Philadelphia County, PA
I was born in the state of Washington at a military base my parents were stationed at. My father used drugs and his use became problematic to the point that my mother left him when I was two. My mother and I moved to the east coast where she went back to college. We moved around often and as a result, I had a difficult time making friends. When I was 14, I transferred to a high school in South Jersey. I met another student named AJ who was the quarterback for the school football team. He wanted me to play the fullback for the team. I had no idea how to play football but agreed because I wanted a friend. After joining the team, AJ and I hung out often.
One day, AJ asked me if I wanted to get high. I knew drugs were bad but I also didn’t want to risk losing a friend; so I said yes. We smoked crack cocaine, and I really liked the feeling it gave me. That’s how I started my decade-long love affair with drugs. It began as a weekend thing but escalated through my late teens and into college. After high school, I enrolled at Drexel University. At first, I excelled academically, but I began drinking to cope with the loss of some close friends. I began drinking more and more to the point where my hands would shake if I didn’t drink in the morning. My perspective on drugs at the time was more is better. I became less discerning with the drugs I was taking and began using heroin. I’d look in the mirror and barely recognize the person I was. Several friends became worried and kept asking what was wrong with me, but I’d always tell them I was fine. It was around this time that I was getting 0.0 GPA scores and was suspended. I was eventually told that I was no longer welcome to be a student at Drexel.
At that point, my substance use had really taken off. My extended family knew that something was wrong; I wasn’t coming home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Everyone was really disappointed that I was wasting so much potential. Within two or three years, I was at rock-bottom: a lot of couch surfing and drug use in North Philadelphia. My whole life revolved around getting and using drugs. I was just totally unstable in every way possible and began losing friends who didn’t like the path I was going down. As my drug use increased, I found new friends who were on the same path as me and didn’t challenge my use but supported it. My choices isolated me from the friends and family that actually cared about me.
On August 20, 2007, I overdosed. It was a miracle that I woke up in the hospital of University of Pennsylvania. I probably wouldn’t have woken up if the event happened today, considering the prevalence of fentanyl. My mother was there with a social worker and had all my drug paraphernalia. She said, “This isn’t who I raised you to be. You have a problem and you need help. You have to get better.” I told her no way and walked out. I realized I was still wearing a hospital gown and went back into the room to change while my mother was crying and being consoled by the social worker. I walked up the hill towards Drexel’s campus from the hospital, and I sat on a stoop. I kept thinking to myself that I had been exposed and life as I knew it was over. Two friends came walking down the street and asked if I wanted to get a drink. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think a drink or a drug could fix what was wrong; I told them I’d pass. I got up, and I started to walk some more. It started to rain.
I called one of my friends and told him that my life was over. He asked me where I was and picked me up. He said, “Devin, what’s going on?” I told him I am an addict and that, “My father was a drug addict and that’s the reason he wasn’t in my life. I promised myself I’d never be like him and now I’m just like him.” He asked me what I was going to do about all this. I told him that I wanted to change, and I wanted to get better. I ended up going back to the hospital. I talked to the social worker, who found me a treatment program that accepted my insurance. I got on a plane, and I went that day. I was lucky to have resources available to me. I got into a great treatment center that helped me figure out the root reasons I took drugs. They then helped me develop skills to cope with those issues without using substances. I felt excited and scared to get out in the community again. I had an incredibly supportive cousin that lived close to the community where I was getting treatment. She helped me find a job and would drive me to my shifts. Slowly but surely over time, I gained agency. While working, I discovered a lot of social service agencies that I could see myself working with, and I decided to go back to college.
“I found these structural impediments to be incredibly unjust, and I wanted to change that.”
When you have substance use disorder, you feel like everything you touch turns to trash, but when you are consistently doing good over time, that negative internal narrative turns positive. The first big milestone for me was being accepted into Lynn University and getting my first A. While attending, I had a lot of great professors who pushed me to pursue a Master’s degree. After graduating with a bachelor’s in Human Services, I applied to schools in Philly and Florida for a Master’s degree. To my surprise, I got into University of Pennsylvania. It was amazing to me that I woke up from an overdose at the hospital of U-Penn and in less than five years, I was going back there to be a master’s student. Attending peer support groups and church were a huge part of my recovery journey. Right before I graduated I learned my friend AJ passed away from an overdose. It left me feeling hollow. Why did I find recovery and not him? Why couldn’t I help him get better. Ultimately I knew I had to follow my path to become more educated on the issue and help others find recovery. It also made me think that I need to be diligent in my own recovery. Keeping good people around me that challenge me to continue growing was important too. The biggest thing that helped me maintain recovery for over ten years though, is developing a life that was worth staying in recovery for. Today my biggest support is my wife Ashley and my two-year-old daughter. Every time I walk in through door and my daughter runs and hugs me; it’s better than any drug I’ve ever used.
“Every time I walk in through door and my daughter runs and hugs me; it’s better than any drug I’ve ever used.”
While at the University of Pennsylvania my understanding of Substance Use Disorder evolved. The professors there challenged and educated me on the intersectionality of race class and criminal justice on an issue they knew I was passionate about. I knew that it wasn’t a simple matter of picking yourself up by your bootstraps, but they highlighted for me that there are structural impediments, like lack of health care that keep too many people form having the care they need. I found these structural impediments to be incredibly unjust, and I wanted to change that. Around this same time, I began losing more and more friends to overdose. It was then that I realized that I couldn’t be quiet about this issue anymore. It seemed like everyone thought recovery was next to impossible with opioids, and I wanted others to know that wasn’t the case. I started going to events in the community like town hall meetings in Chester, Bucks, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. When I graduated from my master’s program, I took a job at the recovery high school in Philadelphia, the Bridge Way School. I saw a lot of myself in the kids I was working with, and it was amazing to watch them heal and grow. Around this same time, I opened a recovery residence for men in Philadelphia called the Brotherly Love House. The recovery residence I stayed in was integral to my recovery, and I wanted to provide that to others.
I was active in the treatment industry but I always felt a call to do more. Several states were passing Good Samaritan laws, which allowed people who were experiencing or witnessing an overdose to call 911 without fear of prosecution as well as laws that made Naloxone more accessible. I connected with some people around the state and we decided Pennsylvanians needed these laws too. We collected thousands of signatures, and in less than a year Governor Corbett signed David’s law into the books. It’s amazing to hear people tell me that they were revived because of the laws I helped pass. The whole process was exciting and I realized that we needed to do more. I left the treatment industry to focus on organizing people to leverage their personal narratives to develop a better response to the opioid epidemic. It’s not just about people dying, but the increases in HIV, Hepatitis C, and incarceration. There’s a lot of injustice in the opioid epidemic, and I want to leverage my knowledge and experience to change that. Every person has a role to play in tackling the opioid epidemic. We need to educate each other with our stories and be civically engaged in this process, because there’s too much misinformation out there. We’ve got more overdoses this year than last year and that trend is going to continue until we take smart steps that are wrapped in compassion to change things.
“It’s amazing to hear people tell me that they were revived because of the laws I helped pass.”
This is why I’m sharing my opioid story. So that those with substance use disorder know that they can turn things around. I thought I was going be dead at 25. I didn’t think anybody would invite me into their life to love them. I didn’t think I’d be a father. We have to help those mired in the position I was in. We have to change the course of this epidemic. We have to make it easier to access Naloxone and other harm reduction services. We have to educate people on how to avoid an overdose risk. We have to improve access to health care. We need to give a voice to those who who’ve been impacted. We need to provide love and hope.