By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Rodney Belden was at the bottom.
A stroke cost him the ability to work, partially paralyzing the left side of his body. He applied for disability three times through the state of Illinois. Each time he was denied.
Unable to provide for his family and feeling down about himself, Belden went back to an old friend for a pick-me-up.
He started using methamphetamine again, and reacquainting himself with it cost him dearly.
Arrested at a campground during a raid by the West Central Illinois Task Force in March, Belden pleaded guilty in May to unlawful meth manufacturing and unlawful possession of meth. He could have received up to 30 years in prison, but he was sentenced to 12 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections by Judge Scott Walden.
In an interview room inside the Adams County Jail the day before being sent to prison on May 8, Belden, 43, talked about the road meth took him down.
"Meth is evil. It comes as your best friend," Belden said as tears started to fill his eyes and his voice cracked.
"It builds you up. It makes you feel good about yourself. At the same time, it's taking your life away, little by little. It has no bounds. It can get ahold of anybody at any time. Your priorities go completely opposite. All you care about is the drug and being high."
That carelessness cost Belden his freedom and -- for at least a few years -- his family. Not only did Belden get back into the meth habit, but he said he also drew his wife, Melissa, into his addiction. She also was arrested on meth charges in the same campground raid. She avoided prison, instead receiving 36 months of probation in July after pleading guilty to unlawful participation in meth manufacturing June 4.
Because of his past, Belden knew he was bound for prison when he entered a guilty plea.
Belden said his drug use started in his early 20s. He used marijuana and tried LSD and cocaine. He said he quit doing drugs cold turkey until being introduced to meth for the first time in 1997. It was around that time that he had lost his job as a supervisor at Jack's Discount Store.
Belden's meth use started innocently enough at a friend's house.
"I just stood there for a little bit, picked up a straw and did it," he said.
From his first snort, Belden was hooked.
"It wasn't very long after that when I got into my addiction," he said.
Belden said he was heavily into the drug. He was spending $100 daily and doing a gram a day when he was caught the first time on meth-related charges in 2005. He was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for illegally possessing anhydrous ammonia. He also got three years on a meth possession charge. Those sentences ran concurrently.
Belden wasn't out of prison long when he was picked up on another meth charge in 2008. He was caught operating a lab in a garage behind a residence between Spring and Oak, near the Quincy University campus. He pleaded guilty to meth possession and was sentenced to the Adams County Drug Court program. He graduated in May 2010.
Belden suffered a mild stroke in November 2011 and was hospitalized for 10 days. Belden could no longer work in the press department of a local manufacturing company.
The effects of the stroke aren't evident when listening to Belden speak, but they are when he walks.
"My self-worth just went to nothing," he said. "I couldn't do the work that I liked to do. I don't know if there was a potential for other jobs. I couldn't be on my feet for a long period of time, and I had limited use of my arm and hand."
The only way for him to get to feeling like his old self, he believed, was going back to making and using meth.
"For me, (meth) helped me get my self-esteem back," he said. "It's weird how that drug is. It made me think that I could function almost like I did before the stroke. After a while, the feeling went away."
The drug caused a riff between Belden and his wife. They got into a fight, and he moved out of their residence on Quincy's northwest side. He stayed at a friend's camper at Whispering Oaks Campground near Mendon.
He was back to doing a half gram of meth a day. His wife was arrested in early February, and he found out about her charges a few days afterward.
"I knew eventually that if I kept going that I would get caught," he said. "But it didn't matter. I was so far back into my addiction. I knew they were coming to get me."
Officers with the West Central Illinois Task Force found him at the campground March 4. His bond was set at $75,000, and he needed 10 percent of that to get out of jail. Neither he nor his family had the money to post bond, so Belden knew he wasn't going anywhere. He was in the Adams County Jail for only two months before agreeing to a plea offer made by the state's attorney's office.
During the May jail interview, Belden said all he had to look forward to was his next meal and letters from his wife. His time in the county jail, he said, wasn't easy, especially when he heard other inmates talk about going back to doing drugs when they got out.
If he could sound a warning for anyone thinking about doing meth, Belden would advise against getting involved in the drug.
"Don't do it," Belden said, sobbing. "It is evil. You will think it's your best friend, but it's going to turn your life over at the same time. You won't see it until it's too late.
"It's not worth it. It gives you energy. It gives you a false self-esteem and makes you feel good about yourself. It's false. It's just a show. When you come off that high, you are back in the same spot that you started."
Belden now is in the same spot that he was six years ago, riding out a prison sentence. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the earliest Belden could be released from prison is March 4, 2019.
When he gets out, Belden doesn't have any plans to go back to his old ways.
"This is definitely a wake-up call," he said. "The other times should have been. I don't know why they weren't."