Part of the PublicSource series
Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
About this series.
Editor’s Note: As journalists, we spend a lot of time talking with officials and community members and distilling it into stories that explore important issues of our time. But we realize that sometimes it is just more powerful to hear it straight from the source. This is one of those times.
As a child, I dreamed of success, just like anyone else: success in education, a career, a wife and contributions to my community. I firmly believed I would be someone important. Praise, respect and accomplishment were inevitable. It was never a question of “if”—only “when.”
By the age of 23, I thought that any day now, the labels I had been taught to associate with success would start to attach themselves to my name: college graduate, graduate student, husband, businessman.
They didn’t come.
At 23, I wasn’t walking into a corporate office with a prestigious job title. No letters followed my name on letterhead. Earning a master’s degree was about as likely as finding that prized wife—that is, not very. As a young man, I had every opportunity to transform my fantasies into reality. I had a great family, went to great schools and I was personable and intelligent.
There was one problem: I was addicted to narcotics.
Clearly, addiction wasn’t part of my master plan. The fantasies did not include suffering through withdrawals in the morning and needing heroin to just feel normal. They did not include stealing from those who loved me for just a little bit more. Or being arrested with a backpack full of powder cocaine. There absolutely never was a fantasy of exiting a state penitentiary at 23 after serving 26 months of a three- to 10-year sentence.
My fantasies were replaced by a harsh reality. The labels that I expected to attach to my name were replaced by labels like junkie, dope fiend, felon, ex-con, criminal. Instead, I had joined the class that our society and lawmakers perceive as expendable.
I rapidly internalized these labels. I was a failure. A junkie. An ex-con. A felon. A criminal. Two years had passed since heroin—or any other chemical, for that matter—had entered my body, but I still felt the shame and guilt associated with drug addiction and criminal activity.
This internal punishment is far worse than any sentence a judge could hand down. I convicted myself, sentenced myself and punished myself daily for my mistakes. People often have a tendency to place people in boxes, and my own belief that they usually deserve to be there led me to participate in that.
For good reasons, I struggled to believe I could transcend the labels that had been applied to me. I hoped and prayed, but I had no real reason to believe I could ever be absorbed back into the mainstream of our society. I heard phrases like, “Once an addict, always an addict,” and I watched incarcerated people leave prison only to return in a short time. Those who managed to remain free struggled to secure employment. It seemed they had to constantly run uphill just to stand still.
I would have lived with those labels for the rest of my life had it not been for a few amazing individuals. Both externally and internally, the things I once did and the places where I once resided would have continued to define who I was. I likely would have repeated the same pattern of active addiction and incarceration.
The cycle was not broken by punishment, but by individuals treating me in a way that made me believe I was more than a junkie, more than a felon, more than an ex-con.
When I was released from prison, a local grade school allowed me to volunteer as a third- and fourth-grade basketball coach. The fact that the school and the parents allowed me to coach their children impacted me more than anyone will ever know. Treatment like this altered my personal reality and created within me a new self-efficacy. I realized that with persistence, dedication and help I could contribute to society instead of being a burden and liability.
Unfortunately, addiction, especially opioid addiction, is far too prevalent in our society. It drives many to criminal activities that subsequently result in criminal convictions. These convictions stem directly from the individual’s possession of drugs, the instruments needed to use them or some illegal activity to secure the funds to obtain drugs. These convictions cast the person further from the mainstream of society and permanently leave the individual on the fringe. Opportunities are forever lost, rights and privileges forever sacrificed.
I do not pretend to be a sociologist or psychologist. My proposition is not based on empirical evidence. Instead, I am guided by experience, empathy and common sense. We are burying far too many young and intelligent people as a result of overdoses from heroin and other opioids.
We are also losing the ones fortunate enough to survive their addiction.
No one benefits from barring young, gifted individuals from reaching their fullest potential and making their greatest contributions.
"We as a nation, especially our lawmakers, need to pave a road from the fringes to the mainstream."
Today, I am 43 years old. I have had the opportunity to achieve many of the successes I fantasized about as a child. I acquired a law degree and was admitted to the bar, so now there are a few letters after my name. My letterhead contains the name of my own firm. My peers and colleagues respect me. I am an asset to the institutions to which I belong.
I fought tooth and nail to get here. My past infractions were a constant obstacle, a huge hurdle to leap over again and again. I had to apply to law school four times to gain admittance, even though I was academically qualified. It took years to bounce back from my mistakes, and I never would have done it without the help of so many people—some known to me and others unknown.
My experiences, both good and bad, forged who I am today. Those of us who have overcome addiction and incarceration and are now contributing to society need to stop running from our past. Instead, we have an obligation to the next person in these circumstances to acknowledge our pasts and embrace them. We need the world to see we have something to offer. When we do this, we not only offer hope to individuals walking out of a penitentiary or county jail, but we also help destroy the labels that hold so many down.
We as a nation, especially our lawmakers, need to pave a road from the fringes to the mainstream. Total and complete reintegration must be available, lest we continue sacrificing far too many young people for the sake of punishment. Our punishments have real and significant consequences not just for the individual, but for each and every one of us.
Casey Mullen is a practicing attorney in Pittsburgh and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Abigail Lind and Mila Sanina.
Web design and development by Natasha Khan.
This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.
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