Abuse and violence led this man to addiction. Here’s how he found his way out.
written by Noor Hindi; photography by Ilenia Pezzaniti
6 min. read
William “Red” Birchfield is intimidating without necessarily intending to be. It’s easy to imagine that, if he wanted to be, Red could be genuinely frightening, which you get the sense he knows and has, in the past, used to his advantage. Multiple times, he will tell us, “I love violence.” When he admits to joining the Aryan Brotherhood in prison, every fiber of my Arab-American being goes on alert. This is not, however, the way he wants to live going forward. It is not, in fact, who he is anymore.
Today, Red is closing in on two years of sobriety. He’s married with three kids. He’s been promoted to supervisor by an employer who gives him the flexibility to help others, whether he’s putting together bicycles to give away at Christmas through the Akron area nonprofit Elves & More, or establishing a support group in his hometown for other recovering addicts. It’s important to know up front his story has a happy ending because it won’t seem possible considering how it starts. He didn’t come to his heroin addiction through prescription painkillers. He was 18 and already in a California prison on an armed robbery charge when he first shot up.
This began at home.
Later that year, Red went out with his grandfather for a whole day on the canoe. He came back so severely sunburned, he had to stay home from school to recover. That day, he mistakenly left an ice cream sandwich on the bathroom sink, where it melted. That’s where his stepfather found it.
“He pulled his belt off and just started beating me with it. Because of all the blisters, my skin peeled off, and I was bleeding everywhere really bad,” Red says. “My mom was in Vegas, and when my sisters got home, they called mom and said, ‘We think dad killed him’ because I was bleeding, and I was just out from the pain.’”
True to her word, Red’s mom kicked her husband out, but a few days later, he came back with a .38 handgun. He fired a few rounds in the kitchen and everyone scattered to the back porch. That’s when Red’s stepfather shot himself in the head.
“We looked like a great family, you know?” Red says. “But nobody knew that my mom had warrants for selling cocaine to a federal agent, and when he would beat our ass, nobody called the cops, because mom would go to jail.”
Red was affected by more than just the trauma of the abuse he suffered or being witness to his stepfather’s suicide. It was what the abuse taught him.
“At that time, I became very violent. I was always in fights and I was in special schools. I learned that the most violent person had all the power, and I definitely wanted the power. I was thirsty for it.”
After the tour ended, Red lived with one of the drummers, but when the bands left for a European tour, he couldn’t join them because he was still on the run from foster care and couldn’t get a passport.
“I ended up homeless in southern California at a really young age. I ended up robbing a gas station with a knife. There was a police chase. I got busted. They sent me to Corcoran,” Red says.
At Corcoran State Prison, Red says he joined the Aryan Brotherhood, which he describes as a perfect fit because he was a huge kid who loved violence. Plus, he had access to needles because of his diabetes. There, he was willing to do anything.
“They were pit fighting guys there. They’d send me and a black guy out, or me and a Mexican guy out, and we’d fight in the yard, videotaped, and the guards would bet on it. And if you weren’t the guy they bet on, they’d shoot you if you lost.”
He found more than an outlet for the violence he kept pent up.
“I finally had father figures that I thought loved me and cared about me. I fit in really well there.”
But it wasn’t “Ozzie and Harriet.” This was where, at 18, Red injected heroin for the first time, which he has since come to suspect was the dirty needle that gave him Hepatitis C.
“We went on the run together out there. She did her thing. And I did mine. And we kind of teamed up. It was a really sick mother-and-son drug team. We’d shoot each other up,” he says. “I could find my mom’s veins better than she could.”
It ended badly in Chicago too. He landed in the hospital after a violent altercation with a police officer. Red says he escaped naked in the middle of winter, but got caught and ended up back in prison. When his stint was up, Red returned to Northeast Ohio, joining his mom here.
He was soon in trouble again, and he ended up getting flown back to California. This time, he got out and started doing better. He had a little boy, Connor, and checked in with his parole officer, stayed sober and held a stable job. But drugs crept back into his life and everything quickly changed. It almost cost Connor’s life.
“I had my son over one weekend. I dropped an 80-milligram Oxycontin on the floor, and I was on the couch all nodded out and high as hell. I saw him put something in his mouth, and it was through the grace of God that I got up and pulled the pill out of his mouth because it would have killed him.”
_____________________________Red lost custody of Connor and came back to Ohio where he stayed clean for a short time. He met his current wife and started going to meetings but he still felt like he was going to lose to his addiction. Something had to change but he didn’t know what. If he hadn’t hit bottom yet what would it take? He kept looking for answers.
“I’d go to meetings, and I’d hear these addicts say, ‘You can’t get help until you hit your bottom.’ And that used to just throw me in this huge spiral of despair. Because I would think, ‘How is this son of a bitch going to sit across from me and tell me he hit his bottom at 40 years old because he got his first DUI? I’ve done 11 years in prison. I’ve lost a kid. I’ve got Hepatitis C, B, D, E, Q. I’m insulin-dependent. I’m diabetic. I can’t hold a job. I’m living in a trailer with three kids and a wife, and I’m still digging. I haven’t found a bottom.’”
It was January 11, 2015. Red was in detox again, but he’d done that 10 times before. He’d overdosed a few too.
“As I would stick the needle in my arm, I would be in tears because I always thought I was a hopeless case, that nothing was ever going to be bad enough to make me want to stop.”
This is what he was saying to an “old-timer” named Ralph, a suburbanite who seemed to be Red’s polar opposite. Ralph’s response changed everything.
“Let me explain it to you so you understand it,” he told Red. “Your rock bottom isn’t going to be an incident. Your bottom is a decision. The bottom is when you make a choice that no matter what you’re going to do whatever it takes to never pick up again. You have to make that decision every day for the rest of your life.”
That’s when Red finally put the shovel down. He was done digging past rock bottom. He was done with heroin.
Red’s story doesn’t end here. It continues in January when we’ll learn more about his commitment to sobriety and the incredible obstacles he still had to overcome.
COMING IN JANUARY:
Red says… “So, I’m in jail. I know that I’m going away for a long time. They’re talking like 30 years. And I’m just — I don’t know — I’m not at peace with it, but I’m not letting it change who I am or what I’m trying to do. …I went in front of the judge, and I said, ‘Look, I take accountability for this. I’ve never gotten a chance in my life. Y’all have been throwing the key away for years, and honestly, I don’t blame you because I didn’t deserve a chance. I’m not saying I deserve one now, but I think that if you were to give me a chance right now, this would probably be the best opportunity in my whole life because I think I can run with it.’”