No one is 100 percent sure what Christmas in the Dykes’ house will be like this year.
But Zach Dykes, 17, a senior at metro Atlanta’s Hillgrove High School, is pretty sure it’ll be better than last year’s. It almost has to be.
Zach was in the Cobb County Youth Detention Center on drug charges until Christmas Eve last year. His older brother, Robbie, 23, was in prison, serving an 18-month prison sentence on a drug conviction.
Both are home now. Both are clean. But neither is out of the woods when it comes to possible relapses. And that realization is the best thing going for them.
“I’ve been using weed for a long, long time, but have been clean since April 13,” Zach said. “My resolution is to keep this momentum going so I can get into a college. Being clean is now a habit and that makes it easier. Used to, staying high was my habit. My new habit is doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
In some aspects, Christmas was just another day to get high, Zach said. Last Christmas though, was perhaps the worst, Zach said.
“I was in jail on Christmas Eve last year,” he said. “It just made me want to cry. Not because it was that hard on me, but because my mom knew where I was. I was letting my parents down, letting a lot of people down.”
Zach had been in jail for violating his probation, stemming from marijuana possession charges.
As bad as that memory is, Christmas still is a time that Zach looks forward to. There are few memories of what he calls a normal, or idyllic Christmas. But Zach thinks this year’s might be one that is worth remembering.
“All the family is going to be there and it’s going to be nothing like last year,” he said. “There’s so much to have cheer about right now.”
But the constant smile on Zach’s face and the quick wit he wields to those who have unquestioned authority over his life -- he’s considered the class clown in juvenile court, in a good way -- belies the reality of the life he’s lived.
Zach said he started smoking marijuana at 7 years old. Robbie was 12 at the time and they’d smoke together. It’s pretty much the only life he remembers.
Those who know Zach’s history – his probation officer, drug counselor and case manager – barely blink an eye when the fact comes up that Zach started smoking pot before most kids know there is such a thing.
“It is unheard of to be using at 7 years old,” said his probation officer, Erin Dale. “But apparently, he was.”
And not just once or twice.
“I used to stay high pretty much 24-7,” Zach said. "I didn’t go to school much. My parents hit a point where they couldn't do anything and I felt like I couldn’t do anything, which was leading to more drugs.”
“Now, I want to be a good role model for my older brother. He was in prison the last 18 months on drug charges and he used to be a role model to me, even if he wasn’t the best role model. Now, I want to be that good role model for him. To have my big brother look up to me would make me feel good by being that leader.”
Robbie, who was released from prison earlier this month, says he welcomes whatever it takes for Zach to stay motivated and clean.
“Words can’t explain how proud I am of him,” he said. “It is such a relief. He was going through a real hard time when I was sent away. It seemed like I was getting a letter every other week saying he was back in jail.
“I’ve told him plenty of times that I didn’t want him to go through what I’d gone through. I don’t want anyone to, but especially him, as close as we are.”
Robbie sounds as excited about Christmas as Zach.
“I think it’s going to be a storybook one,” he said. “It will be my first Christmas home in three or four years. I haven’t seen any of my out-of-state family in years.
“Used to, we’d always get up and have Christmas morning, then drive up to Tennessee to see family. That’s the plan for this year.”
It doesn’t seem to bother Robbie or Zach that neither could reel off long strings of specific Christmas memories. And Robbie agrees with his younger brother that this might be the one to remember. Robbie feels he’s not only been given the gift of freedom, but the bigger gift of seeing Zach clean and sober.
“I hate that it took what it did take for us both to get our heads on right,” Robbie said. “I’m not sure it could have happened any other way though. We were both going to do what we wanted, how we wanted. I’m glad we’ve got our heads on straight now. I’m glad he could learn from my experience.”