An extreme life: Man who won house says giving life to God, getting off drugs his best decisions

The Macon TelegraphJune 29, 2013 

MACON, Ga. — Having once lived in a tent near the Ocmulgee River, Don Lance knows a good bit about lows.

"When you have nothing, it's hard to hit rock bottom," he said.

After nearly three decades of taking methamphetamine, or any other drug he could find, Lance also knows a good bit about highs.

He doesn't hide that fact. "I'm a junkie," he said. "I'm an intravenous-needle-using, methamphetamine junkie."

His life has always been one of extremes.

Just more than a month ago, Lance, 43, purchased one of the 6,500 raffle tickets sold for the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway. After waking up one morning, he said God told him to buy that ticket. He told his wife, Hope, to go buy it, but the $100 price was more than she was willing to spend.

Hope Lance said she blew off her husband's order to buy the ticket until he became more insistent.

True to form in his life of extremes, Lance won that 3,250-square-foot house in Warner Robins, Ga., valued at $350,000.

Buying that ticket changed his life, but an even bigger transformation began two years earlier, he said, when he finally decided to give up drugs and follow Christ.

Through all the highs and lows, he said, that decision was the best choice he's ever made.

Before things went horribly wrong in his life, Lance's childhood in Macon, Ga., was normal. He attended the former Cochran Field Christian Academy, where his mother was a teacher. He met his future wife at the school when they were in kindergarten. He played Bloomfield Little League baseball.

His upbringing at the Christian school instilled in him a strong belief in God and morals, even though he didn't always heed.

Lance dropped out of school his junior year. His parents were going through a divorce. His life began to spiral out of control, even though for him his life was one big party.

It would take some time, but reality would crash that party.

Lance loved music. He loved it so much that he and a friend started traveling around to nearby states whenever possible to see concerts.

"I'd go to Metallica, Poison, Bon Jovi, it didn't matter," he said. "Music, the energy, the words made me feel better. It was like magic."

Lance then went to a concert that exposed him to a whole new world — the world of the Grateful Dead. The jam band had a following of tens of thousands of people called Deadheads, who formed their own community and followed the group around the country.

"There were 50,000 Deadheads out there," Lance said. "When I first came around the corner, the scents hit you. The oils, the incense, patchouli. I was like, 'What's that smell?' And someone said, 'That's the Dead scent. They're here.'"

Lance took to the Deadhead life. He dropped three hits of LSD at that show, and a life of rampant drug use began.

"I'm very extreme with everything I do. I'm not going to stop with just three hits. ... That whole experience continued to change my life."

Lance didn't think he could afford to live the traveling Deadhead life, but his new "family" told him it didn't take money. Theirs was a community in which everybody pitched in to help one another. To earn their keep, some sold tie-dyed shirts, some sold drugs, some even did tie-dye readings, similar to tarot card readings.

"Everybody in the parking lot comes up with their own little hustle," Lance said. His hustle was selling beverages. As exhausted concert-goers flowed out of the arena, they'd buy drinks from Lance for $1, $1.50, and sometimes $2. He'd stuff his pockets with the money as fast as they'd give it to him.

"All you got to do is make it to the next day, the next show," he said. He always did.

Lance also sold LSD to earn his way. Of course, he didn't just sell it. He took it. A lot of it.

"I loved the hallucinogenics; I loved the speed. I liked the trip. I enjoyed the high of it. I've done it for a long time.

"Once you've explored everything that's good in your mind ... then there's another side to explore. And if everything that's good has been explored, then obviously you're going over to the dark side," he said.

Even with his addiction, Lance held a steady job as a stage hand with various production crews, setting up stages for concerts. He and his girlfriend moved to the Atlanta area. He had a three-bedroom home, a garage and a couple of roommates who paid the lion's share of his rent. He was using meth and intravenous drugs heavily as he traveled around the country, setting up stages, sound and lighting for Aerosmith, the Backstreet Boys, Destiny's Child, the Grateful Dead and James Brown.

The drugs made him think he was living the life of a rock star. "You make yourself think you got more than you really have," he said.

Lance often did work for Buddy Lovell, owner of Audio Visual Services in Macon, Ga. Lovell said Lance was a great worker, but the drugs made him undependable.

"He'd be clean on and off," Lovell said. "I told him every time, you have an opportunity here if you can get away from the drug activity."

Lance couldn't give it up.

Lance got his biggest dose of reality when he returned from a show and his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. He knew his life would never be the same.

"I flipped completely out," he said. He decided at that moment that he and Hope were moving back to Macon, a decision he'd come to regret. His half-baked plan consisted of packing up all of his belongings in a truck, parking in his brother's carport and then finding work and a place to live.

His drug use continued. Work dried up, and he never found a place to live. He and Hope had two more children, and she eventually left him.

Motels became home for Lance. He even squatted in some vacant houses.

Rock bottom came about four years ago, when he and a buddy got themselves a tent and moved to a spot near the Ocmulgee River.

After about five months of tent living, Lance grew tired of living.

"I walked across the interstate and walked over to the Coliseum (Hospital) and told them, I'm done with it."

The hospital committed him for the night, and he was sent to a detox center in Dublin, Ga., the next day.

From there, he ended up at the Next Step Program in downtown Macon, a Christian-based group home for male recovering addicts. He has been clean ever since — about two years.

His girlfriend came back. They married a year and a half ago and had their fourth child.

Chris Carmichael runs the Next Step Program. "When I first met Don, he was coming straight out of detox and he was in a pretty rough way," Carmichael said. "He had made up in his mind he wanted to get straight. He voiced to us that he needed help for his addiction and he needed long-term treatment. He stayed with us over a year and started getting his job in order, his family in order."

"He's a very bright man," Carmichael said. "He was raised very well, with a mother and father who stuck by him through all of this."

Lovell kept his word and hired Lance at Audio Visual Services.

Lovell was watching television on April 28 when the drawing was held for the St. Jude Dream Home. He heard Lance's name. When he couldn't reach Lance, he called his wife.

The couple were in their car when Lovell told them he thought Lance had won.

Lance looked at his phone and saw that he missed a call from a number he didn't recognize. He called it, and the person on the other end told him he won a house. They pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for 30 minutes, Hope Lance said.

A Telegraph story about Lance's big prize was picked up by national media. A lot of people around the country were interested in the story about the man who once lived in a tent winning a $350,000 house.

"There were a lot of negative comments (posted online)," Lance said. "People saying, 'He can't afford it.' It bothered me at first."

He's not moving into the house.

"I kinda figured that day I wasn't going to move into it," Lance said. "It's more than what I need and more far away than where I'd like to be. ... I have to stay within my limits."

Lance must pay a $109,200 withholding tax to take ownership of the house's title. That's not including federal and state taxes.

Lovell is helping him take care of that obligation so Lance can sell the house.

"I'll take the money and buy something that's more reasonable, pay (Lovell) back, and hopefully have something in the bank," Lance said. "The fact I can sell it and buy something I can afford, ... it's still like winning a lottery."

Lance regularly attends Fresh Fire Community Church in Macon. They asked him to give a testimony about his story in front of the congregation, but he declined. "The story isn't over yet," he said.

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