The conversation always starts the same way: “Remember in high school when… ?” That’s when the sinking feeling sets in; what do I remember from high school?
Spinning rooms; waking up in my own vomit; hitchhiking with strangers; drinking alone on church steps; sneaking out of my parents’ house; selling fake coke for alcohol money; going to juvenile detention; taking shots out of a flask with men 3 times my age; skipping class every other day; fighting my father when he prevented me from partying; being angry when drunk; being angry when hungover; feeling lost when I woke up with no idea where I was.
That was my freshman year of high school. Everything else remains a blur.
I began drinking at the age of 13. By 15 I was showing signs of alcoholism. High school is typically a hard time. When my sister passed due to a drinking related accident and my parents got divorced, I began searching for an escape. The bottle became my sanctuary.
After a fight that resulted in my expulsion, my parents sent me to a wilderness rehab. Being 15, my stories did not compare to the 17 year-old heroin addicts in my group. I convinced myself that, yes–I had problems, but I wasn’t a full-blown addict. I came out wanting to stay sober. I got a new start at a boarding school north of my hometown.
I made it 6 months sober shortly after turning 16. To celebrate, I got drunk with two strangers, and the cycle viciously began again. This went on for months, with each promise to stay sober less hopeful and each relapse much worse. Again, the memories became a scattered blur. I couldn’t tell you because they don’t exist. It’s the worse feeling ever not remembering your life, your own history.
I returned to my wilderness program the day after turning 17. Two large men entered my room only a few hours after I finished celebrating my birthday. They were transporters hired to take me back to rehab. I sat up in my bed, the drips of cocaine lingering in the back of my throat. I knew after that summer, I would be one of those 17 year-olds with rowdy stories of selling and using hard drugs. I even smiled in my intake picture.
The 3 days of detoxing were unbearable. The words of my high school counselors rang truer than ever. I can still hear them: “You’re destined to die an addict; you’ll never see the age of 18.” I was defeated. Why try? The program never worked for me before.
After 30 days I was transferred to a “therapeutic boarding school” in Florida. This was my last chance, but what I encountered was no haven. I learned in short time the lack of regulations and stigma surrounding rehab. The staff beat us at night, they kept us in a refurnished prison, we couldn’t contact family, we rarely went outside, and most of us were malnourished. A halfway house next door provided us with drugs, only because they saw the abuse we experienced daily. My addiction took complete control of me.
I drank Listerine to feel a buzz, huffed gas from the broken-down lawnmower in the back, broke into the med room to eat any pill I could find, and huffed full cans of Lysol–anything for a temporary escape from reality. All I needed was the next high to be okay. Addiction is not just physical dependency–your mind needs it to escape.
After 4 months of hell, my parents discovered the injustices and had me transferred to yet another program. I was resigned, defeated, and unwilling to change. Life was better high. I internalized what everyone told me and accepted my fate. Then my father called…
“Josh, I’ve already lost one child, and I’m not going to sit back and lose another. I know who you truly are and I’m not giving up on you.”
The receiver dropped and the tears began. Everyone was right, I would never live to be 18 if I didn’t turn my life around. I threw myself into the program. I took every opportunity and humbly asked for help. I even stayed 3 months after turning 18 when I could have left – this was life or death to me.
I know today if I drink or use drugs again, it will be the last of my 9 lives. I got lucky. I should be dead by all means, but I had my parents’ support to get sober and stay sober. Many never get such a chance.
Addiction does not see race, class, religion, age, or gender. It sees only a desperate mind, a vulnerable individual, or a dependent soul. Most people think to be an addict you must lose everything, but this is not always the case. Over 22 million people in the US are addicted to substances – lawyers, youth, college students, parents, teachers – anyone could suffer from the disease of addiction.
Most people are unwilling to ask for help. Society has made addicts fee ashamed and weak. Help can be as easy as an open ear, a kind heart, and never giving up on someone, because most of the time, they have already given up on themselves.
End the stigma and help those who are suffering. You never know what their story may be. Six years later I remain sober. I am now graduating from the University of Denver with honors in sociology because someone taught me I was worth it. Be that somebody. If you are suffering from addiction, don’t be ashamed to ask for help – there are millions of people like us who are willing to help.