Johnstown, PA

johnstown_insetWhat is your story?

“I started out with a good, stable family life. I had two parents, I was raised right, I wasn’t really spoiled. I never even touched alcohol or marijuana until I was 18 years old. When I was 18, I started smoking a little bit of weed and drinking here and there. I never had a drinking problem because I hated the hangovers.

Then, when I got into college, I started hanging out with a few people who had addictions. I was scared of pills at first, hesitant, because I was afraid of overdosing. But eventually I got more comfortable with the idea. They talked about it like it was normal. I started taking a little Xanax, a little Klonopin. Then some light opiates like Percocet. I was afraid of needles for a long time. But with enough exposure, I started wanting to use the needles. At first, I had people do it for me, then I figured out how to do it on my own. It took about a year for me to move from using pills occasionally to using heroin with needles.

I would mix the benzos with the heroin sometimes. I overdosed five times all in all. The second time I overdosed, I was in a coma for five days. I finally woke up from the coma, but that didn’t stop me. I gave up pretty much everything. I gave up my good job, my girlfriend. I totaled my car going to look for drugs. My whole life was basically ruined from drugs. I had hepatitis c for a while, but I was lucky that my body cleared it.

Back in 2013, I went to rehab for the first time. I was pretty much at the point where I was going to be homeless—I had moved in with my parents, but they couldn’t take me much longer because I was stealing from them, so my only option was to go to rehab. That was like a forced recovery; it didn’t work for me. I kept using and another two years went by. And then everything started going south real fast. I was just sick of the depressing lifestyle. I was spending so much time around people who looked like death and I thought, “If I really look like that, something’s really wrong.” I wanted to get my family back and I wanted have a real life. I just couldn’t deal with this anymore.

So I went to rehab and it was great, I had a really good experience. I’d never felt so free. Now I’m in recovery and I’m meeting a lot of people. I started going to the gym and met a guy there who had a really bad alcohol problem and he’s my mentor. I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of good people.

When you started using painkillers, did you understand the connection between pills and heroin?

I went through my whole life saying “I’ll never use heroin, I’ll never use a needle.” It never crossed my mind and then– over time, with a lot of exposure to pain pills– I just got comfortable with the whole idea. The people I was around, they were like, “You know that it’s the same thing. You know that the heroin and the pain pills do the same thing for you” and I was like, “I really didn’t.”

The reason I started doing heroin is because I got used to it and the painkillers aren’t as easy to find these days. Heroin is so much cheaper and it’s so easy to find. You can go pretty much anywhere and find heroin. But with heroin, you don’t know what the dealers are lacing it with and you don’t have a dosage. At least with pain pills, you knew what the dosage was. You at least had a number.

Is there anything you wish you had known before you started using painkillers in college?

I wish that I would’ve known the beginning stages of the addiction so that I could identify it when it was in its embryonic stages. If I’d had the knowledge, I could’ve identified it early on. It creeps up on you; you don’t even realize how out of control you really are. It’s like a bad dream.

How big of a problem do you think opiate abuse is in your community?

It’s to an unbelievable level. I think it’s really bad around here. It’s pretty much everywhere. Watch the news. I was seeing it all the time, I was around the whole lifestyle all the time. I have had a few friends that have overdosed and died.

Was this whole experience hard on your family?

It was very tough on my family and they still aren’t over it. There was a period of time when I didn’t really have a relationship with them, not because they didn’t love me but because they couldn’t deal with me. It takes a long time to get people’s trust back. Actions speak louder than words.”

– 29-year- old man from Johnstown, PA