Falling out of Love with Heroin and in Love with Recovery
By Joshua E. Smith-Steenburg
When I was a boy growing up, I always wanted to be a professional hockey player. I had a set plan in my head that I would grow up, do well in school, go to college on a hockey scholarship, enter into the draft and sign with a professional hockey team. It might sound irrational to an average person, but for this Canadian, playing hockey was all I ever wanted to do!
My family and I moved to the Houston area in 1996. I did not grow up rich, but we were far from poor, being that my mother worked in health care and my father worked at a marble/granite warehouse. I have three younger brothers and the best way to describe my childhood was fortunate, because at whatever cost, my parents devoted themselves to give me and my brothers “the life that they never had.”
Ghost in a shell
I was 15 years old when I took my first step into the world of drugs and alcohol. In high school, I tended to co-mingle with a certain crowd of people who were into smoking pot and partying. I wouldn’t necessarily say I gave into peer pressure from anyone else, but I did fear rejection.
I began smoking marijuana regularly and socially drinking on the weekends at parties. It’s funny looking back, because I remember I hated the taste of beer. It was one of the worst tasting beverages, in my opinion. I would have much rather stuck with root beer.
At the end of high school, I began experimenting more. Ecstasy, mushrooms and acid all seemed to go extremely well with clubs and lights, and being as how we were now 18, it was a perfect time to expand the résumé of recreational drugs. However, it was just a phase, and soon it was on to the next.
When I was 19, I was at a friend’s house and I overheard talk of “cocktails.” While I thought they were talking about drinks, it appeared they were talking about pill cocktails. More specifically, a mix of opioids and muscle relaxers. Although my friend warned me of how addicting they were, my curiosity exceeded any warning. I took my first pill cocktail and roughly 15 minutes later I was overcome with a warm and cozy feeling. It was as if I didn’t have a problem or a care in the world. I was almost instantly hooked and determined to get that feeling again.
At the time, I had a good job and a few thousand dollars saved up from working offshore on oil rigs. I started using the money I made to buy these prescription medications from dealers on the street. Additionally, I had friends who would “doctor shop,” so I was always able to access prescription pills. However, even when the market was dry, there was always someone in pain who would sell his or her prescription.
My addiction to the prescription pills grew to a point where I was taking nearly 55 pills a day. My tolerance to the drugs was growing stronger, so I needed to increase my intake in order to get high. I mistakenly thought that taking these prescription drugs would be enough and that I was still in control. I was wrong.
Down the rabbit hole
Not long after, my friends introduced me to a much more powerful, and costly, opioid. Basically – more bang for my buck! So I bought one. Why not?
Just as I was about to take it, my friend told me it was better to snort it. At that point, I’d never snorted a drug. I always justified my addiction by saying, “Well yeah, I’m doing drugs, but I’m not snorting or shooting them up.” But, yet again, I let my ego get to me and I crushed up the pill and snorted it. It only took a few minutes to take full effect. I remember feeling that warm, cozy, relaxed feeling that I longed for and could no longer get with my previous pill cocktail. For me, this high was much better. The taste from the drainage was awful, yet satisfying. The tingles in my body suddenly overcame my heart, and within five minutes I threw up. I needed more.
The price of this new opioid was definitely more expensive, so I moved in with a friend who had a house of her own. I was now free – no rent, no rules and nobody to catch us. It was another point in my life where I justified my “success,” lying to myself and my family that I was making progress because I moved out (and into a drug house). My parents didn’t know what I was getting my nose into, but I knew that if I wanted to keep them away, I couldn’t risk being at their home high.
My roommate and I worked for the same employer and used our minimum wage pay to support our drug habit. However, between minimum wage jobs, and expensive prescription pills, we needed deeper pockets. We had to get high, and at that time I was taking more than 30 stronger and more expensive pills a day.
We began stealing from work and from family members. We took laptops, phones, jewelry… basically anything with some sort of value. Unfortunately, our greatest source of funds was an unknowing participant – my roommate’s mother. We would steal her ATM card and withdraw hundreds of dollars for drugs every single day. Of course, the guilt and shame weighed heavy on my mind, but the drug would erase those feelings. It became a vicious cycle.
Calm before the storm
In 2011, I ran into a few court problems for minor charges of possession and assault. Rather than fight the charges, I took a plea deal that would drop most charges in exchange for probation for a year. I admitted that I occasionally took prescription drugs, so the court ruled that I undergo drug rehabilitation.
This was the first time my mother found out I was using pain killers. I remember her being very disappointed, but my court appointed rehab gave her some relief and hope that things would get better.
During my first stint at rehab, I was young and not ready to admit to anyone else that I had a problem. So, 14 days into the program, I relapsed and was immediately discharged. When my mother picked me up, I lied and told her I had learned so much, and I would maintain sobriety (from pills). The next visit to my probation officer, I learned that they had extended my probation for another six months. I was on thin ice. Only because I was terrified of jail, I decided to clean up my act.
For the next 18 months, I gave up the pills. Things between my mother and I were back to normal and certain friends were supportive of me being free from the pills. I was doing well… until April 28, 2012.
I’ll never forget that night. A few friends and I were at my house casually drinking and playing games when we decided to make a late night fast food run. My best friend was riding a motorcycle and lost control of the bike. He flew head first into a street sign. He was not wearing a helmet.
What I witnessed was a horror scene. His body was badly cut up and blood soaked the grass underneath him. While we were waiting on emergency response crews, we attempted to give him CPR and bring him back to consciousness, but when EMS got there they said he was gone.
A piece of me died right there on the side of that road. I watched my best friend die that night. I couldn’t deal with the tragedy that I personally witnessed, so I went right back to drugs. Basically anything I could find to numb the pain and help me escape the scenes from that night. But no matter how high I got, it always seemed to come back to my mind. I was on the verge of self-destruction.
Self-destruction felt like love
In 2013, I was at the peak of my pill usage. I was making good money as a sales manager at a national retail store, but it couldn’t support my drug habit. Rather than quitting cold turkey (because I could not work to my potential through withdrawals), I was introduced to tar heroin. A former “friend” explained to me that it was the ultimate plateau on the ladder of opioids.
“Incredibly stronger, and much cheaper,” she said. I was afraid to inject the drug, so I began to snort the liquid up my nose. When I realized the injection worked quicker I asked her to shoot me up.
I paid special attention to how everything was prepared, cooked and performed. We went to the bathroom, and the sharp needle pierced my skin and drew blood. She then looked up to me and asked if I was ready. I nodded and she began to push.
I instantly felt the rush of a warm liquid flowing inside of my veins. It crawled up my forearm through my bicep and into my heart, where it exploded throughout the rest of my body. It was love. Everything leading up to this moment was an affair. But this feeling – heroin was what I had been looking for all along.
It didn’t take long for me to learn how to use it myself. I found a dealer of my own right near my job, and visits to him quickly became part of my daily routine. I would go to work, eat lunch, and meet the dealer to pick up heroin. My addiction grew from spending $40 every three days to spending $300 every single day. Because I worked on commission, I needed to sell a certain amount of retail in order to buy the amount of heroin I needed.
If I didn’t hit my goal, I would get “dope sick.” My whole body ached, I experienced nonstop cold sweats, a rapid heartbeat and sometimes it would even hurt to breathe. So making money was always priority and, in turn, all money would go to heroin. I stopped eating food, because that was money for heroin. I never put more than $5 of gas in my car, because I always needed more money for heroin. The brakes on my car were so worn down I had to use my emergency brake to stop the car. Why? I needed that money to buy more heroin.
My life was out of control and completely unmanageable. I was a mere puppet, dancing throughout the day on strings of heroin. My mother had suspicions about my drug use, but regardless of her many questions, my demons always had the perfect lie.
I remember the day she found a burned spoon and empty bag of syringes in my room. I lied and said I was smoking Kush Oil. No matter how much evidence she had, she couldn’t believe her first born son was a full-fledged heroin addict. Knowing that, I continued to lie to my advantage! The addict inside me was in full effect, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was on autopilot watching my life crumble day by day. I even stopped looking at myself in the mirror, because I was the scariest monster I had ever seen. I wanted to stop but I didn’t know how or if it was possible. I wasn’t in control of my life. I had self-destructed.
On Aug. 24, 2014, I was at rock bottom. I had become somebody I never wanted to be. All my friends were completely out of the picture. My family was distant and I had lost all their trust in me. My job was a complete disaster, and whatever money I made went to drugs. I had nothing to show for it, no self-pride, I completely stopped playing hockey, and I had no interest in living life.
One day, I had just used heroin at my mom’s house, and I passed out in a chair on the front porch. My mom came home and screamed at me to get off the porch and go to sleep in my room. When I woke up, I noticed my phone wasn’t there. I called my dad from the home phone and asked if he had it, and he replied, “Yes, come on over!” So, I packed up another shot of heroin for the road and I headed to go get my phone. When I arrived, I noticed my mother was over there visiting and my younger siblings were upstairs. I quickly grabbed my phone (trying to avoid any contact with my parents) and headed upstairs. When I got upstairs I checked my phone and to my shock, I noticed my mom used my phone to text my drug dealer and drug partner. I can’t repeat all she said, but the basics were if they ever talked to me again, she would call the cops. My world came crashing down on me. I knew what was happening next, I was caught. They knew and I couldn’t run from this.
My father called all my brothers and told them to go over to the neighbor’s house for a few minutes. He then called me downstairs to the living room. I walked very slowly down the stairs trying to think of how I could get out of this. By the time I reached the bottom step, I realized this was it. I was exposed for what I was.
I asked what they wanted to know. Everything, of course. I explained that I was using heroin daily. I had been for the past year, and that I couldn’t stop. I cried as I explained to them that it had a tight grip on me. I turned to my mother who had believed all my lies and asked her, “Why do you think I’m wearing long sleeve shirts in the middle of the summer, Mom?” As I rolled up my sleeves and showed her all my track marks on my arm, the dried up blood, the bruises and flattened veins - it brought tears to her eyes.
I screamed, “I can’t stop, it is too powerful!” My dad, who always has a calm and collective nature, said matter of fact, “You’re right. It is too strong and you cannot beat it on your own. But day by day you will get stronger, and you will overcome this.”
I accepted their help and entered treatment.
Finding redemption and salvation at Memorial Hermann PARC
When I first got to Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC), I felt awful and couldn’t sleep. I stayed on the detox unit for 10 days to work on increasing my strength. My counselor would come up to my room to check in on me and advised me to go to meetings and groups if I could find the energy to do so… but I didn’t.
I was stuck in a negative mindset that I would never be able to stay sober. But while in detox, I started meeting other addicts and alcoholics who had similar stories to mine. We would stay up late talking about life and how we all got to this point. I actually had my first feeling of interest in things outside of drugs by talking to these people and hearing what they went through. It inspired me to go to meetings. Just to listen, though. I still needed to see what the program was all about.
My mornings started with breakfast in the cafeteria, followed by a morning meditation class. I had never meditated before in my life, but it was so soothing to just clear my mind with certain breathing patterns. Next, we had a group meeting with our counselor. I didn’t know what to expect going into the first meeting, but being with other guys close to my age helped ease the anxiety. I learned that our counselor was also a recovering addict, and that over the next few weeks we would be discussing events that led me here, certain things that would help me follow the right path, but most of all I would learn how to live a sober life.
This was interesting to me because the past 10 years of my life had been consumed with drugs and alcohol. Was it possible that I really didn’t know how to live life sober? The fact that the counselor had gone through what I was currently going through also restored a good deal of trust. I always screamed that nobody understood what I was going through. But, when the counselor told me his story, it reassured me that he knew a great deal about what I had gone through.
After the meeting we would break off into lunch and then attend a mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. This was where I would hear some of the greatest stories from outside alcoholics and addicts with multiple years of sobriety. In these meetings I learned about the Big Book, and certain prayers like the Serenity Prayer. I also learned sayings like “one day at a time,” and “let go and let God.” I learned about the 12-step program in action, and how self-will is dangerous, rather than God’s will. I slowly opened up to this world of recovery and fellowship, but it still seemed so far away from someone like me. Where do I start? How do I get a sponsor? How do I stay sober? I was surrounded by proof that it was possible, but it still seemed so hard and out of my reach.
Things changed one Saturday before the evening AA meeting. I found myself outside smoking a cigarette in the garden. I was debating hopping the gate and going to get high. The fear of letting my parents down kept me in my chair. But I was so confused on what to do. I wanted to stay sober, but I still didn’t know how. I was speaking to a lady about my troubles and she suggested I pray. I replied to her that I didn’t believe in God, and that I didn’t know how to pray. She looked at me, laughed and said, “Honey, you don’t need to be religious to pray. Just subconsciously ask for guidance and see what comes from it!”
I put my head down on the table in front of me and closed my eyes. My mouth did not move, but I spoke from my heart to something above me, and I prayed, “Please, just give me a sign.” The security guard came out seconds later and yelled, “Group Time!” We quickly gathered in one of the meeting rooms. The host started off by reading the steps and traditions, and then he introduced Bob.
“My name is Bob and I am an alcoholic. I was born in Canada and I love to play hockey!”
Bob’s opening line hit my heart stronger than any drug I had ever done. My whole life, prior to drugs, was all about hockey. Not to mention, I’m from Canada and love everything about Canada, especially hockey! Could my prayer really have worked, just like that?
I listened to his story, word for word, and was infatuated with every detail. I couldn’t believe what I heard. After the meeting, someone came up to me and suggested I ask Bob to sponsor me. It was just the advice I needed, so I went and talked to him. I told Bob about my prayer and how hearing his introduction and background felt like us meeting was meant to be. I told him about my addiction, how I ended up in rehab and that I wanted to stay sober, but I didn’t know how or what to do. I then nervously (but excitedly) asked him if he would be my sponsor. He replied, “I don’t know, will you call me tomorrow?” And I said YES!
Suddenly, within two hours of wanting to get high, I had more motivation to stay. I was determined to obtain sobriety. I became proactive in groups and meetings. I shared as often as I could. If there was a new person who came in, I offered to help. Any way to spread hope and happiness, I made it my mission. I began writing poems and letters to help cope with my disease.
Bob agreed to be my sponsor, so I called him every day and began to work the 12 steps. I learned how to live in God’s will rather than my own. I began to pray to my higher power. I began to trust the program and live one day at a time. All these beautiful things that I was taught at PaRC started to impact my everyday life. Before I knew it, my inpatient program came to an end, and I went on to the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), a program where you’re required to stay at PaRC all day, but you can go home after 5 p.m.
The next step
Once I graduated from inpatient, I had a few options. I could return back to my mother’s house, I could go get my own place, or I could go to a sober living community house. The doctors and counselors at PaRC helped me make the best decision. They explained to me that if I went back to living on my own, I would not have anyone to hold me accountable for my actions, and warned me that old habits die hard. They recommended that I look into sober living houses to help me adjust to the real world. Although I really wanted to go home to be with my family, and reconnect with my friends, I knew the road I should take. So I began looking for sober living houses. The first house I found was a match. There were several other guys, all who I had seen at AA meetings. I easily made the decision and moved in.
We were not allowed to have cars for the first three months, so every weekday morning I had to catch a ride from one of my roommates. I would go back to PaRC, attend my daily groups and classes, and then get picked up. When I got home in the evening, it was a requirement for us (as a house) to attend a meeting together every day. So usually we would eat, complete our assigned chores and then go to a meeting together. Once we got back to the house, we usually would stay up late and watch movies. Sometimes we would talk more about recovery and ways of doing things. We would share good laughs and stories over a fire in the backyard. It was kind of like a college fraternity house without the girls, drugs, or alcohol. I still called Bob every day and would meet him regularly at meetings to go over step work. On Saturdays we would all attend aftercare through PaRC, which was great because it included my family, as well. My parents started to become very active participants, not only in my recovery, but in themselves as well.
About 60 days sober, I graduated from PHP and moved on to the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). This new program required me to attend PaRC from 9 a.m. to noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I still met with my counselor and had regular talks with him about how I was doing, and what he thought about certain plans. We both agreed that it was an okay idea to go back to work during this time.
Our house owner granted me early access to my car so I could drive to work. I was required to take random drug tests at any given time. I learned how to balance and manage my time with my life revolving around sobriety. Every morning I would wake up, go to IOP and speak with my counselor. After that, I would go to work. If I got off early enough, I would make it in time for the house AA meeting, followed by dinner. If I finished late, I would come home, eat, complete my chores, and I would go to the candle light meeting at 11 p.m. It was a comforting routine of counseling, working, meetings and fellowship. On day 90 of sobriety, I had fully graduated from IOP and was no longer a patient of PaRC. I had officially become an alumnus.
After I graduated from PaRC, I still had a healthy fear of the outside world. I was scared to take my next step. I spoke with many people about my feelings and thoughts and everyone said it was natural to be afraid. As long as I continued to speak about my fears, go to meetings and trust the program, everything would be fine.
Take it one day at a time and live life with integrity. Eventually, before I knew it, days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and months turned into a year. I worked extremely hard and truthfully with step work. I went to meetings every day, and sometimes twice a day. I shared as often as possible. I maintained my job, and regained the trust of managers and other co-workers, and I did it with an extremely positive and grateful attitude.
Everything I learned from hearing and speaking with other recovering addicts I took as knowledge of my own. I always kept in the forefront of my mind the way I felt when I was using and how far I had come from that monster I once was. If I had a bad day at work, I would simply remind myself of a time when I was dope sick, and I was instantly grateful for the life I had that day.
If I didn’t have any money in the bank, because I had to pay for my sober living rent, I would simply remind myself of a time when I didn’t have any money for heroin and the drug withdrawals that wreaked havoc on my body until next pay check. If I got upset, frustrated or felt like using, I would always compare what life was like then to how it is now. I had my friends back in my life. My family was proud of me. I had a great job and a roof over my head. I was able to get back into playing hockey.
I was fortunate enough to go on a 7-day cruise with my mother and brothers, and then to an exclusive resort in Cancun, Mexico. I traveled out of state with friends for hockey tournaments. I met new people and shared my story, only to find out I was helping others whose loved ones were heading down the same path. My life in sobriety was such a beautiful thing. I had so much to be happy about! For the first time, I could actually say that I loved my life.
One year sober
When I had about nine months in sober living, I felt confident that I was ready for my next chapter. After a lot of thought, I decided to quit my job in sales and go work at an ice skating rink. While money was good in retail, my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. I longed to be back near the game I loved and with the friends I loved. I moved out of the house and back in with my dad and brothers.
I wasn’t really looking for anything too serious at the time. I just wanted to enjoy everything as it came. I still went to meetings, still spoke to Bob and I even began to sponsor a few people of my own. All my sober living roommates and I were still in contact, and every once in a while I would stop by after the meetings to hang out and maybe smoke cigars by the fire.
On Aug. 24, 2015, I reached my One Year Milestone. The following Friday I went to a PaRC alumni meeting to pick up my chip, and gave a speech. I had always wanted to be that guy to speak at a birthday meeting and I finally had my turn. My mom and dad were with me that night. They watched me walk up to the podium and share my journey in recovery. I have had a lot of trophies in my life from hockey and other sports, but that one year chip is my greatest trophy ever.
Life with 1,000+ days sober
As I sit here and write my story, I am overcome with all kinds of emotions. May 20, 2017, marked 1,000 days that I have been clean and sober. It is so hard to imagine what life would be like if I had not gone to PaRC. Would I even be alive? Would I be in prison? What would my parents think? How would my brothers feel?
At times I feel as if I really let them down, which I truly regret, but I do not like to think of my disease as a flaw. I am grateful for the life I live today and don’t think it would have been obtainable had I not been a drug addict.
Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. The relationships I have with my family and friends are indescribable. I love working at the ice rink and teaching little kids how to play hockey. It’s ok that I don’t make great money, because the experiences are more rewarding than the cash. I am able to afford my cost of living and that is all I really want in life. I have a roof over my head with a beautiful, caring girlfriend. I have a new car that actually has working brakes, and I’m able to afford its maintenance. My phone bill and credit card bill is paid, and I have food in my stomach…what more do I need?
So what’s next? My sober birthday – three years – in August! I have a new interest in real estate and have hopes to one day open a few sober living houses around the area. Also, I want to look into getting my LCDC (licensed chemical dependency counselor) degree and possibly become a counselor to help other struggling alcoholics and addicts with their own recovery. I know it seems so very far away, but I still live one day at a time. One of the greatest things that I took from PaRC is that no matter how impossible something may seem, there is always hope. If I can stay sober today, I can achieve anything tomorrow!