When Ernie talks about his early childhood, he describes it as average—even “fair.” But at around 10 years old, things changed. “It was OK, despite my parents not getting along and divorcing when I was young,” he said. “I always had what I needed. It was good. But it did take a turn when my mother decided to leave us when I was 10 or 11.
“I didn’t know where she was. I’m not sure what she was doing. She was out of the picture. I didn’t see her for 10 years of my life.”
Ernie and his two brothers and two sisters were, from then on, raised by his dad at their Highland, Calif. home. “He was a good dad, he really was,” he said. “I can’t say he was the best example, as far as behavior. He always had women around—girlfriends. But he always provided for us.”
Ernie started acting out in high school. “I wasn’t a good student, and I ditched school a lot,” he said. “I was smoking weed and messing up a lot—that’s where it started. I began drinking at a very young age. Beer was always around. My father drank heavily.”
Ernie dropped out his senior year and never went back. “I took on little jobs here and there, landscaping, working for my family installing flooring,” he said. “I made money just to party with it—I never saved anything. I never had any goals or anything like that, I just always partied away any money I had.”
When Ernie was 20, he found out where his mom was and reconnected with her. “I started seeing her,” he said. “It turns out she was in a very bad place. She was doing drugs, and had a serious alcohol problem. I started drinking with her, and that’s when alcohol got really bad for me. Before it was just beer, but my mother was a severe, chronic drinker—only the hard stuff. I moved in with her at 21, and I just got worse.”
Ernie lived with his mom for three or four years, he said. When he was 26, she died at 60. “My alcohol dependency just kept on,” he said. “It never slowed down, never got any better. I was working this job at a warehouse—I did that for three years. Everybody knew I had an alcohol problem. Even at work, I didn’t hide it very well.”
Ernie met his wife in that warehouse shortly after his mother passed away. “She’s a really decent, church-going girl,” he said. “She’s a very good person. Despite knowing my drinking was bad—I don’t know if she saw something in me no one else really did at the time—we started dating. And my drinking got better for a short moment. I started going to church. But it lasted only about a year. I kept going back to it.”
Ernie got his first DUI after crashing his car. A year later, he got his second—another car accident. “She stayed with me the whole time,” Ernie said of his wife. “We moved in together and she became pregnant.”
Ernie had his first daughter at 29. When their daughter was almost 1 year old, they got married. The couple have been married for four years. A year ago they had their second child. But Ernie’s drinking problem kept rearing its head. “It’s been a huge problem for me my entire life,” he said. “I’d binge for two to three weeks sometimes and make myself sick. I’ve been hospitalized six to seven times in the last two or three years. I’ve had multiple arrests. Two years ago I got my third DUI and spent five weeks in jail in Adelanto.”
About a year ago, Ernie’s wife left him. “One day back in February, everybody had pretty much had it with me,” he said. “My wife was ready for a divorce. I finally had had enough—I didn’t want to live anymore. Every time things go good, I ruin it by drinking. I couldn’t hold onto a job, or hold onto any kind of relationship with anybody. I called my sister and I told her, ‘I don’t want to live. I don’t want to do this to my family anymore.’”
Ernie’s sister took him to a hospital, and then he entered the Mission program. “Being here in the program, being clean and being disciplined, hearing the devotions by the pastor, it really helps me,” he said. “Before coming here, I never looked in the Bible. I had never actually spoken to God. I’d never prayed. I’ve learned there’s so much more to life by coming to Christ.
“I’ve worked my whole life, but I’ve never been able to keep a job. I’ve always ruined everything I’ve ever had. I always messed things up. Coming here has taught me so much. It’s an awesome program and I enjoy being here.”
A big part of Ernie’s experience at the Mission has been helping the less fortunate. “Serving here, being able to help people who need it, has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “As much as I’ve struggled, I’ve never had to live on the streets. I slept in my car for a few months after my mom passed away when I didn’t have anywhere to go. At least I had a car. I’ve seen people truly suffering, who didn’t have support I had. I’m learning to serve. It’s humbling to be able to do for others.”
Ernie and his wife are still married. “We are together, and we still love each other,” he said gratefully. “She wants to love me and share the rest of her life with me. But as long as there’s alcohol involved, that’s not going to happen.
“This program has given me a new chance to be in my daughters’ lives—they are 4 and 1. It’s saved my marriage. I talk to my family every day. When I visit them, they know I’m sober. I’m coherent. It’s helped our relationship so much. I know I’ll be able to watch my children grow up. I don’t think I wouldn’t have lived very much longer had I not come here.”
Ernie said he has a foundation at home, including his sister, who Ernie says is the strongest person he knows. “Being here has helped me realize I don’t have to be selfish, and I don’t have to beat myself anymore. I don’t have to consume that poisonous drink I’ve been thirsting after for so long. It became who I was, and that’s not who I want to be. I have the Mission to thank for that. They showed me that grace and mercy.”
After graduation, Ernie, now 34, plans to return to his wife and children. “Our relationship is stronger than it’s been in a long time. For the first two years we were together, she looked at me with such love, like I was the greatest guy in the world. That smile she gave me, that love I’d never gotten from anyone else. The way she spoke to me with such love, it was so beautiful. It made me not want to do the things I was doing, but I just couldn’t stay clean.
“Things are good now, better than they’ve been in a really long time. It’s such a blessing being in this situation. I’m lucky, being married, having two small children—not many people get to do what I’m doing. I’m blessed to be here. Every day I just wake up and I’m ready to do right, to serve, to do things for other people. It’s a blessing.”