Recovering from opioid addiction

For Jonathan Allen, rock bottom looked like this: He was 287 pounds and disconnected from his family. Isolated and depressed, lack of self-esteem controlled him. The days were darker than night with no promise of sunlight.

Mr. Allen, a 30-year-old Garden City South resident, was hooked on opioids. He took his legitimately prescribed pills, but he also found the drugs on the black market, a place increasingly linked with opioid-related overdose deaths. 

Toward the end of his substance abuse, Mr. Allen took anything he could find — OxyContin, Oxycodone, Dilaudid, hydrocodone, Percocet, Opana (oxymorphone). There was only one guaranteed destination to his path. 

“I didn’t want to die, but I knew if I kept doing what I was doing I was going to,” he said. “And that still wasn’t enough to stop me.”

Like most addicts who struggle to find sobriety, Mr. Allen’s road back was not easy. Once withdrawal from the drugs ended, a lifetime of rewiring thought processes and controlling the urge to use again began.

Mr. Allen had plenty of incentive to get clean. He had a loving family willing to support his recovery. Thankfully, he realized the power of the drugs and ultimately stopped.

“We hurt the ones we love the most,” Mr. Allen said. “That look in my mother’s eyes — tough for me to even talk about — makes me emotional to this day.

“I decided my life had to change. I didn’t know how or if I could. I didn’t believe in myself at all.”

Sandeep Kapoor, MD, (right), director of Northwell's Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program, invited Mr. Allen to share his story with SBIRT health coaches.

A progressive disease

Mr. Allen had a relatively normal childhood. He grew up in Franklin Square and graduated from Carey High School. There, he was already in the middle of his substance use, but problems didn’t manifest until he was 16 years old.

While showing a friend a martial arts technique on wet grass, he landed awkwardly — his body moving right and his right knee going left. The maneuver tore his meniscus and ACL. “It was agonizing,” he said. “Worst pain I’ve ever been in.”

Mr. Allen was prescribed Vicodin — marriage at first dose for someone who already displayed addictive behaviors.

“I never drank or smoked weed the way other kids were using them,” he said. “When I did, I knew I liked it more than most of my friends. I knew I had the addict gene my whole life. Once I found opioids, it treated my lack of self-esteem and gave me an inflated sense of self that was missing during the developmental years of my life."

His addiction progressed during his senior year at Carey and well into his time at SUNY Cortland. Increased access to opioids led to everyday use. Everyday use became an obsession. Seeking the next high consumed his thoughts.

“It’s never enough,” he said. “It is literally never enough. There is no such thing.”

Mr. Allen later found work managing a nine-bay automotive garage. He worked 60-hour weeks and used the drugs to keep him going.

Even his relationships soured. He tells of an experience with a woman who wasn’t an addict and didn’t drink alcohol. Hiding his habits and addiction from her was more than a full-time job.

“I began to lead a double life,” Mr. Allen said. “My life outside of her was radically different than with her. It was Jekyll and Hyde.

“It strained our relationship. There are many aspects I regret tremendously. We’re not together anymore and that is quite all right. But she’s forgiven me and allowed me to forgive myself, which I never thought I’d be able to do.”

November 4, 2015

Mr. Allen’s life was spiraling out of control. After years of using, he knew jail, institutions or even death, were becoming more probable.

“My denial was very thick for a long time,” he said. “The fog I lived in was very pronounced. It escalated rapidly toward the end.” The end came Wednesday, November 4, 2015. Mr. Allen finally sought help.

“I had to wave the white flag and accept I was going to lose this battle,” he said. “There’s a popular phrase in recovery — surrender to win. I never understood that until now.”

So how did he do it? 

“My father told me that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing 12 years ago,” he said. “I wasn’t ready. He said, ‘I guarantee if you don’t get help you are going to keep doing this.’

“My father isn’t a gambler, but he said he’d bet me $10,000 cash (that I couldn’t get help/stop).”

That comment opened Mr. Allen’s eyes. He wanted to change, and did.

“I changed everything,” he said. “I changed my mind first and everything else followed. I finally got honest with myself. I’m very grateful for that. It was a very difficult day.” 

Mr. Allen voluntarily began intensive outpatient care at the Zucker Hillside Community Treatment Center in Mineola, which is now the Garden City Treatment Center. He attended several group counseling sessions each week, as well as individual sessions. His urine was also analyzed multiple times a week. 

“The people there welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “Heather Hugelmeyer [program director] did my intake. I cried on her couch. I hadn’t cried in years. That release felt so good in that moment. That planted the seed and sparked my desire to move forward with sobriety.”

Between 30-60 days, he felt significantly better. Withdrawals — mental anguish, obsessive thinking, cold sweats, high anxiety and lack of sleep — wore off. He called the experience a “living hell” and wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy. “You can’t be dramatic enough about how horrible it is,” he said.

Staying sober

Mr. Allen hasn’t touched opioids in nearly two years. He uses several tools to keep him sober, including weekly therapist visits, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and service work. 

The most powerful tool, though, is his family.

“I never had to try so hard at something. But I wanted it that bad,” he said. “Not just for myself, but for everyone who loves me.”

The Garden City Treatment Center treats individuals and families dealing with addiction.