Salvation Army Soldiers Rick and Tammy Leidsen Overcome Meth Addiction With Nonprofit's Help

12/14/2011 07:51 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

After blowing an $11,000 inheritance on gambling and meth in just one month, Rick Leidsen, 50, decided he'd had enough of the drugs and enough of living in a van in a Fresno, Calif., parking lot with his girlfriend. He wanted out of a 25-year addiction.

"I wanted Tammy and I to have a good life together," Leidsen told The Huffington Post. "Our relationship was in danger because of the drug. I was sick of it."

But without a job or health insurance, Leidsen didn't have access to fancy rehabilitation treatments that could help ease the hallucinations and the withdrawal symptoms. But, he did have a vision of a life where he could provide a warm home for his partner, who was battling a brain tumor.

"I was determined that we were going to do something better," Leidsen remarked. "I was sick of a life where every time you wake up you have to go chase the bag."

Hitting Rock Bottom

As a 20-something drummer in a California band, Leidsen's snorting lines of coke eventually gave way to methamphetamine.

Leidsen smoked about $50 worth of meth a day and supported his habit with his salary from a grocery store. When his money ran out, he would steal batteries and other merchandise to trade for drugs. On the days he couldn't get it, Leidsen said he didn't bother getting out of bed.

When Leidsen found himself sitting in a jail cell for three days in 1998 for drug possession and running a stop sign, he thought he had hit rock bottom. But it wasn't enough of a dive to get him to stop using.

"That's what life is like when you're a drug addict," Leidsen said.

Finding Love In Unexpected Places

Though the strung out rocker thought he wasn't looking for love, that changed when Leidsen spotted Tammy, 53, at a bar in Oakdale in 2000. As Leidsen played one classic rock number after the next, Tammy didn't stop dancing.

"The last thing I wanted to do was fall in love," Leidsen remembered. "I don't know how it happened, but it did."

Tammy had just escaped the grips of a controlling partner, a man who told her when she could do things as simple as go outside and kept her from making friends. She had already undergone what would be the first of three surgeries for a brain tumor and was desperate for a release.

She quickly moved into Leidsen's decrepit motor home and into the life of abusing drugs.

"It was just the energy mainly," Tammy said of what drove her to the drug. "It made me hyper and I could do a lot of things."

But the fleeting energy was the only positive the couple could hold on to. Spending all their money on drugs, they lost their motor home and eventually moved into an unregistered Toyota van with a broken fan.

"We Made Up Our Mind We Weren't Going To Do It Anymore"

But as Leidsen fell more in love with Tammy, he became less enchanted with the drugs. He wanted to be the partner who enabled Tammy to get well.

"We made up our mind we weren't going to do it anymore," Leidsen said.

The couple disassociated themselves from their meth-using friends. They battled the vivid drug dreams and the occasional slipups. They leaned on each other when the urge to smoke steadily crept up.

"Rick was really determined," Tammy said. "I was begging sometimes and he would say 'No.'"

Just as the couple thought they were turning their lives around, Tammy’s brain tumor came back in 2005. Instead of turning to the comforts of drugs, though, they walked into the Salvation Army’s Good Samaritan Center in Monterey Peninsula, where they could get free meals, shower and do their laundry.

"The more we came, we got to know God and we started working on our lives," Leidsen said. "We wanted to make things right."

A Second Chance

While the couple enjoyed the warm, welcoming environment of the Salvation Army, they didn't quite envision themselves as the bell-ringing types.

But as the organization helped them pay for motels while Tammy underwent treatment for her brain tumor, they watched the way the Salvation Army embraced "the lost of the lost." After two years they decided to get more involved to fill the void that the drugs had left behind.

They became fundraisers and bell-ringers. Leidsen took on a job as a driver for the organization, picking people up and dropping them off at church. He plays the drums at services each week. He tells his story to help motivate others to find a way out of a life of drugs and into one of service.

Tammy began working with the youth and started taking classes at a community college.

"It just makes me feel good inside when I put on the uniform and look at myself," Tammy said.

The two married in 2009 and became Salvation Army members soon after. They're now working on becoming officers, a two-year process that requires obtaining an associate's degree and volunteering year-round.

"The rest of my life was something to not be proud of," Leidsen said. "I feel like I'm worth something to the community now. I’m somebody who wants to do the right things."

CORRECTION: This story's headline originally stated that Rick and Tammy Leidsen are Salvation Army officers. The Leidsens are currently Salvation Army soldiers and are enrolled in the program to become officers.