Robert Bunn had a wife, a family and a job as an officer with the Kingsport Police Department, but an addiction to cough syrups and cold medicine sent him into a decade-long downward spiral that left him homeless for years.
Because of his experiences, Bunn, 52, was chosen to serve on the steering committee working on the proposed Bristol Day Center for the homeless.
His addiction started after a particularly bad wreck on Interstate 81. He said he was the first on the scene, and because the wreck blocked most of the interstate, he was the only one there for some time. As the first responder, he had to work by himself to help those involved. One man was horribly burned.
“It really bothered me,” Bunn said. “I was 17 years into my career, but it just really bothered me, and I started to remember all the bodies, all the shootings, the abuses, the suicides — I couldn’t deal with it.”
Over the years, he tried to compartmentalize what he saw and not allow it to distract him from his work, but after that wreck it wasn’t as easy. Shortly after the wreck, he developed a cold.
“I had a cold, and I took the cold medicine, and I wasn’t feeling anything, so I took a little more, then I took it again,” Bunn said.
After he took enough of the cold medicine, he felt numb, and it took him “out of his head.” The medicine contained the chemical dextromethorphan, which relieves coughs but in large doses can create feelings of disassociation from the body or hallucinations among other side effects, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research.
“It made it so you don’t feel, and my problem was I felt too much,” Bunn said. “When a teenage girl dies, and it’s nobody’s fault, but you’re the one who has to tell her parents, I don’t know how that doesn’t bother you. There were times where I cried in my car after a wreck.”
It wasn’t the first time Bunn dealt with addiction. Previously, he had taken pain pills for kidney stones but was able to get off them. But Bunn said he kept taking the cold medicine because it allowed him to escape his problems. Eventually, he had to take it or he experienced withdrawals.
“There was a point, where in my mind I thought I was alright,” Bunn said. “But, eventually, it controls you.”
Bunn, who started on the police force in 1988, said he never abused cold medicine while working, but he realized he was a liability to the department, and he resigned in 2007. That same year, he was convicted of theft of less than $500 and sentenced to nearly a year in jail.
He said he went on to spend eight to nine years floating in instability. He continued to abuse cold medicine, sometimes he stayed with friends, other times he was in shelters or on the street. Eventually, his wife of 23 years filed for divorce.
On several occasions, he found himself on the other side of the law. The crimes he committed were mostly petty ones, such as public intoxication, but in 2012 he was sentenced to two years for a conviction of reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon and public intoxication.
When things got tense between him and those at the Kingsport Police Department, Bunn said he moved to Bristol. And like many homeless in the Twin City, he spent his nights at the Salvation Army or Haven of Rest and his days in the Bristol Public Library.
“The Salvation Army closes its doors at 8 o’clock in the morning, and you can’t come back until the evening. You go where you are welcome and wait for check-in,” Bunn said. “It’s especially hard for people with children.”
He got in trouble with the law again in 2016, when he was sentenced to two years for conviction of possession of a firearm as a felon and public intoxication.
But he doesn’t make excuses for what happened to him or his actions. Ultimately, the instability, the addiction, the crimes, the time he spent in jail and the homelessness were his choice, he said. Unlike many homeless people, Bunn said he rarely had to worry about money or resources.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It was my choice to be homeless. Many, many, many people tried to help me. Many, many people. And I didn’t allow them to,” Bunn said.
His actions alienated friends and family, but eventually he started to turn his life around because of those who kept trying to help him.
“One big thing is my pastor not condoning what I was doing but loving me anyway,” Bunn said.
After his last stint in jail, drug rehabilitation programs and support from his pastor, Eric Fields of Grace Bible Church in Kingsport, and Mark Mitchell of Tri-Cities Recovery helped him get on the slow road to recovery. He said he went to secular and religious rehab programs, but for him the most helpful didn’t focus on addiction or drugs at all, but on his relationship with God.
Bunn said he finally has some stability again. He has been clean for two years and last October, he moved into an apartment in Bristol, Virginia. He’s also in contact with his children and is on friendly terms with his ex-wife.
To stay centered, Bunn said he tries to keep busy; he reads, does odd jobs and helps out neighbors and friends when he can.
He also remains connected to the homeless in Bristol. He said he still goes to the shelters a couple times a week and eats meals with friends who are still homeless.
“Things have gotten better for me, but they still are not for a lot of people,” Bunn said.
As a member of the steering committee for the proposed day center, Bunn has helped with conceptual planning. When the day center opens, he said he will be one of the people frequenting it.
Bunn said he spent too long thinking of himself. Now, he’s trying to make the right choices for the people he cares about and himself.
“Where I’m at and where I was have all been choices,” he said.