KANSAS CITY, Mo. — I recently sat down with three recovering addicts who opened up about what a life of drugs is really like. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting such raw emotion and such unbridled honesty. Not that I thought they wouldn’t share a lot, but I was a strange woman coming in with two news photographers and asking them to trust me.
The guys I met say they think there's a brokenness at the core for addicts, and at least the ones I spoke with say they started using in their early teens.
I want to introduce you to the guys. In most news stories, we’re supposed to use a person’s last name on second reference, but that feels less personal, and what these guys are sharing deserves personal, so I will use first names.
This is Henry Costigan. He grew up in Kansas City's old Northeast neighborhood. He's dealt with addiction for the last nine years of his life, and on the day we interviewed him, he was 31 days clean. Henry is currently 23 years-old. He started smoking marijuana when he was 14.
"I found methamphetamine and smoked it for a couple of years and then started shooting it," he said. "It's literally been the one thing in my life that's messed everything up."
Henry has been in and out of treatment, relapsing every time. Even though he’s in his early 20s, I can see evidence of the carefree, sweet, innocent kid he once was. I can also see pain.
This is Taylor Brown. He grew up in Leawood in a giant, beautiful home where he lived with his parents. He started using alcohol and marijuana in his early teen years, but says he didn't get into the "hard stuff" until about age 17.
"It was a party. I was a teenager. Somebody had some and I tried it. And I remember the feeling after I did it. There was this lack of fear, almost instinctual survival fear that I should have had but I guess I didn't," Taylor said. "I was more afraid of feeling life and dealing with emotions."
"I remember after I did it, I felt incredible and I was like ‘wow, I wonder if this is what everybody is doing to feel better and to deal with life?'" he said.
He didn't stop with just that one time. He started using more and more drugs after that. A lot of "benzos, xanax, opiates, pain pills, and that led to heroin."
Taylor ended up homeless. He almost died. He got clean and was clean for about six years in his mid-20s. He was living a great life; then relapsed.
When we met Taylor, he was clean again - 10 months sober this time.
Mack Dickson is a bit further along in life, and what I mean by that is he is older and has a lot more life experience. He grew up in Carthage, Missouri. He remembers the day his dad left; he remembers him walking away down the railroad track. He never saw him again. Mack was 7 years-old. He believes that was the moment that broke him.
Mack’s addiction is alcohol, but he's tried a lot of drugs at points in his life. He's been an alcoholic for at least 30 years.
When I met Mack, he was 43 days clean. His rock bottom was 44 days ago when his wife found him nearly dead on the floor of their living room. He had tried to commit suicide with muscle relaxers and alcohol.
"I don't even remember it. All I remember is waking up in Truman," he said.
These three agreed to sit down with me to talk about life as addicts. All started in their teen years. All have had near death experiences. And all explain escaping emotion.
Christa: At what point did you start using harder stuff?
Taylor: I would say 17. I got addicted to cocaine.
Christa: How did you get it for the first time?
Taylor: It was a party. I was a teenager. Somebody had some and I tried it and I remember the feeling after I did it.
Christa: You snorted it?
Taylor: Yes. And there was always this lack of fear, almost instinctual survival fear that I should have had but I guess I didn't. I was more afraid of feeling life and dealing with emotions.
Mack: I was really searching for something at that time but the alcohol seemed to numb me. At first, it started out beer and then went to anything I could get my hands on to drink at that time. I remember (a time when) I said if this how grownups are I never want to be one, because it was really sad, because it was all drugs and alcohol. I started dabbling in marijuana at that time.
Christa: At what age?
All of the guys talked about dealing with emotions, and about how over time they’d have to use more and more for the same numbing affects.
Mack: It got to the point where alcohol didn't do anything for me anymore. It wouldn't take care of the shakes. It wouldn't take care of the tremors. It wouldn't take care of anything.
All three were nodding their heads in agreement.
Christa (to Taylor): You’re shaking your head, was it the same for you?
Taylor: Yeah. The drugs stop working.
Christa (to Henry): Same?
Henry: Oh yeah.
Christa: So you just keep going for more and more and more? Or what happens when it no longer works?”
Taylor: When it hits you it’s pretty terrifying.
Henry: It's kind of like...it's annoying. You really still want it to work and you fight for it to work.
Christa: Is that what makes you go to try other things?
Henry: Use more. Use different ways. I think once smoking stopped working you know it wasn't working for a long time before I started shooting it.
Christa: Were you nervous? Was there any part of you - in the kid in you - that was nervous to start shooting?
Henry: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean… it's terrifying. It's kind of a rush though. It's…
Henry seems to always think about what he’s going to say before he says it. He’s newer at this than the others. He’s raw.
Henry, continued: It's really morbid and dirty but it's kind of a thrill to know you’re doing something so bad. I think I was addicted to the ritual and the lifestyle as much as I was the high itself.
Again, others in room shake their head in agreement.
Christa: You guys are both shaking your head.
Taylor: The anticipation and the act of using becomes an addiction also.
We discussed how they knew what they were doing was going to mess up their lives, but it didn’t matter.
Henry: Oh yeah, I knew that before I started doing it. I kind of tempted fate with it and I really didn’t think it could happen to me. I didn’t think I would be addicted and I didn’t think… I just didn’t think it would happen and I thought I was invincible. It took me to some dark places.
The guys talked about the role of parents in their addiction and recovery.
Henry: I think parents need to understand… When kids… I felt…
Again, he searches for the right words. It’s almost as if he considers between holding back, and just saying exactly what he’s thinking. When he decides to just say what he’s thinking, the words flow.
Henry: Whenever I started getting into drugs, I felt really scared to come to my parents because I thought I was going to get in trouble or something. But I think kids need to realize it's life or death, you know. You hear that a lot but people really die. People really lose their life and it’s…
There’s a long pause. He stops talking and looks down.
Christa: Did you almost lose your life to this?
He continues to look down, swallows hard, then looks right at me and says, “Yeah."
Taylor: Being able to talk about what's going on internally is really important for young people and it's something that perhaps our society has gotten a little bit away from.
Henry: Especially for men.
Taylor goes on to say what so many men find difficult to say, but with which all in the room agree.
Taylor: There's a lot of focus on what we can achieve and how well we perform externally and, I don't think it's the fault of anybody, I think we've just gotten out of touch with what’s going on in here (presses the tips of all four fingers and his thumb to his chest) and being able to talk about that. I think the heart of addiction is not being able to talk about what's going on inside and how we feel about ourselves. And how we relate to other people.
We talked about how they each got their drugs. All three of the men said if you're looking for them, drugs aren't hard to find.
Henry: You wouldn’t think of a drug dealer like out of a movie or a TV show. It could be anybody like you or me. It’s just completely normal people that might do it themselves or might not.
Christa: Do you have dealers that don’t do it?
Taylor: Yeah. That’s the most dangerous kind. It’s a game to them. It’s a business. And once you’re hooked they have a steady revenue stream, so to speak.
Each had varying degrees of confidence in their abilities to have success in recovery.
Christa: Do you really believe this might finally be the time that you can get clean?
Henry: Yeah. You know, I’ve thought that before too and I (he clears his throat), I don’t want to jinx myself of anything, but…
The guys in the room laugh. So does Henry. His smile is one I’m guessing would make his mom happy to see.
Henry: I’ve got a 2 year-old daughter and I’ve not really been there for her. And it hasn’t been enough to keep me clean in the past. This time (meaning this attempt at treatment, he’s tried several times), I came in and I wasn’t at one of my lowest points. I was not at my lowest point, and I think that the choice for me to come in after not losing everything is, like, recognition that I don’t want to lose everything again.
Christa: Makes sense.
Mack: I’m focusing on staying alive, treating my wife as she needs to be treated, being a father to my daughter.
Taylor believes he’ll have success this time, too. All of the men believe structure is critical to their sobriety.
Taylor: The people you hang around and surround yourself with, having common goals, structure…
Before he can continue, all in the room nod their heads in agreement and offer their comments about structure.
Henry: Yeah. I think the drug life style is so erratic and you live by the seat of your pants. You don’t know what you’re doing any day.
Christa: So you find comfort in that?
Henry: Yeah. It’s necessary.
Christa: How much does your circle of friends affect your success or failure when it comes to trying to beat your addiction?
All chime in at the same time: “It’s everything,” and “That’s what it’s all about.”
Christa: The parent side in me is like, so there’s some truth to the mom or the dad that worries about the people you’re hanging with if they know they’re into bad stuff?
They all shake their heads in agreement, “Oh yeah.”
The program the men are currently in includes the 12 steps of recovery, which were originally created for alcoholics. Learn more about the program on the website.
The guys tell me there are two steps they believe are the most difficult, and the most likely time a person might choose to bail from recovery. Those are steps 4 and 9.
Step 4 is “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Basically, this is where they go deep within their own hearts and their own minds to figure out what caused them to use in the first place. It can be a very powerful and painful step for many addicts.
Christa, to Henry: What step are you on?
Henry: Step four.
Christa: How’s step four been for you?
Henry: You know, they say a lot of people do 1, 2, 3 out; 1, 2, 3 out and they do steps 1, 2, and 3 and then go back out to using and that’s exactly what I’ve done the past couple of times. And it’s almost like a subconscious thing. But yeah, I’m kind of scared to dig within myself, and you know, share everything that I’ve done with somebody. It’s kind of humiliating and kind of embarrassing.
Christa, to Mack and Taylor: Are you guys all on the same time frame? Did you guys come in together?
Mack: I’m finished with four.
Christa, to Mack: Are you rubbing this in because he’s not done yet (referencing Henry)?
They all laugh.
Henry, to Mack: Yes!
Henry: They’ve been giving me a bunch of crap about it. I’ve been slacking on my reading.
Mack, smiling: We are holding him accountable.
All in the room laugh. It’s a much needed break from the seriousness of the topic. We get back to it fairly quickly; the guys showing no signs of tiring from too much sharing.
Christa, to Henry: And this is your third time in this program? And you were out after step 3?
Christa: Have you started four?
Henry: I have not started writing it yet.
They explain steps 4 and 5 go together. Step 4 is going deep within, step 5 is sharing what you’ve written. The men all tell me step 9 is hard because it involves apologizing to all of the people you’ve hurt. Step 8 is making the list and what you did, 9 is making amends.
Henry: That is more of a fear-filled step, step four is more a just don’t want to do it.
They all talk about at least some level of regret they didn’t get help sooner.
Taylor: I think it stunted my emotional growth.
Mack: Mine, too.
Taylor: And my ability to handle life and emotions. It all stopped once I drank because it was a social lubricant – liquid courage. It was medicine.
Henry: Get help. Ask for help. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done is say that I have a problem, because you don’t want to stop. You want to keep doing it because it feels good and it’s the only thing that makes you feel good. But, there’s such a better life to be had. I’ve seen it.
Kevin O'Grady is 15 years clean. He knows what these men are going through. He’d lost everything to drugs. He started Midwest Recovery Centers and started trying to help young men with their own battles a few years ago here in Kansas City. He's seen parents try everything.
"They've tried everything they know how to do," O'Grady said. "They've tried to be strict. They've tried to throw money at it. They've tried to move them in with grandma and grandpa to get them out of their scene. Then they find out they’re doing it there. They’ve tried everything in their arsenal to try and fix it, solve it, treat it. They don't even know what they're treating."
He says parents almost always blame themselves.
“This isn't because you're a bad parent, or didn’t do something right. You were too nice; you weren't nice enough. It was something that happened six years ago. You should've zigged when you zagged," O'Grady said. "Those are the things that most parents come in and they're in tears going, ‘I should've done this, I should've known, I should've stopped it sooner.’ It really isn't about that."
O’Grady says he can't tell anyone how to parent, but he's seen what works.
“I'm never in a position to tell a parent how to parent what's right or wrong for your child," he said. "What I can do is tell you what's effective or what's ineffective. And yelling, screaming, grounding, punishing, throwing money at them, buying them stuff trying to lure them out of making bad decisions… if they're that far gone, those things are typically not effective."
“It's important to know there's treatment out there that people can get better," he said. "I mean you really can overcome alcoholism and addiction.”
There are all kinds of treatment centers for addiction, all with differing ways of working with addicts.
Midwest Recovery Centers is one of many.
O’Grady is one of the founders of the center.
As he described the center and how it works, O'Grady frequently jumps between "I" and "you" and "they" and "us." It's part of the connection with the men he's trying to reach, a group he's a part of.
"We do extended care treatment," he said. "Rather than do a traditional model where somebody is in a really secure environment for a short amount of time and then immediately released back into society, old friends, all that kind of stuff. We essentially transition them slowly over the course of a year – from can’t be sober even one day or struggling to do that, can’t hold a job, dropped out of school – whatever the case may be, to slowly reintegrating them back into society and getting them at that year mark.
At Midwest Recovery, phase one is most intense. Anyone entering the program has to make a 90-day commitment to live in a home with other guys in phase one of the program.
They can't have a job. There's no cellphone and no outside extracurricular activities.
They meet every day for a total of 30 hours of group gatherings a week. They meet with a psychiatrist and an individual therapist. They go to the gym three or four days per week.
O’Grady says they’re trying to build foundation of mind, body and spirit. Giving the guys and their brains the time it needs to really heal and get prepared for phase two. During that time, the guys live in a home with 24-hour support staff and they progress at their own pace through a 12-step program.
Phase two is in a different house with less oversight and more outside influence.
“They get more freedom and less structure,” O’Grady said.
The men can get jobs, and they can get their phones back. The phones are apparently a huge test.
“Everybody can’t wait – when they get clean – to get my phone, my car, my girlfriend, my job," O'Grady said. "Unfortunately for most of us (meaning addicts), getting all of that back immediately is really, really dangerous. It creates a lot of emotional instability. A lot of stimuli."
O’Grady says real recovery happens in phase two.
“All the texts from old friends - and Facebook - everything’s coming back at you," he said. "Then you get a job and how do I balance job and meetings and sponsors and groups and all of this stuff – and family coming back in."
The guys all agree the first step to recovery is asking for help.
Recovery is more difficult than most can ever understand, but learning more about the process hopefully pushes someone battling addiction to get help.
Learn more about Midwest Recovery Centers on their website. They also have programs for family members.
Update, May 13:
After being sober for nearly two months, Henry lapsed and used again.
He went to a concert with some old friends. He says someone offered him weed and he took it without thinking. Then, while high, he called a buddy he knew would have meth and went and smoked meth.
Because of this, Henry can no longer be in the recovery house where he was living. He left for a treatment center in another state in early May. I am in touch with his mother and am getting occasional updates on his progress.
Taylor and Mack are still moving forward with their recovery. Taylor is now helping oversee the phase one house.