[Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a weeklong series recognizing noteworthy graduates from the Class of 2017. This year’s series highlights “the road less traveled,” students who are taking on unique experiences or facing unexpected turns in reaching his or her destination in life.]
By ANDY VIANO
Daily Inter Lake
“Dear dad, I left because I thought it would teach you a life lesson but I was wrong. You tried to tell me that I didn’t have to fall to the bottom to learn but I didn’t believe you. I wish I would have because now I have made it to the bottom.”
— Denim Carlson, from a note pinned to his father’s front door.
The summer after his freshman year of high school, Denim Carlson was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana almost daily. By the end of the summer, he had used meth for the first time.
He survived his sophomore year at Bigfork High School despite being, in his words, “high or drunk every single day.”
When summer rolled around again, Carlson was a full-blown meth addict, adding heroin and “anything you put in front of me” to the mix. He was 16 years old and not yet at rock bottom.
His junior year began with a series of suspensions that caused him to miss six of the first 10 days of school as he tumbled still deeper into life-threatening addiction.
Then he vanished.
For 10 days Carlson was on his own, strung out on meth, running from his own thoughts and engulfed by addiction. He was not dead but the reaper’s scythe was in sight.
“That could have ended so bad, so bad,” Carlson said. “I had some situations that weren’t good. I was like, ‘What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?’”
Before the beginning of his sophomore year, he had been kicked out of his mother’s house and moved in with his dad, Dave Carlson. Father and son had become estranged in the several years after Denim’s parents divorced, and in the throes of Denim’s 10-day bender his dad saw an addict banging at his front door.
“He was doing some stuff and I didn’t know exactly what he was doing but I knew it was something,” Dave remembered. “I stopped and I just locked the door. He didn’t want help then.”
“I hadn’t seen him much for three years,” Dave added later. “He was running hard and I just locked the door because I wasn’t going to put up with it.”
Denim left, found and pen and paper, and wrote his dad a note. He pinned it to the front door and left.
“I am ready to live with integrity again but this time I will try harder. I thought I could handle being on my own but I realized my brain was the only one talking, but I had lost my mind. I want to come home to the peace and love that I miss so much.”
DAVE READ the note, called his job to say he needed time off, and drove to find his son. The two went immediately to the high school and spoke with superintendent Matt Jensen, then met with some relatives for a sort of makeshift drug rehab.
The now 17-year-old returned to school later in the semester and found a bit of footing for the first time. He rallied from a failing grade in every class to finish his junior year with a 4.0 grade point average.
But then summer came again and the youngster stumbled once more. Denim worked two jobs but still found time to drink and smoke marijuana regularly. He was caught by police with an ounce of marijuana in August 2016 and charged with criminal possession with intent to distribute. In December, at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day, he was pulled over and charged with driving under the influence. He drank for three more days before his dad, after an initial court appearance for the DUI, asked the authorities to throw his son behind bars.
“They were thinking house arrest and I said, ‘OK, once he gets out of jail.’
“I literally threw my son in jail,” Dave added. “I don’t even know how to explain how low it is to throw your son in jail.”
Denim ended up at a juvenile detention facility in Missoula for four days.
In the months and weeks since his first arrest in August, however, Denim had come to some realizations. He knew that his addiction had taken over his life and that drinking or smoking was “all I cared about.”
“I realized that if I didn’t change it was going to be jails or death, pretty much,” he said.
Carlson smoked marijuana for the last time Nov. 2, 2016 — a day before his court appearance on the possession charge — and took his last drink Dec. 28, 2016, the day before he went to jail. He celebrated his 18th birthday, Jan. 22 of this year, on house arrest, and entered a formal drug rehabilitation center in mid-February for a five-week stay.
“That was probably the best experience that I’ve ever had in my life,” Denim said of rehab. “I learned a lot of good things, a lot of coping skills.
“(But) I’ve learned that I’m going to be an addict forever. It’s never going to go away.”
“I will come back with the rest of my belongings, not including any drugs or illegal substances. I will come back with love for you and a compassion for the universe. I am sorry that I let my ego get in the way of advice that I should have taken long ago … I look forward to the reunion with the one that loves me more than anything.”
DENIM’S DAD is two years sober, having first put a lid on his drinking to try and set an example for his son and Denim’s older sister, Dylan.
“When I started to drink, I knocked the top off a bottle of Crown (Royal whisky) and I’d go looking for another,” he said. “It’s in their genes to drink, or alcoholism, but I just proved you don’t have to drink and life becomes clearer.”
It took still lower lows for Carlson to heed his father’s message and follow his example, but the resulting relationship is one that father and son have never experienced before.
“First, let’s go back to my childhood,” Denim said. “My dad was always working, he was always doing odd jobs. Me and him never spent time together unless we were working together. My sister pretty much raised me.
“After rehab, now, me and my dad are best friends,” he continued. “Every night, I come home, I talk to him about what I did, we talk about what’s going on in our lives and he listens … I love it, I think it’s great. It’s a great experience to be able to actually bond with my father.”
Father and son first connected, really connected, while Denim was in the midst of his rehab.
“There’s a thing called family week,” Denim said. “We bonded there for the first time that I can remember.”
The thing Denim learned most at rehab, talking about his feelings instead of escaping them with drugs and alcohol, was only half of the change that brought him close to his father. Listening, Dave said, is the necessary equal and opposite response, and something his son’s rehab taught him to do.
“That’s a tough thing for me to stop and listen,” Dave said. “When he comes in and wants to talk, I shut off everything and I just totally concentrate on what he’s saying … all the stuff that he’s basically taught me is so cool.”
“He has made me cry many times,” he added. “Many times I cry because that kid is helping me just as much as I’m helping him.”
Their learned communication skills are what make father and son so open with their story. It’s why Dave taped Denim’s note to a mirror next to their front door, a note that friends and neighbors read and walk away from misty eyed. It’s why Dave and Denim shared their story with a reporter, even as father and son prepare for Denim’s departure for college with some anxiety.
“I’ll tell anybody my story now, I share it with the class,” Denim said. “I’m not worried about what I’m saying, I go right through it. If it’s on my mind, I’m talking about it.”
Denim’s future does appear bright. He is five months sober and will graduate this weekend before he heads to the College of Western Idaho in early June. There, he will study for 15 months before beginning a job as a diesel technician with Western States CAT.
It is though his own sobriety that Denim has nurtured a passion for hands-on work. His senior project was meticulously restoring a 1946 Willys Jeep that now sparkles a freshly painted blue and runs well enough to drive to school and around town.
He said his passion for the work stems from the challenge of having a problem that might seem unsolvable, with no obvious solution, and managing to come up with the right answer. Trying — and prevailing — to conquer a challenge, no matter how long it takes.
“Something about that just makes me feel good,” he said. “I just like the success of it, I guess.”
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or email@example.com.