Eric Mason was sleeping under bridges six years ago and sometimes on the roof of an abandoned building or a bathroom —- wherever he could find a suitable place for the night.
Last month he graduated from Nevada State College with a near-perfect GPA —- his two A minuses in four years knocked him down to a 3.97 —- and he was given the Nevada Regents’ Scholar Award. One student from each Nevada college and university is given that award.
Mason, a Whitney resident, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in addiction treatment and prevention.
He plans to get his master’s degree in social work at a university, possibly the University of Nevada, Las Vegas , and become a counselor for families with drug-related problems.
Mason has a long history of addiction.
He smoked his first joint in third grade , but his drug use never affected his performance in school until college. He flunked out after his first semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and joined the Navy.
He was a hospital corpsman for the Marine Corps. He began drinking heavily and developed an addiction to prescription medications. It was easy to get whatever drugs he wanted, he said. He would check himself into the ward, claiming a specific ailment because he knew what drugs would be prescribed to him.
Eventually he checked himself into rehab while at Camp Pendleton in California during the Gulf War.
Mason received an honorable discharge from the Navy and stayed in California. He had his first encounter with crystal methamphetamine shortly thereafter.
“Everything seemed fine until I ran into meth,” Mason said. “That’s when everything went shoooooh, down the drain.
“The first time I took it I stayed up for nine or 10 days straight,” he said.
He was broke, jobless and without a car until his parents brought him back to Nebraska in 1992 to stay with them.
He moved to Las Vegas in 1995 and stayed clean for nearly a decade.
In early 2004, his partner left him. Mason, driven by frustration and depression, started using drugs more than ever.
“I lost my house, lost my car, lost my job, and the next thing I knew, I was homeless, wandering the streets of Las Vegas,” Mason said. “No dignity, no self-respect, parents weren’t taking my phone calls anymore.
“I remember sitting in front of the Fashion Show Mall, and people didn’t take the time to notice I was there,” he said. “They were so disgusted. It’s kind of like being in a fish bowl and watching the world pass you by.”
Mason calls it the worst year of his life. He spent time in and out of jail for various crimes.
“I should have died several times,” he said. “They talk about addiction being a disease and progressive. Mine progressed really fast. If any drug was put in front of me, I’d do it.”
He began looking forward to going to jail because at least he had a place to sleep and daily meals.
He was arrested for the last time in December 2004 and entered a drug court program that included counseling, daily drug tests and five years of probation.
Mason attributes his recovery in large part to the people at Hamburger Mary’s who gave him a job despite his past. His bosses worked around his schedule and gave him support throughout his recovery.
Then-general manager Ernie Yuen remembers the first day Mason came into the restaurant.
“He said, ‘O ne day I want to be you,’ ” Yuen said. “I saw there was something about him. He was very honest and open. He said, ‘G ive me a chance and let me prove myself.’ Slowly but surely he evolved and changed. “
Mason enrolled in Nevada State College in Henderson after one of his drug counselors recommended he become a counselor himself.
He graduated s umma c um l aude and, at 40 years old, was asked to make the school’s commencement speech on behalf of the students.
“It is now our responsibility to go out into society and contribute to the resolve of our nation’s troubles,” Mason said during his speech. “We must contribute our time, knowledge and skills into neighborhoods, schools and our communities. It is our turn to pay it forward.”
Many in Mason’s family were in attendance for his graduation. His mother, Linda, flew out from Nebraska while in treatment for her third bout with liver cancer.
Eric Mason is scheduled to start an internship this week as a counselor for the same drug court program he went through years earlier.
“It’s a good fit because he learned how important (counseling) was for him,” Linda Mason said.
Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at firstname.lastname@example.org or 224-5524.