BENNINGTON -- It's been four years since "John," now 22, admitted that he was addicted to drugs and asked for help.
"I was getting ready to go to school one day, it was right after February vacation, and it was my first day going back," he said. "I was driving to school and I don't know, I just started crying. I pulled over and I called my mom and told her that I had a problem with drugs and I needed to get help."
John is an alias he chose for this interview.
Forty-seven days have gone by since John's third attempt at rehab, but things feel different this time. "I do a lot of sober things with sober friends in the program and that seems to have worked for me," he said.
He recounted his experiences with drugs, the problems they caused, and his work in recovery for the Banner on Thursday. Addiction has been widely talked about in Bennington since a feature story about the town and heroin addiction here ran in the New York Times on March 6. Before that, Gov. Peter Shumlin made statewide opiate addiction the central topic of his State of the State address.
Before John knew what an alcoholic was, he knew something was wrong with how much his mother drank. "It bothered me a lot seeing her drinking, and I always said that I would never drink or drug or anything like that, but once I got into my teenage years I started experimenting with drinking and using other substances," he said.
John's mother got sober when he was 9 by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, an experience that would help her support her son later in life. John grew up in Bennington as part of a middle-class family with two working parents and two older siblings.
"My first experience with (drugs) was marijuana. I was about 11," he said. "I was with my brother and a friend of his. They were trying to get me to go to sleep early, and I heard one of them talking about how they were gonna smoke pot. I told them that I wanted to try it."
They obliged him.
"My first time drinking, I remember I was 13. I remember throwing up all over myself, very sick and saying to myself I was never going to do that again, I would never drink."
When he was a freshman in high school he started drinking on the weekends to the point of passing out. "One night it led to me using cocaine. I fell in love with cocaine, and used that for a while."
He was mostly done with alcohol by the time he was 16. By then he was using painkillers. "And that's when things went downhill quickly," he said.
John's older friends supplied him with cocaine and pills.
"I think I did it to fit in with everybody else. I mean all the kids, well, not all the kids. Not even close to all the kids, but the group of friends that I hung out with they, I wouldn't say they talked me into it. I was willing to do it. I made the decisions on my own, and I wanted to fit in with them. I thought it was the cool thing to do, to drink," he said.
John worked and enjoyed fishing along with watching high school sports before drug use became his main hobby.
"When I really knew I had a problem was when I started stealing from family members," he said "I didn't feel guilty about it at all when I was doing it. I didn't have a problem with it at that time."
He needed drugs to feel normal at that point, and to afford them he stole. "Something wasn't right if I needed to steal something in order to feel okay," he said.
John's grades had dipped when his mother was an active alcoholic, but got better once she was sober. They hit bottom again when he turned to drugs himself. He was failing nearly all of his classes, had been suspended three times for marijuana use in school, and was charged criminally with possession of marijuana, and possession of a controlled substance.
"I wasn't doing my homework, that was the main part, but I would skip a lot of classes if I didn't have drugs that day," he said. "I wouldn't go to one of my classes, or I'd be skipping school, out trying to find my next high."
He said in fifth grade his school had the D.A.R.E program, the lessons of which were running through his mind when he was first doing drugs. "I thought that I just used the drugs recreationally, and I would be different from everybody else, and I wouldn't have a problem with it; I could stop when I wanted to stop," he said.
After telling his mother he was addicted she called Serenity House in Wallingford where John stayed for 21 days. Serenity House scheduled John to meet with a counselor at United Counseling Service in Bennington and taught him many things about how to continue with his recovery.
"It only stuck for a few days, and then after that I didn't do any of the things they told me to do. I thought I could do it all on my own and they were all wrong, and I could do it. Which is completely false," he said.
He began smoking marijuana as soon as he left Serenity House and in three weeks was back to his old ways.
"I was depressed. I felt guilty that my parents just spent all this money to get me clean and sober, and here we go three weeks later, getting high again," he said. He went back to stealing, although he was employed.
"That went on up until February 2012, which was when I started using heroin intravenously, which I knew was another big step toward death. I knew that would eventually kill me if I didn't stop," he said.
Pain pills had become hard to get, so John called a friend of his who said they could get him heroin. "I was sick, I was detoxing, going into withdrawal, so I decided to try heroin," he said. "I swore up and down I wouldn't do heroin to begin with, but when you're in the midst of the addiction and you're sick, you just want anything to make you feel better."
He snorted heroin for a week before injecting it. His dealer taught him how to perform the injection. He used needles for a month and a half before deciding to seek help again.
"I was just embarrassed and ashamed to go back and tell my mom that I had to go back to rehab again," John said.
He went back to Serenity House and completed the same 21-day program, but this time took it more seriously and was recommended to Grace House, a halfway house in Rutland. He spent eight months there abiding by a curfew, going to meetings, and got a job at a local bakery which had sympathy for his plight and hired him on the spot. His luck with employment, however, did not hold out.
At some point before going into rehab a second time, John sold a bag of heroin to a police informant knowing his dealer would give him a free one if he drummed up more business. He was not charged until he left rehab, but when news of the accusation was printed in the Bennington Banner, John was fired from his job at a local factory. After being convicted he was placed on probation without having to do jail time, but he now has a felony on his record and has not been able to find work.
After leaving Grace House he came back to Bennington and began attending Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with his mother, but there was a problem. "When I was in Bennington, I didn't have the sober network I had up in Rutland," he said. "The only people that I really knew in Bennington were people that were getting high, because all the people that weren't getting high I had burnt my bridges with and screwed them over in one way or another."
He relapsed again in January 2013.
"I wasn't strong enough to get through the detox on my own," he said.
John said he was not able to go for longer than a month without using drugs for a few weeks at a time. In January of this year, he went to the Brattleboro Retreat for five days and is being prescribed Suboxone, a drug used to curb opiate cravings.
"Now I am attending one to two meetings a day, I'm in counseling up at UCS. I am participating in a lot of sober activities with people in the fellowship of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). We go bowling, and I have a sponsor this time that I work with," he said. "When I struggle with something, I reach out for help, not just bottling everything in, because that's what has led to relapses in the past."
This is his first time with a sponsor, and through the Turning Point Center, 465 Main St., he has been set up with a recovery coach as well.
While John does not drink, the AA meetings are similar enough to the Narcotics Anonymous meetings to be helpful.
Doug, his recovery coach at Turning Point Center who has fought his own long battle with addiction, said John's case is not unique. Addicts feel the need to isolate themselves, which fuels their addiction. When they do reach out to others many times it's to people still caught in the addiction cycle. The state's 11 Turning Point Centers offer places addicts can go to plug into a social network that won't lead them back to drugs.
"I feel a lot better about myself," said John. "I feel more connected with sober people. I'm not hanging out with the old people that I used to hang out with. I've made new friends in the rooms of AA. Before I would just go to AA meetings, sit there, and not talk to anybody and I wouldn't get connected and do anything. That's what kept bringing me back out."
His coach, Doug, said treatment and recovery are different things. Recovery is a way of life and needs daily maintenance. He began drinking at a young age and was introduced to heroin in Vietnam. When he came back, heroin was not as popular as other drugs so he did those for a while. He had a 16-year period where he was sober but he let himself slip and nearly died from overdoses. In recent years he has been at the Turning Point Center and finds helping other addicts helps him maintain his recovery.
John said he was initially reluctant to go to the Turning Point Center, thinking he could not have fun with the people there because they tended to be much older. "But that's totally wrong. I'm realizing now that I can," he said.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.