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Long road back

"Long road back" Continued...

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

Michael English grew up in a house trailer in North Carolina tobacco country, the son of an electronics salesman. His father often traveled, which was just fine with his mother since the two fought when he was at home. For a season, his mother numbed her loneliness with alcohol. But she gave it up cold when Michael was 14 after he lugged her liquor bottles into a fallow field and smashed them with an ax. Michael had not known she was watching from the trailer window.

Raised in the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist church, English learned about a hall-monitor God who wouldn't think twice about sending Christians to hell if they stepped off the straight and narrow. After his life went south, that theology would haunt him: "No matter what I did after I fell, I figured hell wasn't going to get any hotter," he said.

When English was only 10, his father formed a Southern Gospel group, the Singing Samaritans. The group quickly recorded its first album, He Pilots My Ship, which they sold after concerts in little country churches across both Carolinas and Virginia. Shy by nature, English hated it when his father made him "testify" before congregations about what God had done in his life.

"I was only 12 or 13 years old," he writes in Prodigal. "As far as I knew, He hadn't done much yet."

As a boy, English idolized Southern Gospel's "full-timers," successful groups like the Stamps and the Happy Goodman Family. At 18, English auditioned for a full-time group called the Singing Americans, and got the job. The following year, he met and married Lisa Bailey, just after she graduated from high school. A couple of years later, they had a daughter, Megan.

English got his first big break when he was asked to join the Goodmans, one of the groups he had idolized in his youth. Then in 1985 his career took off when Bill Gaither auditioned him to sing lead for the Gaither Vocal Band. In 1992, the Gaither Vocal Band won the Grammy for Best Southern Gospel Album. That year, English's debut solo album, Michael English, was also nominated for Best Pop Gospel Album.

It seemed the sky was the limit, until the revelation of English's affair brought his success crashing down around him. English moved out of his home and divorced his wife. He appeared briefly on the pop charts but missed Christian music and tried to return. Many fans felt betrayed, though, and refused to embrace him.

"I was hurt. I was a big fan of Michael English," said Mark Hall, now lead singer of the group Casting Crowns. "When I found out what happened, I felt fooled and . . . I jumped right in and grabbed a stone with the rest of the crowd."

After leaving Christian music, English found immediate acceptance on the Nashville party circuit. Young, handsome, and wealthy, he had no shortage of new admirers who didn't care what he'd done. "It was easier to count the ways I felt Christian music had mistreated me than the ways I could have behaved differently," he says. "It was more satisfying to feel angry than ashamed."

English also found satisfying a friend's suggestion to pop a pain pill before hitting the clubs. English had an old prescription for Loritab, a narcotic he'd taken once after a medical procedure. He now found that the pills helped him relax, overcome his natural shyness with people. The Loritab also had an interesting side effect: Its buzz blunted the shame that gnawed at him when he wasn't quick enough to blot it out with anger.

It took only a couple of years for English to become a complete slave to hydrocodone (the narcotic ingredient in Loritab), the most abused prescription drug in the United States, according to the FDA. Because it is not a regulated substance, "white-collar" abuse through forged prescriptions, over-prescription, theft, and "doctor shopping"-going from one physician to another, complaining of pain-is rampant.

By 1999, English had developed a $400-a-day habit and become a grossly overweight recluse. Nabbed in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sting in 2000, English submitted to a grueling detox procedure that his book chronicles in graphic detail.

Still, he would relapse twice more.

"I can't tell you how many times I stood over the toilet holding all my pills, thinking, 'OK, God, I'm going to do this. I'm going to flush these, and You're going to rescue me,'" he remembers. But each time, he would chicken out, afraid God would turn His back.

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