John’s “whole life game plan” started with the Army. So, a couple of weeks after graduation, he said goodbye to his mother, stepfather, siblings, and friends and drove north to Columbus, Ohio, from where he would go to boot camp.
The Army was a chance for John to do something meaningful with his life. His adolescence had included lots of partying and drug use, which started at age 13 when a kid at the skate park offered him marijuana and eventually progressed to cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, LSD—basically anything with which he could experiment. At 16, he found some Vicodin in his parents’ medicine cabinet and tried it. He liked it and added prescription pain pills to his menu of drug options.
But he stopped using drugs long enough to test clean for the Army, and sitting in the Army’s Columbus office, he thought about the direction and discipline that the Army would provide him. That’s when the Army officer dealt John his first big blow as a young adult: they had missed the fact that he had an online high school diploma, which meant that he would need 15 college credits to enlist. So the Army sent John back home, not to boot camp.
“Screw this,” he told himself on the way home. He had tried doing the responsible thing, and it didn’t work. So he gave up, took the wad of money that he’d received for graduation gifts, and figured it was time to party and get high again. It was 2009, and it took him eight months to find a job—and that was with applying for a job about once a week. “I didn’t have anything holding me back,” he later said about his renewed drug use during this time.
When I first interviewed John, in 2010, he was 19 and working full-time at an oil change shop for about $8.00 an hour, but he didn’t appear to take the job seriously. He was scheduled to be at work the morning I interviewed him, but he said his boss was laid-back and wouldn’t mind if he showed up an hour late.
The next summer I interviewed John, he told me that his boss at the oil change shop fired him. He’d called in sick one day, but his boss said he still had to come in. When John did show up, he went straight to the basement and slept—so his boss fired him. “Yeah, I didn’t really care about that job very much,” he added. For the next few months he “just chilled and was lazy” before a buddy found him a job at a metal fabrication shop.
But the next time I interviewed him, in the spring of 2016, John was a different man, and he had a story to tell. For starters, he acknowledged that the reason he was tired the time he called in sick to the oil change job was because he was high on pain pills. He had become the slave of OxyContin, Opana, and Percocet 30, all bought illegally, though he told himself at the time that he wasn’t an addict. And when the pills became harder to snort and more expensive, and they stopped giving him the high he wanted, John tried snorting heroin. That gave him a high he had never experienced.
The first time a judge ordered John to a residential drug treatment program was because he had been caught buying cocaine, not for abusing opioids. He had never shot himself with heroin, only snorted, but at that first six-month rehab, he met many heroin addicts who described the feeling of injecting heroin through a needle.
“When you shoot heroin, you get a very intense rush,” they told him. “It’s kind of indescribable, but it’s one of the most euphoric feelings you’ll ever feel.”
A few months out of rehab, John shot up with heroin for the first time. “And basically everything changed when I started using a needle,” he said. “What was bad became drastically worse, very quickly.”
He had been using heroin for almost two years and dragged his way through two more drug treatment programs when he hatched a plan to get home early from work so he could use his dad’s truck to get dope. After picking up the heroin, he injected himself and took off driving on a snowy January day. He remembers pulling up to a stoplight—and then waking up to the sound of people talking about IVs.
“Hey, man, you’ve been in a car accident,” an EMT told him. “You overdosed on heroin. Does everything feel okay? Can you move?”
John looked around, saw shards of glass all over the floor of his dad’s truck, which was parked against a tree in some lady’s yard.
His first thought was, “I gotta make sure I hide my heroin so they don’t find it.” He saw a needle on the floor and hid it. At the hospital, he had to make the hard call to his mom: “I overdosed, I crashed dad’s truck, but I’m okay,” he told her. He had only been back from his latest rehab stint for a few weeks, and he knew his mom believed he was fully recovered. And now he had to tell her that if it hadn’t been for the EMTs giving him Narcan, he would be dead.
“[B]asically everything changed when I started using a needle,” John said. “What was bad became drastically worse, very quickly.”
But just a week after overdosing, John began shooting up heroin again. And in the year 2015 alone, he overdosed three more times. In each instance, he would have died had paramedics not given him Narcan. The last time he overdosed, he and his girlfriend, who also struggled with heroin addiction, were living in a “trap house” (a drug dealer’s house) when they stole drugs from the drug dealer and then fled. John had already been kicked out of a halfway house, and they didn’t have anywhere else to stay, so he did the only thing he could think of: call his mom, whom he had stolen from and lied to innumerable times in the last few years. Still, he managed to convince her to give him and his girlfriend the money to get a fresh start in a Florida rehab. Back at his mom’s house not long afterwards, John shot up with heroin again and overdosed.
This time, John went to jail, and this time, John remembered what his mom had been telling him for years: “Turn it over to God.” So in that jail cell, John hit his knees and begged God to help him.
“God, come into my life,” he prayed. “Help me to become something better than what I am.”
A few days later, someone randomly handed him a Bible. And the next day, his cousin—a minister—visited him in his jail cell. And to John’s surprise, the judge didn’t order him to go back to any of the residential treatment programs he had already been through but instead sent him to a program that was harder to get into and seen by many as the gold star of treatment programs with a high success rate. On the April day that I picked John up from a halfway house and talked with him at a McDonald’s, he was set to enter that new six-month program the next day.
He said he had finally admitted to himself that he had a problem, and he had an acute sense of his limitations. “I’ve never smoked meth,” he said, “but I’m just one day away from going back to any of that.”
But he was also hopeful with a budding sense of purpose. He talked about some day wanting to start a program to raise awareness in affluent, suburban high schools about the dangers of drug use—like in the high school he attended, and where he had encountered the perception that drugs weren’t a problem (a false perception, in his experience). He was a D.A.R.E. graduate, but he didn’t take it seriously. He wondered if maybe hearing it from former addicts like him might work better.
Whatever the case, he was still trying to figure out who he was—years of turning to drugs to help him cope with difficulties had stunted his emotional maturity, he said—but he figured that God had kept him alive for a reason. “I’d like to give back—[even] if I could just help one person not make that choice.”
When I asked him, “What are some of the reasons that people use drugs in the first place?” John answered:
Well, for one thing, it feels good. It gets [you] away from thinking [about] the way you are. It helps you not care, to cope with situations that are uncomfortable. That’s a big thing for me. Some people self-medicate—the anxiety. I think in the beginning a lot of it is just curiosity, and then they find out how good it feels. In the beginning, it doesn’t feel horrible.
For him, using drugs was a way to escape pain. “Heroin, for me, and doing drugs and getting high and even relationships—anything—I do it to get me out of myself,” he said. “Because at the time, I didn’t really like myself. So that’s what I used to cope with everything.”
Like the time he relapsed after finding out that his girlfriend had been seeing another man or the other time that he relapsed after a different girlfriend had dumped him. About the latter time, he said, “I did what I always do: got high, avoid feeling that pain.” Instead of actually emotionally wrestling with difficulties, he’d snort Oxycontin or inject heroin. As an adolescent, he learned to use drugs as a way to cope: “I’d always use drugs. Or I’d get into a relationship with somebody so that I don’t have to be just me by myself because I don’t like being alone, me with my own thoughts.”
He also pointed out that, for him at least, using drugs was a social activity, not a loner act. It was a friend at the skate park who first introduced him to marijuana (which he described as an introduction for him to harder drugs), and during his first stint at a drug treatment program, it was his new friends who first told him about the rush of shooting heroin. And typically, he was with a girlfriend or friends when he snorted and injected, and fled from the law into other states.
But it’s also true that another social activity has long been one of America’s most potent forces against addiction: addicts coming together to share their stories and helping each other at Alcoholics Anonymous, or at spinoffs like Narcotics Anonymous, or (more recently) the explicitly Christian-based Celebrate Recovery. John had attended many AA meetings, but until recently, he never took it that seriously, and never took the opportunity to find a sponsor—who has to be sober—to go through the full 12-step program.
However, John believed that one of the most important things he could do to beat addiction was working the twelve steps of AA. From memory, he recited the first step: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or any drug]—that our lives had become unmanageable.” He also remembered the second step: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
There is the powerlessness that paradoxically empowers—that compels a person to look outside himself, discover a higher power, and thereby rediscover the power to change.
There is the powerlessness that depresses, and there is the powerlessness that paradoxically empowers—that compels a person to look outside himself, discover a higher power, and thereby rediscover the power to change. The latter is what the AA steps seem to encourage, and what John’s jail-cell prayer tapped into.
In the Cincinnati region, where John and I live, there are a lot of addicts feeling powerless right now: in the last two months, an already devastating heroin epidemic became an unofficial public health disaster. In a span of four weeks alone, there were more than 350 heroin-related overdoses in Cincinnati. In the middle of so many pills, so much pain, so much heroin, what’s the way out?
I’d like to think that the solution has something to do with the last step of the AA program: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics [or drug addicts], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Or, as AA’s “Big Book” puts it in describing the last step, “Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards.”
In other words, the man who overdosed last week on my quiet street, slumped pathetically over his truck’s steering wheel, is not a lost cause. Not only does he have intrinsic value, but it’s people like him—people like John—who have an important part to play in overcoming the heroin epidemic. Precisely because they know how fragile and powerless and dependent they are on a higher power—and through that powerlessness rediscovered their own agency—they are the “poor in spirit” who can allow their pain to become a rich gift of love. They are the weak who can help my community become stronger.