Pictured above: Monte Payne has worked in the substance-abuse field for 17 years and heads the peer and housing programs at Wolfe Street Foundation in Little Rock.


Monte Payne looked down disbelievingly at the crumpled money in his hand. He was in treatment, again, for what seemed like the thousandth time. Before him, a wide-eyed girl, his stepdaughter, looked up at him with sorrow in her face. She had been sneaked into the facility to see him, bringing with her the meager currency. It was hardly enough for a couple of stale snacks from the hallway vending machine but was likely all she had in the world. “She gave me $7.85 and said, ‘Here, Daddy,’” Payne said. “I didn’t tell Mama I was up here, but I miss you.’”


Most people in recovery can tell some stories about their struggles, tales that defy the imagination of those who have not been there — tales of driving from one’s affluent home to score in a filthy abandoned house; of destroying themself one sip, one hit at a time; of numbing past pain enough to not care about ever feeling anything ever again.


Yet even as they relate the degradation that follows desperation, many will say rock bottom is often not what is shown on TV. It comes much more quietly, in simple moments of lucidity that calmly, steadily spell out the reality of one’s situation. Bottom, the very bottom, boils life down to simple choices that bring incredibly hard consequences. In a perverse way, it is not so much about dying — death is easy, after all, any fool can overdose — it is about summoning the will to do what it takes to live.


“You know what really, really, really helps me? It’s two things,” Payne said. “No. 1, I’ll call my sponsor because I work a 12-step program. I will also get with my grandbabies. I’ve got 10 of them now, and I’ll call one of the grandbabies in Russellville or here in Little Rock, and they’ll talk to me, and we’ll joke and go do stuff together.


“I live for my grandchildren. I love my wife, and I always have the love of my family. I know if I drink or use, it’s over for them.”


Monte Payne’s journey began about as far away from Arkansas as you can get, in a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Los Angeles. His parents were native Arkies lured to the West Coast for the sandy beaches and a carpet-laying business his father started. Payne recalls a close family unit who wanted for nothing until his father’s occasional drinking turned into something that would rend the family at the seams.


“My father started drinking, really drinking. He became what you call a weekend drunk, and I remember that started creating some havoc in our family,” he said. “From time to time, he would have to be gone because he would go to jail for the weekend.


“My dad started fighting my mother — no blood or nothing, but they would swing at each other and fight, and my brother and I would lock ourselves in the bedroom, scared. One time I was 13, and I got so tired of it, I came in there and took a baseball bat to my father. Almost a year and a half later, my mother and father divorced.”


Payne remembers the home environment radically improving after his father moved out, but it did  not take long for the elder’s absence to warp his life.


“It was better because of not having the arguments, but we were losing a parent in the household, which really affected me at the age of 14,” he said. “I started going down the street and being in places I didn’t need to be. Started smoking marijuana and stuff, drinking.


“Here’s the sad truth: I told myself no matter what I would do, I would never be like my father, and I was able to accomplish that. I became 30 or 40 times worse than my father.”


Payne’s choice of crowd deteriorated in high school when, in addition to drinking and getting high, he sank into gang life.


“I was a funny person, and I used to dance and stuff, and people used to like me,” he said. “I became a part of that group and, as I got older, started smoking marijuana regularly — gave me a little bit more confidence, or I thought it did — and drinking a little bit. Called it giving me some backbone and making me feel like I was a little tougher.


“I didn’t do a whole lot of the gangster stuff that a lot of the gangster dudes did. I stayed close to the area. I did some drive-bys. I shot at a couple people — never could admit that I ever hit anybody, but I shot at people. The complete truth, I was unbelievably scared the whole time.”


Payne said while his lifestyle choices never affected his academic performance or ability to graduate from high school, it did result in him fathering a child, a responsibility he ran from and kept secret for years.


“When I had a baby, I ran straight to the military, became a drunk in the military, and the military sent me home,” he said. “I was in the Army, and then I got out and got back in real quick, into the Air Force. After I left the Air Force, I had a substance use disorder.”


His wardrobe of addiction changed as fashion tends to do. Whatever the season or situation brought him, he clung to it, poured it down his throat or sucked it into his lungs. Weed to booze, booze to crack — addiction was as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, his habit coiled around his legs like razor wire that stopped  him from moving forward.


Payne’s issues ran directly opposite to his straight-arrow brother and a mother who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, and finally, enough was enough. Once, after Payne’s incorrigible behavior finally got him kicked out of the house for two weeks, his brother reached out in a last-ditch attempt to save him.


“I was walking down my street, and my brother flagged me to the house,” he said. “I came over, and my mom let me take a shower, and she got rid of the clothes I had on and she let me put my old clothes on. I’m thinking, ‘They’re letting me stay in the house. You had your lesson,’ but at that time, they knew I was dangerous and they did not need me there.


“You know that show Intervention? That is what happened. They sat me down and said, ‘Monte, we’ve called this place. If you leave for treatment, you’ll get your car back, you can move back in here, and we can get you a job at the police station.’ I’ve never been so offended in my life. I never could see myself as the homeless crackhead I was. I saw myself as Monte, your son, your brother. Go to a treatment center? I remember that day, my brother and me started arguing to the point where he grabbed me by my shirt, threw me out the house, and threw $10 or $20 on the ground. I just picked the money up and cussed them out and went walking.”


Living on the street was a sort of suspended animation as Payne’s life devolved into a daily struggle for survival and drugs with little thought of the future.


“Homelessness was something that I had never believed would ever happen to me, but I became homeless, and then I pretty much gave up,” he said. “That’s the sad truth about drugs — drugs changed my mind to make me not even see that I had a problem. I think that stuff ate my brain up at that time. I was sleeping in station wagons. One time I had a station wagon in a parking lot, and there was a dog in the station wagon. I had to convince the dog to get out of the car so I could get in and sleep.


“I ended up with some other guys who were homeless, and we ended up robbing this guy to the point where we ran to another city. My brother found me and brought me back to Los Angeles, and they put me on a bus to Arkansas, where my dad was.”


As much umbrage as Payne took at his family’s attempted intervention, he welcomed the change of venue. He spent the hours on the bus planning the next chapter of his life and, for the first time in a long time, things looked hopeful, like they would be different.


“I told myself the whole ride, ‘Thank you, God. I will never do this crap again, God. Things are going to be different,’” he said. “As soon as I got off the bus, I bought me a 40-ouncer of beer with my cousin.”


Payne eventually moved to Morrilton and achieved a certain stability with a new relationship and steady work at a local chicken plant, but as the old saying goes, “No matter where you go, there you are,” and Payne’s familiar demons would catch up with him.


“Well, guess what happens? Guess what comes to Arkansas? Crack,” he said. “Four years later, in 1991, I was back on that crack. Went in and out of treatment centers. There’s a whole lot of stories I could tell you.”


To all the world, it appeared as though Payne was up to his old tricks, but in reality, this time it was different. This time, he was fighting back.


“I got sober; first I got sober in 1994 for like, five years, and then I relapsed, and then I got sober again,” he said. “I went to treatment 11 times; I went to one treatment center in Russellville three times. I remember I changed my social security number to sneak in there. I had a hell of a struggle with substance abuse — in and out, in and out.”

Payne, who once lost almost everything to drugs and alcohol, now works to help others get clean and sober.

“Then that day came with my daughter bringing me that money and my daughter telling me she missed me. It’s been almost 19 years, and I ain’t touched nothing.”


Ironically, his extended time in treatment centers led him to his life’s work. On the suggestion of a staffer, he started volunteering to help others in their battle to get clean. He not only found the work invigorating, but he was good at it. Volunteering turned to part-time work, and that turned into a 17-year career in the substance abuse field, his latest gig being overseeing the peer and housing programs at Wolfe Street Foundation in Little Rock. In that role, he trains others who have walked the same path to be a resource for those just starting on the road to sobriety.


“A peer-support person can take a person with a substance use disorder to a meeting with them. They can take that person to a workout session, or they can share some of their own experiences through their own recovery to support another individual,” he said. “They already know the majority of service systems in the city their person’s in. They’ve probably been to detox. They’ve probably been to treatment. They probably had to reconcile with children or work with the judicial system. These are some of the things the peer-support person can connect with the peer.”


Payne said he understands the remarkable second chance he has been given through sobriety, and he has tried not to waste any of it. He has reconciled with family members he hurt, including his mother and the son he kept secret for so long. He said he enjoys his work, and while he harbors no illusion as to the nature of his disease, he spent nearly two decades trying to refashion what he went through into a positive message for others.


“I tell everybody to this day, I’m like the LeBron [James] of substance use disorder in Arkansas because I’ve done been there, and I done played, and I had good scores!” he said. “People make me happy; I interact good with people. I listen. I was taught by some really strong individuals, and I’ve seen a lot of what not to do also. I’m very proud to say I was one of the people that helped develop peer support in Arkansas.


“A clinician can send you someplace, but a peer can take you there and be there with you. That’s the difference, and that’s important. If you feel like you’re together, you feel whole. If you feel like you’re apart, you keep trying to fill that hole. Drug addiction is about being separate. Recovery is about being together.”