Lunchtime. He sat at the regular table with all of his friends sitting around talking noisily amongst themselves. Their chatter must have faded to a dull hum drowned out by anger and the plan he had for that weekend. He’d go back up to Sandy, Utah to his parents’ house—his Dad had a shotgun, that’s how he’d do it.
The routine sights and sounds of his friends gathering where they always did, to hang out, must have taken on a surreal quality at the prospect of it being the last gathering of its kind for him. Even those Mormon girls who annoyingly insisted on joining them, though he had to admit they were the nicest girls he’d ever met. They were unflappable in the face of endless teasing and berating from him and his friends.
But he couldn’t think of them now. He was full of anger and resentment and disappointment and hurt. He had gotten to a place full of questions with no answers and problems with no solutions. This was the only way out for him, the only answer he could think of.
All Todd Sylvester ever wanted since he was 14-years-old was to get a college basketball scholarship. He says of his own desire, “I wasn’t a gifted athlete by any stretch, so I had to really work at it.” And work at it he did. He practiced three hours each day and by ninth grade had made the Brighton High School basketball team. He was the twelfth man on the team, so he didn’t get much playing time, but he made the goal that by the next year he’d be starting.
He continued to practice unceasingly and the beginning of the next year taught him that hard work really does pay off as he was moved up to be the starting point guard. The early years of high school introduced Todd to that feeling of accomplishment that comes from discipline and effort, but those years also introduced him to the superficial and deceptive high that comes with drug use.
Being the all or nothing guy that Todd considers himself, he wasn’t satisfied with just a hit now and then or sporadic weekends of social drinking, he had to be the biggest partier in the school. He continued to play and improve his basketball abilities, but he also sank deeper and deeper into a dependency on the substances that were once just a passing fancy.
“-fast and testimony meeting…” A snippet of the LDS girls’ conversation suddenly reached Todd’s ears. What is ‘fast’? That word just penetrated his heart, piercing through the other thoughts that were threatening to engulf him. He couldn’t understand what it meant in that context-‘fast’-but he was too embarrassed to ask the girls in front of his friends.
After everyone got up to leave, Todd pulled the girls aside and asked about that phrase he’d heard—‘fast and testimony meeting’-and what it meant. They explained to him about abstaining from the day’s meals once a month and how they had a meeting where people could get up and share the things that they know or feel to be true. He understood the ‘what,’ but he still didn’t understand ‘why.’ “Well, we do it when we want to ask God for extra help.” That notion went straight to Todd’s heart. He’d never considered whether he believed in God or not, but if there was a God and there was an opportunity for help from him, now is when Todd needed it the most.
His adolescent dream came to fruition when he was offered a college scholarship to Utah Valley State College. He had two months left of senior year and it seemed he’d gotten just what he always wanted. But he couldn’t find that high anymore. He was depressed all the time and the tolerance he’d built up to the substances he was using meant he had to venture out into other, more serious drug use just trying to feel normal again.
By the time summer conditioning for the Utah Valley basketball season started, drugs were all he could think about and his performance was slipping. Halfway through the camp, the coach pulled Todd aside and said, “I don’t know what happened to you, but you’re not playing like I thought you could and I can’t give you this scholarship.” It was the first time he realized that all the partying could catch up to him, but by this time he was addicted and it wasn’t just a matter of discontinuing the behaviors even though they were clearly ruining his dreams.
Over the next years, he was cut or lost scholarship opportunities from the teams of Dixie State College, Salt Lake Community College, and Ricks College. He continued to party and continued to plummet. For the first time in his life, he realized that basketball might not be a part of his future anymore and the realization was devastating. His substance abuse and destructive behavior got worse and worse. Though he recognized that it was the cause of a lot of his failures, it also seemed the only consolation for his sorrows.
He would shatter windows and beer bottles even in his own apartment and the shattered glass was on the floors of his home and the floors of his heart and he found himself at the lowest point of his life. He said of this time, “I knew I was an addict, I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t stop” and he finally decided, “I’m going to take my life. I’m done.”
It was in this state that he heard those words, “we fast when we want to ask God for extra help.”
The Mormon girls told him how to go about fasting. He asked if he had to be Mormon to do this and they assured him he did not. Anyone can fast and pray. The very next day, he awoke in his Provo house full of boys that were partiers just like him, and he went into a closet and closed the door. He got on his knees in that little space surrounded by clothing on hangers and looked to the heavens, “God, I’m going to fast today, will you please send help?” That was all he said.
He went the whole day without eating and without engaging in any of the substances that so had him in their grasp. He said “it was one of the most difficult days of my life,” he was suffering through both the crankiness of fasting hunger that we all identify with, and with the overwhelming desire for those substances that insistently tugged at him every moment.
When it was time to end the fast, he followed the girls’ counsel that he end his fast with a prayer. He returned to that same closet and closed the door. He looked to the heavens and said, “I’m done with my fast; will you please send me some help?” And then he sat there thinking that if God really does exist, He’s going to appear to me right now.
‘ The girls hadn’t told him anything about the nature of prayers and their answers. He waited for what seemed like forever and nothing happened.
That very night he got wasted again and didn’t think anything of it, but at least that day of fasting and contemplation had kept him from his weekend plan and his permanent solution.
About a month (of continued partying) later, Todd’s phone rang and on the other end of the line was a teammate named Rich from his Brighton basketball team. He had served a mission and returned and was living and going to school in Provo. The call came out of the blue and Rich said they should catch up, asking if Todd would even want to come over right then.
Todd remembered Rich being a fun-loving goofball of a guy, so he was surprised to see such sobriety on his old friend’s face when he opened the door. As they chatted, Rich began to tell Todd about the goodness inside of him and the work he would do in his life. He said that Todd would help a lot of people and especially help a lot of children. Rich kept going and going with his laudatory language and finally Todd stopped him, assuring him that if he knew anything about the way he was living his life, he wouldn’t sing such praises.
“Well Todd, I didn’t go to school or work today because I had to share a message with you.” He paused and assured his friend that nothing was wrong. Rich looked him in the eye and said, “the Lord spoke to me last night Todd. We need you on our side today.” Todd says of the experience, “I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I felt God’s love. I don’t know how to describe it, but this wave just nailed me and I was overcome with emotion and I just started crying…I couldn’t even speak. I was just overwhelmed with this love.”
In that moment, Todd’s mind traveled back to that closet on his knees asking for help and finding nothing. He suddenly knew that this was the help he had prayed for.
Rich was surprised to hear the story of his non-member friend’s fast and prayer and to know that he was the answer to that prayer. He said that he had been so scared to share this message and didn’t know anything that was going on in Todd’s life, except that he had been prompted to tell him these things.
Rich tracked down Todd’s home bishop in Sandy and set up an appointment for the next day. It must have been jarring and a little strange for Todd to receive the advice that he should go and tell this complete stranger everything he’d been doing and all that he was feeling and communicate his desperate need for help. The next day, Todd was reluctant when he pulled into that church parking lot and saw only one other car there. He nearly turned around and drove right back home, but he had promised Rich he’d go to the appointment, so he went in.
When Todd finished his two-hour “brain dump” of telling this bishop all of the horrible things he had done, he felt sure that the man would just throw him out of his office. Instead, he calmly asked that Todd do four things for him. Handing him a copy of the Book of Mormon, a book Todd had only heard about, he asked that first he read from this book—even if it was only a single verse—each day. Second, that he pray like he did in that closet each day. Third, that Todd should come back and meet with the bishop in person every week for a year, and fourth, perhaps the most difficult of all, that he be perfectly honest about his struggles and his slip-ups and his usage in those weekly meetings.
He moved home and attended church in his home ward for the first time a couple of weeks later. He waited sheepishly at the top of the stairs on that Sunday morning, not knowing the best way to get past his father and brother who were downstairs watching football and would surely wonder what the heck he was doing. Todd says he remembers just bolting. His Dad put down his newspaper and called out to him, “Where are you going?” Todd just managed to get out the door as he yelled back “I’m going to church!”
During this time as he drove through his Sandy neighborhood to church, bishop’s meetings and to work, Todd noticed a little elementary-school aged girl selling lemonade on the corner. He was a bartender at the time and the spare change from his tips tended to accrue in his car on the console between the driver and passenger seats. One day as he drove past her he had the thought that he should buy a cup of lemonade from her. He learned that the cost of a cup was 25 cents and after ordering his single serving, he asked her to hold out her hands and he poured all of the change from his bartending tips into her hands until it was spilling over.
The first time Todd tried marijuana, something in his mind clicked. He felt a sense of euphoria (fleeting and temporary as it was), and he felt like it was something he wanted to keep on doing for the rest of his life. As he saw this little girl’s eyes go wide at her good fortune and run excitedly into the house to tell her family the wonderful thing that had happened, something new and different and real in his mind clicked.
He had never remembered reaching out to someone else in that way before, and he knew in that moment that it was something he wanted to keep doing for the rest of his life. It was the natural euphoria that comes with the joy of human love and looking outside of oneself. He’d never felt anything like it before. He continued to give this girl his change any time he passed her lemonade stand.
At church one Sunday, as Todd sat alone, the little girl recognized him and brought her mom over to meet him. He learned that this little girl had been saving up all summer to buy a trampoline and the money he gave her had put her over the top to be able to have one. He also learned that there was a daddy-daughter activity fast approaching and this little girl’s father had left when she was very young. She hoped that Todd would go to the activity with her in his place.
Todd agreed though he wasn’t sure it was his place or what it would mean. They played games and had activities up the canyon (the pair even found that were pretty lucky guessers when they played a how well do you know your dad/daughter’ game).
Todd felt out of place at a church function and though he enjoyed his time with his little friend, he wasn’t sure that he fit in there.
It was such a foreign environment from the bars and the parties that had so occupied his time in recent years. The time came to bless the food and as someone stood up to say a very straightforward, simple prayer on the hot dogs and Kool-aid (that it would nourish and strengthen their bodies…), Todd was overcome with the love of God like he had never felt in his life.
His soul was filled with light and love and he heard the message, “You are in the right place, doing the right things and I’m so proud of you.”
It was a series of little moments like that that helped to propel Todd through the hardest times and helped him get clean. How lovely to know that, though it took 6 months of those weekly meetings with the bishop before he went a full week completely clean, the voice of the Lord came into Todd’s life not to inculpate or blame, but to reassure, encourage, and love.
Todd Sylvester was eventually baptized and, inspired by the joy he had working with children, he started a program going to elementary schools to teach kids about being drug-free. It was the thought of the little girl from the lemonade stand and Rich’s message from the Lord and the high-fives from all the kids that he taught that promised to stay drug-free for him that kept him going. He went on to marry his wife Bonnie in the temple and they have four beautiful children, the oldest of which was also recently married in the temple.
Todd still wells up with emotion at the thought of the direction substance abuse took his life while he was in his youth. He says of his addictions, “the thing I didn’t realize at the time is how I was so fooled by this stuff. It still gets to me now. I really thought I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but in reality I was being fooled. I was being led down a road of destruction.” Perhaps some part of him wishes he’d never been exposed to any of it in the first place, that he’d gotten and kept that dream basketball scholarship and lived out his life carefree.
But the Lord has utilized Todd’s experience to make him a resource for others who have similar struggles. He has had many opportunities for mentoring youth that have come to him because he is someone who understands rather than one more adult telling them what to do. “I look back at my past–it’s a blessing because I couldn’t do what I’m doing now. Every kid that I work with, they always say, it’s so nice to talk to someone that truly understands addiction or truly understands what it feels like to be hopeless.’ It really makes a difference to them.”
Todd says that he still struggles with his tendency toward addictive behavior and that he has to recommit to be clean every single day. It is a constant battle, but through the help of the atonement and with the network of people that both seek and give support, he is able to share his story and use his experiences to bless the lives of others.
To get more information on Todd Sylvester and the programs he’s involved with, visit his website at www.drugfreethatsme.org.
You can also follow him on twitter @drugfreetm