Recovering What’s Been Lost
How Justin Found Sobriety, Community and More at Choice House: Part 1
If you knew exactly how you were going to die, wouldn’t you do anything to stop it?
Most of us don’t have that privilege, but 23-year-old Justin did.
He’s not a psychic, isn’t terminally ill and doesn’t have any dangerous enemies that he’s aware of. But what he did have was a pretty serious drinking and drug use problem. One that would lead to wasted opportunities, ruined relationships, and a high-speed car crash on I-70.
“My fate was certain death,” he laments. “I knew I was going to die if I kept doing this.”
He’d spent the last 5 years of his life getting blackout drunk and high on pills — to the point where he didn’t even recognize himself anymore. “I was a disaster,” he remembers. “Just putting myself into really dangerous situations, whether it be mixing substances, going to sketchy areas, or driving under the influence. I was really, just… out of my mind, like truly out of my mind.”
Fortunately, he’s still with us because he realized, after landing in detox for the second time in 4 months, that he needed to change. “People go one of two ways,” he asserts. “Either they figure it out or they don’t. They either take the steps or they don’t take the steps.”
Sitting alone in Colorado, he decided to take the steps. Somehow, he found deep within himself a shred of willingness to get sober and do whatever it takes to get there.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I was in full surrender,” he says.
That moment turned out to be the beginning of his journey to Choice House, a residential addiction treatment center for men nestled in the Rocky Mountains. There, he would discover friendship, community and what it takes to build the life you want.
For him, it would be the start of something great. “I thought my life was over,” he admits. “But then you realize that it isn’t. And if you just do this and work the steps and listen to the people at Choice House, your life is going to be so amazing.”
Abnormal From the Get-Go
When it comes to his addiction, Justin thinks that it was always there, lurking beneath the surface. His close relatives don’t struggle with substance abuse, but there is a lot of alcoholism in the extended family. “You know, it doesn’t affect my parents or siblings, but I’m a true believer that it is a disease,” he says. “It’s a predisposition. And I think that there can be some underlying issues that may accelerate it in someone’s life, be it trauma or something else.”
But as a testament to how complicated addiction is, his childhood was pretty good. “I’d say it was awesome,” he offers. Justin grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, about 45 minutes outside of New York City. He had a good group of friends and a lot of opportunities available to him. As a teenager, he played sports and was passionate about hockey. “I was recruited to a Division III school in Upstate New York to play NCAA ice hockey,” he says.
So even though Justin wasn’t the kind of kid you’d peg for an alcoholic, his drinking was abnormal from the very start. He had his first drink at 15, and it felt like his troubles had just melted away. “I think I always felt a little different from other people,” he explains. And he had a lot of anxiety on his shoulders, even at a young age. Unlike his friends, he was worried about things like how he was going to be successful and support himself in the world.
“I don’t think worrying about how I’m going to financially eclipse my father at 13 was normal,” he laughs. “I had all these weird, developed thoughts of anxiety about the future.”
So when he started drinking in high school, he took it and ran with it. “Once I started, I didn’t have an ‘off’ switch. I was a blackout drinker from the very beginning,” he admits.
Still, he was able to hold it together until he graduated and went to college. He had begun to dabble with Xanax and cocaine a little bit, but as a hockey player, he could pull it together if he had a game. He learned to compartmentalize his drinking, at least for a while.
Blowing in the Wind
In college, Justin was recruited to Upstate New York to be a goalie. “I don’t know how much you know about hockey,” he says. “But there’s only one net. Only one guy’s in the net.” Another incoming freshman would be the starting goalie, so he figured out pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to be able to play as much as he’d hoped. In response, his parents asked what he wanted to do. Did he want to change schools? Take a gap year? Play junior hockey instead?
“I told them, ‘No, I think I’m good here,’” he recalls.
He realized that he was suddenly in a position with no real responsibilities. He could do whatever he wanted. “I was like, well f— it.” He still had classes, but he dropped hockey and didn’t have to go to practice or games anymore. “And at that point in time, I started getting really, really deep into Xanax and cocaine and pills more than alcohol, so I kinda ran with that.”
Until now, there had always been an illusion of control over his addiction. His parents had concerns about his drinking and drug use in high school, but he could brush it off by pointing to all the things he had accomplished. “There was this cloak over it,” he explains. “I was doing OK in school, being recruited to play hockey, had a scholarship opportunity… How could anyone tell me I’m an alcoholic? An alcoholic would’ve never been able to do that stuff.”
“And I genuinely believed that,” he goes on.
But with hockey gone, Justin would feel like he lost his sense of identity. Throughout middle school, high school and going into college, that’s who he was. “I viewed myself as a hockey player,” he agrees. Now, he was searching for something to fill the void.
“I think subconsciously, I was like, ‘Who is Justin?’ So I became the party guy, right? I just get blackout drunk and take a bunch of pills and that’s going to be my identity.”
Later, he’d be able to look back and recognize the role this played in his story. “I think I was numbing myself from the pain of my experience and losing my identity through that sport,” he muses.
Justin’s sense of identity had been shattered. He felt unmoored and was falling deeper into his addiction. Without any responsibilities or obligations to hold him back, things escalated quickly. “I was a disaster,” he repeats. “Abusing pills every single day, stealing to get money because my parents wouldn’t subsidize me besides my education. Yeah, I was just a mess.”
This time, he couldn’t hide behind his accomplishments. He was failing his classes, being reckless and always in crisis mode. His family had noticed. So before his sophomore year of college, they sat him down and tried to make him see where he was heading. “They put me on drug testing,” he says. “But I was very defiant about it. I would find ways to beat the tests.”
Things progressed, and by his junior year, he decided that Xanax wasn’t enough anymore. He started doing oxycodone, a prescription opioid with a high propensity for abuse. Except in the U.S., most painkillers found on the streets now are counterfeit pills made with fentanyl. “Now I’m doing, like, hardcore drugs,” he recalls. “Like, messing with fentanyl inadvertently. Didn’t really know but kind of knew it… I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to feel the way I felt.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has come to dominate the illicit opioid market in recent years.
The DEA has said that it’s killing people at an unprecedented rate.
So at this point, Justin was playing Russian roulette with his life. One hotspot or misjudged dose and he could become another statistic. Now, even his friends were concerned. “They called my parents like, ‘This kid’s really messed up. Something’s gotta happen. He’s gonna kill himself if you guys don’t step in.’ So they took me home and put me in detox.”
They sent him out to Colorado, but things didn’t go exactly as planned.
“I was just living in fantasy land,” he says