by Antonio Johnson, prisoner in Ohio
The day Antonio Johnson discovered the truth about his father was the day his life began unravelling.
For years he had believed a lie, a lie his mother told him, that his father was a hero, a fireman who had died saving others. He had built his life around the dream of following in his father's footsteps. His favorite toy was, of course, a fire truck.
All that changed when he stumbled upon his father's death certificate and discovered that far from being the hero of his imagination, his father was actually a violent drug dealer and criminal who had been shot in the head twice, dismembered and then set on fire.
Even worse, Antonio also found out his father had not even wanted him to be born and had in fact beaten his mother up in an attempt to get her to miscarry.
"My world came crashing down," says Antonio, who is currently in prison for a slew of offences, including the fatal shooting of a man when he was 17.
"The truth hurt me so deeply that I started rebelling against my dear and faithful mother, who told me those lies to protect me from the monster that my father was. But at that time I felt she had betrayed me and I turned against her.
"In reality, she loved me so much that the day she was beaten up was the day she left my father, who was the love of her life, and took my two sisters with her to save all of us from him."
Today Antonio understands why his mother did what she did, but at the time he only felt heartbreak and hurt, both of which soon turned to rage. He became a bomb looking for somewhere to explode and his mother was a convenient target.
"I started to seek revenge on her by trying to hurt her, mostly by being disobedient and disrespectful," he says.
"I was already experimenting with drugs and sex. I started consuming more and more drugs to numb the pain. I felt terribly wounded by both my parents and as a consequence I couldn't develop healthy relationships with either men or women."
It didn't take long for Antonio to graduate from consuming drugs to selling them. "That was the worst decision of my life," he says. "The money I made opened many negative doors. I had access to guns, more drugs and promiscuous women.
"Prison predictably, was a nightmare." But as traumatic as it Antonio realizes today being there probably saved his life. It certainly turned it around, for it was while he was behind bars that he received a letter from his mother which set the gears in motion for change.
In that letter she told Antonio the truth about his life. "Something broke in me when my mother told me the truth," he says.
"For the first time I got down on my knees and prayed 'God, if I'm Your son, show up in my life and I will serve You if You get me out of prison.' I thought I could make a deal with God."
Miraculously, Antonio did indeed leave prison. He was transferred to the North Central Correctional Complex, a low to medium security facility in Marion, Ohio.
Taking his transfer as an answer to prayer, he kept his word and set about improving himself.
He enrolled in several rehabilitation programs and did so well he soon progressed to teaching and mentoring. "God delivered me from my old life to one where I was now making an impact in inmates' lives," he says.
As happy as he was, Antonio still carried deep hurts over what he calls 'the father wound'. However, with the Godly guidance of his counsellor Rhea Edmonds, he has dealt with the pain of the past.
"I learned God takes care of the fatherless (Psalm 68:5; James 1:27)," he says. "His fingerprints are all over my life. He was protecting me from the time I was in the womb.
"I slowly worked through my issues with my parents and was finally able to release them both. I also asked my mother to forgive me for all the pain I caused her.
"I pray that in my dad's final moments he gave his life to the Lord and I hope to see him in heaven one day."
Antonio is still at NCCC. "I understand why I'm still here," he says. "It's to build men to have a positive influence on their families and communities.
While he has no children of his own, Antonio feels strongly he is a spiritual father to many men who have walked through life with the same 'father wound' he had. "I hear this from them all the time.
"The way to overcome it is to acknowledge it and confront it. You can't sweep wounds like that under the carpet and hope they will heal. My untreated wounds caused me to hurt so many people. I hope people learn from my mistakes and experience."•