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Opioid Crisis: Blotting out the pain of living

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David Emch Headshot

Emch

Rick had been sleeping on a sidewalk in a secluded area downtown for six months when we found him last month. Dressed in camouflage pants and toting a backpack, Rick wanted something different but had no idea how to go about that. A fierce independent streak has kept him from asking for and receiving help. But one of our members named John, who used to be homeless himself and now hand delivers hot meals to the homeless once each week in Charleston, was slowly able to forge a respectful relationship with him and we came to know his story. 

Born in Charleston in 1987, Rick’s father was a crane operator and his mother worked as a medical technician. His mother never drank or did drugs to his knowledge, but his father glamorized the Hell’s Angels and the addict’s lifestyle. Rick had everything he needed, even when his dad went to prison for several years in the early 1990s. Rick’s mother was able to keep him in a private Christian school, where he remained until the end of middle school. A brother 10 years his junior was born shortly after his father’s return from prison in 1997.

Rick did well in school and was active in sports. His father never played an active role in this though. Things took a turn in middle school when his mother got fed up with his father’s drinking and drugging and moved out with the children. Rick quit trying in school, and by the end of middle school his mother decided that if he wasn’t going to apply himself to school anymore then she wasn’t going to continue wasting money on a private school.

Rick’s high school debut saw him trying out for the football team, but he broke his hand and couldn’t play. Truancy became the norm – lack of effort saw him fail his freshman year twice. At age 17 he was caught with marijuana and was sent to a group home for boys in Florence.

The group home was rife with alcohol and drugs, but Rick still managed to get a GED certificate. At 18 he started working construction with his dad building forms for concrete buildings. He was learning to operate heavy equipment on the weekends and things were looking up, but between chafing with his father and the heavy drinking and drugging that took place on the road it wasn’t long before Rick left that job and returned to live with his mother.

This began a five year phase of “couch surfing.” Menial jobs appeared here and there, Rick primarily supported himself selling pot. A job burying fiber optic cable showed promise for a while, but addiction soon smashed that. “Borrowing” a friend’s parents' car turned into a Grand-Theft Auto conviction and he served a few months in jail.

At 25-years-old he met a young woman who drank and drugged like he did. In short order, she was pregnant and they moved in together. A son was born, followed by a daughter four years later. Domestic life didn’t cure his addictions though, and there was much drama until she finally left him after five years in 2015. She and the children ultimately moved to Florida; the last time Rick saw them was when he visited in 2017.

Since 2015, Rick has lived as a transient. He pursued various jobs and opportunities all up and down the East Coast. Crystal meth was a part of the picture for a while, but because of the people who were involved in selling it and the negative effects of the drug Rick quit using it three years ago. He has lived in one car or another much of that time, pursuing various work opportunities and trying to stay afloat. Luck ran out last fall when he ended up living on the streets in Charleston, taking day labor jobs as he could to eat and stay alive as best he can. Between work and the lifestyle he has sustained several physical injuries, including being hit by a car while riding a bicycle to work. He almost died hopping onto a train trying to get to a job opportunity in Pennsylvania.

“I am tired of this vicious cycle” Rick said. “I will quit drinking for a while, find a good job that gives me a place to live or a per-diem hotel room and do well for a couple of months, but sooner or later the drinking and the drugs come back and I lose everything I built up again. Each time it happens I feel worse about myself and it seems to keep taking more of the drink and drugs to blot out the pain of living. I hate that I am not being an educator and protector for my children. When my car got stolen last fall I just kinda gave up and spent this whole last winter taking day jobs when I can get them and sleeping outside in any safe place I can find.”

“I am realizing that every time I go to a new place I start off real good, but pretty soon I start thinking about how much I have lost and how many chances I have blown, and I start drinking. And once I take one drink I don’t stop and I'm quickly back to one drug or another. I could have been a crane operator – so many things I have had chances at. I am just so tired of the vicious cycle and figured this is my life and it isn’t going to get better. All the time I hear of people being shot or stabbed or dying one way or another. I have had bad situations where people have tried to steal my stuff while I was sleeping," Rick added.

“With the virus going around it has been impossible to find any work, and I have had to beg a few times. This is even harder – I have always supported myself one way or another. The bad feelings just keep adding up. But I got the idea that maybe I could find a place to live with sober people who were making something of themselves, and John told me he could maybe get me an interview into a place," Rick said.

“I was interviewed and voted into The Phoenix House. I have not lived in a sober environment since I was in grade school and my dad was in prison. I have been running and running ever since. I am afraid of the future, and these people talk about taking it day by day but I have trouble calming down and relaxing. When I don’t use anything my mind is going 100 miles per hour, either making me feel bad about where I have been or telling me I am going to mess up the future anyway – what’s the point. Or it tells me I need to run away and find something else. This is the first time I have tried to completely conquer this beast (addiction.) But I have got to find a way out of the perpetual cycle of pain. I am starting to learn how to deal with those thoughts, but I am afraid to feel hopeful because I have messed up everything I have done all my life. But right now I have everything I need and am starting to learn new things about life. I will keep trying it a day at a time as long as I can," Rick added.

There are thousands of “Ricks” in our society – men and women so full of guilt and shame over failure that they cannot see the light of day. Our hopes are that he flourishes – and many of us are doing all we can to help him do so. Meanwhile, the burdens of social distancing don’t feel so bad when I look at the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of “Ricks” all around us – trying their best to survive on our streets and blot out the pain of existence.

For your information – The local Phoenix Project of South Carolina is trying to expand to a larger facility locally. Please go to gofundme.com/f/Sobriety-That-Works for details on their work. This is a noble local effort that is well worth helping support.

This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.

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