“We don’t know who will become addicted,” says Dr. Clayton Chau, a substance abuse expert at Providence St. Joseph Health’s Institute for Mental Health and Wellness in California. For this very reason, opioid addiction remains rampant and dangerously hard to pin down. An estimated 1 million people in the United States have died between 1995 and 2015 due to drugs, alcohol or suicide, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and since then the numbers have continued to rise. According to Chau, this is partly because physicians are so focused on treating pain effectively and patients wanting a quick fix, in combination with cheap and highly addictive opioid painkillers. “We as a nation have not done a good job managing pain,” adds Dr. Benjamin Miller, chief policy officer at Well Being Trust. “In many cases, as seen with opioids, we have added a problem on top of a problem without really giving the person the help they need.”
Despite the stereotypes, addiction is not linked to character flaws or bad behavior. “People need to understand that drug addiction is a mental illness, a brain disease,” Chau explains. To illustrate this, we asked three people to share their stories of addiction, recovery and everything that falls in between. Read on for the stories behind the statistics.
When Chris Ghiraldi started using, he thought it would make him a better musician. He didn’t expect that 10 years later he’d be homeless and addicted to heroin and methamphetamine.
“I enjoyed being able to see music and art through a different point of view,” he says. He described the high he would get as furiously creative, and at the time he believed it contributed to the cult success of his three albums under the stage name Velapene Screen. Then, he was sleeping in shelters, at bus stops and in empty parking spaces.
NO ONE SEEMED TO NOTICE HE WAS HIGH — EVEN THOUGH SOMETIMES HE WENT FIVE DAYS WITHOUT SLEEP BECAUSE OF THE METH.
Ghiraldi first got into meth and heroin through an ex-girlfriend while living in Las Vegas. She introduced him to speedballing — a mix of the two drugs — and he went from renting his own apartment and working nights at Denny’s to begging for burgers on the sidewalk. The money he made didn’t feed him — he used it to buy drugs. At 5-foot-8 and 135 lbs., he was skin and bone. His health deteriorated. He got cotton fever twice from shooting up and poisonous spider bites from sleeping on the street.
No one seemed to notice he was high — even though sometimes he went five days without sleep because of the meth. Eventually, his habit caught up with him: He lost his job and his home, and even sold his prized $10,000 music studio. After his worst relapse, he knew his time was up. He volunteered to go to rehab in his hometown of New York.
Ghiraldi has been in recovery for three years now. A year after getting sober, he met his wife, a high school Spanish teacher, and they have an 8-week-old son.
“I live the completely opposite life now,” he says. “I have a brand-new little guy, we have a beautiful house, we have a car. I have a license. I haven’t had a license for 10 years.” He’s grateful for the way things have turned out and is trying to make amends to the people he wronged when he was using. His urges haven’t stopped, but he knows that’s par for the course.
“I can overdo anything,” he admits. “I have 44 pairs of sneakers.”
From the outside, it seemed like Nadine Machkovech was doing everything right. At 17, she had good grades, her own car and a part-time job. But she liked to party and had moved on from alcohol and marijuana to popping Oxycontin.
I DID A REALLY GOOD JOB OF PRETENDING THAT EVERYTHING WAS JUST FINE.
When she started snorting Oxycontin, she told herself it wasn’t that bad and that she’d never inject heroin. “I did a really good job of pretending that everything was just fine,” Machkovech, now 24, admits. Growing up in rural, small-town Wisconsin also meant that addiction was common and problems were swept under the rug. Her parents were both struggling with alcoholism too, which just made addiction seem more normal.
Machkovech graduated school a year early, moved out and started taking classes at the local technical college. She learned she could get a faster, better high by injecting the pills, and when they stopped doing it for her, she finally did move on to heroin. She started stealing from her friends to pay for her addiction. Once they caught on, they started to fall away. She stopped showering and changing her clothes. Sometimes she could barely look at herself in the mirror. “This is it for me,” she remembers thinking. “I’m going to continue living in my hometown, and this is where I’m going to die.”
Just as things got really scary, her sister reached out to her and offered her a place to stay. The only catch: She had to get clean.
Machkovech has been in recovery for just over four years. Shortly after she got clean, she met the founders of a newly formed grassroots advocacy group called Rise Together that works to help young people break the silence around substance abuse. They encouraged her to share her story, first in a Facebook post and then in a talk at a high school in front of a few hundred freshman students.
She was so nervous she prepared note cards, but when she stepped up on the stage, she didn’t look at them once. “I just shared from my heart,” she says. “And when I stepped off the stage, I knew that’s why [I] was put here on this Earth: so I could help other people know they are not alone.” She’s now a certified recovery coach and program manager with Rise Together, and she continues to share her story with at-risk youth.
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Chad Sabora was a 31-year-old prosecuting attorney in Chicago with a fiancée when things fell apart.
He was spending $200 a day on pain pills and up to $125 on heroin, feeding a secret problem that was spiraling out of control. Then one night in 2008, he was tapping some heroin out onto a CD in his car when the police rolled up. They found five baggies filled with the drug, worth around $250, in his car.
His charge for possession of a controlled substance was splashed across the front page of the Chicago Tribune, and it made the evening news. His fiancée left him, his law license was suspended and he resigned from his job as a Cook County prosecutor and moved to St. Louis. Sabora says the shaming almost killed him. “I was using and I didn’t like myself and my life was falling apart,” he says. “Hearing those comments … it hurts and it makes you want to kill yourself.”
THERE WERE PAIN PILLS EVERYWHERE — AND WHEN THEY RAN OUT, THEY WERE REPLENISHED, NO QUESTIONS ASKED.
Before the very public arrest, Sabora was the last person you’d expect to end up an addict. He had a privileged upbringing, and his father — a former heroin user who got clean before he was born — was a well-known addiction counselor and founder of the Gateway Foundation, the largest treatment center in Illinois. Sabora charts the start of his problems to law school: Stress led to insomnia and a prescription for sleeping pills that he became dependent on. When his father was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, Sabora started taking anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and over-the-counter medicine cut with codeine.
Shortly after his father died the same year, his mother was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer and given months to live. In the last six weeks of her life, she moved into hospice care. There were pain pills everywhere — and when they ran out, they were replenished, no questions asked. “That’s when I really just went off the deep end,” Sabora remembers. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I was eating everything.” A few months after his mom died, he lost his source for pain pills and switched to heroin. It was about two years after that he was busted doing drugs in his car.
It took six stints in rehab and three years before Sabora finally got clean. “Between the combination of destroying myself and going back to rehab, I got a little more to the core of who I was — and that’s what it took for me to finally look in the mirror and be done with the stuff,” he says. Since sobering up about six years ago, he’s turned his energy to advocacy and helping other opioid addicts, co-founding the Missouri Network for Opiate Recovery and Reform. He also uses his legal background to write and advocate for changes in the law in Missouri to protect drug users. This year, he’s set his sights on getting needle exchanges legalized.
“It’s kind of my living amends to my parents,” he says. But despite all his efforts to help other drug users, what’s finally brought him peace is becoming a father. “Now I get to be a good parent like my parents were to me.”