, and it gave me a lot of energy. I didn’t
know what it was made out of. I didn’t dream where it would take me. The longer I was
on it, the more depressed I was and the more anxiety I felt. I became psychotic on meth.
I was very explosive and assaulted people for no reason sometimes. Then, when I
sobered up, I had all of this guilt about the way I treated my wife and other people in
our neighborhood. That guilt fed the depression and anxiety.

I tried to quit a bunch of times. When I tried to quit, I didn’t ever change the people I was around. So I would quit for five or six months but still be around drug users. I would do good for a while, but then I would be back around these old friends, and of course they were getting high. I’d say “No,” then all of a sudden I would hit a joint or do line of meth and start over using again. I felt hopeless and didn’t think I would ever be able to quit. Then, as the depression got worse, I started thinking to myself that everyone would be better off if I
was dead. I heard a guy tell me once how cowardly an act it was. It really ticked me off.
I know it seems cowardly, but most people who commit suicide, they look as it as trying
to help people around them. In my twisted mind, I was trying to help them. Of course, I
know how wrong that was. But that’s what I thought. Death seemed like the only option
at the time.

How does the mind make that jump to “Everyone would be better off”?

I thought I was doing them a favor because I thought I was a monster and that even my
kids didn’t like me or want to be around me. My wife was about to have a nervous
breakdown, she couldn’t understand why I was acting the way I was. I really don’t know
how I made the jump to think that. I know the day I shot myself, I asked my wife to lay
down next to me. I was real sick and had lost about 60 pounds. We were arguing about
her leaving with the kids. I said, “I can’t stand up, will you lay down and talk?” She said, “I’m going to lay down and talk for a minute, but me and the kids are still going to leave.”
When she said that, I snapped. I just reached over and grabbed the rifle in the corner by
the bed. In my mind, I thought, “That’s it. This dope has robbed me of everything.”

With meth, because it’s a stimulant, I still remember my thoughts clearly. That’s what
clicked that day that I shot myself. I thought life wasn’t worth trying to go on. The day I
hung myself three years earlier, I was having hallucinations and hearing voices. The
voice was telling me that day _ and it sounds very strange to a normal person _ but that
voice was telling me, “Your wife and kids would be better off if you were dead. There’s
no forgiveness for the things you’ve done.” I immediately just got up out of my chair,
walked to the barn, found an old rope, tied it to a rafter and stepped off my riding lawn
mower. My wife and kids were not home that day. I had gone to jail for a couple days
for assaulting my wife and for having marijuana, and my wife and kids were living
somewhere else when I got out. I was alone and went right back to doing meth. About
three or four days being out of jail, I tried to hang myself. Someone stopped by to check
on me because they had heard me and my wife were having problems, and they went
to the barn.

Also, I think the reason why I didn’t shoot myself then was because whenever the police
came to my house, they confiscated my .22 rifle. Thank God for that, because otherwise I
might have grabbed the gun. I don’t know why the thought to hang myself came in my
head. It really was instantaneous. Maybe at the time it seemed like the only thing I had.

But how did she know to go to the barn?

I guess when she didn’t find me in the house, she walked around back. The barn was
right behind the house. She freaked out. It actually was my sister. She went into a
severe panic. Freaked. She got me up and coherent after a while. I couldn’t swallow for a
long time. I couldn’t hardly eat for a week. I couldn’t hardly talk. My family didn’t take
me to a rehab. There were no rehab centers. They took me to a preacher, a recovering
alcoholic. I could relate to him. He knew the struggle of addiction. He helped me. I got
off everything for about five months. Then, when I went back to work, the same old
routine. I worked the second shift in a tire company and started hanging out at
suppertime with friends who were getting high. It was like a recurring nightmare. Each
time I went back, it seemed like the addiction got worse.

How did that change after the second time?

The second time, I woke up three days later in the Vanderbilt University Hospital trauma
center. I asked God to come into my heart. I wanted to change. I told people I needed
something stronger than me I could believe in. I had made the decision that I was done,
I wanted to lay it down, but I needed some help. I believed that my faith in something
stronger than me could help me get through it, and it did. I know God isn’t for
everybody, and some people tell me that at seminars, “I’m not into the Jesus thing,
what do I do?” I say, “I don’t know, I can only tell you what worked for me.” When I got
the craving, I got out the Bible and read. I did it about 10 times a day. I couldn’t
understand the stuff I was reading half the time, but it helped, and I give it credit for my
being sober.

I had been to state prison, I tried to commit suicide twice, and nothing ever
worked for me before. But when I quit everything and started studying this guy who
said he loved all people, no matter if they’re homosexual, prostitutes or whatever,
what I got out of it was a lot better than what I got from preachers. I thought, “Maybe he
loves me, too.” It changed my life. I see nowadays, people who start studying the Bible
get very judgmental. I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. It helped me to live by
those laws of loving people. It changed my life. I talk to schools a lot of time, with a huge
majority of Muslims or Hindus, and most all of the faiths have this thing of loving
people. So that’s where I am at today. That’s what I try to live by.

How did you stay away from old friends?

No one had been by or sent a letter to hospital. The most important thing with my
friends was getting high. All we really were was drug associates. Then, when I was able
to come home, I had to come back to the same house. They had already pulled up the
carpets and cleaned the room, but I didn’t like to go in that room for a long time. For a
few months, I was not strong enough to get around. While I was in the hospital, I had
written down on a piece of paper, “I want to tell people the truth about drugs.” I didn’t
really know what I was writing, but I was feeling all that guilt of selling dope in my
neighborhood for 20 years. I was just having these faces popping in my head I had sold
drugs to. One had committed suicide, one had ODed. Even though they could have got
their dope from someone else, I still sold it too. When I got stronger, my wife started
asking me, “Are you going to talk to people?” I was embarrassed. I didn’t have a nose, I
wanted to wait until they fixed me up. She said, “No, go now. Show them what the
drugs have done.”

I found a jail that let me come in, they let me go in and talk to inmates about where drugs had taken me. Then I went into drug court, then a church group, then state prison. There I was, eight months later, talking to people about not doing drugs. The people on meth were so paranoid anyway, they thought I was a rat. That ended up being a blessing in disguise. Nobody come around. I looked back on it as I was talking to my sheriff one day: “I think it freaked them out so bad, they didn’t come around!” Of course, I had my mind completely set also. I didn’t have the intense cravings like some people when I went to the store and saw the Sudafed, for example. I did have some cravings, but most was because I felt so bad. It took months to get my energy level back. One day I started crying because I felt so guilty. I didn’t know anything about mental addictions or even physical. I was crying because I thought, “How can I crave something that almost killed me?” I didn’t understand at the time.

The worst thing for me was the dreams. I would have dreams I was using. When you
have dreams and wake up feeling little buzzed, you get confused. That was very
frustrating. I haven’t had one in a real long time, but after talking to you, I might go to
sleep tonight and have a one.

Oh no!

It’s all right. I was talking to a man at a funeral last night. He was struggling with
addiction. He’s 53 years old. Now he’s hooked on pain pills. I was trying to tell
him, “Eventually, your cravings will go away.” It took me a year. And one day I turned
around said, “Hey, two or three weeks and no craving!” Now it’s been 10 years.

How long did it take to physically recover?

I think it took six or seven months before feeling better physically. It took a year before
feeling better mentally.

How long did it take to reconstruct you?

They’ve been working on me for 10 years. I’ve had about 30 operations. I haven’t had a
surgery now in about 10 months. The blast had literally split my face in two and broke
every bone in my face. I’ve got over 30 titanium plates and screws in my face. I have had
bone grafts out of my hips and ribs. They cut a big square of skin off my forehead and took bone out of my hip for a nose. I have my nasal passages opened, I’m able to taste good, and I can smell again. I can’t completely see out of my right eye, but I’m very lucky not to be blind.

I think we’re about done with reconstruction now. I still don’t have any front teeth on the top or bottom. Just a few on each side. I think the last thing will be implants to have front
teeth again one of these days. I also blew 70 percent of my lips off. Where they sewed
me up, the hole was hardly big enough to get a small spoon in. So they’ve cut me open
to widen my mouth a couple of different times. I’ve found that lips are the hardest to
reconstruct. I’m happy with what they did. A lot of areas around my mouth and
throughout my face have no feeling and are just numb. Sometimes I get a burnt lip with
hot soup or something, and it shoots pain into my eyes instead of my lips, like my nerves
are wired back wrong or something.

But they did a wonderful job with the damage I did. I really shouldn’t be alive. I have crime scene photos I show in seminars with my face blown apart so people can see what surgeons have done with me compared to the pictures.

You show the photos?

I’ve gotten lots of e-mails about that. I was doing about 80 percent of seminars at
schools. Most e-mails were from kids about the photos, how powerful they were. Many
of us work off of visual descriptions. I could tell them all day what meth causes to do to
a little child, or me or them, but when I show them the photos, that’s when they really
can grasp the seriousness of the problem. It’s the older people who seem to freak out
and have a problem. Like the other day at a school, I asked them, “How any of you have
seen the show ‘CSI’?” And I’m not kidding, about 90 percent watch it. It’s graphic, and
that’s why my kids watch it, it’s so frickin’ gross. I tell the kids at schools, “What I show
you is no different from TV, but this isn’t made-up. That’s the only difference.” So that
kind of helps relax people. If you want, I can e-mail you.

I don’t know if i want to see it! I don’t even watch “CSI”!

Then you probably don’t want to see! You know, I’ve had great opportunities in my life. I was not raised around drugs. The only person I can blame is myself. All my decisions were left to me in the end. I had the opportunity to go to school and play basketball on scholarships. I gave it all up to get high. I show them pictures of dunking the basketball. I tell them I had a bright future. My decisions were so bad, they altered my life for years.

You can dunk?

I used to could. I kid people that’s the Cherokee in me. I’m part Cherokee and Irish, and
the Irish are not known for jumping very high. I’m almost 6-1, so I don’t know where
I got that. I love the game, and I would practice for hours after regular practice. Plus,
that was an outlet for me for when life was not going real well. Some people retreat to
reading, different stuff. My retreat was out on the basketball court. When playing, it
was like a great meditation. All the issues of life left my head.

What’s your retreat now?

My retreat now is, I play a lot of poker on the computer. I’ve gotten so old, it’s hard to
play basketball. Out of my kids, three are boys, and not one of the boys likes basketball, but all four of the girls love it. I’m joking about the poker, but my real retreat is gardening.
I’ve got a half-acre garden, which is huge for a backyard garden. I grow beans, peas,
watermelons, all you can think of. I spend hours out there. I love it. I love watching it
grow. Plus, you get the benefit of eating good organic stuff.

How have your kids taken all of this?

They’re doing good now. The youngest was not born yet. My wife, Amy, was pregnant
the day I shot myself. We didn’t know she was pregnant. I don’t know if it would have
made any difference, because I was insane from the drugs. It ultimately was down to
the way I was feeling about life. I was very selfish. I thought they’d be better off. If she
had told me she was pregnant, I probably would’ve still did it and thought, “Better he
not know me.”

So I woke up three days later, and Amy had taken a pregnancy test. It might have been
morning sickness that made her think of it. She went down to the drugstore at the first
floor and bought a pregnancy test. That was the very first memory I have when I woke up,
is her telling me she loved me, and the next thing stuck in my mind is, “Also, I found out
that I’m pregnant.” I remember crying because I was happy, and I remember
thinking, “This kid is going to have a better chance than the rest of my kids, because I’m
done with doping.”

I have Gabriel, Abigail, Rebekah and Josiah, those four don’t remember a whole lot.
My 16, 17, 20-year-olds do, but this was 10 years ago, and my oldest was just 10 then.
So they have some memories, but thank goodness I stopped when I did. The memories
they do have is me fighting with their mother, assaulting their mother. The one thing
that shocks people is, I didn’t spank my kids. I still don’t spank my kids today. I’m not
trying to tell anybody how to raise their children, but I don’t think spanking them, for
me, is the right thing. I do other things like ground them. I have people get upset when I
talk like this to them, and don’t know why, because it’s my choice. So my kids don’t have
any memories of that, they’re not traumatized by any physical abuse. But there was
mental abuse. I neglected them. I used to shut myself off in a back room of my house
four or five days at a time. I wasn’t helping change diapers, not helping feed them. They
were severely neglected. It took them years to get over it.

Sarah, the oldest one, was with my oldest son, David, sitting on the couch one day. I had
been sober nine or 10 months and was just learning to talk again, so I’m just getting
back to talking. I realized they were acting real weird. We were watching TV together. I
looked over and said, “What is wrong with you guys?” They were really quiet, and that’s
unusual for my kids. Both of them said, “Nothing.” It hit me, and I looked at them and
said, “You guys think I’m going back to drugs, right?” And both of them said, “Yeah” at
the same time. I said, “Look, guys, I’ve lied to you so many times over the years saying I
quit. I’m going to show you this time. It’s gonna take a while, but after a while you’re
going to realize I’m serious.” And they said, “OK.” It took a long time, a couple years. But
you could ask Sarah, “Do you think your dad will go back to meth?” and she’d say, “No.”

I realized one day how I had really scarred her. When she was 16, when she was still
living with us, she was having a bad day, her and her mother had gotten into it. She
started crying. She said she hated me for what I had done, the way I treated everybody.
She said, “You and mom used to fight every day.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s six years and
we haven’t fought, have we?” She said, “No.” I said, “Listen, you’ve got to find a way to
forgive me for what I did and the way I treated everybody. Here I am going around
speaking to people, feeling great. I didn’t even know you were holding this in. The only
person you hurt when you don’t forgive is yourself, and you stick in that rut with anger
and hurt.” I think that day was a good healing thing, because she seems to be doing
good now.

My biggest mistake was not getting my kids some counseling. It was offered, and I told
them no. I look back now and say it was one of the worst mistakes for my kids, rejecting
any kind of counseling. I’ll tell you why I made that decision. When I shot myself, I was
seeing a psychiatrist. My company set it up for me. I had told them I was on drugs and
suicidal. They sent me to the company psychiatrist, who was pumping me full of
Klonopin and other drugs. I was only getting worse. It just so happened that the doctor
had lost his privileges to send me to the hospital. I didn’t know at the time. I thought, “This guy’s trying to kill me, too!”

So when I got out of the hospital, I’m sober, I stopped taking all the depression meds.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling people not to take them, but I didn’t want all those
chemicals. I had such a bad taste in mouth from my psychiatrist, I didn’t want one
messing around with my kids. It’s like having a bad policemen and saying all are bad. I
wish I had gotten counseling for the older kids, who were home that day. I like to think I
am mature enough to tell people, “Hey, that was a bad mistake, don’t do what I did.
Please, get them some counseling.” Or they go like my daughter, for years with it bottled
inside.

Now she seems better?

She’s doing really good. I’m so proud of her because she’s in college, living on her own
and paying for everything. Every time I see her, I try to give her $20, but she’s so
independent. The only thing I’m disappointed in, she’s drinking herself a little bit. She’s
in a sorority. I’m very paranoid, because look at what happened with me. I’m worried,
but she’s doing so good. My son David, he’s the next one that remembers a lot. He has
had some counseling over the last year or so. He was real heavyset when he was a kid,
but he lost 80 pounds in like four months. He’s a skinny boy now, but he couldn’t seem
to stop trying to lose weight. I got him counseling for an eating disorder. I didn’t hesitate
with him. We actually had him in the hospital for two or three days. He’s doing really
good now though. I didn’t think it was dangerous the way he’d been working out with
weights, running. I didn’t realize. Some of it may have went back to me and his mother.
He blamed us for being overweight. Teenagers blame you for everything, even if they
haven’t been through trauma, I guess. I couldn’t hardly argue with him about it, though,
because I wasn’t there for him when he was little. I was in the back room getting high.
Rachel, she’s just getting her first job, just turned 16. She doesn’t seem to ever have any
issues, but she was only 6. I don’t think she remembers a lot of that day. Out of the six
kids, four were at home that day. Just the oldest two are the ones who seemed really
affected.

About your speaking, you do most of it at schools?

Yeah, I’m headed to Alabama next week, then New Mexico. I just come back from
Indiana and Minnesota. We used to average 230 programs a year. Now it’s probably 60
schools a year, then 20 to 30 other things like prisons and rehabs. I think I put off
churches because of some of the things I say. I took out of what I read in the Bible that
we’re supposed to love everybody. That’s the most important thing in the whole world.
Not “Only if you believe like me, live like me.” It seems like it offends some people.

What have been the reactions? Any surprises?

Oh yeah, it’s really neat. I’ve been in 33 states, Canada, and London. If they didn’t like it,
I wouldn’t have been to 33 states. I don’t talk about religion to schools at all. I think they
like that part, because there are so many beliefs and faiths in a school system. I only talk
to them about my mission, to get them to make better choices.

When I first come out on stage, you know, I’m disfigured, and the kids are just shocked, you can see it. By the time the program’s over, they usually surround me and shake my hand. It was a school in St. Paul, Minnesota when there were all these girls with the head coverings on, shaking my hand and telling me how much they loved the program. What’s really been nice, more than one time, the kids come up to me and one girl said, “I gotta be honest, I didn’t want to come to your program. I thought, ‘Oh god, not another one!’ But I’m so glad I came! It’s so different than what I expected!” I have to tell you, that made me feel
good. I think it’s the most wonderful compliment I ever had. Once in state prison an
inmate said, “I didn’t want to come in here. Man, I’m glad I did.”

When my wife encouraged me to go speak, I said, “If I’m going to do it, I have to be
completely honest.” She said, “I want you to be honest.” I remember the first time I
took my kids to a program, I was so scared I’d embarrass them. They were all looking at
me. I started crying. On the way home, they were just cutting up and laughing in the car.
It was totally not what I expected of them! I figured they thought, “Hey, Dad really is
sorry if he can get up in front of people and say this, he really is.” They went so many
times over 10 years they don’t want to go anymore!

People just love the program. They know it’s real. A sheriff told me he’s seen many
programs, but he said he’d never seen one as graphic or real. I have had some bad
feedback, but out of thousands, I got maybe a dozen who didn’t like it. They were saying
they don’t think marijuana is a gateway drug. I’ll explain why it is real quick. Because it’s
not legal. If it was, I don’t think as many people would go onto meth and other things.
When it’s illegal, when you have to go to a house to a dealer to buy, they can say, “I
don’t have any weed, but try this meth.” I would push the meth on them, and the next
thing you know, they were addicted. It puts us in the world of drugs. All we care about is
making money. I don’t think marijuana’s a killer drug like meth or crack cocaine. I don’t
want you to think I’m promoting it, though.

Have suicide prevention groups said anything to you about your seminars?

Yeah, I heard a few times over the years, “You’re trying to run a shock program.” No! I
just collected photos from policemen all over the country. Over the years, it just
developed into this graphic program. I have a section on abused women and one on
child abuse. I tell them, “I’m not trying to shock the kids, I’m just trying to be real.” I
don’t know anything pretty about addiction. If I did, I’d put it in there. Hollywood’s
glamorizing that lifestyle. I just want to tell the kids the truth. I’ll cut it back sometimes.
If I go to a junior high and they say, “We don’t want to show the most graphic,” I take it
out.

What about the photos of your own experience? You don’t have people telling you that might inspire others?

No. I don’t think so. I haven’t had anybody say that. I show the crime scene photos,
which I don’t think will make anybody want to do it. I show my basketball photos, prison
photos, after prison with my wife, as the years progressed as my face changed. I don’t
show any party pictures. I think if I showed some pictures from certain areas, then it
might make them think, “Hey man, dude’s having a good time, aint’ he?” The ones I
show, I try to keep directly tied to the ways drug destroyed my life.

What goals are you still working toward?

Right now, I think I’m going to go back to school and get my counseling license. I just
wrote a book, it came out, I think, last December. I’ve been thinking about going back to
school for a number of years. I want to go because I want all my kids to go. If they see
me, they might say “Hey, Dad’s doing it,” and maybe that will inspire them. You’re never
too old or too young. Even though I’m 46, I’m not too old to go back. That’s my goal.

Is there anything else I should be asking?

The thing I always tell people is, suicide is never the answer. I told the guy at the funeral
last night, who had thought about suicide, “As long as you’re still breathing, things can
always get better.” Suicide is definitely not the right answer. Going and getting some
counseling, that would be doing people a great favor, not killing ourselves.

This isn’t easy to talk about. How would you like to make it an easier topic?

If people would do more interviews and stuff about it I think it would help. By not
talking about it and making it a shameful thing, less people want to talk about it. I know
people who’ve been through situations like me and don’t even want people to know
they went through it, there’s so much stigma and shame involved. If we did more like
that Huffington Post session, it makes it easier and helps people relax a little bit and
open up. It takes away some of the shame and let them know millions of people are
struggling like this. They need to be able to feel like nobody is going to look at you like a
second-class citizen, and you just need some help. I really don’t know the answer, but I
think if they did more education about this and let it be known that “There’s millions,
you’re not the only one, we’re going to treat you and not look at you weird,” it would
help.

I realize I didn’t ask about your wife!

She’s been doing really good also. She does all the scheduling, so she’s been a key part
from the very beginning. We moved for a couple years, then come back. The house has
been in my family five generations. My great-granddad built it. The room I shot myself
in, we didn’t like to go in, like I said before, but we eventually took that back room and
turned it into an office. I thought that was kinda cool. My wife was like, “We’ll fight
drugs from the same room we sold drugs out of.” The first couple years were really
tough, though. She got to using and had quit before I shot myself. She would go through
periods where she was really angry with me. She’d sometimes start crying. It’s been 10
years now. I don’t think she really associates me or her with that old person, it’s been so
long. It’s like thinking about somebody else’s life. She doesn’t think like it was us.

Who else are you?

I’m a dad that tries to put his kids before anything else. I never had a dad. I didn’t know
how to be a dad. But when I die, that’s what I hope the legacy I leave, my kids will be
able to say, “He was a good man.” That’s the one thing, and being a good husband.
When I play basketball, it’s with the kids. I love to go fishing and I love gardening, but
the kids don’t like to help with that. I go to soccer games, I don’t know what the heck
is going on half the time, but I’m supporting them. If I really think about it, that’s who
I am. I have kids 9 to 17 at home. The next decade, I might be able to give you another
answer. But this particular time in my life, I’m a dad. I’m trying to make up for all the
time I lost. I love them and try to put them before myself. If I’m thinking of buying a pair
of underwear for myself, I think, “Hey, do the kids need some socks?” And then I buy
them first. They’re all I think about when I’m not out working. I’m David the dad.

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