A Journey: Addiction and Recovery
Ray Smith
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2022

A Journey: Addiction and Recovery

Finding help, finding hope

Tales of addiction are rampant in both the local and national media. From drug busts and ODs to violence and lives spiraling out of control, the stories are easy to come by. Less visible are the people who survive their substance use disorder and work every day to rebuild their lives. The decision to choose recovery is a far more difficult choice to make than the choice to use. But it’s rarely a simple straight path to living sober. In fact, success in recovery on the first effort is quite rare. So much so that “having tried to stop before” is one of the criteria for diagnosing addiction. Multiple relapses are common, as are feelings of defeat and isolation. More often than not, it’s a bumpy and lengthy path to the moment when the desire to be clean outweighs the desire to use. This is about a local man’s story of addiction and his ongoing recovery. He chose to share his story in the hope that others will relate to what he’s been through and will be inspired to begin their own journey to recovery.

As a person in recovery, Phil’s days are filled with challenges. The first of which he faces every morning when he wakes up.

“For years, the first thing I thought of when I woke up was when and how was I going to use that day,” he says. “When I thought about using, I thought about how good drugs made me feel and the good times I had while I was on them. But now, after 16 years of using including 12 trips to rehab, multiple ODs, watching friends die from ODs, losing a close family member to drugs, losing my dream job, going to jail, and a whole lot of other stuff, ‘good times’ is not what I think about. Instead, I think about all the ways drugs turned my life upside down. I think about what drugs cost me and none of that feels good.”

It’s a simple shift in perspective but one that Phil says helps him at least start the day on the right foot.

An addiction takes hold
Phil is just one of 23 million Americans in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Like all of them, his intent was never to become an addict. “I was a junior in high school just looking to hang out with my friends and kill some time,” he recalls. “It really didn’t seem like a big deal. The pills were easy to come by. Plus, I was doing some work in construction at the time and when I was using, I was a much better, faster worker than I was when I wasn’t. I just didn’t see how that could be bad.” A few months later, the easy access ended.

“I was kind of like, ‘oh well, that’s that,’” recalls Phil. “Then I got really sick. Like the worst sick I ever felt. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t get out of bed, everything hurt. It was bad and it just dragged on and on for over a week. About that same time, I got access to more pills. I popped a few of those and really quickly all the bad aches and sickness just went away. That’s when I realized that what I thought was the flu was withdrawal.”

Phil says that realization hit him hard. “Once I put it together, I was scared. I knew I was in trouble but, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in quitting. I didn’t want to feel bad again. So, I just rolled with it and kept using. Eventually, I started using cocaine and pills together.”

Despite a growing addiction, Phil managed to graduate high school on time and enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College. “At some point, my mom recognized something wasn’t right. We didn’t really talk about it, but she suggested I go to Valley Vista rehab* in Bradford, VT. I did that to make her happy and I managed to stay clean for about four months.”

But, faced with the pressure of a two-hour commute to college, classes, a job, and the need to make rent, he quickly fell back into old habits. Despite using, he managed to earn a two-year degree and found work.

“That’s when I had an accident,” says Phil. “I injured my back pretty bad. But the upside was I got clean. I started taking Suboxone to control my cravings. I landed my dream job where I worked for five years using my degree and taking two doses of Suboxone daily. I had a condo, I had a truck, and a good job… things were good.”

Until they weren’t.

Phil needed surgery to address an accident-related injury. As part of his prep for the procedure, his doctor took him off Suboxone for 30 days. In its place he was prescribed opiates. “Because of my tolerance, I was on a ridiculous amount of opiates post-surgery. After three months it tapered to nothing fairly quickly. I was supposed to go back onto Suboxone but I was such a mess with withdrawal and the pain of the surgery. I knew the Suboxone wasn’t going to cut it. That’s when I got introduced to heroin, shooting other drugs, and crack cocaine.”

As consequences mount, an addiction grows
It wasn’t long until Phil lost his job. Without an income, and, with a growing need for drugs, he was forced to return home to Bennington where he did whatever he could to earn cash. “I was hard into heroin, cocaine, and then added benzos (Benzodiazepines) to the mix. I was a mess, and everyone knew it. I would try to get clean on my own, but it never worked. I decided to try rehab again, this time on Long Island. I was in Penn Station with five bags of heroin in my pocket when I got a call. A close family member had OD’d and didn’t make it. That just broke me. My family insisted I go to rehab instead of coming home for the funeral. I understood but I haven’t forgiven myself for missing that. After I got off the phone I went in the bathroom and set up my shot. I remember looking at the heroin and for the first time ever feeling scared. But I did it anyway.”

Phil’s sobriety post-rehab didn’t last long. Over the next three years, he continued to use, spent time in and out of five different rehabs, and ended up in the SVMC Emergency Department* where he was put on life support for seven days with complications from withdrawals. Before he was discharged from that ordeal, a representative of the Turning Point Center in Bennington paid him a visit. “They told me about their services and all they could do to help me work a recovery plan. I made an appointment and kept it, and a couple of other appointments after I got discharged. They were easy to work with and even came to my new apartment with some items I needed to furnish it. But I wasn’t ready and started skipping the appointments.”

Six months later, he found himself in long-term intensive care at Albany Med for withdrawal and overall poor health. For a time after that experience, he managed to stay clean. “But the urge to use was really strong. The violence I witnessed, the people I loved that died, the fact that I could die the next time I used…none of it mattered. I just wanted to use. And I did. Until the police stepped in.”

Hitting bottom, going lower
Having been caught with a sizeable amount of heroin and cocaine, Phil spent seven months in jail, including the first three weeks in withdrawal without the benefit of Suboxone. “It was absolute hell. Once the pain stopped, I started to really think about everything that got me where I was. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than what I was facing.”

Upon his release, he was placed on probation. “It was made very clear to me when they let me out that if I messed up, I’d go back to jail for much longer. But even knowing that, I slipped a month later. That’s the grip addiction has over your rational thoughts. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t stop myself. I actually ended up OD’ing three times in one week. Usually, it takes one or two NARCANs to bring someone back, but it took them four the first two times I OD’d and three the third time. I really shouldn’t be alive.

“The District Attorney got wind that I was using and gave me a choice: go back to jail or go to in-patient rehab. Four days later I checked into Serenity House* for, hopefully, my last turn at rehab.”

Finding a way forward
Phil isn’t sure what about his last experience ODing and time at rehab was different from previous times. “My life was nothing but chaos for the past sixteen years,” he says. “I just bounced from one bad situation to the next and was fine as long as I had access to drugs. I could just ignore everything that was going wrong … Maybe it was the fact I OD’d three times in one week. Maybe it’s because I realized the opiates on the street now aren’t the same as what I started out taking. They’re now laced with Fentanyl and other chemicals. Users don’t appreciate that they’re so much stronger and, really, deadlier. Whatever it was, I realized that if I was going to live, I didn’t want my future to be anything like my past.”

That desire for a different future finally drove Phil to commit himself to recovery.

“I go to SaVida three times a week and work with two doctors to manage my prescription and a counselor who keeps my head in a good space. I’ve also been lucky to consistently work with Patricia Johnson, an SVMC nurse who helped me in the ER, at Serenity House, and now at SaVida.”

Phil also participates in online AA and NA* meetings. “I prefer AA meetings,” he says. “The people participating tend to be older and have been clean for years. Their stories give me hope and make me realize that long-term recovery is possible.”

Working with his counselor, Phil has created lists of short- and long-term goals. “I’m keeping things simple. I want to get my driver’s license back, and I want to get a job. I now have a record, so I know that won’t be easy but I’m working with HireAbility Vermont* to find a job. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to use my degree … at least not right away. But I’m ready to move forward with a different way of living. It’s not easy but it’s what I want and I’m ready to put in the work.”

Recovery Resources
Below is a list of some of the resources and organizations Phil worked with and, in some cases, continues to work with throughout his recovery. 

Alcoholics Anonymous

HireAbility Vermont
200 Veterans Memorial Drive, Ste. 15, Bennington

Narcotics Anonymous

SaVida Health
665 Main Street, Bennington

Serenity House, Inc.
98 Church St., Wallingford

Turning Point Center of Bennington
465 Main Street, Bennington

Valley Vista
23 Upper Plain, Bradford


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