Steven Markusen


“Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”

—Pema Chodron, The Pocket Pema Chodron

Julian sits across from me in a Spartan classroom in the education department of the Duluth Federal Prison Camp. A bundle of barely restrained kinetic energy, he is constantly in motion. Wiry frame, lined face, and blue eyes hard as marbles, reveal his age as mid-fifties. Julian and I are connected: we both worked for the same company and share a passion for helping people live healthier and happier lives. Julian is serving a sixty day sentence for passing on non-public, material information in an insider trading case. This, I discovered, is not thereal story behind the man. The real story began 30 years earlier: risky behavior, addiction, descent into living hell, and ultimately redemption and success. 

On a Friday evening in 2002, Julian pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot, walked inside, and called his kids who were staying with their mom. His older son answered. Julian said, “Hi son, I will pick you guys up at 7:30 on Monday morning and bring you to school.” 

His son replied, “You promise?”

He said, “I promise.”

His son said, “How do I know you will keep your promise?” 

Julian pleaded with his son saying, “If I don’t, I will give you $20.” Silence. 

His younger son got on the phone. “Daddy,” he said, “what will you give me if you don’t come?” 

All Julian could think was to say, “I will buy you a new wrestler toy, The Undertaker!” 

He hung up, walked into the restroom, rolled up his sleeve, filled a syringe with liquid cocaine, and injected it into his vein.

His kids waited on front lawn with lunchboxes in hand…no dad. Cars rounded the corner…not dad. The boys argued, the older saying, “He’s not coming.”

The younger said, “Yes he will, dad promised he would pick us up.” 

For two days he had not slept, a continuous binge of drinking and drugs. Monday morning at 7 am, red eyed and barely functioning, he climbed behind the wheel of his fancy Mercedes to pick up his kids and take them to school. He pulled on to the freeway—traffic jam. Twenty minutes later he fell asleep at the wheel. Seven people called 911. Julian awoke to a Highway Patrol officer knocking on his window. 

Julian was driving on a suspended license from a prior DUI. He was arrested and charged with two felonies. He never made it to pick up his kids. 

Defining Julian’s behavior as “risky” is an understatement. In 1991 at age twenty eight, he was convicted of Driving under the Influence, on a suspended license from a prior DUI. Over the following ten years, he was arrested for driving on a suspended license twelve times. He never considered not driving. It was risky, but in his mind… not wrong, just don’t get caught. 

In 1998, he was arrested and charged with another DUI while driving with a suspended license which triggered a felony DUI due to his prior DUI conviction. He was offered a break: agree to enter treatment and the felony would be reduced to a gross misdemeanor. He agreed. A year later, he was leaving a party with a young woman. They has been drinking and snorting cocaine. She was pulled over by the police. They were searched. The cops found a half of a gram of cocaine in Julian’s pocket. He was charged with felony possession. He had a good attorney who worked the system. The felony would be reduced to a gross misdemeanor upon successful completion of a drug treatment program and random drug testing. He completed the drug program, but failed the random drug test multiple times. His probation officer let it slide. 

Julian, at the time, owned two fitness clubs and lived a double life. By day he ran his clubs, Mr. Success, king-of-the-hill. At night, he lived the party life: dance clubs, strip clubs, cocaine, ecstasy, and alcohol. By 2002, everybody knew he was burning the candle at both ends. He was on a runaway train on a one way track. 

The Highway Patrol officer who pulled him over on the way to pick up his kids called him “Needles.” Julian had taken to wearing long sleeve shirts even in the baking desert heat of summer to hide the hundreds of tracks on his arms. Taken to county jail, he was strapped into a chair. He desperately needed to go to the bathroom. The officer gave him a choice: urinate in his pants or in a cup for a urine sample. He talked to his attorney on the phone who told him not to give a urine sample. Stripped of his dignity, a complete loser for failing his kids, he choose to hold on to his humanity and pee in the cup for a drug test.

He spent that night in County Jail: full lockdown in a fifteen by thirty foot cell holding up to 30 prisoners at a time, one toilet with no sides, a bag of food thrown at him, and an orange for a pillow. He was woken at 3 am taken to a pen, twelve prisoners standing and shackled together. They boarded a bus to court and waited for six hours, still shackled. Those prisoners not called into court, were escorted back to jail. It was living hell.

After 30 days, and numerous trips to court, Julian’s name was called. Shackled at the wrist and ankle, garbed in jailhouse orange, he was ordered to have no eye contact or communication with anyone in the gallery. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied his ex-wife and two kids. At first enraged, he thought how could she do this?” Julian paused to reflect: I put myself here, nobody else is to blame. I broke my promise to my kids, she has every right to bring them here. Head bent, tears rolled down his face.

Julian’s attorney told him he was in a difficult place: multiple DUI’s, thirteen tickets driving on a suspended license, and one drug possession charge. His attorney said I have a strategy to get you released and the charge reduced. It was the same old story. Julian said, “No. I want to plead guilty. I can’t do this anymore.” He addressed the court saying, “I will plead guilty if you sentence me today.”

Julian pleaded guilty to two felony charges: a felony DUI and felony possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to one year in state prison for each count ordered to run concurrently. As he was led out, he mouthed, “I love you.” to his kids. 

In a voice loud enough to be broadly heard, his ex-wife said, “Aren’t you proud of your daddy? He’ll never change.” Julian was glad she said it. He told me, “It was a stake in the ground.” He made a commitment to himself. Her prediction would not come true, he would change. 

Julian was one of five siblings. His older brother was a natural child, he and his three younger sisters, adopted. Julian was an overachiever: starring in school plays, straight “A” student, good in sports, and sold the most raffle tickets. Teachers recognized him as a great student, but noted he had difficulty keeping his hands to himself. He was diagnosed as suffering from both Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Family life changed for Julian in eight grade: his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She fought it for eight years; it wore her down, changed her. Locking herself in her room on Mother’s Day became an annual event. She laid a guilt trip on Julian saying, “When you become a doctor you will find a cure for me.” Was she serious? He didn’t know. Their relationship became strained. Meanwhile, Julian’s dad boasted a smile broadcasting to the world everything is great—even when it wasn’t. At the same time his wife became ill, he was laid-off from a long-term job. He worked odd jobs—everything was just great. To his son, he was superficial and disengaged.

After his mom succumbed to cancer, Julian’s, the wonder kid, turned to drugs and alcohol. Partying all night, eyes puffy and red, he would occasionally stop by to see his dad on the way to pick up cocaine and ecstasy. His dad would great him with a big smile saying, “How is everything?” 

“Just fine dad, just great.” Julian replied. He looked like hell.

“Good to hear son, you look good.” All lies, all around.

After eight years of living the lie, the day of reckoning arrived. For the first time, Julian’s dad was giving Julian a ride to drug treatment—at the county jail. His dad said, “Are you okay?”

“Why do you ask?” said Julian.

“People who are okay don’t have five car accidents in a year.” Uncomfortable silence. 

“Oh that.” said Shane and paused, “No, I am not really okay.” They pulled up to the jail, the ride over, but the door had opened—just a crack, but open.

Julian entered state prison in 2002. The first days were rough, only made worse by the physical and mental anguish of drug and alcohol withdrawal. Gradually, his hedonistic, narcissistic, self-destructive faded into the past. He switched trains and the new train was leaving the station behind. 

His dad came to visit. As usual, all smiles and waving hello. They sat at a table facing each other separated by a six inch high barrier. His dad said, “How are you son, you look good.”

Julian said, “Dad stop! I am not doing well. I am a drug addict. For nineteen years I hid it from you.” Julian started to cry. “Look at my arms!” he said. 

His dad said, “Look at what?”

Rotating his arms to reveal his forearms, Julian said, “See the tracks? I shoot liquid cocaine. Then I do it again because I can’t stop. I hate myself. This isn’t your fault it’s mine; my own decision. I am sorry.” The tears streamed down Julian’s face. His dad started to cry.

His dad finally said, “I love you son. We will get through this. You are smart, this is stupid. I am sorry I didn’t help.”

“You are a good father.” said Julian. “You have already helped me more than you realize by acknowledging who I am. You will never see me like this again. I promise you.” When you hit bottom, that absolute nadir of wretchedness, there is no place to go but up. 

When Julian was released from Prison, the first thing he did was take his two boys to the zoo. His ex-wife had fought for joint custody. She won, but had no desire to raise the kids and sent them to live with Julian. His relationship with his boys came back stronger than ever, they were the most important thing in his life. At age 37, starting over in life as a single parent, he began a new life, sober and drug free.

Julian knew he wanted to stay in the health and fitness business, it was all he knew. His two clubs had been sold while he was in prison; the assets used to pay off company debt. He visited a health club, new in town, but part of a national chain. The company was familiar to Julian; he worked for the founder in his predecessor company. By a quirk of fate, Julian ran into that man, now the CEO, at the club with his youngest son in tow. The CEO asked Julian if he was clean. Julian said, “Yes, clean and ready.”

The club was the first in this new geographical market and consistently failed to meet its sales goals. “I want you to come work here” the CEO said. “Nobody has your drive. We need you to light a fire on this sales team. You have more thrust than anyone in this industry. But if you go back to drinking and drugging, I will fire you on the spot, and then break every bone in your body.” In the first full month after he was hired, Julian was the number one national sales associate in the company. By the third month, he was promoted to sales manager, and then general manager of the club. His meteoric rise continued the next year when he was named vice president of national sales.

The job required thathe move back to the Midwest with his two kids. His youngest, a basketball player in high school, convinced Julian to help start and coach an AAU club basketball team. Never having coached before, he reluctantly agreed. Together they formed a team of eight young men, teenagers from a tough part of the city, euphemistically labeled, “at risk.” Julian spent hundreds of hours of his time, and thousands of dollars of his money on uniforms, shoes, tournament fees, food, lodging and airfare. 

Their first season, they won six games and lost twenty seven. No parents ever came to see the games; in fact, not a single family member attended a game in their three year history. One time, one of the boys forgot his shoes. Julian drove him home to get his shoes. Julian broke the uncomfortable silence and the boy followed. He told Julian all he wanted was a mother. His own mom was a crack addict, his dad murdered in a drug deal gone bad. The kid picked up his shoes from a friend’s house where he was sleeping in the living room. This was home.

In their third and final season playing in the Under 18 age division, they won 18 of 19 tournaments, and finished with a record of 67 wins and 4 losses. For their final game they flew to Las Vegas, Nevada to compete in the AAU National Basketball Championships. They made it to the finals—and won—a moment of gloriousness. 

Julian, coach, mentor and father figure, is still close with these young men. All graduated from high school, three will graduate from college, and they all have good jobs contributing to society. What happened to the boy who wanted a mother? Julian’s executive assistant adopted him. Today he is finishing an MBA program in social work, intending to help those who, who like him, grew up in challenging circumstances. 

It is a beautiful day here in prison. Ten days from the winter solstice, the sun still radiates warmth with the air temperature of ten below zero. Julian left today at 8 am. With no probation, he leaves a free man. He has paid his dues. Julian learned from his mistakes. Today, he is a better father, friend, and leader; practicing patience, compassion and empathy. He knows what it is like to live in self-induced exile; living in hell, thinking it was heaven. He knows what it means to have a soul because he has experienced the absence of soul: utter and complete blackness devoid of feeling. I am grateful for the opportunity to share Julian’s story. The next chapter remains to be written.

Steven Markusen

Steve is a professional writer with articles published in national magazines and international literary journals, including Adelaide. He also enjoys public speaking on topics including commitment, motivation, creating healthy habits, and aging.

Steve is an expert rock and ice climber, backcountry skier, paraglider pilot, competitive cyclist. He has turned that passion into a career helping others achieve their life goals as a personal trainer and nutrition coach.

One thought on “JULIAN

  1. That’s a brilliant post….thanks for that. I sent it to someone who really needs to hear work like that as they heal in rehab and are waiting for sentencing….May this find you well….Namaste’…..

Leave a Reply