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’s problem with opiates started at age thirteen with a doctor’s prescription. By the time he finally got into long-term recovery he was homeless and using the strongest street opiates he could find, hoping to not wake up. Zach’s ongoing story is one of resilience, hope, and life. 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 Music]
[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. You know, we've had a number of guests who have been willing to share their recovery journey and no two journeys are exactly alike, of course. And I always love listening to the stories.
[00:00:31] We've also been talking lately about the ongoing opiate crisis in our country. And today we combine both the topic and the journey. My guest today, Zach, will share his story about what brought him to the decision to stop using. Welcome Zach.
[00:00:47] Zach: Hi Mike, how are you?
[00:00:48] Mike: I'm great. Good morning. Um, I always think it's interesting to start out with a little bit of the story and this should be fun for me since I know almost none of it.
[00:00:57] So how long have you been in recovery?
[00:01:00] Zach: So, yeah, so I'm a person in long term recovery. And what that means to me is I began this journey, um, into recovery on July 15th, 2020.
[00:01:13] Mike: Wow. Right during the pandemic.
[00:01:15] Zach: Yeah. Um, yeah, I had, I had tried to, I'd tried recovery before, um, before the pandemic, but I just wasn't ready.
[00:01:24] Um, and so I decided to pick a very challenging time to start this journey. Um, but it's been really rewarding.
[00:01:31] Mike: That's great. Well, I gotta start this way, even though we're gonna talk a lot about opiates today. I, uh, I'm just guessing that that wasn't the first drug you took.
[00:01:42] Zach: Actually it, it was, um, but it wasn't, I didn't go off to the races with it initially.
[00:01:48] Um, I, my first, uh, engagement with, with substances was with, um, due to an injury. I was prescribed an opiate. And that was my introduction. Um, but I, I took a break from opiates through my early adolescence. And did a lot of the quote unquote normal experimentation, um, with, you know, marijuana and alcohol.
[00:02:12] Um, but I eventually ended up, um, you know, engaging in, in heavy opiate use.
[00:02:19] Mike: So, so you got probably injured, right? And. How old were you when you got prescribed opiates?
[00:02:26] Zach: So I was 13. Um, I, I was in a skateboarding accident. I broke my collarbone. Um, and this was, you know, at a time when opiates were kind of overly prescribed.
[00:02:40] Mike: Yeah.
[00:02:40] Zach: Um, a little oversight. Um, and so, yeah, I was given a prescription for, for Oxy, um, as a 13 year old, um, as that was the. The solution for pain management at the time.
[00:02:53] Mike: And were you going to school?
[00:02:55] Zach: I was, um, I was going to school. Um, and when that prescription ran out, um, you know, in that early, during the time of that prescription, I actually even, you know, being 13 years old, I figured out that if I took more than I was prescribed, felt really good.
[00:03:13] Mike: [laugh]
[00:03:13] Zach: Um, and so I did that and then the prescription ran out and it was, you know, it was kind of, you know, Whatever.
[00:03:20] Um, and then pretty shortly after that, um, I found myself facing my first consequence, um, you know, from, from my addiction and I, I was expelled from school because I was, um, caught taking a, another prescription medication from another student.
[00:03:37] Mike: Wow.
[00:03:38] Zach: So, yeah.
[00:03:39] Mike: Wow. Did, did your, you were living with your folks at that time?
[00:03:43] Zach: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:44] Mike: Did they know that you were taking more than you were prescribed?
[00:03:47] Zach: They did not. Um, you know, I was raised in a upper middle class home. Um, I was an only child and, you know, I was, I was a good student. I was a good kid. Um, and you know, there wasn't a whole lot of oversight in my house. Um, I was, it was just kind of expected that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, until I wasn't.
[00:04:08] Mike: Yeah. So then you took a break for a while, but then started doing, you said normal adolescent stuff.
[00:04:15] Zach: Yeah. Um, you know, from the ages about 13 to 15, um, you know, I was, I was drinking and smoking weed with friends, um, and. I started to have some legal consequences. Um, and you know, of course me being me, I pushed back from those legal consequences.
[00:04:36] And, um, then I started, you know, I was experiencing homelessness, um, where I was surrounded with people, adults, you know, as a 15 year old kid that were, you know, in my same situation because of their, their drug use. Um, And so that culture allowed me to, you know, engage in that kind of risky behavior.
[00:04:57] Mike: I know it's impossible to look back with clarity, but it, as you, you must have thought about this. If you wouldn't have broken your collarbone and started on painkillers, do you think you would've started using weed and alcohol at 13, 14 years old?
[00:05:11] Zach: Probably, um, I think I would've, I would have done the experimenting that, you know, because that was, that was exciting to me. Um, just that, like the risk was exciting to me. Um, and I remember from an early age, that concept being exciting. However, had I not been introduced to opiates so early, I may not have been so willing to engage with them.
[00:05:33] You. Again, when I was, you know, 15, 16 years old, um, that experience was like, I, I know what this is. This is, this is great. And so I just did it.
[00:05:45] Mike: Yeah. I talk about that a lot, Zach, that the first time somebody uses isn't the problem. It's when they discover it can have the same effect again and again and again. Right?
[00:05:54] Zach: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:05:55] Mike: So, so you must have cycled in and out, get into trouble, stop for a little while. Go back. Is that the pattern?
[00:06:03] Zach: Yes. Um, Yeah, so to a degree, um, I would, I went, you know, I initially used pretty heavily, um, for a number of years before I had any serious consequences and the moment I had serious consequences, I tried to get into a solution, um, and, you know, get into recovery.
[00:06:25] Um, but unfortunately I wasn't ready yet. Um, and that kind of, um, that kind of. Thing progressed, um, in the exact same way. So geographical changes, um, relapses, overdoses, um, you know, more legal consequences. It was just, you know, a cycle, um, for a number of years.
[00:06:51] Mike: Did you end up moving back home?
[00:06:53] Zach: Um, so I was never, I, the first time I tried to get in recovery, um, you know, I hadn't, I hadn't really caused a lot of harm to my family yet.
[00:07:04] Um, and so they, they did what they, they could to help me. They helped me get into treatment. Um, they advocated for me, um, And then I kind of started to burn those bridges, those really tight, close, close, you know, relationships. Um, I burnt those bridges, um, and that was no longer an option. I kind of had to find my own way, um, or they would help me from a distance.
[00:07:29] Um, so yeah.
[00:07:32] Mike: Well it's, is it alright to talk about this?
[00:07:35] Zach: Absolutely.
[00:07:36] Mike: So it's been two years now, right?
[00:07:39] Zach: Mm-hmm.
[00:07:40] Mike: Are those bridges still burned?
[00:07:43] Zach: Not all of them. Um, but they still, some of them are still fragile. Um, you know, um, I, and I, I can't blame them at all. Um, they, they tried really hard with me for a long time and there were various points where I was saying all the right things, but not doing any of the right things.
[00:08:02] Mike: Yep.
[00:08:03] Zach: Um, and so it it's a lot, it's a lot easier to lose the trust than it is to get it back. Um, now, while all those. All those relationships, all those people are rooting for me. Um, they still have to have some healthy boundaries to, you know, have their expectations be realistic and, and not get so hurt again.
[00:08:23] Mike: Yeah. Well, before you got into this last, um, bit of recovery that you're in now, how bad did it get?
[00:08:31] Zach: So this last time around, I was, um, homeless in Seattle, Washington. Um, For about two years consistently, um, you know, moving from homeless encampment to homeless encampment. Um, the only way I was able to support my habit was stealing, um, from businesses, people anywhere I could, I could.
[00:08:57] Um, and it was to the point where like it, while it was. Not a great thing to go into jail, um, because of the, the detox and withdrawals that came with it, it was also like a, you know, a blessing because, you know, I, I had somewhere safe to be for 30 to 45 days. Um, and you know, out of the elements. Um, but the last time I was released from jail was in January of 2020.
[00:09:26] Um, and within about a week of getting released, I was using. To the point where like, my goal was, was no longer to like, feel anything like I, and I, I remember communicating this to people I was actively using with that. Like, I, I just wanna do enough to not wake up.
[00:09:46] Mike: Huh. Ever?
[00:09:48] Zach: Ever.
[00:09:49] Mike: Yeah. Now you're a, how old were you at that time?
[00:09:53] You're a young guy.
[00:09:54] Zach: Yeah. So I'm 27 right now. Um, so I, um, entered recovery this time right after I turned 25. So I was, you know, 24 years old, um, and you know, suicidal.
[00:10:08] Mike: Wow.
[00:10:09] And what were you using?
[00:10:11] Zach: Um, my primary drug of choice is opiates, um, heroin. Um, and I am an IV user. It wasn't always heroin.
[00:10:22] It kind of, you know, it started out as Oxy then went to Percocet and then went to heroin, um, based on accessibility and cost and all of that. Um, but when I, when I was, you know, deep in homelessness, I was using a lot of amphetamines and heroin, um, IV.
[00:10:44] Mike: Wow. Together?
[00:10:45] Zach: Together. Yeah, I cuz I was only using heroin and I kept falling asleep and getting all my belongings stolen.
[00:10:52] Um, so I, I just wanted to, you know, not feel anything but also be awake so I could protect myself.
[00:11:01] Mike: Wow. And you got it on the street obviously.
[00:11:05] Zach: Yeah.
[00:11:08] Mike: Trust it?
[00:11:10] Zach: [sigh] You know, and I kind of alluded to this earlier, like the risk, the risk was thrilling to me. Um, and you hear this kind of cliche in, you know, recovery fellowships all the time. Like, it didn't really matter to me. Like, I, I was well aware of the statistics of, you know, fatal overdoses and you know, how prevalent fentanyl was in the area.
[00:11:35] Um, but because I was so hopeless, it was like, even with the risk, I wanted that stuff. Um, you know, and I look back on that and it's just absolutely terrifying. Um, but that was the norm, you know, it was like, you could tell where there was fentanyl in the supply. Um, and it was just a roll of the dice every time.
[00:11:58] Mike: Well, how could you tell?
[00:12:00] Zach: The feeling, um, you know, the, because I'm an IV user, the, the type of rush, um, you know, the euphoria was different. Um, And that became like, okay. I, I only want to go to those people with those, with that kind of supply. Um, yeah.
[00:12:20] Mike: So once you found that different rush.
[00:12:24] Zach: Mm-hmm.
[00:12:24] Mike: That's the one you sought out, even though it was potentially fatal.
[00:12:28] Zach: Yeah. Um, and you know, even. I don't have any more education than a G E D, but I I'm a pretty intelligent individual. And, you know, knowing the risks I still was, that was my goal was to get the more harmful thing to me because it felt better.
[00:12:47] Mike: Did you see people around you cuz you, you probably weren't sleeping always by yourself. Did anybody around you pass away?
[00:12:54] Zach: Yeah. Um, more often than not honestly. It was a regular occurrence that somebody that we were using with, um, experienced a fatal overdose or, you know, you know, we always like being in Seattle, Washington, we had really good access to resources, you know, harm reduction, Narcan, stuff like that.
[00:13:14] Even though some of us, you know, had that mentality of like riskier, the better we all did carry Narcan. Um, and we were able to save a lot of people, um, but you know, not everyone. Um, so it became a pretty regular occurrence so much, in fact that you know, it, like I'm still to this day, pretty desensitized when it comes to fatal overdoses.
[00:13:36] Mike: I was gonna ask you that also, did you ever have somebody save you?
[00:13:40] Zach: Yeah, many times. I've experienced six or seven overdoses.
[00:13:47] Mike: To the point where they needed to administer Narcan, so you came back?
[00:13:50] Zach: Yeah.
[00:13:52] Mike: Wow [laugh]. Were you even aware of it?
[00:13:58] Zach: So this is the, the crazy thing is I wasn't. Um, and then when I would come to, um, there would be this fear initially, and then it would be like, Okay. That stuff was really good. I need more of that.
[00:14:12] Mike: Wow.
[00:14:13] Zach: That turnaround time. And that thinking would be within minutes. Um, that was kind of like this, the insanity in my head.
[00:14:20] Mike: Now you're in Milwaukee now.
[00:14:23] Zach: Right now. I'm in, I'm in Northern Illinois.
[00:14:25] Mike: Oh, Northern. Okay. Or in Northern Illinois. But do you ever think about those folks you knew back in Seattle?
[00:14:33] Zach: Yeah. Um, I actually, um, so like I, I got out, um, of that, that area and I went to Texas, um, to go into treatment. Um, And I spent some time in Texas before I moved up to the Midwest.
[00:14:51] Um, and when I disappeared, like I had some of those contacts on like social media, um, and they would see all these cool things I was doing in this new life I had developed. And so when some of these people started, you know, trying recovery, they started to reach out to me. Um, and so like a handful of people I used to use with are actually in recovery out there now.
[00:15:15] Mike: Outstanding.
[00:15:16] Zach: Yeah.
[00:15:17] Mike: You know, I'm always, um, this is always a hard thing for me when I have these conversations, cuz I'm always aware of the fact that when we talk about this, depending on where the person is at, it can create sensations and feelings. Do you ever have those sensations of, oh, I'd like to do it again?
[00:15:38] Zach: So I'd be lying to you if I said no. Um, but the way that my thinking happens now, um, you know, and, and I can't like give you a concrete, like what triggers me and what, you know, causes those thoughts. But my thinking now, like I immediately shift to what the consequence is.
[00:15:57] Mike: Mm-hmm.
[00:15:57] Zach: And that's not acceptable to me.
[00:15:59] Mike: How long did that take to get there?
[00:16:02] Zach: It took. About nine months. Um, you know, I was really fortunate in when I entered recovery this time that I engaged in a medication assisted recovery program. Um, and that helped exponentially, um, that took a lot of the initial cravings out, but there was still all these kind of, you know, social cravings, um, But as I worked a personal program of recovery and I developed a support network, um, I started to learn some new, some new coping skills.
[00:16:34] Mike: Excellent.
[00:16:34] Zach: You know, and that's, that kind of helped me succeed and I'm still working on them. It's definitely a thing of progress.
[00:16:41] Mike: Well, it always is. What would you taking Suboxone?
[00:16:44] Zach: I was, um, I was taking Suboxone, um, and I knew that wasn't my, what I wanted my long term solution to be, um, You know, so once I had, I lived in a protected environment, I lived in a, you know, a recovery home, um, with built in support.
[00:17:02] And I worked with my doctor to taper off of, off of Suboxone. Um, and I was able to do that successfully. Um, and you know, it was a really positive experience.
[00:17:13] Mike: So until, so you used the medically assisted treatment until you had the skills necessary and then work with a doctor to that's a, that's a great plan actually.
[00:17:24] Zach: It worked really well for me. Um, you know, before I had tried to use medication assisted treatment and that's all it was, it was the, it was the bandaid to the problem. Um, I didn't receive any case management, any counseling support. I was just given this to manage, um, But once I use that as a tool, along with a bunch of other stuff. It really worked for me.
[00:17:46] Mike: Did you ever abuse Suboxone?
[00:17:48] Zach: I used to, yeah.
[00:17:50] Mike: I that's the question I get asked all the time when I train people is why are they giving people stuff that you can abuse? And I'm like, well, you know, if you don't abuse it, do you it's like anything else? It can help, right?
[00:18:01] Zach: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, why, why the same, the same question applies to any substance that's, you know, readily accessible and socially acceptable, you know?
[00:18:11] Mike: What support group sort of experiences do you go through now?
[00:18:17] Zach: So early on in recovery, um, I. I was a very, very active member of a 12 step fellowship. Um, and that was kind of my, my primary solution. Um, and as I worked the 12 steps and got a lot of that trauma, um, you know, addressed, I then started to look at other solutions.
[00:18:43] Today, like I'm really involved in some of the more spiritual fellowships, um, whether it be Recovery Dharma, um, or Refuge Recovery. Um, I really enjoy the, that support, but also like, um, You know, like the benefit of those support groups is amazing, but it, it, you know, it's limited to a degree.
[00:19:04] Um, so I needed everything. I needed, you know, counseling, one on one. I needed a support group. I needed a safe, you know, supportive housing environment.
[00:19:15] Mike: Well, that's, that's such a great, um, synopsis of what people actually need to make long term recovery possible. Right.
[00:19:24] Zach: Yeah.
[00:19:24] Mike: You mentioned social before and I, that's why I ask you about the support group part, cause the support, the social aspect of recovery is equally important. Isn't it?
[00:19:36] Zach: Yeah. Um, and that's the, you know, after we deal with, after we get to a certain point, um, and we get past some of the chemical stuff and form some new pathways in our brain, um, it's all social at that point, you know, um, if we can just put enough time together. Um, so yeah, the social side is, you know, today is the most important thing and it's just staying engaged.
[00:19:59] Um, you know with a community of like-minded people that have the same goal as me is to maintain this amazing life that we have.
[00:20:07] Mike: So what, what do you have to avoid then? What can you not do? Where can you not go? Where is safe to go?
[00:20:14] Zach: Honestly, today I can go anywhere. Um, today I have the ability to go anywhere.
[00:20:20] Um, Caveat to that is I don't have the ability to go anywhere alone. Um, you know, I, if I know that there is the potential of a situation not being safe for me mentally, or, you know, for, for my, you know, recovery, I partner up with somebody, I reach out, um, You know, sometimes family situations aren't safe for me and I need to have an escape plan.
[00:20:45] I need to have my own car and be able to escape, um, and go do some work on myself and come back, you know? So it's just a matter of like self-awareness and checking in with where I'm at and being honest with myself.
[00:20:57] Mike: Well, family are, are well meaning, but always , it doesn't always work that way. Does it?
[00:21:03] Zach: Right? Yeah.
[00:21:07] Mike: You know, I can't tell you how often somebody has said that and especially, I, I love the escape plan for a family function. Yeah. It's just so perfect.
[00:21:16] Zach: Yeah. Cause at the end of the day, like what I come to realize is that. I, I didn't use because of the conditions of my life. Um, initially I used because of like the uncomfortability and my emotions.
[00:21:29] Um, and so now, like when I feel really intensely emotionally, like that is, that can be triggering for me. And so I have to have a solution to that.
[00:21:38] Mike: Which of the emotions that are the hardest?
[00:21:41] Zach: Um, anxiety, um, definitely anxiety just socially, um, and like, You know, the like fear of uncertainty, um, and not knowing, those, those creep up on me.
[00:21:57] And those allow me to get trapped in my head.
[00:21:59] Mike: So what, what do you do for, cause we live in a pretty anxious time right now where people are, uh, seems like they're pumping anxiety into the ozone, right?
[00:22:08] Zach: Mm-hmm.
[00:22:08] Mike: Um, what do you do to handle your anxiety now?
[00:22:12] Zach: I consistently, um, stop thinking about myself. Um, because a lot of the times that anxiety is like, is brewing in my head when I'm thinking about situations that involve me.
[00:22:27] And so, you know, I reach out to people. Um, I get outside myself, um, You know, I have, my phone is full of people that will answer the phone when I call. Um, and I know where I can go, you know, if I just need to be around people, um, because alone, like, um, I'm no good, but like if I have a team around me, I have the ability to be successful.
[00:22:48] Mike: Wait, you actually have people you can call on a phone and they pick it up?
[00:22:53] Zach: Isn't that amazing.
[00:22:54] Mike: Well, it doesn't sound like anyone I know. [laugh] I stopped actually calling people, nobody picks up anymore.
[00:23:01] Zach: Yeah. [laugh]
[00:23:01] Mike: Did, have you ever tricked, did you ever go through a period where you tricked yourself or that's not the word I wanna use where you convinced yourself that, um, fentanyl, heroin, Oxy was the problem and just little weed wouldn't hurt?
[00:23:16] Zach: Absolutely.
[00:23:17] Mike: So where are you at with that now? You're you're, you're not there obviously.
[00:23:21] Zach: No, I'm not. Um, I, once I was ready to finally, you know, own up to the fact that the substance that I was using, wasn't the problem. It was me. Um, that kind of put a lot of that, that thinking outta my mind.
[00:23:36] Um, you know, because. My behavior is the same, regardless of what substance I'm using it is, um, you know, whether it's just alcohol or, or weed or, you know, anything, my behavior's the same. Um, and that, that behavior is what gets me into those consequences.
[00:23:55] Mike: I love that substance not the problem. It's me.
[00:23:58] Right. And so what do, what do you enjoy doing now?
[00:24:04] Zach: So I'm really active. Um, I, I really enjoy, you know, hiking. I, I am now able to take care of, um, have responsibilities. So I have a dog. Um, so I not only have to take care of myself, but something else. Um, and so I spend a lot of time, you know, outside with him.
[00:24:23] Um, you know, I, I get to like, you know, maintain employment, um, which is really cool and not, not what I'm used to, um, You know, and something that was really big in my life, you know, before I started using was, um, live music. And so I've been able to, you know, be in live music settings. Um, you know, even if it is a setting where people are drinking and whatnot, like I'm comfortable because I, I know what my purpose is there.
[00:24:51] Mike: Yeah. And that's the music.
[00:24:53] Zach: Mm-hmm.
[00:24:54] Mike: I always find it. Um, I, I always want to go and shake the hand of the people who give the jobs and employ and trust again. Right. Your boss must be pretty terrific.
[00:25:07] Zach: I I'm fortunate enough. My last two jobs have been in the recovery field.
[00:25:10] But always like always have I, since I've started this journey, like I have, you know, been really open and honest with people about who I am and where things are for me. Um, and. It's that's a huge deal about, you know, if, if we can be honest and show people the example, like we have the ability to change the narrative and give the next person after us the opportunity to get hired.
[00:25:33] You know?
[00:25:34] Mike: Now there's nothing like, uh, confidence and is, is addictive as well. People want it, you know, and it it's. It's great to see. So what are you looking forward to? Do you allow yourself to look forward?
[00:25:49] Zach: I do. Um, but I'm careful about it.
[00:25:54] Um, you know, I. Mostly like, I, I, I just get excited about the, you know, the potential long term impact of the decisions I make today. Um, you know, I, I have hopes and, you know, like I, I'm really excited about a vacation that I've planned, which I've never got to do before. Um, you know, But my expectations are minimal and realistic.
[00:26:21] Um, so most of the looking forward I do is just being grateful for the impact long term that my, my decisions today have.
[00:26:30] Mike: Wow. [laugh] That is a, that is a great summary statement. You know, we, we always try to keep these to around a half an hour and that's it's about it, but Zach, this is great. Would you be open to doing this again, down the line a little bit and letting us check in?
[00:26:43] Zach: Yeah, absolutely. Um, reach out to me anytime. Um, you know, I'm grateful for the opportunity to, you know, share my experience and, uh, you know, hopefully it reaches someone that, you know, that needs to hear it.
[00:26:56] Mike: Boy we sure hope so. Um, we absolutely hope so. Thanks for the uplifting story and listeners, please listen in next time, cuz you know, you're gonna hear stories of some sort. Some sort of a journey, be it difficult or empowering. Until then we invite you all to, uh, listen in the next time. And until then, please stay safe.
[00:27:18] [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.