August 2, 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait.
I was sitting in the living room of my home in Fort Sill, Oklahoma when the news came on CNN that day. My first thought was, “we are going.”
Later the next month, that prediction came true. With three years in recovery under my belt, I deployed with my unit to Saudi Arabia to await conflict. Having served 10 years in the peacetime Army, I believed that I was ready.
After four months sitting around in the desert, the ground war started. We attacked, and three days later it was all over. Finally, in May of 1991, we returned home as heroes to the sound of brass bands and the admiration of our countrymen. For a while, I continued on the path of sobriety and all was well.
In July of 1991, after 11 years of active military service, I left the Army for civilian life back in my home state of West Virginia. Things changed drastically.
There were no more brass bands, and even less admiration. By 1993, the major business in our part of the country had become the procurement and selling of opioids from pill mills. Being an entrepreneurial sort of fellow, I became a paramedic and joined the business for a while. And after developing kidney stones, I became a regular customer too. But I told myself that it was different for me. All I was doing was taking medication prescribed by a doctor. When my prescriptions ran out, sure I went doctor shopping, but so would anybody with my kind of pain. I told myself that at least I hadn't turned to hard drugs like heroin. I was still just lying to doctors and shopping around for any ER or Quick Care facility that would write me a script.
I had a good job, a family, a house, a nice car, and all was still well.
Then the bottom fell out.
I won't tell you a bunch of war stories about what happened to bring me to a condition of homelessness, joblessness, and loneliness. I am sure you have enough war stories of your own. We all do. But, less than 10 years after being hailed as a returning hero, I was living in a buddy's lawnmower shed. And things went downhill from there. I reached the point where I lived to use and used to live. The sobriety I had worked so hard to achieve over the years was a fading memory. I had no friends, no family, no one left to lean on.
I finally called the VA for help. Maybe they had an answer. They put me in a shelter and scheduled me for rehab.
I would love to say that after I finished rehab and returned to the shelter that all was well again. But, that would be an outright lie. I used the services available to me through the VA to get a job, rent an apartment, get back on my feet, and return to some semblance of normality. Then the kidney stones returned. I convinced my doctor to give me a few pain pills and, as you can probably guess, I was off to the races again.
For the next few years, my house was the local "drug house." The day-to-day routine was the same for me, my third wife, and anyone else who happened to be staying with us: Wake up, find a way to get a pill or a shot, get high, go to bed, repeat. Day after day. At one point a young woman took a fatal combination, overdosed, and died in our living room. By 2008, things were as bad as my lawnmower shed days. So I called the VA for help again.
By this time, the VA had caught up with evidence-based treatment and had made real progress in overcoming the stigma associated with substance use disorders (SUD). For the first time, I received treatment rooted in proven science. I was put on Suboxone, entered into group and individual counseling, and was given all the support I needed to become a person with a real shot at long-term recovery.
That was a decade ago. And since then, my life has totally changed for the better.
I know from personal experience that medications for addiction treatment work, and that evidence-based care tailored to the particular patient is a must in all treatment settings, not just in VA hospitals. I’m glad that groups like Shatterproof exist to work toward those goals. Today I am proud to be in long-term recovery, and to be a Shatterproof Ambassador.
Now, I use my life experience to help others. I am currently a Lutheran Franciscan friar. I’m working on opening a drop-in center in downtown Fairmont, WV, for people with SUD who are living in our local shelters. I am a widower now, but am never alone. Because of organizations like Shatterproof, the future is looking bright for all of us with SUD. Veterans and civilians alike.
William Bradley is a Shatterproof Ambassador.