In Joey Gootee’s last post on Instagram he is smiling peacefully. Lips pressed together, just the corners of his mouth turn slightly up. It’s a selfie but he doesn’t look directly into the camera. His eyes are sleepy and content. The caption reads, “Today is the greatest.”
The photo is dated December 13, 2015. Just two weeks later, the day after Christmas, Joey would die of a heroin overdose.
His family didn’t see it coming. Joey had been doing so well.
Meet the Gootees
From their home in Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville, in a neighborhood known for its family-friendly and community-oriented spirit, Rich and Marsha Gootee, Joey’s parents, are preparing for their third holiday season without him. Tucked into the end of a cul-de-sac, this is the house where Joey grew up. A large painted sign says “You Are Loved…Always” and rests beside the Gootee’s bright red front door. Inside it feels exactly like what the sign promises. Framed family photos cover the walls and tabletops. The furniture and décor are comfortable and familiar.
Rich and Marsha are unfussy and relaxed, like they’ve been welcoming strangers into their home for a lifetime. Rather than rolling out the red carpet, they offer something better—something richer—a sense that you already belong. You are welcome. They will be themselves and therefore so should you.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving. It’s cloudy and gray, and temperatures hover in the low 30s all day. The holiday that ushers in the first wave of all things merry and bright leaves Marsha feeling anything but. It’s been a tough week, and she’s cried a lot. She misses Joey.
“I want to see his face again. I want to hold him,” she says. “You wish you just had one more hour with him.”
And while one more hour is impossible, Rich and Marsha cling to and are comforted by the last eight months they had with him. After checking Joey into Discovery Place in March 2015, the Gootees say they got their son back. The Joey they’d lost for so many years to drug addiction had finally returned to them.
Salesman by day, DJ by night
The youngest of three and the only boy, Rich describes Joey as the “rascal of all rascals.” Teasi, Joey’s oldest sister by 12 years, was often left to babysit and would become the unsuspecting victim of some plot by Joey and his other sister Jenny, three-and-a-half years his senior, to embarrass her in front of a boy or subvert her temporary authority.
“Joey was just a laughing kid,” recalls Marsha. “From the time he was born, he was a laugher.”
As Joey got older, it wasn’t uncommon for Rich or Marsha to find one of Joey’s friends sleeping on their downstairs couch. Sometimes he’d stay for a night, sometimes several weeks.
“Joey had a heart for suffering people,” says Marsha. The Gootees remember their son as someone who always had an eye out for the underdog, the person going through a rough time. It was a reputation Joey would carry with him his entire life, even at Discovery Place.
In high school, Joey excelled in sports, becoming a two-time state champion wrestler. It was also in high school where Rich and Marsha first noticed Joey smoking pot and getting off track. They took him to a local treatment center where he was assessed but the Gootees ultimately decided not to check him in. Looking back, Marsha sometimes questions if that was a missed opportunity. Rooted in the Christian faith, it was important to the couple at the time to keep Joey enrolled in his private Catholic high school.
“You never know. I think if I could help any parent who is a Christian, [I’d say,] yes, go ahead and rely on God, but also consider there are a lot of other ways to help your kids,” says Marsha.
After graduation, Joey headed to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville but soon found a job working in technology. It was the dot-com boom and Joey had a knack for the business. He left college and within a couple of years was earning a six-figure income as a salesperson for a large international tech company.
Throughout most of the Gootee children’s lives, Rich was on the road as a touring musician. As much as wrestling or technology was in Joey’s DNA, like his father, so was music. While still climbing the corporate ladder in sales, Joey also became involved in the electronic dance music (EDM) scene as a DJ. For Joey, EDM combined his greatest passions: music and technology. But the EDM world is known for its deep drug culture, and it wasn’t long before Joey was immersed in that, too. Rich and Marsha watched in desperation and confusion as Joey Gootee began to morph into Joey Modus, international DJ and music producer.
Becoming Joey Modus
Like many kids his age, Joey fell in love with rap music in high school. Marsha wasn’t a fan. “Joey loved the stories [of rap] and automatically wanted to have a story, like he wanted to be the gangster of our subdivision or something,” she says jokingly. So years later when Joey got more involved with EDM and started deejaying as Joey Modus, it wasn’t hard for Marsha to see the connection. As Joey Modus, Joey Gootee got to be someone else. Joey got to live in someone else’s story.
Joey traveled the world performing as Joey Modus. He was signed to Paul Oakenfold’s record label, Perfecto Records, and regularly opened shows for the legendary DJ at packed Las Vegas nightclub gigs. By 2008, he was sharing top billing with electronic music mainstays like Tiesto, Paul van Dyk, and Samantha Ronson. From the DJ booth, Joey Modus was on top of the world.
But while Joey was on top of the world, Rich and Marsha were wondering where their son had gone.
“I think really when he got into the whole electronic music scene and then his shoulder,” say Rich, trailing off, alluding to when Joey began to slip away. The effects of years of wrestling meant eventually undergoing reconstructive shoulder surgery around 2009. Joey was prescribed painkillers during his recovery.
“Personality-wise, for me, it was after he had his shoulder surgery and his need for pain pills kept going and going,” says Marsha. While Rich and Marsha suspect Joey was already using drugs recreationally as part of the EDM scene before his shoulder surgery, the change after was dramatic.
From pills to heroin
As is common among opiate addicts, the effort and expense of keeping up with a pill habit meant a swift transition to heroin. Once Joey became an IV drug user, Rich and Marsha said he began to lose everything fast. The job in sales with the big salary, the car, the condo he owned—all gone in about a year. By the end of his addiction, even Joey Modus was gone.
He started wearing long undershirts under his T-shirts to cover up track marks. His hair was long and unkempt. He was arrested more than once on drug charges. Marsha remembers Joey calling her one night asking her to pick him up. He’d been beaten up and was covered in blood. Joey was hospitalized on multiple occasions when his injection sites became infected. More than once, doctors told Rich and Marsha he was near death. But each time, Joey pulled through.
Over the last five years of his life, Joey’s parents made every effort to get him help. Attempts to send him to other treatment centers failed. Eventually Joey moved back in with them, a decision they say that wasn’t always met with approval by their peers or other parents of addicts.
“You gotta choose what you can handle,” says Marsha. “I couldn’t handle wondering where he was.”
Rich and Marsha watched other parents become consumed by anger toward their addict children. That wasn’t what she wanted for herself, or for Joey. They wanted Joey to get better but they didn’t see how being angry with him was going to make that happen any sooner.
“Forgiveness is radically important,” says Rich. “It doesn’t mean you condone what they do, but you have to forgive.”
Finally in March 2015, Joey was ready to give recovery a try. The Gootees knew someone who’d gone through Discovery Place and they showed Joey the website. Rich recalls Joey connecting with one of the guest testimonials. In it, a former heroin addict said he was no longer afraid of heroin. For someone whose constant companion was now fear, those were the magic words for Joey. A couple of days later, Rich and Marsha brought him to Discovery Place.
Hope at Discovery Place
Leaving Joey at Discovery Place was a relief for the Gootees. “For the five years before that, the only time we ever had any rest really was when he was in jail,” says Rich. “When he was in jail, we could sleep knowing where he was and that he wasn’t going to die.” But he was also safe at Discovery Place. And when Rich and Marsha returned 30 days later for his commencement, they couldn’t believe the transformation. Other guests shared how much Joey had helped them and what a leader he’d been. The man that had been so terrified, but so desperate and ready for help, just a month earlier had been replaced with someone new.
Joey moved into a halfway house in nearby Dickson, TN and got a job working at a golf course. He dove headfirst into recovery this time, something his parents had never seen him do before.
“From the time he went to Discovery Place to the time he passed, we had our son back,” says Rich.
But Joey also started experiencing panic attacks. He was prescribed Alprazolam, an anti-anxiety medication similar to Xanax. Today Marsha believes this is what began to weaken Joey’s resolve. At that time though there were still no signs that he was headed for relapse. In fact, Joey’s last Christmas with his family had been one of their best in years.
Joey’s last days before a heroin overdose
Rich’s voice breaks and he begins to weep as he recalls the last night of his son’s life. He was the last one to talk to Joey. He was the one who found Joey’s body.
“Nobody had a clue he was going to use that night,” says Rich. “He just got weak and thought he could do it one more time.”
Joey was still living in a halfway house in Dickson but was home for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the Gootees all attended church together. Joey had even gone to a recovery meeting earlier that day.
Marsha recalls Joey getting up several times throughout the service. Now she knows he was trying to score drugs. Even so, Rich and Marsha say Christmas Day was wonderful. Everyone was together, including Joey’s siblings and their children. The whole family opened presents and took a walk together.
That evening, after everyone else had left or gone to bed, Rich came into the family room to say goodnight to Joey. It was close to midnight. He’d forgotten to give Joey the Christmas card he’d written and gave it to him then. Inside, he’d written words of encouragement to his son, telling him how proud of him he was.
Over the last eight months, Joey and his parents had had many long talks about life and faith; they’d reconnected in a deeper way and were making up for lost time. Joey told his parents how happy he was, how free he felt.
That night in the living room, Rich and Joey had one last talk.
“I was telling him how much I loved him, that he was totally forgiven. There was no bitterness. There was no anger,” says Rich. “I told him we loved him and were proud of him. All was forgiven.”
Those were Rich’s last words to Joey. In a couple of hours, Joey would be dead.
Marsha heard her son in his room around three in the morning. Everything was quiet in the house after that.
The next morning, Marsha took a nap in the family room while Rich took a walk around the neighborhood. When he returned, he asked Marsha if Joey had come down yet. When she said he hadn’t, Rich offered to go wake him. Marsha returned to her nap.
Rich found Joey on his bedroom floor. He was gone.
“What if my last words had been angry and condemning and bitter?” Rich poses. “I would have been tortured my whole life. I am so grateful my words weren’t angry, and neither were his.”
The Gootees are certain Joey’s death was an accident. He was not suicidal.
“We had plans the next day,” says Rich. “He had his alarm set.” In fact, Joey had just gotten a new iPhone for Christmas the day before and had set his alarm to go off each morning at 6:30. At his celebration of life service, Joey’s sister Teasi joked that Rich and Marsha were still being woken up each morning by Joey’s alarm because they didn’t know his passcode to turn it off. The Gootees believe Joey had every intention to keep living.
And more than that, they believe that Joey’s drug addiction does not define him. It wasn’t who he was.
At Joey’s memorial service, Rich read through messages the family had received from Joey’s friends since he’d died. He was remembered as someone who made others feel loved, who put the needs of others before his own, who looked for how to help someone suffering even when he was suffering himself. He stood up for others who struggled to stand up for themselves. This was the Joey everyone knew and loved.
Moving through grief
This is the first Christmas since Joey’s death that Rich and Marsha will be at home. The last couple of years have been too difficult and they’ve taken a trip instead. This year, they spent Thanksgiving at Discovery Place. It’s the place that helped return their son to them. And even though Joey is gone, they want to share his life and his story with those that are still here, those who still have a chance to make a change.
Rich and Marsha’s faith—their belief in love, forgiveness, and service—is the bedrock of their marriage. Married 45 years, they have only grown closer since Joey’s death.
“We love each other. I don’t want him to hurt,” says Marsha. “If I could take part of his pain once in a while off of him. I mean, he found Joey.”
Marsha still wonders how she couldn’t have known—sensed—sooner that Joey had died. Each carries their own unique pain: one with the memory of finding him, the other with the guilt of not.
“It changes your life forever. You never get over [the loss],” says Rich. “You will get through it, but you’ll never get over it.”
“You’ve got to keep moving through grief,” Marsha adds. “You cannot get stuck somewhere. You can stay for a while but you can’t stay forever.”
The Gootees believe Joey is somewhere better and that he no longer suffers. They believe they will all meet again. And when they do, that will be the greatest day.