Soldier & Addict: How This Veteran Found Purpose Again Without Pills

It’s 2001. September 11 is still five months away.

Two rubber tubes filled with air are strapped around Steve’s chest and abdominal wall. Their job is to monitor when his chest or abdomen expands causing the air in the tubes to move. Any changes in respiratory behavior are observed and noted. A blood pressure cuff is wrapped around his bicep, reporting changes in cardiovascular activity. Electrodes are attached to his fingers to measure activity in his sweat glands. A sensor measures pupil response.

He’s asked the same set of questions over and over again. Each time he answers the same, but the repetition is part of the mind game, a tool to drag out the truth.

When the polygraph test is finally over, Steve is exhausted. For nearly eight months, he has endured a battery of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. He’s had his entire life examined under a microscope. And now all that stands between him and a position with the United States Secret Service is this test. Actually, all that stands between him and one of the most coveted jobs in law enforcement is one question—a question that makes his heart race, his breath quicken, and his palms sweat. His answer to this question has been a lie. They know it, and Steve knows that they know it. But admitting the truth will have consequences.

Life before addiction in small-town America

Long before there were aspirations of joining the Secret Service, Steve, a Discovery Place alum, navigated childhood and adolescence with relative ease in the bedroom community just outside Nashville where he was born and raised. Steve’s mother left when he was eight months old, and his father remarried when he was two. His stepmother is the only mother he’s ever known. The oldest of three, Steve pursued Boy Scouts and baseball. There was church on Sundays and a quiet home life where problems went undiscussed but affection ran deep.

Steve was well liked but not overly gregarious. A chameleon—a jack-of-all-trades—he maneuvered between the standard high school groups. Baseball gained him entry with the jocks, good grades with the preps, music with the band kids.

And like many teenagers, Steve was introduced to alcohol in high school. Weekend field parties provided an opportunity to outdrink his peers and to fill the halls on Monday mornings with glory stories. In fact, glory was at the heart of the image Steve was building of himself. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood—for Steve, they were what legends were made of. They were American heroes.

So despite being only 17 and requiring written permission from his parents, Steve joined the Army in 1993. The Gulf War had dominated the national news in recent years and Steve’s patriotism ran high.

“In my head I knew I was going to be this great hero. People were going to talk about me and say what an amazing person I was,” he recalls.

But it wasn’t a hero’s journey that awaited him then, or even Iraq. Instead, he was headed further south.

Finding something better than alcohol

Following basic training, Steve was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Now barely 18, the former Boy Scout with good grades was eligible to cash in on a two thousand dollar bonus if he trained to become a combat medic. It was a position many wanted and few got. It was a position that came with respect.

With no drinking age on post and a desire to fit in because of his young age, Steve found alcohol a useful social lubricant. Blackouts and fights weren’t uncommon, but rather than ostracizing him, these behaviors helped him become one of the guys. Any negative effects from drinking were overlooked, just “Doc having a rough one.” Most everything about drinking then was still fun.

On a training exercise in New Mexico, Steve rolled his ankle. To treat his pain, the doctor prescribed him Percocet, an opioid-based pain reliever. “I still remember to this day the feeling it gave me. It felt amazing,” he says. “And that was it. I never really drank again. In my mind, what was the point of drinking when I found something that made me feel so much better than alcohol?”

When his prescriptions ran out, Steve would cross the border into Mexico to buy more painkillers from one of the local farmacias. By the time he left active duty in 1997, despite using almost daily, Steve wasn’t going into withdrawal when he went without opiates. Taking pills was still just something he did; it hadn’t yet become who he was.

Lies & Lortabaddiction-prescription drugs

Back in Nashville, Steve got married and started working in a local emergency room. He made fast friends with a guy who always had pills, and for the first time he started experiencing headaches when he went without drugs. When Steve went to see a doctor about his headaches, the doctor gave him a prescription for Lortab, another opioid-based pain reliever. The ease of the transaction, and so many like it in the years to come, allowed Steve to start telling a new story about himself. But in this one he wasn’t a hero or a legend.

“God just must want me to be a drug addict because He makes it so easy for me,” Steve recalls thinking. “This is just my story. This is just what God wants for me.”

Around this same time, a new synthetic prescription opioid was gaining popularity. Drug reps were leaving Tramadol samples at the hospital where Steve worked. It wasn’t long before Steve was stealing the samples. His doctor, the one prescribing him Lortab, remained concerned about his headaches. Unaware that the headaches were caused by opiate withdrawal, she referred him to a neurologist. That doctor also started prescribing Steve Lortab.

By 2000, with a steady stream of prescriptions coming in from two different doctors and stolen painkiller samples from work handy, Steve was in all-out addiction. Later that same year, the Secret Service came calling.

No secrets with the Secret Service

“Are you a liar, a cheater, or a thief?”

For more than seven months, Steve had passed test after test in order to join the Secret Service. When he tested positive for opiates on the drug screen, he explained it away with his prescription.

Now strapped to a chair, equipment measuring his every move, inside and out, it all came down to this question. And each time the question came around, Steve lied and answered no. In his mind though, he ran through all the lies he’d told to cover his addiction, the tests he’d cheated on, the drugs he’d stolen.

At the end of the polygraph exam, the administrator told him he did well on all the questions but one.

“Do you know what question it is?” asked the test administrator.

“Yes,” said Steve. “The one about being a liar, a cheater, and a thief.”

“That’s the one. So, what do you have to tell us?”

And for the first time, with the Secret Service waiting on his response, Steve admitted that he had a problem with drugs. He admitted to being a liar, a cheater, and a thief.

When he didn’t get the job, he told his wife it was because he didn’t have police experience and the other candidates did.

“That’s the first time I can remember my drug addiction actually costing me something tangible, that kept me from doing something I really wanted,” says Steve.

Things at home weren’t much better. He discovered his wife had been having multiple affairs. The couple had welcomed their first child, a daughter, the year before, and the marriage was crumbling.

Then September 11 happened.

Soldier, medic, addictamerican-flag

Steve returned to active duty following September 11. While there were occasional drug tests, he passed them all. As a medic, he knew when the drug tests were coming because he was the one administering them. If he didn’t think he could pass, someone was always willing to provide him with a clean urine sample. In the Army, everyone wants to take care of Doc.

The Iraq War began in 2003, and Steve deployed the following year. With the exception of one brief return to the States on leave, Steve served in Iraq for 17 consecutive months. Just weeks before deploying, his wife gave birth to their second child, a son.

Stationed 15 miles from the Iranian border, the area saw significant trafficking of weapons and bomb making materials from Iran into Iraq. Steve’s unit was responsible for finding these materials and the individuals concealing them. It was dangerous work mostly conducted under the cover of night. Using C-4 explosives, Steve and the rest of his five-man team would blow the doors off a target’s home, storm the house, and capture their guy.

“I would always get worked up in my head that something bad was going to happen , but oddly enough nothing really ever happened,” he says. “The stuff that got you was riding down the road and getting hit by a bomb or being on a check point stopping cars and you have a car full of explosives come blowing through and detonating. It’s stuff that hits you on some random Tuesday at 4:15.”

Steve describes war as 99 percent boredom and one percent finding yourself in the worst possible situation. The fear of that one percent, however, kept him constantly on edge, unable to ever relax. Army culture demands fearlessness and machismo; it rewards the ability to disconnect and perform under pressure. Steve was a leader and was awarded soldier of the month on three separate occasions.

“Guys had a lot of faith in me. I did a good job,” he says. “It was the one time in life where I actually felt like I was fulfilling my purpose. It was the one time in life I knew exactly what my role was, and I played it well.”

A solider, a medic, and a leader, Steve was also a full-blown drug addict during his deployment in Iraq. Before leaving the States, he played to his doctors’ sympathies, reminded them he had two small children at home and was about to head off to war to serve his country. They ensured his prescriptions got refilled the entire time he was gone. His wife mailed him care packages of pharmacy-sized stock bottles of opiates. He was high on missions, but this far into his addiction, high had come to mean something very different. High just meant avoiding detox, avoiding getting sick.

On a brief leave halfway through his deployment, Steve’s wife got pregnant with their third child, another son. By this time their marriage had collapsed and neither was interested in repairing it. Back in Iraq, time was measured in missions completed and withdrawals avoided. Fear of the one percent loomed heavy. And when the one percent finally came for Steve, it wouldn’t be at all what he expected.

soldier-children-desertHopeless in Iraq

“Life isn’t good. I’m seeing about the ugliest thing that humanity has to offer, and that’s my daily life ,” says Steve. “Senseless killings, people fighting for whatever reason, just because they want to be in charge. I’m a little bit jaded .”

But one day on a humanitarian mission to Rabia, a city on the northern border of Iraq plagued by unrest, weapons trafficking, and fire fights, a little girl approached Steve. Eight, maybe nine years old, he was immediately won over. He gave her all the fabric they had, some food, pencils, the dollar he had in his pocket. Every time he would return to Rabia, he would look for Daneese. They would hug and laugh. She was a respite from his reality.

Despite its reputation as one of the most dangerous places to conduct missions, Steve soon found himself volunteering to go to Rabia just to see Daneese. On one mission though, not a humanitarian one, they’d detained the local sheikh in order to get information out of the villagers about weapons traffickers in the area. When the villagers gave up the names to get their leader back, the traffickers launched mortars on the town out of retaliation.

As Steve and the rest of his unit assessed the damage, he came upon Daneese’s body in the school. She’d been killed in the bombing. Whatever reserve of hope Steve may have still had in that moment disappeared when he realized the little girl who’d befriended him was dead.

“In a very, very selfish way, that was the one beautiful thing I had in life, and that was gone and it had been taken away from me,” he says. “I cried. Not just a single tear rolling down my dirty face, but I laid down on the ground in the fetal position and just sobbed uncontrollably.”

It was a kind of ending for Steve. He gave up. Not the drugs, not the doomed marriage, but something even bigger: purpose.

“If you don’t have anything that you think is worth living for, if you don’t have anything worth fighting for, if you don’t have anything that brings you any joy or any happiness, then f*** it. I mean, why are we doing this? That’s the breaking point.”

Steve fulfilled his duties the rest of his time in Iraq, but any fervor or enthusiasm for the job that was once there was now gone. He’d been away for a year-and-a-half. He would be returning to a family and a life he didn’t know. Now nowhere was home.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

When Steve left for Iraq in 2004 he had a four-year-old daughter and a ten-week-old son. A week after he returned to the States, his wife gave birth to their third child, another son.

“If you look at it big picture, I’m gone for a year-and-a-half and then I come back and I have an older daughter, a two-year-old son and a newborn. I had one kid that I knew , and I come home and I have three kids now,” says Steve. “Life was completely different when I got back.”

After living in a combat zone, the whiplash of returning to civilian life was dizzying. The grocery store meant too many people he couldn’t keep an eye on. Carrying a rifle everywhere he went was no longer required, or acceptable. Turning off that constant state of vigilance was nearly impossible. But more than the discomfort of navigating this unfamiliar familiar life, Steve was without an identity. Now Doc, the esteemed combat medic, was just Steve— husband to a stranger, dad to kids he barely knew, and some guy working in a medical office.

Only three weeks after returning home, Steve had returned to civilian work. “It’s a basic human need to know what your role is, to feel like you have a purpose. And when you don’t have that you’re kind of set adrift,” he says. “You go from being a hero, at least among my guys, to going back and working at a desk, and the most important thing I’m doing that day is getting coffee for the doctors. I’m completely replaceable, and that makes me feel pretty insignificant.”

Steve dug deeper into his addiction. He started showing up late to work, sitting in his car for hours just outside the office because he couldn’t bear to go in. He finally quit his job when he realized he was going to be fired and started teaching guitar lessons instead. As the years started to roll by, Steve withdrew further and further into himself. He was playing shows at night and sleeping all day.

“I’m kind of an asshole dad, I’m absolutely 100 percent an asshole husband, and so my goal in life is just to not be at home. I became absent. I distanced myself from everything,” he says.

In 2010, Steve’s wife filed for divorce. Frequently burning through a one-month prescription in five days, it was getting harder and more expensive to maintain his habit. Following his divorce, Steve ended up living in a camper in his parents’ backyard. Everything he owned fit in a backpack.

“I’m 38, three kids, living in a camper in my parents’ backyard. It’s not even my camper. And my way of looking at it is: it’s a bad run,” he says. “Never once did I think changing some of my habits would change my life. I was still truly in the mindset of the victim.”

In 2013, nearing the peak of his addiction, Steve met a woman online. She was beautiful, kind, accomplished, and for some reason Steve couldn’t understand, attracted to him. Rather than waiting for her to find his pills or trying to hide his drug use from her, he gave her a modified version of his drug use. He told her he experienced a lot of headaches and that was why he took painkillers. She believed him.

The first time she witnessed him in withdrawal though, it was like something out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The switch was so profound, his reaction so different from the person she thought she knew, they broke up. Steve worked his way back into her good graces and the hard work of trying to conceal his addiction continued.

“At one point she started marking good days and bad days on a calendar, trying to figure out some pattern to it,” he says. “She didn’t know this at the time but those were times when I had drugs and didn’t have drugs.”

As Steve’s ability to hide the severity of his addiction diminished, his girlfriend gave him an ultimatum: quit using or we’re done. Steve quit for 11 days.

“ I never stopped taking drugs. I just got better at hiding it,” he says. The couple married in late 2015.

Honeymoon at Discovery Place

Four months after their wedding, when most couples find themselves soaking up the honeymoon phase of early marriage, Steve found himself checking into Discovery Place. He’d been hiding his drug use for months, and his wife had finally found out.

In those last couple of years before Discovery Place, Steve had been working as the director of nursing at a physical rehabilitation facility. Every time patients were discharged, their drugs were brought to him for proper disposal. With an unlimited supply of free narcotics on hand, Steve was able to maintain his habit. More than 15 years into addiction, his tolerance was extremely high and he was taking dangerous amounts of drugs each day. But the drugs came easy, so the story that God just must want him to be a drug addict was reinforced. If God didn’t want him to be a drug addict, then why would He make it so easy to be one?

Only at this point in Steve’s life, he could no longer play the unhappy marriage card, the patriot card, the veteran card, or any of the victim cards he’d become so skilled at using to stay addicted.

“For years I had taken drugs because that’s how I dealt with life. But now life is really good. There’s nothing to deal with anymore. I have a beautiful woman who loves me, I have a better relationship with the kids, I’ve got a decent job, I drive a nice car, I’m living in a house in Brentwood —it’s not my house, but I’m allowed to live there. Things are looking really good,” he says.

But Steve still couldn’t stop using, and the reality of his addiction put him into a deep depression. Crying himself to sleep each night, he’d promise to quit the next day only to use again first thing in the morning. He couldn’t stop even when he wanted to.

The moment he agreed to go to Discovery Place in March 2016, a weight was lifted. “At this point, I really do want to stop. I just don’t know how,” says Steve. With no expectations of Discovery Place working, he went anyway. There was so much to lose continuing to try to do it on his own.

“The people see drug addicts and they don’t see them as less than or broken. They don’t see them as somebody they’ve got to help. They see people as hurting, and they have compassion for that because they’ve been hurt the same way,” he says. Knowing that nearly every employee at Discovery Place had also once been a guest gave him hope. Each of these men had sat in his same chair.

For years Steve believed he was a victim of his circumstances, an unwilling participant in a decades-long run of bad luck. But at Discovery Place, it was the first time his perception of his life started to shift. The story started to change.

Maybe God had wanted him to be a drug addict, but maybe not for the reasons he thought. Maybe it wasn’t that God made drugs accessible to him so he could get high, but that God made drugs accessible to him so he could eventually get clean. There could be no “after” if there were no “before.”

A different kind of hero

After 30 days at Discovery Place, Steve headed home. Since he was not continuing into the Long Term Recovery program, he was encouraged to take full advantage of the volunteer program. Former guests can come back as often as they’d like to volunteer on campus and continue to receive free treatment. It’s one of the things that makes Discovery Place so special. Guests are not patients, inmates, or just a number. They are community members and they are welcome back at anytime.

For his first few months in recovery, Steve volunteered four or five days a week. He got a job working at Discovery Place on weekends. He dove into the slow and steady work of learning a new way of living, a new way of seeing the world.

“I started looking at the facts. These stories we tell ourselves—‘I do this because of this,’ or ‘I do this because of that,’—maybe you do or maybe you don’t, but the fact is you did this. There’s no story you can put behind it that’s going to make that OK,” he says. “I had been telling myself this story about who I was, this image that I created of myself, and seeing that I hadn’t been living up to that. But now you have the opportunity to become the person you always wanted everyone to think you were.”

Now nearly three years sober, Steve has returned to his career in the medical field. He still volunteers at Discovery Place one day a week in addition to his other daily recovery responsibilities. Instead of tracking his good days and his bad days, today Steve’s wife tells him how much she loves him. With Steve’s three children and his wife’s son, they are a blended family of six.

“I’ve started to see that everything in life is a blessing. Not just the stuff that makes me happy, or the stuff that makes me comfortable, or the things that reward me in some way,” he says, “but also the things that I think are bad, the things that I think are terrible, the things that make me uncomfortable, the things that I completely don’t understand. Those are blessings, too.”

The man who once couldn’t honestly answer that he wasn’t a liar, a cheater, or a thief has been replaced by someone new. The man who left his purpose in war-torn Iraq has had a vision for his life restored. The boy who longed to be a hero—who wanted to be John Wayne—today gets to be himself. The hero’s journey was never out there in some faraway place. It was always right inside.

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