December 1964, Russell Eugene Patterson enters the world in Long Beach, California. His family consists of two older sisters and a mom and dad. They are a middle class family living in the Los Angeles suburbs, but they will be upper-middle class by the time Russ graduates high school. Both of his parents are bankers and will climb steadily up the corporate ladder through the years. In his very early years, Russ’ family has some ties to the Catholic church, but by the time he is 6, his parents have had a falling out with the church, and that is the end of any religious influence in the home. Nevertheless, it is a good home. His mother has an unhealthy control over the household, and his father in particular, but all in all, it was a good, stable home. It is a musical home, a mostly peaceful home, a disciplined home, and for 10 years, Russ excelled in that home. His grades were straight A’s and he was the star pitcher in his baseball league. In the 6th grade he was elected student body president, and at the end of the year, he took home the American Legion Award. This young man was off to a strong start in life.
7th grade was the beginning of junior high, and would begin a slow decline that would continue for over two decades. Drugs and alcohol entered the picture and played an increasingly prominent role in his life. By the time he graduated from high school (which was a miracle in itself), he had tried almost every drug there was, destroyed two vehicles, been arrested on several occasions, lived on the streets for a period of time, and had a permanent felony on his criminal record.
It was during his senior year in high school that he met Susan; his first love and his first wife. Their marriage was ridiculous. Crystal Meth and Jack Daniels were in constant supply. They fought like cats and dogs. They were constantly getting evicted, losing their jobs, and stealing to make ends meet. After about 3 years, they were really down and out so Susan’s parents, who were now living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said that if they would move out there, they would help them get on their feet. So off they went.
Alabama didn’t work out for long. Russ caught Susan with another guy, so he loaded everything he could fit in the back of his old Ford pick-up and headed back to L.A. To this day, he has not seen or spoken to Susan again.
The next several years are a blur to Russ. He ran all over the country, raising hell everywhere he went. He spent various times in jail ranging from a few hours to several months. He went through more jobs than he can count. He was twice homeless without a possession in the world but the clothes he was wearing. He’d stay in a place until the cops, a jealous husband, or an angry father chased him out of town. He lived in San Diego, Nashville, Jackson Hole, and Louisiana, before landing in Sarasota, Florida.
In Sarasota, after a few more months of madness, Russ found love again. He was working at a one hour photo lab when the owner hired a new employee. Her name was Lori, and she and Russ hit it off immediately. Lori had two children; her daughter, Amber, was 7, and her son, Jason, was 2. Russ really liked the kids. He decided it was time to settle down, and start being an adult. He would clean up his act, marry this girl and be a father to her children. So one by one, Russ eliminated the vices from his life. First he quit chasing women, then he quit doing hard drugs, then he even quit smoking weed. All that was left was to curb the drinking to a reasonable level. This one proved to be a little more difficult than the rest. Actually, it was proving to be quite impossible, but he moved forward with his plan anyway, and married Lori about a year after they met. Not long after, he talked her into having a 3rd child.
The baby came on January 28th 1994, and they named her Shannon Renee Patterson. A prouder father there has never been. This father and daughter would share an extraordinary bond that has only grown stronger over the last 25 years. Still, there was this pesky alcohol problem that kept rearing its head. It made life very difficult for everyone. Russ was really beginning to hate himself for not being able to beat it, and that hatred led to even more drinking.
In January of 1995, Russ was once again fired for drinking on the job. A new job did not come easily this time, especially not at the salary they had become accustomed to. When there was still no job in March, Lori’s dad suggested they all move to Illinois. He had an empty cabin on a lake just outside Monmouth, and he said it would be tight quarters, but they were welcome to stay there while they got on their feet. Russ was no stranger to packing up and heading out, so off they went.
Once in Illinois, Russ found work quickly in the construction business. A couple months later, he bought a large house and moved his family out of the cabin. Things seemed to being going well in Illinois. He had never lived in such a small town, and he wasn’t sure he liked that part of it, but his daughter brought him much joy, and he actually owned a house for the first time. He and Lori fought about his drinking a lot, but he had managed to quit drinking on the job.
Then the Illinois winter hit and the construction work came to a screeching halt. Russ got laid-off from work, but still got an unemployment check every week. As the boredom set in, he began to drink like never before. The tension in his marriage reached a fevered pitch and he felt it coming to an end.
“No!” he screamed at himself, “This cannot happen!” He was serious. This had to stop here and now. He dragged out the self-help books that had given some temporary success before, and then he bought more on top of that. He buried himself in those books, and by sheer will power he stopped drinking. A week later, he stopped smoking cigarettes too. He was gonna change his life dammit!
It was almost 3 weeks later; longer than he had ever gone without a drink. Lori walked into the living room where he was sitting. She had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“What are you doing, Russ? You haven’t taken your nose out of those books for weeks. Are you just gonna be boring for the rest of your life now? I think I liked you better when you were drinking!”
She was half kidding when she said it, but Russ was an alcoholic of the first order, and that was all the excuse he needed. He walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and as he cracked open that beer and lit that cigarette, he hated himself more than ever.
A few months later Lori came home from her waitressing job and told him to leave. Deep down, he knew he deserved it. He didn’t really mind losing her at that point; he would be able to drink more freely on his own, but the thought of waking up in a different house than the one Shannon would be waking up in was unbearable. He did what drunks do when they’re in pain…he drank.
He can’t tell you anything about the next couple of weeks. He remained in a stupor for all of it. When he started to come out of the stupor, he was having some very irrational thoughts about how to handle things. He was just sober enough to realize how foolish the thoughts were, so he felt it best to get away for a while. He jumped on a plane to California to stay with his parents for a while. He got a job, cleared his head the best he could, and returned to Monmouth 10 weeks later.
When the divorce was final, Lori got custody of Shannon. Russ was to get her every other week-end. The big question in Russ’ mind was, what was he going to do with himself between visitations? He needed a job again, and he was great at running all over the country, so he got his CDL and started driving a semi across 48 states and Canada. His Cedar Rapids based company got him home to visit Shannon every other week-end without fail. He quit maintaining a residence because he was gone so much. He would get a motel when he came to town to see Shannon. Swimming pools and restaurants were fine with her.
For about a year, that was the routine. He’d be gone for 11 or 12 days, come home to visit Shannon, and right back out again. His drinking was no better or worse. He tried, and mostly succeeded, to stay sober while behind the wheel of the semi, but was drunk most every night, doing various drugs to stay awake during the day, and drank too much when he was home with Shannon. He hated himself more every day.
Then came the turning point…
It was January 27th, 1998. He was on a Greyhound bus from Cedar Rapids, IA, where his company’s terminal was, to Galesburg, IL. In Galesburg, he would pick up his vehicle, which he had left behind for repairs, and in the morning, he would go pick up Shannon. He had a pocket full of money and it was going to be her 4th birthday. He’d been planning this day with her over the phone for 2 weeks and nothing was going to screw it up.
He was thinking about what fun they were going to have together when the bus pulled into the Davenport, IA, terminal. This was unexpected; a 90 minute layover in Davenport. “Oh well”, he thought, “as long as I can get to Shannon by morning, it’ll be fine.” And that’s when he saw it out the left window…the casino boat. It called to him, and he was drawn to it. Not for the gambling, but just for the atmosphere and the booze. “I’ll just play a little black jack, and have one or two drinks. It’s only a five minute walk, and it’ll help pass the time.”
90 minutes later, he was stumbling back onto the bus. Not only had he had several drinks and lost most of his money on the boat, he also had a bottle of vodka from the liquor store hiding in his coat, and a large fountain drink with which to conceal the drinking of it.
Russ doesn’t remember getting off the bus in Galesburg, or even where he slept that night. The next thing he remembers is the scene unfolding at Lori’s house when he went to pick up Shannon the next morning.
He was still visibly drunk. Eyes red, clothes disheveled, speech slurred.
“You’re not taking her anywhere in that condition Russ. Just turn around and get out of here!”
Shannon appears on the porch in her birthday dress ready to go out with daddy for her birthday.
“Daddy!” she exclaims excitedly.
“Sorry honey, daddy can’t take you today. Go back in the house.”
“No mommy, daddy’s taking me today. You said so!”
“I’m sorry honey, he can’t today.”
“He just can’t!” Then, as she drags Shannon, bawling, into the house, “Russ, will you just get the @^#* out of here!”
His hatred of himself reached a new level. The only thing that kept him from killing himself was the pain that it would cause Shannon. He was at the end of himself. He was as broken as a man could be. He drank the rest of the day and the next because he didn’t think he could bear to feel what he knew he would feel when he sobered up.
Sobriety finally came on the 30th. There was no way he could face Lori or Shannon. He might as well head back to Cedar Rapids and get ready to go back out on the road. But first a trip to the library for a stack of self-help books, because he was never going to drink again!
Four hours later, He was sitting in a motel room in Cedar Rapids, pouring through the books.
“What in the world is this one?” he asks himself, picking up Just As I Am, by Billy Graham. He didn't remember grabbing it.
He thumbs through it. “Jesus crap” he mutters to himself, tossing it aside.
He grabs the next one and begins to read. “This is more like it.” He says to himself; until he gets to chapter two and finds that this book too, tells him he needs God. He keeps going from book to book. They all say something about Jesus or God or a Higher Power or at the very least being spiritually healthy. It starts him thinking and he goes back to the Billy Graham book where he finds the gospel clearly presented. This is not the first time he has heard this lately. That pastor he met on the job site before the divorce had kept saying this stuff.
“It can’t be true.” He thinks, “It’s too easy, too accessible. The answer has to be more complex, more hidden. Jesus was too easy to get to.”
But even as he thinks that, there’s another part of him that’s realizing the truth of it. He’s realizing that every person he knows who seems to be living their lives the way he wished he could live his, are people who call themselves Christians.
As he prepares to sleep off his dreadful hangover, he prays the first real, honest prayer of his life:
“God I don’t know about all this. It seems too easy. But God I can’t take it anymore. I can’t live this way. I don’t know how to live. God, if this Jesus is really the answer, then you’ve got to show me somehow. So help me Lord, if you show me, I’ll believe you and I’ll become a Christian.” And with that, he wiped the tears from his eyes and went to sleep.
The second I opened my eyes the next morning, I was overcome with the feeling that I needed Jesus. There had been no thunder and lightning, no dreams of enlightenment…I simply woke up to an absolute certainty: Jesus was indeed the answer. It was early, but I didn’t care. I ran outside to the pay phone and called the pastor I had met a couple years before, who seemed to keep popping up in my life. I told him I needed to talk to him urgently, and asked if he could meet with me. He agreed and I immediately drove the 2 hours back to Monmouth. Sitting in his office at a small church, I explained everything that had happened over the past few days and told him I was ready to accept Christ. He led me through the gospel again and I accepted it whole-heartedly. It was Saturday, January 31, 1998. The next morning I sat in church with Shannon by my side. I remember being terribly over-dressed and hearing a message from Ephesians 5. That would be my church home for the next 15 years.
Sobriety was almost effortless. Months went by and my life was changing dramatically. I was getting to my church every other weekend and finding truck-stop church services on the road. I was soaking in God’s word. That’s when Satan made his move.
He said, “Wow Russ, God has really changed you, I’ll bet you’re not even an alcoholic anymore. You could probably just drink a beer or two and then stop, like a normal person.”
I bought it. And within a couple weeks I was right back where I started, but worse. The church I was attending was not one where you could feel comfortable if you were blatantly in sin, so I faded away. For the next 4 years I continued this cycle: drinking myself into despair until I was back on my knees begging God to get me sober again. He would. Sometimes for a few weeks. Sometimes for a few months. All he asked in return was that I walk with Him. Unfortunately, life on the road is not conducive to walking with Jesus. No accountability, no fellowship, and lots of temptation.
It became clear that if I really wanted to grow in Christ and get sober once and for all, I was going to have to get off the road and get back home, so I did. It was a short time later that in a moment of great clarity that God revealed something very important to me. This revelation, along with getting off the road, would be the keys to a final victory over alcohol.
The revelation was that the entire focus of my walk with Christ was based on me getting and staying sober. God wanted so much more from me, and so much more for me, than just to be sober. He wanted me to grow and minister and use my time, my talents and my treasures to bring him glory. Sobriety was not the main point! God’s glory was! And so it was on July 20, 2002, that I had my last drink.
Oh, the things that God began to do then. Ministry opportunities began to present themselves. Music had once been such a passion, but the alcohol had drowned it out. Now that passion was returning, and there was an outlet for it. I became the worship leader as we saw our tiny church finally reach 150 adult members and move into a bigger building. I began to co-lead Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered 12 step program for those with addictions. I was even filling in at the pulpit on Sunday mornings occasionally. I got the joy of seeing Shannon accept Christ. My life became full and rich and purposeful. As God continued to bless my life, I made a conscious decision to remain focused on growing in Him, and being the best father I could be – I would forgo the pursuit of a woman in my life for the time being, and I remained totally content in my singleness for many years.
In February of 2007, life changed drastically when I got custody of Shannon. She was with me until October 2013 at which point she got married. She and her husband Arturo have a beautiful, Christ-centered marriage, and have given me 2 incredible grand-sons. They live less than a mile away.
Tragedy struck on December 1, 2009 while I was working for a large farming outfit. It was the best job I’d ever had, and I loved it. We were farming about 25,000 acres and I was in charge of the transportation of all grain. That meant I was in charge of about 6 semis and their movement, but I was also often driving one of those semis. It was a really difficult harvest that year, evidenced by the fact that we were still in the field in December. I was coming off a 98 hour work week the week before, but was not feeling particularly fatigued that day. I’m not sure how I missed the stop sign. I wasn’t eating, or drinking, or talking on the phone, I was just driving. I couldn’t figure out why the minivan had pulled out in front of me. As I scanned the intersection for crossroads to give the 911 operator, I saw the stop sign and realized it had been my fault. At the police station a couple hours later, I was informed that the sole occupant of the minivan, a 53 year old wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, and friend, had died at the scene.
It would be a waste of words to try to describe the feelings involved with such a thing. I even felt guilty for feeling grief. I didn’t deserve to feel grief; all grief should be reserved for this lady’s family. How was it I got through all those years as a drunk without ever hurting anyone, but now when I’m living for Christ and doing what’s right, this happens. I searched in vain for some hidden sin in my life that I was being punished for. It took me quite a while to realize that maybe it wasn’t about me at all. Maybe no one was being punished for anything. I couldn’t see what God could see. I would trust Him that somehow he would get glory from this tragedy.
That was when I learned through some very coincidental back channel communications, that this lady had been a believer. Her brother in law was a pastor, and he had preached the gospel at her funeral. Twelve people had come forward to accept Christ. I had never even heard of such a thing! There was much healing left to be done, but at least now I could see God’s hand in the situation. As strange as this may sound, there would eventually come a time when I would thank God for allowing me the privilege of being part of the whole thing. For trusting me to get through it sober. For knowing that I had the faith to see it for what it was, or maybe, for realizing that I couldn’t see it for what it was. I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but I will say that as I watched God working all through the situation, my faith was increased to a level I know it could not have reached in any other way.
In 2011, I started the job that I still have as Building and Grounds Director at the YMCA. It seems as if every job I’ve ever had was leading me here. It has been a very fulfilling position that I have felt well equipped for. I have felt valued and appreciated and the relationships I have built here will last a life time. The Warren County YMCA has been a blessing to me in every sense of the word.
In 2012, Shannon was preparing to graduate from high school, and it became clear that she and Arturo would be marrying in the near future. So with my parenting mostly done, God began to stir in me a desire for female companionship. After being contentedly single for so long, I waded in very slowly. I dated a lady from work for about 4 months. She was a great lady…just not the right lady. I then dated a lady from church for about 4 months, and though I was slower to figure it out than I should have been…she was not a great lady. I considered giving up at that point, but ultimately decided to give it one more try. If it was strike three, I would be done…the eternal bachelor.
Christian Mingle was nuts. This Christian online dating site gave me the profiles of literally hundreds of ladies within an hour drive of me that were looking for godly men. I spent an hour or so creating my own profile, and then I started looking at the ladies’ profiles. It only took me a couple hours to whittle the hundreds of prospects down to three. After a couple days of messaging back and forth with them, I easily narrowed it down to one: Amy.
We communicated in writing for a couple weeks, getting beyond the empty chit-chat very quickly, and within a couple weeks had agreed to meet in person for lunch. A year to the day later we were married. I had some doubts as to whether or not I could be a good husband after being single for 17 years, but I trusted that as long as we kept Christ in His rightful place in our relationship, we would have a great marriage. And we do. We serve God better together than we do apart, and I believe our marriage has been, and will continue to be, a beautiful picture of the Gospel. We’ve been married five years now, but it feels more like two. To say that Amy is a blessing to me would be an incredible understatement. The life we have built together is more satisfying and more fulfilling than I thought possible. God is truly to be praised for bringing us together.
And now we prepare to voyage into this new ministry. I know that we will need to display more sacrifice, courage, wisdom, compassion, patience, humility, and thankfulness than ever. I also know that in Christ, we will find the power and strength to do that. And finally, I know that our love for each other and our love for God will continue to grow through it all.
And I just can’t wait to be able to write the next part of this story.