“You’re breaking my heart.” They’re the only words Joe L.’s mother could say that day when her son called to ask for a favor. Maybe the details were different, but it was just another version of a story she’d heard before. There’s a check on the way but it hasn’t come in yet. Could she order him a pizza on her credit card and have it sent to his house? By then, Joe, in his early thirties, was nearly twenty years into his drug and alcohol addiction. There was no check. There never had been. And there would be no pizza. Joe’s mother, brokenhearted, told him no and hung up the phone.
Just before he arrived at Discovery Place in 2015, Joe was living in a crime-infested neighborhood in a house with no electricity and no running water. He was paranoid, strung out—his entire world centered around finding and using heroin. He could entertain no other thoughts. But no matter how small and dark the world around him had become, it was nothing compared to how small and dark it was inside his mind.
An Immediate Love Affair
Joe, now 35 and a guide at Discovery Place, grew up in a two-parent, upper middle class home in an idyllic town just outside Portland, Maine. Like most of his friends then, he loved playing hockey far more than he loved going to school. When he had his first drink at age 12, followed shortly by his first experience with marijuana, Joe called it the start of “an immediate love affair.” The feeling alcohol and marijuana gave him—that was the way he wanted to feel for the rest of his life.
At 15, Joe entered his first treatment center. In just a few years, he’d gone from drinking with his buddies and smoking weed to racking up run-ins with the law and abusing cocaine. Active in 12-step recovery following treatment, he stayed sober for a year. Then, he relapsed. “I think I told myself I just really like to party, and then I told myself that for the next twenty years,” says Joe. By 17, he was an IV heroin addict.
His first real experience with opiate withdrawal landed him in the hospital, and shortly thereafter, a one-way ticket to Nashville to live with his older (and sober) brother. And like before, he stayed sober for about a year, but this time with no sponsor, no recovery, just running on the fumes of youth. Young, ambitious, and determined, Joe, a high school dropout armed with his GED, landed a sales job at a large, multi-national tech company. “A drink sounded like a good idea. I was a heroin addict, and alcohol wasn’t my problem,” recalls Joe. “So, I drank. Immediately, I was drinking as much as I could whenever I could but still telling myself this story that I just really like to party.”
A House of Cards
In the years that followed, Joe climbed the corporate ladder. He managed million dollar accounts and was promoted to a position in Ireland. Drinking, smoking marijuana, using cocaine—it was all just a part of the “work hard, play hard” mentality Joe operated under. He had an identity to fulfill. He had a role to play. He had to quiet the voice that had been in his head before he ever took his first drink: You’re a fraud. Whether it was the hockey rink or the boardroom, the feeling of not having what it takes followed him wherever he went.
“[In Ireland], it’s chaos. Cocaine and traveling all over the world, and it’s like a badge of honor. I was in this fantasy world,” says Joe. “But behind the scenes, I’m almost twenty grand in debt on an Irish credit card. I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck, making six-figures in euros. I sold my BMW that I still owed money on for cash and spent it all on drugs and alcohol.” And just when it seemed like the house of cards might finally all come tumbling down, Joe landed another promising business opportunity and returned to Nashville.
Rinse & Repeat
Broke but bolstered by a still unbroken spirit, Joe recouped his financial losses and maintained a minimum one thousand dollar a week cocaine habit. Trouble at work began to stack up though. His boss wasn’t happy with his performance, co-workers confronted him about his behavior, and conference rooms became his private cocaine chambers.
“This is what it looked like, “ recounts Joe, “wake up, smoke some weed before I go to work. I get to work, I’m irritable, so I’ll probably go out and smoke some weed. Around lunchtime [my coworkers and I] go out and get some food, and I smoke some more weed, maybe have a beer. I come back to the office, count the minutes until four o’clock, and when I finally get out of there, I immediately call the drug dealer. I get the cocaine, do some, then meet my buddies at the bar. We start drinking, have five to seven drinks, then go back to one of our houses and sit around and snort cocaine and come up with huge business ideas that we never follow through on.
Then around eleven o’clock, I’d say I’m done [doing cocaine] at midnight. Midnight would come and I’d say I’m done at one. Then two. I’d have to drink myself to sleep because there was no way to get to sleep otherwise. I would always have a bottle of whiskey by the bed, and I’d chug it right out of the bottle to get to sleep. I’d sleep for maybe an hour. The alarm would go off, I’d jump in the shower, try to get myself together. Then I’d go to work. I’d get to work still spun and half-drunk, and set up Instant Messenger because I couldn’t talk to anyone in person.” The whole cycle would repeat itself each day.
“At no point during this time did I think drugs were a problem. Not one time—zero times—did I think, you need help.”
Flash forward another six years and Joe has gone from a world-traveling salesman to a full-blown heroin addict. Despite his other addictions, Joe hadn’t touched an opiate for eight years. Following dental surgery, however, a prescription for Percocet re-sparked the love affair he’d been after since he was twelve. It was an all-out obsession immediately. In no time, Joe moved from prescription painkillers to heroin.
“[By this time], I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’m petrified of going outside,” says Joe, who was dealing drugs to maintain a 500-dollar a day heroin habit. “I’d shoot heroin before I fell asleep at two or three o’clock in the morning and then would nod off until one or two o’clock in the afternoon. You don’t actually sleep. I would wake up sick [from opiate withdrawals]. I was constantly waiting, waiting [for heroin]. My whole life was being sick and waiting.”
Nearly thirty thousand dollars in debt, Joe wanted to quit. He spent seven days in what he describes as “literal hell” detoxing on his own, which ended in a grand mal seizure. “I wanted to be done. I was tired of this life. I was tired of being a slave. This isn’t me wanting to party anymore.”
Joe landed in a local treatment center where he spent ninety days followed by another three months in a sober living community. And then “it”—the mental obsession with heroin—got a hold of him again. “Somewhere in [those six months], I wanted to be sober. But I was still arrogant, unappreciative, no humility, no gratitude. I got high. I was still the same dude.”
Joe calls the next nine months of his life, the months leading up to his arrival at Discovery Place, as “the real junkie life.” There were no more big paychecks, drug money, connections, fancy cars or anything to sell—Joe had nothing left. Everyone and everything was gone. With no running water, he would fill up a bucket of water from his neighbor’s yard just to flush his toilet. With no electricity, he would sit alone in the dark with a spoon and a needle, the only light coming from a cell phone he’d charged at McDonald’s. On the day he tried to overdose and kill himself, he woke up on his kitchen floor, neither dead nor high, and made the call that would bring him to Discovery Place.
“What We Do”
For Joe, now almost three years sober, the impact Discovery Place has had on his life is immeasurable. “I don’t know how to say it. I don’t even have words. Discovery Place gave me a new life.”
With several treatment centers behind him, Discovery Place offered Joe something none of the others had—community. Following thirty days at Discovery Place, Joe took them up on their offer to return as a volunteer as much as he wanted. Rather than move back to Nashville, Joe moved into a sober living house in nearby Dickson. Soon after, he was offered a job at Discovery Place. These men—his coworkers, other guests, the volunteers—became brothers, individuals connected by what they were trying to do together. Rather than just reciting what he’d heard in recovery since he was 15 years old, Joe actually started trying to live it. And surrounded by a community of other men also trying to live a different way, it all became much more doable.
“If you want recovery, if you want something different, Discovery Place is hands down the best place around,” he says. “This community is real. We’re all in recovery and we’ve all been there. We’re not telling you what to do, we’re showing you what we did. What we do.”
About Kate Parrish
Kate Parrish helps individuals and organizations uncover and tell their stories. Her work can be found in Teen Vogue, SELF, GOOD, Parade, and more. She’s worked with brands like AXE, Goldfish Crackers, and Hilton Worldwide. She is an MFA candidate at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN and lives in Nashville. Even though they’re all her favorite, her favorite-favorite dog at Discovery Place is Maddie. kateparrish.com