Zack Harold

writer/editor

Affliction of the Innocents

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

The halls at Lily’s Place, an old Huntington podiatrist’s office turned infant drug withdrawal center, are almost noiseless. For drug-affected newborns, almost any kind of stimulus is unbearable. “Sometimes just talking to them is too much stimulation,” says clinical care manager Rhonda Edmunds. The nurseries are kept dark. There are no bright colors. Only more advanced patients can tolerate mobiles over their cribs. Staffers walk softly and speak in hushed voices. So it is especially jarring when a baby’s wails cut through the quiet.

It’s true what they say about the cries of infants exposed to hard drugs in utero. They sound different from the cries of a healthy baby—shriller, more pained and desperate. It’s becoming an increasingly common sound in West Virginia maternity wards.

As drug abuse continues to climb in West Virginia, so does the number of pregnant users and the number of newborns exposed to these harmful substances. In 2009, the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership conducted a study of umbilical cord blood from 759 babies at eight hospitals around the state. Researchers found nearly 1 in 5 of the infants tested positive for marijuana, opioids, alcohol, or other “significant substances”—and most of the affected babies tested positive for more than one substance. There have been no follow-up studies to show whether those numbers have changed, but speaking with medical professionals it’s clear the problem is only growing worse.

Before she helped open Lily’s Place in October 2014, Edmunds worked at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cabell-Huntington Hospital. Drug-affected babies, she says, took up more than half of the 36-bed unit. The hospital eventually had to create a separate 12-bed unit for babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, the medical name for infant drug withdrawals. It wasn’t long before the new unit was also filled to capacity. On a recent day, there were 22 babies in the unit. That’s why Edmunds and co-founders Mary Brown and Sara Murray launched Lily’s Place: to free up space in the hospital and get the babies out of the hospital environment.

Dr. Stefan Maxwell, chief of pediatrics Charleston Area Medical Center’s Women and Children’s Hospital, has also watched as babies suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) skyrocket at his hospital, and says all 30 birthing hospitals in the state are seeing similar increases. Kelly Crow, manager of Labor and Delivery at Raleigh General Hospital, told a local news station in April that one in three babies born at her hospital are drug-affected.

Medical professionals generally avoid the term “drug-addicted” when referring to infants. Because addiction is both a physical dependence and mental illness, it’s more appropriate to say they are “drug-affected” or “drug-dependent.” “The babies are not necessarily born addicted. They have been exposed to narcotics and are therefore going to have a withdrawal syndrome when that drug is taken away,” Maxwell says.

But no matter the preferred terminology, these babies are extremely difficult to treat. As Edmunds explains, opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers restrict the flow of dopamine to fetuses’ brains. This leads to problems in the central nervous system, which causes excessive crying, tremors, and sometimes seizures. It also affects the autonomic system, which can lead to excessive sneezing and yawning, and the gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and severe gas.

Medical professionals have to treat these symptoms while also weaning the babies off the substances causing the symptoms. The infants can’t be weaned too fast, however, or else the withdrawals might exacerbate their condition. Some of the tiny patients are released after a few weeks. Maxwell has treated babies for as long as three months.

The good news is, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is entirely preventable. Mothers just have to stop using drugs—which, of course, is easier said than done. Maxwell has some ideas, however. He would like hospitals to screen expectant mothers for drugs early in their pregnancies. Hospitals would refer users to treatment, in an attempt to get them sober as quickly as possible. “So the baby is not as badly affected in the end,” Maxwell says. He says it’s important to get mothers off drugs by their second trimesters. Any later, and withdrawal symptoms might do additional damage to the baby.

It’s a good plan, but there’s a problem. The screening tests would cost lots of money and no one—hospitals, health insurance companies, the government—is quite ready to pony up the cash. Maxwell, who also serves as chairman of the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership’s central advisory council, has an idea to tackle this problem, too. He believes if he can show how much money Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is costing society, the government will be more willing to fund prevention efforts. “Until you can show the government what it’s costing them, you can’t expect them to spend money on programs,” he says. “If we can collect accurate data, we can then put an estimate on the cost of this problem to society.”

At the moment, there’s no good way to estimate the cost of neonatal abstinence syndrome. Maxwell says it’s probably around $40 million per year in West Virginia but that figure is “based on a lot of supposition.” Medicare data would be the best way to collect information, but because of the way medical coding works, there are myriad ways for physicians to classify pregnant, drug-using patients and their babies. The information is scattered all over the place.

So beginning this fall, Maxwell and his colleagues at Cabell Huntington Hospital and West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital will begin making rounds to hospitals around the state, trying to get obstetricians to use a standard set of billing codes for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and related conditions. “If we can have everybody on the same page within 6 to 10 months, by spring of next year I think we will have accomplished something,” he says. “Once the codes are put in, the (state Department of Health and Human Resources) collects all that data. Medicare will have an idea of how much money they are spending.”

Maxwell says it will be easier to ask state lawmakers to fund prevention efforts once solid statistics are available. “We can say ‘Here’s a program that works, here’s what it costs.’” With the right programs in place, he says West Virginia could cut the number of drug-affected infants in half by 2020. “I think it’s realistic.”

Singer Todd Snider feels at home on ‘Mountain Stage’

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.

My conversation with songwriter Todd Snider started off pretty normal.

Normal, at least, considering Snider’s confessed love of psychedelic drugs.

We talked about Snider’s upcoming appearance on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage.” It’s his 15th time on the show, and he feels like he’s part of the family now.

“I can walk right in there and say, ‘Where’s the moonshine?’”

We talked about his acclaimed memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like,” a project Snider says he did “for glory and cash.”

He wrote the book with the help of his friend, Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper. Cooper would come over to Snider’s place and get hopped up on coffee. Snider, who was under the influence of something a little stronger, would start rapping and Cooper would begin typing.

They cranked out 90,000 words in less than two weeks.

Next we talked about Snider’s new jam band, Hard Working Americans.

Formed last year, the group also includes guitarist Neal Casal (of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dave Schools (of Widespread Panic), keyboard player Chad Staehly (of Great American Taxi), lap steel player Jesse Aycock and drummer Duane Trucks, the younger brother of slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

Snider is the band’s lead singer.

“It’s like winning a contest for me,” he said. “I’m kind of in my favorite band.”

He’s found that playing in a jam band is quite different than performing as a solo artists.

“There’s parts of it that feel like your doctor would recommend it,” he said. “I just stand there and do the hippie thing, run in place and sing.”

Hard Working Americans is still considered a side-project, since everyone except Snider plays in another band.

He would be perfectly happy if the group became his full-time gig, however.

“It’s definitely my passion.”

This is when things began to get a little weird.

Snider told me he has been working on a concept album of sorts, based on Hard Working Americans.

But it’s not just a music album. The project also includes a 9,000 word story, a movie, a cartoon show and a board game, all of which explain how to take down ‘The Man.’

“I’ve done tons of research about who The Man is,” Snider said.

The main character of his Hard Working Americans project, Snider explained, is a folk singer called Blind Lemon Pledge. Pledge is sent on a journey to save rock and roll and, by extension, the world.

“’Cause rock and roll is bringing peace to the world,” Snider said.

One of Pledge’s first tasks is to stop Elvis from making movies.

While attempting to free the King, Blind Lemon discovers the 10 forgotten commandments Moses neglected to bring down from Mt. Sinai.

The commandments have survived the ages thanks to musicians, who have passed the commandments down through the generations while hanging out backstage at shows.

The translations are confusing, however. For example, one of the forgotten commandments is “Expose the Fonz.”

“Which really means, ‘Thou shalt be genuine,’” Snider said.

It’s clear he doesn’t have the whole thing worked out yet. But Snider says anyone who plays his “Hard Working Americans” game can take a “Blind Lemon pledge.”

Taking that pledge, he claims, will set off a series of 10 events that will occur over the next 24 hours. Somehow, everyone ends up in Memphis, Tenn.

“It ends in Memphis where we all get embarrassed for thinking what we do is important,” he explained. “The world doesn’t need to be saved from anything, except bands who think they’re going to save the world.”

I’m not sure if Snider means any of this stuff. I’m not sure he knows, either.

But that’s not really important.

Snider probably spent 15 minutes talking about his cartoon/board game/short story/music album project. Although I didn’t understand everything he said, I listened with rapt attention.

That’s what makes Todd Snider such a talented storyteller.

Whether he’s writing a country song, dictating a book, leading a jam band or conducting a very confusing newspaper interview, he delivers each of his words with unmeasured, childlike enthusiasm.

Just like listening to an enthusiastic child, you can’t help but pay attention … even if you have no idea what’s being said.

 

Shot at a second chance

This story was original published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

In late October 2011, storm winds brought down trees all around James Ball’s home near Danville, making the road to his home impassable. It was a terrible time to have a drug overdose.

Ball’s cousin, Delegate Josh Nelson, recently took to the floor of the House of Delegates to recount what happened next. Someone called 911 once it was clear Ball needed medical attention, but paramedics could not make it up the 10-mile-long hollow where he lived. Nelson and his family members tried to cut the trees out of the roadway with chainsaws. They tried to drag the trees out of the way with all-terrain vehicles. But despite their work, the ambulance only made it halfway to Ball’s house.

Desperate, they switched strategies and loaded Ball onto a stretcher, strapped the stretcher to an ATV, and hauled him to the ambulance. “Unfortunately we did not get it there in time and he passed on,” Nelson told his fellow lawmakers. “It was too late.”

Ball battled his addiction to prescription painkillers for years, Nelson says. More than once he started attending church, trying to live right, only to have his demons drag him back to the bottom. “He would kind of get better and do it again,” Nelson says. Ball had overdosed before but was lucky enough to get to a hospital in time for doctors to resuscitate him. On October 28, 2011, his time ran out.

Nelson says Ball probably would still be alive, however, if his family members had access to Naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” medication that oftentimes can save the life of someone suffering from a heroin or painkiller overdose.

The medication, sometimes known by its brand name Narcan, has been on the market for more than 30 years but, until recently, only medical professionals had access to it. During his State of the State address in January, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to put Naloxone in the hands of both emergency responders and addicts’ loved ones. “By expanding access to this life-saving drug, we can prevent overdose deaths and give those suffering from substance abuse the opportunity to seek help, overcome their addiction, and return to their families, workplaces, and communities,” Tomblin said in the speech.

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, according to a 2013 report by Trust for America’s Health. In 2010 there were 28.9 fatalities per 100,000 people in the state, the highest per-capita rate in the nation. That is also a 605 percent increase over 1999, when the state had just 4.1 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. Gary Mendell, CEO of the anti-drug lobbying group Shatterproof, says many of those lives could have been saved if Naloxone were more readily available.

Members of the state Senate passed a bill to deregulate the overdose antidote during the 2014 regular session, but the measure failed to gain traction in the House of Delegates. Governor Tomblin’s proposed legislation did not meet the same fate, however. It passed the Senate with a unanimous vote in early February. A little more than a week later, following Nelson’s heartfelt floor speech, it received another unanimous vote in the House of Delegates.

Tomblin signed the bill into law on March 9, so by the end of May state doctors will be able to prescribe Naloxone to drug addicts’ family, friends, and caregivers, as well as police and firefighters. The medicine can be given through a single-use shot, like an EpiPen, or a nasal spray. And while the law also created a limited liability statute for those administering Naloxone, the medicine carries little risk. It’s not even dangerous if given to someone who is not experiencing an overdose. “There’s no negative effects. It’s not addictive. There’s no abuse potential,” Mendell says.

Naloxone works by blocking the receptors in the brain affected by opioids, a category of drugs that includes heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and methadone. By blocking the receptors, the medicine temporarily stalls the opioids’ effects on the body. The results usually are immediate. Most overdose victims in respiratory distress begin breathing regularly within minutes of receiving a dose.

The medicine is not without risks, however. It does not work on non-opioid drug overdoses—meaning it would be useless on cocaine or methamphetamine addicts, for instance—and overdose patients still must seek medical attention even if they feel fine after receiving Naloxone. Dr. David Seidler, chairman of Charleston Area Medical Center’s emergency medicine residency program and medical director for the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority, says overdose patients often refuse medical treatment after being revived with Naloxone. “They refuse to go to the hospital because they wake up and they’re feeling fine, or they wake up and they’re pissed off,” he says.

And Naloxone does not always last as long as the opioids it neutralizes. The medication can wear off while the other drugs are still coursing through an addict’s veins. “There’s a risk they’ll become unconscious again and potentially could die,” Seidler says. “Thirty or 40 minutes later, if they had a big enough overdose, they’ll be unconscious again.” If that happens, medical treatment at a hospital is an overdose victim’s best chance at survival.

Rodney Miller, president of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, says he’s glad officers will now be allowed to use Naloxone. Police often arrive at the scene of overdoses long before ambulance crews, but since state law limited the medication to medical professionals, “we couldn’t, by law, have Narcan in our possession, let alone administer it,” Miller says.

He says expanding Naloxone’s availability will not solve West Virginia’s rampant drug abuse problems. But, he admits, that’s not the point. “The spirit of this legislation is, if you’ve got a person that’s an accidental overdose, it can save their life and give them a second chance.” It will be up to the addict to decide what to make of his second chance.

Poet finds peace after long struggle with addiction

This story was originally published April 24, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

On Aug. 6, 2006, Larry “Ace” Boggess walked into the McCloud Family Pharmacy in Lavalette dressed in a long black hood and cape, intending to steal some Oxycontin.

He was armed with a pair of steak knives and a crowbar, although he now says he never intended to use them.

Nevertheless, Boggess soon found himself in a scuffle with pharmacist Jim McCloud.

According to media reports at the time, Boggess cut McCloud several times during the fight. A state policeman was nearby when the 911 call came through and was able to subdue Boggess and take him to the Western Regional Jail.

Boggess had never been arrested before. Never even had a speeding ticket. Now, he was fingerprinted. He had a mugshot. He was headed into the state correctional system.

He was a law school graduate and a widely published poet. But Boggess also was a drug addict, and had been for years.

Boggess plead guilty to first degree robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, although he would only serve five.

It saved his life. Boggess got clean and stayed that way.

Prison also saved his writing.

Once convinced he couldn’t write without a painkiller coursing through his veins, Boggess eventually proved he did not need opiates to make good art. He produced an entire volume of poetry, “The Prisoners,” during his time behind bars.

The book was released in February and this Friday, Boggess will return to Taylor Books for his first Charleston reading in nearly a decade.

***

Boggess never considered himself a poet. From the time he was a child, he wanted to write novels.

Poetry was just a quick way of committing ideas to paper.

“It’s faster when you’re getting started,” he said.

After graduating from George Washington High School in 1989, Boggess headed to Marshall University, where he studied journalism. He got a job with the Herald Dispatch, and found writing poetry was also a good way to kill time between stories.

The newspaper industry didn’t seem like a good fit, however, so he moved to Morgantown and enrolled in West Virginia University’s College of Law.

At the same time, his dependence on prescription painkillers was steadily increasing, even though those closest to him never knew.

Boggess says he avoided even ibuprofen and aspirin as a young man, but got his first taste of the painkiller Loratab following a wisdom teeth extraction at age 19.

“It was like a bomb went off in my head,” he said. “It erases everything, or at least you think it does.”

He dabbled with painkiller for the next several years, but his habit took a turn for the worse in his last year of law school at West Virginia University.

That’s when he discovered Oxycontin.

Boggess found a bottle of the high-powered opiates while rifling through his deceased grandmother’s medicine cabinet.

The high was the same as with other drugs, he found, but Oxy’s packed a bigger punch. One Oxycontin felt like a hundred Percocet.

He was soon hooked on the drug but, realizing he had a problem, Boggess kicked his habit cold turkey during finals week of his last semester of law school. But the sobriety would not last long.

Boggess wound up back in Huntington after law school. He never took the bar exam (“I knew I would never make it as a lawyer,” he says) but paid the bills with freelance writing jobs and editing projects, as well as a few fellowships he received from the state.

He had completed 10 novels by this time, but although he was having poems published “left and right,” Boggess still could not find a publisher interested in his fiction.

“I’d probably put 15 years of my life at that point into writing and they wouldn’t sell,” he said.

Boggess was rudderless and depressed. He also became convinced he needed drugs to write.

He had never purchased pills before — he usually got his fix by stealing family members’ prescriptions — but friends in Huntington introduced Boggess to drug deals with a steady supply of prescription painkillers.

Now, Boggess’s ability to get drugs was only limited by his financial resources.

His addiction was worse than ever and, over the next eight years, would destroy his entire life.

***

Boggess said the hardest part of addiction was not being high or sober, but the state in between.

“Picture the worst flu you’ve ever had. The shakes, the fever, the twitches, things you can’t even put into words…and multiply that by 100.”

The sickness is made worse, Boggess said, because addicts know they only need one pill to make the sickness go away. So they take the drug and enjoy the temporary relief, only to start the process all over again.

“You keep going through this day after day and eventually your mind just goes.”

His friends were aware he had a drug problem, although they underestimated how severe it was. His family, however, had no idea about his addiction.

“Never underestimate a junkie’s sense of control,” he said.

Boggess drove to Wayne County every day to visit his drug dealer, scrounging up money where he could to feed his habit. And every day, he drove by the same pharmacies.

“Eventually I started wondering, would it be easier to go in there and just get the drug?”

In June 2006, he walked into a Rite-Aid in Lavalette with a long kitchen knife. He left with “a lot” of Oxycontin.

“I don’t think I ever counted them. By that point I was out of my head. I was just taking pills left and right.”

Boggess somehow got away with the robbery and, emboldened, decided to try again.

“I was completely insane. I had no idea what I was doing for the most part.”

That’s when Boggess made his failed robbery attempt at the McCloud Family Pharmacy and found himself facing his first night in jail.

He chronicled the experience in his poem “What Was Your First Day of Incarceration Like?”

“In a medical isolation cell, I paced and cursed and purged, bent over the steel john as if I lost something: a wedding band or matched set of dreams. Left alone, buried alive.”

He recalls laying face down on the concrete floor, peeking through a crack underneath the door.

“Praying any human foot would pass: an angel of mercy, invisible friend, a stranger’s voice in the wilderness of night,” he wrote.

***

Boggess spent a month and a half in jail before he was released on bond. He then spent the next six months in a rehabilitation program, returning home clean and sober.

He plead guilty to first degree robbery in July 2007. Four months later, a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

He was immediately taken back to the Western Regional Jail, where he waited for six months until being transferred to the Martinsburg Correctional Center in March 2008 for classification.

“Same spare walls, spiritless meals, but new clothes and a new view,” he wrote in the poem “Prison View.”

Boggess spent the majority of his time as an inmate at the Stevens Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Welch.

“It was complete misery but at the same time it was a whole world I’ve never seen before,” he said.

He was scared but fascinated. Boggess said the environment was much less ruthless or violent than he’d expected.

“Prison here isn’t like what you see on TV,” he said. “They’re all just people. A lot of them are screwed up. I was screwed up. But a lot of them are just overly rambunctious children.”

He began pouring all his experiences onto the page.

“I’ve always considered myself a kind of journalist-poet. I try to describe what I see,” he said.

The poems in “The Prisoners” capture everything from prison chefs (“they could cook the delight from a birthday cake”) to the day room, where inmates watch a movie about prison.

“Not the classic where Tim Robbins escapes, or Clint Eastwood escapes, or Tom Hanks puts the innocent man to death. Instead it’s Eddie Murphy who can’t escape Martin Lawrence.”

There is humor in the book, but there is also despair.

In the book’s title poem, Boggess writes the prisoners “have seen too much, smudged the flush from embers of memory’s freedom, covered them up with ash.”

He asks “what does it mean to hope? To want more than this? To dream of the outside, then forget?”

Boggess even dedicates a poem to McCloud, asking for his forgiveness in the poem “Letter to My Victim.”

“I’m deeply sorry in you I saw nothing human, just a door through which hell is exited…If I could, I’d take back the knife, return the blood and fix your wounds,” he writes.

Boggess had 75 poems published in 50 different magazines while he was behind bars.

He compiled them into the book that would later become “The Prisoners” and, on the day he was released on parole in December 2012, received an acceptance letter from Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Ga.

The publisher released “The Prisoners” in February of this year, just as Boggess was finishing up his parole.

***

Boggess has been sober for nearly eight years now, but his body still craves the drugs that ruined his life and took away his freedom.

“The desire’s always there. Once you’re an addict, it never goes away.”

He stays clean because he realizes the consequences of using drugs again.

“I destroyed my whole life and probably a few other peoples’ as well,” he said. “I wouldn’t take pills if you threw them at me and ran away.”

He also has no desire to return to prison. Boggess is enjoying his freedom, even if it sometimes overwhelms him.

“The best thing about being free is there are so many choices. But the worst thing about being free is there are so many choices,” he said.

Behind bars, he never had to think about what to eat, what to drink or what to wear. Now, even choosing a utensil can be a profound experience.

“You spend five years eating with a rubber spoon…when you’re grateful for a fork, imagine what the bigger things do to you,” he said. “It’s fascinating. Coming back out is a whole new experience, too. I’m seeing everything I saw before, but it’s all different now.”

It hasn’t been easy. Boggess cannot find work, even though he has two degrees and has filled out 50 job applications in the last year.

He is publishing poems and short stories, but the novels still are not selling.

But instead of turning to drugs, Boggess is channeling everything into his writing. He is finishing another volume of poetry inspired by his release from prison.

“Even when things are bad I feel okay with it,” he said. “Really for the first time in my life everything is good. Even when it’s not.”

Ace Boggess will be at Taylor Books on Capitol St. this Friday at 6 p.m. to sign copies of his book “The Prisoners.” He also will read some of his poems beginning about 7 p.m.

Zac Jones to fight in Rough ‘n’ Rowdy Brawl

This story was originally published Jan. 9, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail. It won “Best Lifestyles Feature” at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association Awards.

Fists wrapped and gloves tied, tomorrow night Zac Jones, the often-troubled son of Charleston mayor Danny Jones, will duck through the ropes at the Charleston Civic Center for his first ever boxing match.

He’s been training for months, running, lifting weights and learning the fundamentals of the sport from his coach at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

“I’m not nervous now,” he said. “I’m sure it will change by the time the event comes around, when I step into the ring with thousands of people watching.”

Jones, 24, is among the dozens of men and women signed up to fight in this year’s Rough N’ Rowdy amateur boxing contest, which begins Friday night.

He initially signed up because he needs the money.

The winner of each weight division gets $1,000, a substantial sum when you’re working two low-paying restaurant jobs to make ends meet.

But over the last month, Jones became more sincere in his training. He doesn’t know if he’ll win, but he believes there’s a chance.

And if he loses . . . well, he’s been there before.

This is Jones’ first boxing match, but it’s not his first fight.

And while thousands will see him step into the ring, millions were watching the last time he went to the mat.

This time, Zac Jones is fighting for $1,000, a championship jacket and a trophy.

Last time, he was fighting for his life.

* * *

It was 6:30 on a chilly March morning, and Jones was speeding down Interstate 77 in a white Mazda 3 with Moldavian Harris, 24, of Detroit.

Metro Drug Unit Detective O.B. Morris spotted the car, followed it off the Washington Street exit and turned on his blue lights.

Mayor Danny Jones had informed Charleston Police of his son’s whereabouts so he could be arrested.

Officers found 25.7 grams of cocaine in the vehicle. Jones and Harris were charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine. A judge set their bonds at $25,000 cash. The mayor refused to pay his son’s bail.

National media outlets picked up the story after the elder Jones released a heartbroken statement declaring his son a “hopeless drug addict.” He said he was thankful for Zac’s arrest.

“If in jail or prison, I know that Zac has a better chance at living than on the outside. This is because Zac is a hopeless drug addict who has broken the heart and the will of everyone and anyone who has tried to help him,” he wrote.

The stories all mentioned the younger Jones’ previous run-ins with police, a 2008 DUI arrest and a 2011 bust for heroin possession.

No one knew his struggles with substance abuse had started much earlier.

“I always felt I was different. I think I was born with this disease of addiction,” he said.

He began smoking marijuana at age 12, a year before his father was elected mayor.

“There was something just attractive about it. I don’t know if that makes sense to somebody that’s normal,” he said.

Things got worse as he got older. Jones estimates he got high every single day from the time he was 14 until his first stint in rehab at age 20.

He got his first taste of painkillers at age 16, after breaking his feet in a skateboarding accident. He began abusing Vicodin before moving onto Oxycontin, which eventually led to heroin.

“The opiates are where I really found what I was looking for,” he said. “Cocaine was always in there, too.”

He was arrested for the first time in 2008, after crashing his car in South Hills.

Jones, just 18 at the time, ran from the scene. Police found him a short time later in wet and dirty clothes. His blood alcohol content was 0.122.

At age 20, he decided to get clean. He was spending all his money on drugs while his bills and rent were falling behind.

“I could tell I had a problem,” he said.

His father sent him to a rehabilitation facility in California, where he successfully kicked his habits and graduated the program. The sobriety only lasted a few months, however.

Jones had hoped rehab would cure his addiction to “heavy” drugs, but wasn’t ready to give up alcohol.

“I was 20 years old. I wanted to drink,” he said.

He underestimated the strength of his addiction. Jones was soon using drugs again, and was arrested for heroin possession in 2011.

Police, responding to complaints of drug activity, arrived at an apartment on Kelly Road, where Jones answered the door and allowed the officers inside. His girlfriend at the time handed over a plate with 10 lines of heroin, which Jones admitted belonged to him.

His father refused to offer any more help.

“I was so miserable. I was ready to run ’til the wheels fell off,” Jones said. “I didn’t care about anything or anyone.”

* * *

After his arrest last spring, Jones spent more than three months in the South Central Regional Jail. His father refused to pay his bond and asked that no one else would, either.

Looking back, Zac said he’s glad for the tough love because it forced him to come to a realization. He could spend his life in jail, stay addicted to drugs, die or get clean.

He decided to get clean. He began calling The Healing Place, a rehabilitation facility in Huntington, every single day, “desperate, desperate to change my life.”

“They want you to show you’re really wanting it,” he said.

When the center wouldn’t accept him right away, Jones got started on his own.

“When I was arrested, I was in really, really bad shape. I’d done drugs for a lot of years. I just decided I wanted to use the time I was going to be away to get back in shape,” he said.

The jail didn’t have a gym, so he began doing exercises in his cell. The exertion made him sick at first, but Jones was eventually doing 1,000 push-ups a day. He started lifting weights after he was released to The Healing Place in June. When he moved to the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home a few months later, he started going to a gym in Charleston.

In nine days, Zac Jones will be 10 months sober and in the best shape of his life.

Every morning he rolls out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and, four days a week, begins strength training by 6 a.m. He also runs, clocking five kilometers every other day. He goes to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Donnally Street three or four times a week to train for boxing.

He works hard to stay fit, and you can tell. When he was arrested, Jones’ face still bore some of the softness of adolescence. That’s gone now.

His shoulders and arms bulge under his T-shirt sleeves, the skin stretched tight to show thick veins underneath. Watching him work a punching bag in the gym, you’re thankful it isn’t your face.

Jones also works hard to stay sober. It’s a daily struggle.

“It took me a long time to realize I cannot use drugs or alcohol successfully,” he said. “Without me being clean, I don’t have a chance.”

He has figured out ways to keep himself in check.

Some of his strategies, like the exercise, he’ll talk about. Other parts, he prefers to keep private.

“It’s not easy being an addict and staying sober,” he said. “I know how it is. I know how it feels. It’s a tough way to live.”

Jones has quit drugs, alcohol, even cigarettes. He still dips snuff, which helped him quit smoking, but he wants to quit that, too, after the fight.

“There’s help out there. You have to sincerely want it, and be willing to ask,” he said.

“This way of life is a lot better than the alternative.”

* * *

Although he formerly worked as a coal miner, Jones is now a cook at Recovery Sports Grill on Virginia Street.

On Thursdays, he goes to work at the Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Cross Lanes, where he makes $40 a night cooking his father’s special barbeque ribs for the French Quarter restaurant.

“I get my ass kicked every day. It’s hard work, working in a restaurant,” he said.

Jones said he likes the restaurant business, but figures the only way to make real money is to open his own place. He hopes to eventually resurrect his father’s restaurant, Danny’s Rib Shack, somewhere in the Kanawha Valley. Right now, he’s just trying to build up experience.

It’s the same thing with his Rough N’ Rowdy fight.

“I’m not going to be a boxer. I’m not training for the Golden Gloves,” he said. “It’s something I’ve trained for. I’ve already done what I’ve set out to do.”

When Jones signed up for the Rough ‘N’ Rowdy, he was asked to provide a ring name.

Many fighters take inspiration from their home counties.

Boone County will be represented this year by a “Boone County Beast,” a “Boone County Brawler,” a “Boone County Redneck,” a “Boone County Thrill,” a “Boone County Outlaw,” a “Boone County Wild Child” and even a “Wildest Child.”

Others play off their given names, like “Cam the Man,” “Cam Nasty” and “John Boy.”

Jones originally considered “Bones,” but realized a lot of fighters with his last name pick that one.

Then the word Juggernaut popped into his head. He first thought of the villain from Marvel’s X-Men comic books. But then he looked at the definition.

“It means an unstoppable force.”