When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Zach spent a long time making poor decisions in Seattle, compounding problems that began at age thirteen with a doctor’s prescription for opiates. Homeless in Seattle and using the strongest street opiates he could find, hoping he wouldn’t wake up, he eventually ended up in recovery and alive. Zach updates his story telling us about his trip back to Seattle for the first time since he stopped using drugs and began recovery. Recovery is possible. If you or a loved one needs help, it is available. To contact the Hope Council on Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse, call 262-658-8166, or explore their website at https://www.hopecouncil.org. You can also find AA meetings here: https://mtg.area75.org/meetings.html?dist=7 and NA meetings here: https://namilwaukee.org/meetings/
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Guitar Music]
[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. A few weeks ago, we had a great conversation with Zach, who's our guest again today. We wanted to talk today about resolving old issues, triggers in recovery. So many of you contacted me and said, What happened to Zach? What happened to Zach? Cuz as you know, he was going back to Seattle. So we thought we would contact him and check back in. Welcome back, Zach.
[00:00:42] Zach: Hey, Mike. I'm so glad to be back.
[00:00:45] Mike: Yeah, I am too. You know, I said before we started this, I wasn't gonna ask you anything cause I just wanted to be surprised, but before we get into that just refresh us for those that don't listen to every podcast and I can't believe there are people like that.
[00:00:56] Just tell us a little bit, you first got exposed to opiates. I think I recall from a doctor.
[00:01:03] Zach: Correct. Yeah. I, I started using opiates that were prescribed to me, and then, and then I stopped taking them as prescribed and, and my, you know, addiction, you know, progressed from there. And I, I spent the better part of a decade with a heavy opioid use disorder and everything that comes with that, crime, rehabs, homelessness, you know, everything that comes with, with the disease of addiction.
[00:01:28] Mike: I have to tell you, Zach, after we did our podcast, I had a lot of people contact me and they really liked how honest and frank you were, and it really did a little thumbnail to what addiction is like.
[00:01:41] You, you were in Seattle at the time, right?
[00:01:45] Zach: Yeah, I spent the majority of my active addiction in the Pacific Northwest, and the better part of the end in Seattle I, I experienced homelessness on the streets of Seattle. And it was, it was an experience and I, I, the only reason I I was able to enter recovery was because I left.
[00:02:05] I did a geographic change.
[00:02:08] Mike: You know, it used to be that doing the geographical changes viewed as, "Oh, you're just escaping". But I've actually advocated for that for a long time. You know, getting away from triggers is not a bad thing necessarily, as long as you're working a program, right?
[00:02:24] Zach: Yeah, it wasn't, it wasn't my only solution. It was a tool in a part of my solution. So if I had just done that and only done that, then nothing would've changed except the, you know, the setting. But it gave me an opportunity to kind of start fresh and, and build a strong foundation.
[00:02:43] Mike: Yeah. And, and as I recall, one of the stronger statements you made, we started talking about fentanyl, which is I think the original reason I contacted you.
[00:02:52] And you said you were actually seeking it out, hoping you wouldn't wake up in the morning.
[00:02:56] Zach: Yeah. Yeah. That was, that was how bad it got. You know, I, I chose the riskier behavior, the riskier substance, not only because the feeling was better, but because I was, I had resigned to the fact that the consequence was okay.
[00:03:13] Mike: Yeah. Well, well here we go. During our last conversation, you said you were going back to Seattle. I, I'll be honest, I don't remember why. Why were you going back there?
[00:03:24] Zach: So I work for Oxford House Incorporated, and we have our annual World Convention this time of year, every year. And this year it happened to be in Seattle, Washington.
[00:03:35] Mike: That's right. And how long have you been recovering now?
[00:03:38] Zach: I entered recovery on July 15th of 2020.
[00:03:42] Mike: 2020, great way to spend the pandemic, Right? Stoked?
[00:03:46] Zach: Yeah.
[00:03:46] Mike: Here's the big one.
[00:03:47] How'd it go?
[00:03:50] Zach: So leading up to it, and we had talked about this before, I was in a lot of fear.
[00:03:54] Mike: Yeah.
[00:03:54] Zach: It was just the fear of the unknown. Am I ready for this? What's gonna happen? What could happen?
[00:04:02] So what I did was, what I've learned over the last two years, and I leaned on my support system. And was honest with them. I said, "Listen, this is where I'm at. This is how I'm feeling." And I just armed myself to go into it. And I, I knew I was there because I, I was there for a reason and I knew what that reason was.
[00:04:22] And so when I, when I was on the plane and I was going there, I felt really good. I was pumped up. I, I was like, Man, I've got this. Then we got on, we got on the public transit to go from the airport to the hotel, and, and I'm passing by these areas that I, that I used to be in all the time. And it was surreal.
[00:04:49] I wasn't afraid anymore. I was just shocked. I, I was shocked that cuz I was seeing people that were living the lifestyle that I, I was living two years ago in the exact same setting that I was in, it was shocking. And I, and I just couldn't imagine being someone on the outside seeing me.
[00:05:11] And so that was my initial introduction back into it. And then I, I did some of the, some of the things that I know to do, I, I, I got involved with the recovery community out there. I, I, you know, attended some meetings and. They were familiar with me and they, they were like, Man, we thought you were dead.
[00:05:30] Mike: Wow.
[00:05:31] Zach: And it was really powerful because they saw it all unfold. And so I went in with a lot of fear and I was really pumped up. And I kind of got deflated when I saw it. You know? I was like, Wow. Like this is, It was humbling. And then, When I, when I engaged with those individuals in the recovery community, and they, you know, they expressed some gratitude that I was still around and, you know, that I was present, it repumped me back up.
[00:06:01] So it turned out to be a really good experience, only because I did what I, what I have learned to do over the last two years.
[00:06:10] Mike: You said they were familiar with you. Did, did they recognize you? Or had you changed so much physically that they didn't even recognize you until you said who you were?
[00:06:22] Zach: I've tried to be in recovery multiple times and, and so I had developed relationships in the local 12 step community and.
[00:06:32] Those people saw me return to using. And, and then apparently you know, unbeknownst to me, had seen me in active addiction at the worst of it. And so when they saw me again this time, they didn't recognize me. And then I introduced myself and, and one guy, like, he couldn't hold it in. He said, I, I thought you were dead.
[00:06:53] Mike: Wow. You know, they probably had the same experience that you had going in via the, the mass transit. You know, they drove by, saw you right when you were using and active.
[00:07:07] Zach: Exactly.
[00:07:08] Mike: Wow. So talk about that out of body experience a little bit. I've had that in a couple of different ways. Not in the way you're talking though.
[00:07:17] Like did it feel like you were reading a novel or watching a movie or, I mean, that had to, to go by places where you had used were, were living right. On the street. Had to be weird. It had to be just weird.
[00:07:30] Zach: It, it was weird. So I'd spent the last two years with this perspective of what, what that area was and what was going on there.
[00:07:43] And I had this story I was telling myself about there. And when I, when I passed through there, I realized like that's exactly what it was. It was a story I was telling myself based on my experiences and my circumstances when I was there. And it wasn't quite the reality, you know? And I thought about it as I was explaining it to my dad, it was like, what people that are, you know, actors who are in movies, like they, they act in the movie and then they watch the movie and it's something totally different.
[00:08:16] And that was exactly what what I experienced.
[00:08:20] Mike: Did you physically go back to any place? Did you avoid places specifically?
[00:08:27] Zach: For the most part, I, I didn't avoid like actively, you know, I had some boundaries in, in my head and, you know, but I was there to, I was there to work and so fortunately I was occupied and I was busy the majority of the time.
[00:08:42] But there were a few times where we would go out for dinner and I'd end up, you know, in some of those, those hot spots that were, you know, that I was you know, running around and doing all the stuff that I do when I'm out there. And, but I was never alone, you know?
[00:09:01] Mike: Mmm.
[00:09:01] Zach: And so it softened the blow and it was, again, it was just surreal.
[00:09:05] It was like I was, I was filled with a lot of gratitude of the path I've walked the last few years and why I got to be standing there at that moment and, and who I got to be standing there with.
[00:09:18] Mike: I know Seattle well, so there is a large homeless population that is pretty visible. Did you run into you?
[00:09:26] Zach: Absolutely. It's, it's, impossible not to.
[00:09:32] Mike: Were you torn to just get down and reach out and reach up?
[00:09:36] Zach: So I, I'd prepared for that because that's my nature now. You know, I, I, I wanna help those that are like me. And that's, and honestly, that's my duty. But, but I, I reached out to my support system before we had went and I said, I know I'm gonna feel this way. And they said, Well, you, you probably should feel that way, but are you ready to do that?
[00:09:59] Are you the best person to help right now?
[00:10:01] Mike: Mm-hmm.
[00:10:02] Zach: And the answer was no. I wasn't the best person to help, you know, I, I just wasn't ready. And so that self-awareness, it, it allowed me to be in a good place and just kind of, you know, take stock of where I'm at and how much growing I have left to do before that.
[00:10:19] That ability to help those people, you know, is a reality.
[00:10:22] Mike: You know, there's so much intelligence in, in what you're saying and so many different places we could go. Cause you know, I'm asking just because, you know, you are so self-aware and you have such a great support system. I had a kid once, numerous ones that right after treatment when I was working in treatment, they would say after 30 days, Yeah, my day one I'm going to a concert.
[00:10:45] And I'd be like, Really? Really, really? "Oh yeah. I think I'm strong enough to handle it." "Yeah. Well we'll keep the bed warm for you", right?
[00:10:54] Zach: Yeah. It's, I. I'm very grateful that I had the understanding of myself and where I was at to wait. And honestly, if I didn't have to go for a work trip, not sure that I would've went yet.
[00:11:11] Mike: Yeah.
[00:11:11] Zach: Because that, that fear was still very real and I'm really glad I had the opportunity to confront that, you know? It was, it was definitely a very valuable experience.
[00:11:22] Mike: Well, and keeping yourself busy with work is, is great. You know, idle hands, right? So not bad, you know, there's so many different things, whether it's sites, smells, any cravings?
[00:11:37] Zach: Honestly, no. Honestly, no. It was what I experienced and what I saw. Made me sad. And it also really took me back to, like, I, I talked earlier about that perspective change. And I was fortunate enough to get out because, you know, somebody saw me suffering and pulled me out. And so that perspective changed.
[00:12:07] I could not imagine being in the recovery field or being the family of a loved one and seeing that on a day to day basis. It, it made me really sad and it honestly made me reflect on, on the harm I had caused and, you know, to my loved ones having to see me in that position.
[00:12:25] Mike: Do you feel like you have to come back and make more amends?
[00:12:30] Zach: Yes. Yes, Absolutely. And, But what's cool is now the amends get to be different. They, they, they get to be from a different perspective. They get to be like, I saw some of the things that you saw and I can't believe I put you through that.
[00:12:50] Mike: Mmm.
[00:12:50] Zach: And, and it's, it's more of, you know, because when I, when I entered recovery, I, I made all these direct amends.
[00:12:57] I, I, it was action. And now it's just addressing the validity of their. You know, their experience and then making a living amends and you know, just living every day in order to try to, you know, make that right and not cause that harm again.
[00:13:15] Mike: There so many levels to this, aren't there?
[00:13:18] Zach: Yeah, it's, it's really complex and it's always evolving.
[00:13:23] Mike: [laugh] Well, I watched the ball game last night. Let's not go there. . So what did you do you, let me go back to one thing. You said you weren't ready yet, but is it because of the venue? Or can you actually do some of the reaching out when you're like in Milwaukee or Wisconsin or Illinois?
[00:13:43] Zach: It's that story I was telling myself, I, I, I'm not ready, I'm not ready because of X, Y, Z. And the reality is, I, I am ready and I, and I can go anywhere as long as I do what I know to do. So where, wherever I go, as long as, as I keep that self-awareness and I use these, these relationships, the support system, these various tools to cope that I've developed, like I can go anywhere now and, and that this trip proved that to me.
[00:14:12] Mike: That's awesome. You know, you've sort of alluded to it, but let me just ask you specifically, what did you learn about yourself by going back.
[00:14:23] Zach: I learned so much. I, I learned so much. You know, I, it really what it boils down to, and it was this, this thought that I had kind of kept in the back of my mind and, and I never really, you know, said out loud to people is, is that I, I've worked really hard for this and, and I deserve to be where I'm at now considering the work I've done.
[00:14:50] Now that the language I'm using there, you know, it comes from a place of gratitude, not from a place of entitlement. I, I am very grateful that I am where I'm at and that I've had the opportunity to do the work I've got to do on myself and for other people. So, you know, cuz I, I, I'm just a, an addict that has suffered from self doubt and you know, fear of failure and sometimes fear of success, and it just kind of like gave me some, some strength and to know that I'm doing what I should be doing and you know, that it, it's working.
[00:15:32] Mike: Clearly. It's working. You know, we, we do this via Zoom for those of you that are listening. So I get to see Zach where you don't necessarily, and he's got the best smile you've ever seen in your life.
[00:15:42] So I bet that was missing for a long time. Right?
[00:15:45] Zach: Absolutely. Absolutely. I, I, I did not know what true joy was and. You know, now, like there was a cliche I heard when I, when I entered recovery. It's like, "It doesn't, it doesn't always get easier, but it gets better." And man, is that true?
[00:16:05] Mike: Mmm.
[00:16:05] Zach: Man is true. Like life's challenging in different ways, but it is so much better and, and I, and I get to be present for it.
[00:16:14] Mike: So what's next for you?
[00:16:17] Zach: Well, what's next is you know, I'm back in, in my home now and I get to immediately turn towards helping some people. I, you know, I'm fortunate enough I get to work in the recovery field and, and help people on a daily basis and, and so now I, I think that I have another victory and some more insight to myself that can potentially help the next person.
[00:16:43] You know, I have another experience that I can use to help somebody that, that.
[00:16:50] Mike: Wow. That's a great place to leave it. I I, How can you leave at any place but another victory, you know? That's great. Hey, you know, I know I'm gonna get asked this, so you mind checking in with us again down the road a little bit, just about your work and the other things?
[00:17:04] Zach: Absolutely. I'm always available. If anything I can ever say can help someone, then I'm happy to show up and say it.
[00:17:12] Mike: Well, I think you touched a nerve in your first one, and I know just from listening to you, you're gonna do it again. So for those of you who are listening we hope you've appreciated this. You know, anytime people come on here and, you know, bear their souls and share their experience, it's because right Zach? You just wanna help, right?
[00:17:29] Zach: Yeah.
[00:17:30] Mike: Pay it forward. And so those of you listening, please listen in again next week when we talk about more issues with substance abuse. And until then, stay safe, and go celebrate some victories.
[00:17:42] [END AUDIO]
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.