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TENNESSEAN: Addicted Dad Gets Clean, Reconnects with Kids, Serves Other Dads

Originally appeared in The Tennessean(link)

By Brad Schmitt

August 31, 2022

The 9-year-old snatched other kids' shirts and pants off the clotheslines outside their apartments.

But when he showed up at school wearing those stolen clothes? It turned bad.

Hey man, why are you wearing my clothes?! a classmate would yell out in front of other kids.

More than four decades later, Thomas Gooch still remembers his face burning with shame. He remembers the fights he got in after being confronted.

Gooch remembers being angry that, at 10 years old, he had to get clothes and food for himself and his three younger siblings because their parents didn't.

The kids and their mom lived in the Sudekum Apartments (a.k.a. University Court), a public housing complex just south of downtown Nashville.

Their mother slept in the apartment, but spent most of her time at work or at church, doing little to care for the kids, Gooch and his sister, Melissa Gooch, said.

Their father lived nearby, but he rarely stopped by and rarely spoke to his children, the Gooches said.

"No hugs, no 'I love you,' no nothin', really," Thomas Gooch said. "It was like we was orphans."

Gooch knew what he was missing because he saw loving parents in his aunt and uncle.

Gooch really admired his uncle, whom everyone called "Wainright," but he doesn't know why.

"I saw him playing with his kids, loving on his kids, giving his check to his wife. I seen what real family looks like."

And he saw what a dad can be.

Still, Gooch eventually became a drug-addicted dealer dad, in and out of lock ups, spending little time with his own children for several years.

"I grabbed my kids and I loved my kids," he said. "But I gave way more time to the streets then I gave them."

Nashville's drug-court rehab program broke him out of the cycle and put him on a path to become an involved, loving father — one who now mentors other dads who've struggled with drugs and abandonment like he has.

To mark the start of National Recovery Month on Sept. 1, Gooch, 52, shared his recovery story with The Tennessean.

'Just take my life!'

When he was 16 and going to Stratford High School, Gooch became increasingly fascinated with drug dealers.

"Anybody who got some money, wore new shoes, who dressed well and females like ‘em?" he said. "They was like heroes to me."

He hung around them at Shelby Park one night while they were drinking and snorting powder, and Gooch joined in, pretending he was an experienced partier.

"I went home and threw up," Gooch said, laughing.

"They saw me the next day — 'Gooch, it’s on, in’t it??' 'Yeah Yeah!' But in my mind, I’m thinking, I gotta get away from them."

He did not.

Within weeks, Gooch started selling marijuana and eventually fell into selling, and using, harder drugs.

"And next thing we know, he’s stealing from me and everyone and anyone," his sister said.

That started his cycle of arrests and serving time. During his short stints of freedom, Gooch spent time with his four kids, but he said he failed to make true connections with them.

His low came in 2002, when he got out of jail right before Christmas — and Gooch was back in by New Year's day after selling cocaine to an undercover police officer.

"I was shouting at God in the [jail] tunnel, 'Take my life! I've been a [expletive] dad. This is bull*&#, just take my life!'"

A few months later, Gooch's brother told him about DC4, a drug rehab/lock-up run by Davidson County courts. Something clicked for Gooch, who repeatedly wrote to DC4 officials to try to get into the program.

After being accepted, Gooch immediately connected with the 12-step fellowship literature there.

"When I read it, I said, gollllllly. It literally felt like somebody knew my story," he said. "It felt like somebody was following me and writing it down."

During Gooch's 18-month stay, DC4 counselors identified him as a leader and asked him to give anti-drugs talks to Nashville school children.

A judge released him in 2004, and Gooch said he has been drug free since. He patiently walked through reconnecting with his children. And he kept his promises to them.

"My daughter played basketball, and I told my girl I would never miss a game. She played two years middle school and four years in high school. I didn’t miss one."

"He's the best father," Melissa Gooch said. "I love seeing him with his kids."

My Father's House

After six years of working at cleaning jobs and going to recovery meetings, Gooch landed a job back at DC4 teaching job skills.

Shortly after that, a recovery mentor challenged Gooch to come up with a mission for his future.

That mentor, Samuel A. MacMaster, is a nationally recognized recovery expert with decades of experience in academia and in the treatment field.

"Sam kept asking, 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' For two years, he kept saying, 'Have you thought about it yet?'"

By then, Gooch was married and had had more children. This time, he bathed them, fed them, told them bedtime stories and became a loving, daily caretaker.

And one day, Gooch realized he had experience to share with other men who, like him, had been separated from their kids because of addiction or trauma.

He opened a sober living house for dads coming out of incarceration and, per MacMaster's suggestion, called it "My Father's House." There, Gooch serves as a mentor for residents, showing them how to deal with the court system and with their children's mothers and any other issues that arise.

MacMaster, director of Meharry's Lloyd C. Elam Mental Health Center, said Gooch is the perfect person for that mission.

"Thomas is an amazing dad, an incredible father who cares and loves his kids, both as a nonresident dad and as a single dad who’s parenting younger children," MacMaster said.

"He’s the most central figure in his kids life, they know they can count on him and know he loves them."

Through a grant from Meharry, Gooch also has partnered with Mending Hearts women's addiction recovery program. He'll run parenting classes for fathers of Mending Hearts' participants' kids.

Gooch said he's grateful for it all, even as he continues to deal with the shame of what he did in active addiction.

"I live a great life. Period. It’s an amazing feeling when your 4-year-old son tells you you're his hero. You can’t describe how you feel when someone says that," he said.

"I know for a fact that I don’t deserve the type of life I got. All of the stuff I done did, God still allowed me to be right here and experience the most wonderful things you can experience."



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