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How An Opioid Addict Got Sober09:43

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Morphine Sulfate, OxyContin and Opana are displayed for a photograph in Carmichael, California, on Jan. 18, 2013. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)closemore
Morphine Sulfate, OxyContin and Opana are displayed for a photograph in Carmichael, California, on Jan. 18, 2013. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Yesterday we heard from Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, about how to combat the opioid crisis in the U.S.

Today, Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Nick Roberts, a recovering addict from St. Albans, West Virginia, about how he got sober and what he thinks might help others kick their deadly habits.

Interview Highlights

On how his addiction started

"I had a pretty all-American childhood, I guess you could say. I had a loving family. There was no traumatic event that sparked anything. If I could trace it back as early as I possibly can, I would say when I was about 12 years old, I had a minor surgery on my toe. The doctor wrote me a prescription for some pretty heavy narcotic pain medicine. There was no need for me to be on this kind of medication for that amount of time. I went home, and I was starting to feel a little bit of physical pain, so my mom gave me one of the pills. And this weird thing happened where, not only did the physical pain go away, but the mental feelings of inferiority and feeling less-than kinda subsided as well. I just remember that moment so clearly as for the first time, I imagined I felt like other people felt. I knew there was something out there that I could put into my body that would make me feel normal.

"I was in high school and I would experiment with marijuana and alcohol on the weekends. Then, my focus kinda went away from sports, friends, school, to getting high, drinking as much as I could. It quickly progressed from just marijuana and alcohol to pain pills, to cocaine, and then it progressed as far as finding a needle and doing things that I said I would never do to maintain my addiction."

On how he obtained drugs

"That's a tough question because, if I wanted a prescription of, say, opiates, it was a little more difficult to get it the legal route than it was to just call up a friend that I knew had some. The system was working in that regard. I found no way to, as a young person who's relatively healthy, to abuse the doctor system that way. I went straight to the streets, and that's where I was most successful at getting pills."

On how bad his addiction got before he decided to start recovery

"I lost my car, my apartment and my girlfriend all in one week from one bad episode. I ended up moving back in with my mom at age 25. For about three months of living in her house, waking up every day religiously at 4:30 in the morning, sick from withdrawals. I hated my life. I wasn't going to end my life, but I didn't care if I died. I remember my mom walked in one morning. I was laying there in bed, curled up, sick. She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at me and said, ‘Nick, I'm not gonna watch you die in my house. You can either get out of my house, or I will take you to treatment.’ That ultimatum saved my life. If she hadn't have done that, I would have overdosed and died. I'm sure of that."

"I needed someone that cared enough about me that they would show tough love. I didn't have the mental clarity to say, ‘Hey, my life has spiraled completely out of control.’ I had to get slapped in the face by reality."

"Once we can kinda break this image of the addict being morally inferior, then people I think would be more prone to admit that they have a problem."

Nick Roberts

On the program that helped him recover

"I remember very clearly the very first day that I got there to Recovery Point of Huntington. I carried my suitcase back to the director's office, and I sat down. He said, ‘Just so you know, I was sitting right where you're at five years ago.’ That just kind of went through me. I had been to treatment facilities before, and been exposed to 12-step meetings, and met with psychiatrists and psychologists. But I had never really sat down and talked with someone that had been where I was at, and seemed to be successful, happy, living a normal life. He said, ‘What makes you... why should I give you a bed? We have a waiting list of 100 people literally dying to get in here. Why should you go first?’ And I said, ‘My thinking is messed up.’ I don't know why I said that, I don't know how I had that clarity of mind to say that, but he smiled a little bit and he said, ‘We've got a bed for you.’ They took me into detox, and that's where my recovery began on April 13, 2012."

On being sober

"I think that's part of the misconception a lot of people have, especially active addicts. We've bought into this image of a person in recovery as someone that is just white knuckling it through the day to stay sober. They're just hanging on for dear life. And it's not like that at all. The first three weeks in recovery were pretty rough. I was mentally obsessing on using, I was physically sick. But, after those first three weeks, I started developing new habits through this program. We would go to classes and learn things about the effects of drugs on the brain, and alcohol on liver enzymes, and the history of AA and NA.

“I was given a master's degree in myself, pretty much. It took that education and being exposed to real people in recovery who had done things much worse than I had ever dreamed of, and somehow they were putting months together, years together without using. The kicker was they seemed genuinely happy about it. Me, today, five years sober. I'm married, I have a newborn daughter, I get to be a step-father to a great young 8-year-old boy. I will graduate with my bachelor's degree in English this May, and I have a full-time job. You could not tell me that I would have all these things and go through the day without even thinking about drugs and alcohol."

On what he thinks would solve the opioid crisis

"That's a big question. I think a lot of people smarter than I am need to come together and address it. But I think it starts with education. If I just go by my own personal experience, this stigma of addiction has to be shattered. People have to realize that it is a disease. It was classified by the American Medical Association as a disease in 1985. Once we can kinda break this image of the addict being morally inferior, then people I think would be more prone to admit that they have a problem.

“Then it gets into step two of what we need to address, which is the availability of treatment. Unfortunately, when an addict finally asks for help, there is a very small window of opportunity for them to get help. That willingness quickly goes away. Unfortunately, in the state of West Virginia, we have many facilities, residential facilities, for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, but they carry with them long waiting lists. Particularly like Recovery Point of Huntington which I went through, you go through it no cost to the client. You can imagine how long a waiting list for a program like that would be."

This segment aired on April 19, 2017.

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