Our country is experiencing a drug epidemic. 100 people die a day from drug overdoses. Heroin is taking out entire cities. People are becoming hopelessly addicted to painkillers. Meth labs are everywhere. But all is not lost. There is hope. There is healing. Today we are sharing with you a story of one of our friends, a referral specialist at Vertava Health, Joel. Joel’s story is one of devastation and destruction but also hope and inspiration. This may mirror your life. This may mirror the life of your loved one. We want you to know that addiction can be treated and a fulfilling life can be had. Joel is proof. Read on. What is your background? How did you start doing drugs or drinking? I grew up in a very close-knit Italian family; we went to church, we were Christian. We were a blue-collar family, and we weren’t by any means rich – but we had just enough. I could not have had a better childhood. I was an athlete in high school – I played football, basketball, and baseball. I had friends in different groups, and really got along with everybody. Some of my friends smoke weed, some didn’t. But I got in with some guys and I started selling weed for them. For a while we just smoked weed, but then it progressed to doing acid. When I was 16 years old, I got my wisdom teeth out. Before the surgery, the doctor prescribed me Vicodin, so I could go home and immediately take it afterwards. No one in my family would’ve thought anything about giving a 16 year old painkillers before a surgery. Addiction wasn’t an issue in my family or my town, so I was the one who had the pills. I remember breaking that pill in half and playing Nintendo and just feeling like I was floating on a cloud. All of my troubles – school, sports, everything – drifted away with that pill. What happened after that? When I was 18 and a senior in high school, a friend called me about a pain pill he said was really strong and told me it was used for cancer patients. He said he had 2 pills, so I went over to his place to try it. It was an Oxy20. We ate them and we felt it. But the next time, we got 80’s and we learned we had to take the coating off, crush it and snort it if we really wanted to feel anything. So we did. We started getting pills to do on the weekend. Soon, it went from every weekend to twice on the weekends. Then we were doing them Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And then Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – because we were feeling awful on Mondays without the pills. By that time, I had graduated and was going to fiberoptics school and working. Everyday I was seeking out pills. I still didn’t know that I had a huge issue. When did you or your family first realize you need help? So my parents and my brother used to keep cash in the house. A lot of families do that, and no one ever really thinks about it. Well, I started getting desperate and started running out of money. So, I went to my parents’ house. They had a fire-proof box where they kept important documents and cash. I opened the box and found $2,000 in cash. For 7 straight days, I took out $100 per day to buy. On the eighth day, I lost it. My guilt took over and I broke down and told my parents. They called a friend who recommended a local detox, and I went there for three days. When I got out of detox, I felt fine. But soon after, I started hanging out with the same friends and I relapsed. What happened over the next few years? On my 19th birthday, I shot up heroin for the first time. From then on, it was all heroin. At one point, I got on Suboxone, and that led to smoking crack. I went to my first rehab in 1999. For over 12 years I was in and out of rehab; mostly free programs in my home state, but also private, Christian rehab. Do you know how many times I went to treatment? I guarantee you’ll never interview anyone who went as many times as it took me to finally get it.
- I went to rehab 39 times. It was one disappointment after a next. I never stayed sober more than a month or two at a time. I was always willing to go, but as soon as I’d get out, I’d fall quickly.
I was so sick with addiction. Before I went for the last time, I thought, “If rehab didn’t work 38 times, it’s not going to work on the 39th time.” How did you get into treatment for the 39th time? A buddy of mine used to steal gold and we would sell it to a guy that didn’t ID us. One day, my crack dealer called me to tell me he was on his way down the road. I didn’t have any cash on me, but I did have some gold. He didn’t want to deal with that, so he drove me to sell to my guy – but we just missed him. So instead, I went to the biggest gold store in the area and sold the stolen gold in order to buy the crack from my dealer. Well, it didn’t take long for the guys at the gold store to figure out that jewelry was stolen. Less than 24 hours later, I was arrested. I had a $75,000 bond, and either had to be with my parents at their house, or at work. But when you’re addicted, that kind of stuff doesn’t change you. I still had a habit and was hopelessly addicted. The judge saw me one day walking down the street to McDonald’s to buy. My bond was revoked and I was sent back to jail. When it came time for my hearing, the judge asked my parents if I had a place to stay with them if he released me. My mom was nodding yes, but my dad said, “I say NO.” It was 4 days before Christmas and I was placed on suicide watch – no clothes, just a smock – no sheets, just a concrete bed. And on top of all of that, I was kicking opiates. But you know what? That’s what needed to happen. God was in control of everything, and I drew closer to him while I was in jail. God had to hold my head in the dirt for a while before I could look up at him. When my lawyer finally got me back in front of the judge for a bond reduction, he asked the judge to send me to private-pay treatment. The District Attorney agreed, and on Valentine’s Day of 2012, I went to treatment for the 39th time. What made your last time in rehab different? For the first time in my life, I decided not to follow anybody else and give it all that I had. That’s what it required. It took a lot of growing pains to get to that point, but I was finally ready. I attribute everything to God. I had a drug problem, but that was my salvation – the knowledge, tools and life skills that I took away from rehab saved my life. What was the biggest thing you learned while in treatment? Drugs or no drugs, we all have struggles. The more honest you are about what’s going on, the easier it becomes to face those struggles head on. These things happen step by step. That first step is refusing to stop the journey to recovery. And I’m still on that journey. What keeps you sober each day? Now it’s the excitement of finding my true potential. I don’t know if there is a cap of if it is never ending, but I’m going to keep going and keep working as hard as I can to find it. How has your family healed? There was damage done, and there’s scars that will never fully go away. But we are healing. The biggest gift you can give your family is the peace of knowing that you are okay. What would you tell someone who is maybe walking a similar path that you did – or has been to rehab multiple times? You have to get to a spot in your life where you can’t push any further. You can only push so far until you hit a barrier. When you get to that wall, you better make the right call. You can make it extremely complex or elementary, but it all begins with a decision – ONE decision. No matter what comes your way, make that vow to yourself, to God and to whoever else that you are going to follow through. If you still have a breath in your lungs, then God’s giving you another shot. So don’t waste it because it might be your last one. Is there anything else you’d like to say? We can take the drugs away – any rehab can do that. But this thing, recovery, is a process with many seasons. Don’t forget to look at every dynamic in your life. We need to look at our whole and what makes us, US, and improve the condition of all of the aspects of life. Run the race and continue to run the race. The reward is so great.