Matt Boggs of Ashland spent a decade bouncing between rehab and a raging heroin habit.
“I went to the Betty Ford Center in 2002 and didn’t get sober until 2012,” said Boggs, 32, explaining he started using narcotics at 14 while attending Paul G. Blazer High School and appearing to be “a stereotypical American ... Tomcat” who played sports and made good grades.
By the time he got a spot in a long-term recovery center in Huntington, Boggs said his mother had changed the locks on her home, he had lost his car and a truck and run out of money. His cell phone was dead and filled with numbers of people who did not want to answer his calls.
“I was absolutely sick and tired of living the way I was living and what my life had become. I couldn’t see my nieces and nephews. My family wouldn’t let me stay in their homes,” Boggs said, noting he was living in Florida and using heroin during the days when prescription painkillers were abundant in this area.
“I moved back here to sober up and had no idea heroin was around here. I picked it up and started using again,” he said, explaining heroin in the Tri-State area tends to flow south from Columbus and Detroit, “but every day people cross those bridges ... running back and forth dealing.”
Legislation and law enforcement efforts against “pill mill” clinics in the area actually created a market for heroin, Boggs said.
“People had a need to find a source to satisfy that craving,” he said, acknowledging heroin is cheaper than narcotic pills, even though each dose carries potential for tragedy.
“You have no idea what’s in it. Two months ago we had three people who OD’d within a couple of weeks — people we know,” Boggs said, adding he has personally injected tainted heroin.
“I remember a few times when I got heroin that definitely had something else in it. Of course, I didn’t seek help. You don’t see old junkies ... because they die.”
Working alongside Boggs is Nick Roberts of St. Albans, who also worked his way up through The Healing Place of Huntington program.
Roberts, 27, said his years of addiction began with a prescription following toe surgery when he was 12 years old.
“From that point on, that’s how I wanted to feel,” he said.
Roberts always preferred pills to heroin, but discovered he wasn’t too picky when threatened with a case of dope sickness — even knowing the heroin he was buying might be something even worse than he was bargaining for.
“You take those pills away from me, you better believe I would go after heroin regardless of not knowing what’s in it,” he said, clarifying that he actually witnessed heroin flowing into the area by watching other family members with addiction issues of their own.
“When I picked up a needle for the first time ... I realized there’s not any weekend IV drug users. I was not in the honeymoon phase anymore,” he said, recalling the first time “dope sickness” caught up with him. “I woke up and thought I had a flu. My connection was out of town for a week and I didn’t think that was any big deal, but that flu feeling kept getting worse and I called him. I was 19. He said I’d been using this stuff for about six months and it sounded like I was dope sick. I said ‘There’s no way I’m dope sick!’ He said he had a buddy (with drugs for sale) I could catch up with and told me to try him. As soon as I put that thing in me, I was fine. I was better than fine, but I realized I was hooked.”
A family disease
Roberts said his family enabled his drug use “until the end,” when he breached their tolerance.
“I was making them sick in the process,” he said, remembering his mother checking on him while asleep to see if he had died yet. Before dropping him off at The Healing Place, Roberts said his mother concluded he was going to die and preferred he did not do it in her house. “I would be dead or still on her couch if she hadn’t done that. I was going to use her love against her until she said no.”
Humiliation and other pressure tactics had no effect on him as an addict, Roberts said.
“It did no good to tell me I was an addict or that I had a problem,” he said. “I didn’t have a big ‘rock bottom.’ I’d wake up feeling sentenced to another day of life — and my family told me I would be homeless.”
Fortunately for Roberts, there happened to be one bed open inside The Healing Place of Huntington when his family dropped him off at the front door.
With nearly a full year of sobriety behind each of them, Boggs and Roberts are both now serving as staff members at The Healing Place, a long-term recovery center located in what was once one of Huntington’s more notorious drug areas. The Healing Place has an excellent success rate, both said, explaining the center relies upon peer review, rewards and fundamentals of the 12-Step program, with no pharmaceutical assistance or substitutions.
The non-medical program does not accept insurance and is completely free for those who get places, often after waiting for weeks or months for a space to become available. At this time, 46 men are working their way through the phases at The Healing Place, and Boggs is one of many working to expand the center to accommodate 100 men at the former Lincoln Elementary building on Ninth Avenue by next fall.
The waiting list now has “at least 200 to 300 names,” they said, and staff members are seeking funds for the brick-and-mortar aspects of the expansion.
“This is a problem you can’t arrest away,” Boggs said, stressing the need for measures including alternative sentencing, legislation, law enforcement “and more facilities like this.” The budget for men at The Healing Place is $32.50 per day compared to $46.85 per day to keep the same man in jail.
Jail doesn’t work
Roberts said his time in jail served no greater purpose, especially when compared to his success at The Healing Place. With time on his side, he said the allure of drugs is no longer a guiding force in life.
“I don’t think about doing it. It’s not part of my life anymore. It’s no longer a struggle to stay clean,” he said, adding fear of sobriety was one of his greatest fears as an addict. “I didn’t want to be a miserable person who had to white-knuckle it through every day.”
Both are realistic about their pasts, and optimistic about their futures. Roberts is studying to become an attorney, while Boggs is taking classes with a goal of getting a degree in business management.
“There is no certificate saying, ‘You’re cured!’” Roberts said, with Boggs adding “There is no cure and we don’t preach a cure, but we do say there is a solution.”
Boggs and Roberts said they tell their stories in hopes of inspiring others who are struggling with alcohol and addiction problems, and to help others understand they are not beyond redemption.
“We’re not the lowlifes of society. We’re sick people who’ve made bad decisions,” Boggs said.
For information about The Healing Place of Huntington, visit thehealingplaceofhuntington.org or call (304) 523-HOPE (4673).
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.