Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Think you can recognize the face of an addict? Think again

by on April 13, 2014 2:02 AM

John (his name has been changed), who works in the addiction recovery field, recalled the one time he was talking to a police officer while at work.

“You and I both know heroin addicts never get clean,” the officer said in the course of the conversation.

John was taken aback. A former heroin user, he was by then measuring his recovery in years.

“You’re looking at one,” he responded.

The officer looked at him. Stunned.

“Like I was a unicorn or Bigfoot,” he said.

An awkward moment, sure. But also understandable, John said.

After all, police officers tend to encounter those suffering from addiction as they’re falling down. They don’t see them climbing back up.

To be sure, those who have addictions can and do, in fact, climb back. And quite often, John said.

“I’ve seen people turn it around and lead completely different lives,” he said.

That includes himself.

“If you would have asked me seven years ago where I would be, it certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.”

And where he is is at home, being a husband, raising a family. He and his wife bought a house last year. And he has not just a job, but a rewarding career.

Having family responsibilities helped steer him into recovery. It’s also helped to keep him there, he said.

“For me, it was being a parent and wanting to build a life for my family. And that’s still a motivator for me today.

“That reminds me that (my recovery) is something I don’t want to gamble with. Recovery is a lifelong process,” he said.

In a former life, all he knew was the drug and alcohol scene. He drank. He smoked weed. He shot heroin.

“Throughout my addiction I used pretty much every drug I had the opportunity to,” he said.

John, who is in his early 30s, said he was genetically primed for addiction — his biological father was an addict. That alone increased the risk he would be, too.

And then there was his environment.

He grew up in a rural area. There wasn’t much to do. Except use. And he used, he said, despite having a good upbringing. He played sports. He did well in school. He wasn’t disadvantaged.

At first, he played around with alcohol and marijuana. That was at age 13. And he didn’t think anything of it.

“Gradually people around me were using harder things, and I joined right in.”

Despite having a best friend who died of an overdose, despite having told himself he would never use heroin, he tried it anyway. His first bag of heroin came at age 20.

In time, there were consequences.

He was kicked out of college. The school loans left with him. There were arrests as well, for things like possession and driving under the influence. And there were the overdoses, too. Five in all.

Death, he thought, was inevitable.

“Addiction took me to a point where I felt like my life was going to end,” he said. “At age 23, I thought I would never live to see 30.

“Luckily some people didn’t give up on me.”

His family recognized there was a problem, and they forced him into an in-patient treatment program soon after leaving school.

He went, but only to get his parents off his back.

So, of course, the lessons learned didn’t take. Not initially.

As a result, he wound up going back into treatment eight more times, albeit halfheartedly.

Sometimes to keep a job. Other times to keep a girlfriend. And still other times because the court ordered him to do so.

John said the things he valued most at the time were the friends he was with and the drugs they were using. Therefore, he’d twist what he was taught in treatment so he could keep on using.

So he’d make deals with himself, maybe saying he’d put down the heroin, but allow himself a drink.

Or he’d convince himself he no longer had a problem at all.

“The one thing about the disease of addiction is it’s the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease or you don’t have a disease any more.

“I can’t tell you how many times my life would get better, and then I’d start thinking that I can have a drink or maybe smoke a joint.”

“Each time I ended up right back where I started.”

It was only after he began accepting lessons in treatment that he began to see some progress. And for a nine-month stretch, he was doing well, holding a job and earning a paycheck.

But he was injured at work. The doctor prescribed pain medicine. John didn’t mention anything about his past.

“It was like flipping a switch.”

And he was back to his old ways. That led to an arrest for driving under the influence, which put him at odds with his probation.

Recognizing that something had to change, he went into treatment for the ninth time. But this time around, he embraced it fully. It wasn’t easy.

“I had to change everything. I had to change my routine and how I thought about situations. That took a while to do.”

But he’s had success. He’s been sober since 2008.

Still, even six years on, he has to remind himself that he remains in recovery. That means being diligent in avoiding the people, places and things that might draw him back.

He also continues to work on repairing damaged relationships.

“Some of them are beyond repair. Some of them, no matter what I do, they can’t forgive or accept or see me as anything other than how they used to see me,” he said.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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