Like so many others, Mike Woods spent Sept. 12, 2001, with an Army recruiter.
For the Madison native, enlisting after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the only thing to do. The recruiter gave him a list of jobs in the Army but Woods didn’t need it – he wanted to be in the infantry. Being a Soldier gave him a purpose. It was both the best time of his life – and the worst.
“It was war,” Woods said, simply.
But his own personal war would begin when he returned home to Madison County in 2004. Without the purpose of service to his country, Woods found himself adrift.
“When you get that mindset of ‘kill or be killed’ it is hard to get away from it,” he said. “I started drinking heavily.”
What started with a dependence on alcohol, spiraled into drug addiction.
“I was pretty much homeless after 18 months out of the military,” Woods said.
At one point, Woods, found himself at the Downtown Rescue Mission, looking for food.
“This place had rules and guidelines to follow. I had to work daily and go to church three days a week. For work I was a cook, 12-hour days slaving over a hot stove trying to feed 1,200 people daily. That was fine with me, but the church I did not want to attend. I sat in the back and stared at the floor waiting for it to end. I didn’t get up when asked. I didn’t sing when everyone else started. But something happened the first night I went that I wasn’t prepared for. A man got up and introduced himself and started talking about the cross. His words were filling my empty soul one syllable at a time. By this time, I was almost in tears because here is a man that I have never seen, talking about a God that I didn’t know and telling me about a love I have always dreamed of – and I was hooked. I waited 30 years to hear that I was loved, and it took me losing everything to hear it.
“I had it all figured out. I spent 90 days in an 18-month program and walked out the door. The thought of God vanished about as fast as my sobriety. I lasted two days before my old ways started hitting hard.”
In 2012, Woods found himself in a hotel room with a broken needle and no way to inject his drugs. At his lowest point, he decided to use the jagged edges of a soda can to slit his wrists.
“I remember the pain was so great I was almost screaming,” Woods said. “All I could think about was my worthless life and that gave me the motivation to continue slicing. In the middle of all the chaos I cried out to God, half in anger but with all my heart. With each question I would slash my wrist deeper and deeper. Finally, I asked him to please step in and help me because I just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop my addiction and I couldn’t stop cutting my wrist.
I woke up with the cleaning lady standing over me, asking, ‘Are you okay?’ I ran out the door.”
After being picked up by the police and taken to the hospital, a doctor would tell Woods that he was 1 millimeter away from being successful in his suicide attempt.
Woods knew that something had to change and he was finally ready. He contacted a friend in recovery and within a few hours a group of men showed up on his doorstep and took him out to eat. For the first time, Woods saw that happiness was possible without drugs and alcohol.
“I wanted to be like those guys,” he said.
The men were from Cocaine Anonymous. Woods did not have any money for in-patient treatment so he began the 12-step program, often walking the same streets where he scored drugs to get to meetings.
It would be a year before he would accept that he could be successful in recovery.
But before Woods could completely start his new life, he had to make amends for his old one. To fuel his addiction, Woods had robbed several local businesses and banks and those legal troubles were still looming.
“I have been on Crime Stoppers and I was one of Tennessee Valley’s Most Wanted,” he said.
Woods went to drug court and pled guilty, and the judge gave him 18 months to pay $68,000 in restitution, fees and court costs and take regular drug tests. At the time, Woods was working as a house painter and knew that he would never be able to pay that much money in such a short time. He resolved to pay as much as he could, knowing that he would go to prison at the end of those 18 months.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Woods started his own home repair business and within only nine months, had his debts to the court paid off.
“That was the start of a new life,” he said.
With hard work and the help of a faith whose seeds planted during his darkest times but flourished in recovery, the pieces of Woods’ life fell into place. He met his wife Amy at church. They started a family. His business continued to grow as he began “living a purpose-filled life,” Woods said.
Once again, Woods had found his purpose.
He went back to the homeless camps to help the other veterans. He returned to the Chick-Fil-A where he had once walked in, starving, and had asked the manager if he could do odd jobs in return for food. Woods intended to finally pay for the meal.
“He argued with me, ‘no no no, it is a blessing to help people.’ I said, ‘you don’t understand, I have to pay for this meal, it is in my heart – God sent me here to pay for this meal. He starts crying and takes my money and I said, ‘not only do I want to pay for mine but I want to pay for everyone’s in this restaurant,’” Woods said. “This was the first time I ever put my trust in the Lord. I walked out of there with my chest high, not because I paid for that meal but because I knew the Lord was walking with me.”
Part of Woods’ purpose also became to help young people not travel down his path. By this time, he had accepted a job position at Asbury Church in Madison that would enable him to spend more time with his growing family. After hearing his story, a co-worker’s wife approached him and asked him if he would give his testimony at James Clemens High School. The co-worker’s wife was Madison City Councilwoman Maura Wroblewski.
At James Clemens, Woods was introduced to Partnership for a Drug-Free Community, a Huntsville nonprofit that provides education and prevention of addictive substances. Woods joined their cause, obtaining a state certification as a peer support specialist through the Alabama Dept. of Mental Health.
Today, when Woods is not with his young family, he is continuing his purpose – sharing his salvation and paying it forward, doing for others what that group of men from CA did for him one bleak day in in 2012:
Giving them hope.