From the time I was a young child I struggled with mental health. Some of my earliest memories are feeling overwhelmed in social settings, so much so that my mother tells a story of me at 3 years old, almost collapsing to the floor in the grocery store when anyone would try to talk to me. Because of this, I always struggled to just feel “okay”. Not even good, just okay.
At the tender age of 5 I had my first interaction with the drug world that would later consume my life. My father had decided that he wasn’t making enough as a social worker in Milwaukee and had scored well on the LSAT (Law school entrance exam). His backup plan in life became Law School at the University of Arkansas. He was 28 years old with a wife, 2 kids, and not much income so we lived in subsidized government projects in Fayetteville. I made friends with some neighbor kids, and remember being happy for the most part.
One of our favorite places to play was the jungle gym behind my building. It was also where the drug dealers for our complex hung out. They would give us candy bars to wear a jacket and give it to the other dealers across the complex, then wear it back. Because who is going to arrest a kindergartner, or use their testimony in court? As I reflect on this memory, others come up and I’m able to realize how pervasive crime really was. Despite this, and the abject poverty, there was a feeling of a tight knit community. A bond formed by these shared burdens.
The year I was going into First grade, my father had graduated Law School and accepted a job in Springfield, Missouri. This was about an hour from my maternal grandparents, who were a big reason for our moving to Missouri. We lived on a farm that we rented, and I spent most afternoons running in the fields amongst the cows with our German Shepherd, Rowdy.
Over the next three years, I changed schools every year. Because of this, the fact that friend groups were loosely based on which church your family went to (I was one of two LDS [Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] kids in my grade), and my ever-present social anxiety, I had a hard time making friends that I could hang out with outside of school.
In 2006, we moved as a family for the last time. Two years prior, I had stopped doing homework. This led to a lot of fighting between my parents and I, escalating during my 6th grade year. I was to come home from school, go immediately to my room, and not come out until I had done my homework. I would read books instead. They were my escape from reality. When my books were taken, I would read textbooks. Anything to avoid homework. Looking back with the knowledge I have now, I recognize the early symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder. It was also around this time that my first addiction started.
I knew the term “pornography” from earlier in my childhood when I told my parents that I had seen the cover to a movie with naked women at my friend’s house. As my young adolescent mind went through the hormonal changes we all do, I remembered the term, and knew that if I searched it on the internet I could find what I wanted. I was 11 when I got started. The only computer in our house was in the kitchen, so I would yell and scream at my siblings when I babysat making them stay in the basement so I could watch. I’ve since come to find out that the dopamine release from watching porn and masturbating is comparable to the release one might get from Heroin. My undeveloped brain that was desperate for escape from life stood no chance. I knew that my parents looked down on this behavior, as I heard them in church and when they caught me, so I became very adept at sneaking. They told me that I could always come to them with anything, but I didn’t trust that because I had heard the way they talked about the behaviors.
Because of my addiction, I drew further from my church and family. To fill this hole, I looked for belonging wherever I could find it. In high school I realized how widespread smoking weed and drinking were, even among the church kids. Sophomore year, I got high for the first time. It was a terrible experience. A friend asked me to go to the bathroom with himself and a couple other guys, and I knew why. My heart started beating as I frantically thought of excuses I could say to get out of this, but still seem cool. I had shot myself in the foot by having acted like I’d been getting high for a year. We got to the bathroom and he pulled out a 10 strip of acid. He cut me off a hit and a half, offered it to me, and I took it. I did my best to keep it from contact with my tongue, but they showed me how to put it under my tongue and wanted to see it so I was hosed. Turns out it was double dipped, and fairly strong which means that I had just taken 3 hits of LSD as my first experience being under the influence of anything.
If you know anything about tripping, you know that you should be in a relaxed, stress free state of mind during a trip. Particularly for your first trip ever. If I had told my friend that I had never tripped, he would never have offered acid to me in the bathroom at school with an hour and a half left in class. I was stressed to the max, and it was obvious. Luckily, I had cultivated a reputation as a good kid (I wore suits to school) so the teachers just figured I was really sick, and said I could call my mom and leave. The last thing I wanted was my mom to see me tripping Fear and Loathing style. My really smart alternative was to walk home over 2 miles, on a country road that only had a sidewalk for a mile, with cars coming towards me. By the time I made it home (almost 2 hours later), my nerves were so shot that I yelled up to my mom that I had a migraine and sat on my bed doing my best to not have a complete meltdown. When I finally came down, I swore I would never do drugs again.
I enlisted 2 years later. If you have any experience with the military or veterans, you know we drink. There was a story in the news recently about 7,000 Marines and Sailors that were part of a joint training in Iceland that drank all the beer in the capital. I felt like I fit in in the Army. I had friends that liked me despite any weird things I was into, and frequently because of those quirks. Our thing to do on the weekends was get drunk, taxi down to Virginia Beach (this was before Uber) and fight the fraternities. This got me my first and only legal charge. I was arrested for assault, the kid didn’t press charges but my commander was not very happy. I received punishment under the Uniform Code of Military justice in the form of a Field Grade Article 15. Lesson learned, right?
A few months after this, I was home for Christmas and saw that a guy from high school was looking for some people to drink with. I hit him up, went to his place, got his roommate to buy us beer (we were 19) and got after it. I smoked weed for the first time that night, tried cocaine a couple days later, and within 3 weeks had tried Oxy, Xanax, Heroin, and Meth. I had found a way to feel good that was way more effective than drinking. I also had found a way to treat my undiagnosed ADD. These were also particularly useful as the harder the drug, the faster it gets out of your system. Which is helpful when you work for the government, since they drug test “randomly”. Anytime you come back from leave, you’ll get tested and if you have a friend in admin who also likes powders, it’s easy to know when the unit tests are. Just abstain for 3 days prior and you’re home free.
The only problem is that I became addicted. I had to get high. I kept cutting it closer and closer, but I didn’t get caught. Then one day, there was a clerical error and the whole hangar had to pee to make up for another unit in the battalion that had forgotten to before going on a training exercise. I was hosed. I filled my cup, turned it in, and spent the rest of the day waiting to get called in to the commander’s office. Then the next week. Then I forgot about it. Until 5 months later I got asked to come see the S-1 office. I stepped in to see my Executive Officer, First Sergeant and admin Sergeant waiting for me. They showed me the results of the UA, and asked me to sign a statement admitting I had done it. This, considering the fact that I hadn’t passed a PT test in 7 months (hard to do when you’re so dehydrated from Meth use that you cramp up after 5 sit-ups) was considered grounds to dismiss me from service. My commander was a really nice guy. Given my service record, and the fact he believed in second chances and knew a Dishonorable would damn near ruin my life, he gave me a Discharge Other than Honorable.
I went back to Missouri and repaid his good faith by selling drugs as soon as I got there. I contacted an old roommate of mine from helicopter school that lived in california and got coke from his cousin in Mexico. He was able to get much purer stuff for half what we were paying in Missouri, so we got some cash together and took a road trip. I talked my Army buddy into fronting us, and was soon the proud half owner of my very own kilo of cocaine. In my mind, I was Pablo. We didn’t sleep the whole trip back home. The problem was, we did not have the clientele to handle that much product seeing as the most we had sold before was a half ounce a week. And we can’t exactly go around advertising that now we have a whole kilo of pure Mexican booger sugar, unless we want our door kicked in. What’s the obvious solution? Snort it and give it to strippers. Sure we sold a fair bit, but we were addicts. We’d never admit it, but we were. Faster than we thought possible, the slopes were empty and we did NOT have enough to pay my friend for it. So I went dark. I decided I wasn’t going to reach out to him, or answer his calls. Turned out I didn’t need to, since he completely disappeared. His Facebook was gone a month later. Both phones went straight to voicemail. In that line of work, there aren’t many good scenarios in which you fall off the face of the earth.
This was a wake up call for me. I moved to Wisconsin to work for my cousin’s pest control company over the summer and get away from my associates. I did really well as a technician and my cousin asked me if I’d stay on full time and consider doing sales the next year. I was thrilled since I didn’t really have a plan for my life except that I was going to school eventually. The next summer came and as it turns out, crippling social anxiety and door sales don’t go hand-in-hand. But our branch manager in Michigan had just committed insurance fraud and was being investigated by the police, so I was able to step in.
During the time I was in Wisconsin, I had started talking again to a girl I knew from high school and had dated a couple times. I would come down once a month to see her and we started dating again. Things were getting pretty serious and we made plans to get married. Except she didn’t want to move away from her family, even though she had no job or other reason to stay in Missouri. Unfortunately, I was completely co-dependent and used the rationalization that this was my reason to go to school back home.
The day before I moved back, one of my best friends that I’d known since 6th grade and had talked into enlisting in the Army, hung himself. This by no means was the first friend I’d had commit suicide, and definitely wasn’t the last. It hit differently though, and was compounded by the fact that my fiancé kept making excuses to not see me during that first week back. That Saturday, she told me she had feelings for another guy that she’d been seeing and didn’t want to be with me anymore. I shot up heroin for the first time that night. Up until that point I had only snorted or smoked it. IV use took the high to a whole new level. The next 6 months are a bit hazy. I stayed at my parents house as long as they let me, then couch surfed when I could. As good as Heroin feels, I still preferred Meth. I’d shoot up till my veins collapsed, then smoke till my mouth was so chemically burned that my tongue would swell and I couldn’t speak correctly. I hated myself, my life, and did everything to obliterate my mind so I didn’t have to feel.
Before this, I had had some passing suicidality. Various “what if” thoughts, impulses, desires. It all culminated on March 20th, when I loaded up my whole stash of heroin and shot it hoping to never wake up again. When I came to, I had the most intense spiritual experience of my life. I felt an overwhelming sense of love and like God knew me individually. I reached out to my parents and asked them for help getting into treatment. As luck, or divine intervention, might have it, they had gone to college with a guy who now specializes as a psychologist in early 20’s males with substance abuse. He recommended a treatment program in Utah that did residential and transitional living. I slept off my withdrawals and drove here with my mother and two youngest siblings. New Roads saved my life. They were a true Dual Diagnosis program that emphasized Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and were able to give me the skills I had always lacked.
Residential treatment was not challenging at first. I wanted to be there, I didn’t mind not having a phone or internet access, and the mattresses were TempurPedic memory foam. I made some friends and started to really enjoy it. After 3 weeks, I hit a depressive slump. I would wake up, go to the morning meeting, go back to bed, get up for group, go back to bed, and so on all day. This was when I had a talk with my therapist, my peers, and myself, and decided that I needed to really change and not just go through the motions. I started slowly developing a daily routine. The first week, my only goal was to wake up and get out of bed at the same time every day. Next week, get up and make my bed. This allowed me to not overwhelm myself with expectations, as I had always done before. I continued this through the rest of my stay at the program.
After 86 days in residential care, I moved up to the transitional living program. We stayed in apartments, went to groups during the day, and started adjusting to real life in the afternoons/evenings. The routine and habits I formed in residential came in clutch now with so much free time. After “leveling up” in the program a couple times, I was able to get a job in the kitchen back at the center. This was very convenient, as I barely had to interview and didn’t really have to apply. My anxiety has always held me back from applying to jobs very well. Life was great; I was working a job I liked, living in housing I didn’t have to pay for, and hanging out with my boys every day. Then came the news that we were selling the location I worked at since there weren’t enough admits to justify it.
I backslid hard. Without a job, a sense of fulfilment, I wouldn’t get up in the morning. I would lay in bed all day watching Netflix on my phone. I didn’t eat a whole lot, which is really out of character for me. I realized how crucial it is to have something meaningful in your life. And so I decided to find something to fill that void.
I found it in another position with New Roads. My therapist asked the Program Director in passing if there were any positions at the center down in Provo. There just happened to be a frontline staff position, Mentor as we call them, available for the men’s behavioral health program (NrTH). This differed from the program I was in (PaTH), in that my program was primary diagnosis of substance abuse with a secondary diagnosis of a mental illness, and NRTH is a primary diagnosis of a mental illness, and any substance abuse is secondary.
I started as a Mentor on Halloween of 2017. It was a different world. The guys I worked with were dealing with some similar and some very different challenges to the guys I was in treatment with. Schizo-disorders, severe bi-polar, borderline personality, autism spectrum, and everything else. I started connecting with them, sharing my experience, strength and hope. It’s a strange dialectic in my life that I have such an aversion to talking to people, and am also very good at it. Because of my ability to connect with the guys, and the fact that I knew the program from the inside, I was offered a position as a Case Manager working one on one with whichever clients were on my caseload.
That’s what I’ve done ever since. This past Jan 1st marked 2 years in my position. In those 2 years I’ve had a lot of struggles, met a lot of great clients, lost a fair share to suicide and overdose. I’ve become a lot more trained in my field, started school, and continued to deal with anxiety and depression. Through everything, I use the skills, habits and routine I developed two and a half years ago. I’m active in the Church of my youth and in good standing. I’ve gained some friends so good that I never could have imagined them when I was younger. My relationship with my family is stronger than I ever thought it would be. I truly have a Life Worth Living.