Monthly Archives: February 2014

Change Everything

One saying that has really stuck with me through my recovery is something I was told in rehab and in numerous 12-Step meetings.  It is: “The one thing you have to change is everything.”  It is a pretty bold statement, but I have found it to be true.

My addiction was very, very extreme for the last few years.  When I tried to get clean, every little thing was a trigger.  If you aren’t familiar, a trigger is something used in the addiction/recovery field that defines any situation, person, feeling, or place that triggers a craving to want to use drugs.  I remember in my first couple weeks of sobriety, I was getting out of the shower one day and getting dressed when I sprayed some cologne on my shirt.  Guess what?  The smell of that cologne flipped some type of switch in my brain and I realized that I used to wear that cologne when I used to go out with my friends to party and I associated that cologne with getting high.  Next thing I knew I was thinking about dope.  Isn’t that crazy?  A sniff of cologne can trigger a reaction in your brain that associates it with using dope.

A trigger can be anything.  Like I said, my first month or two of sobriety was filled with triggers and cravings.  It seemed like every little thing was a frickin’ trigger!  Now, from an outsider’s perspective, a regular person would probably not realize the power something as small as a bottle of cologne can have on the addicted brain.  But it is proven that addiction is a disease of the brain and that is why it is so important to get treated if you suffer from an addiction.  It is so crucial to learn about these types of things and learn how to deal with them.

“The one thing you have to change is everything.”  I had to give up a lot in order to get clean and actually stay clean.  One of the hardest things for me to change, though, was to stop hanging around the people I used and bought drugs with.  I was in and out of rehab seemingly every other month in my active addiction and this phrase was repeated over and over: “you have to give up those friends you got high with or you will not stay clean!”  I was in denial about that for a long time.  I would rationalize around it and tell myself, “Well, they don’t understand.  I can’t just stop hanging out with my best friends!  We have been through so much together and have such a strong bond and you are telling me I have to just drop them like they don’t exist?”

I never listened to that suggestion.  Every time I got out of rehab or jail I would instantly go back to hanging out with the same ol’ people.  I don’t know what it was; I just couldn’t stay away from my using friends.  I refused to believe that they were a part of my addiction.  I would rationalize and say, “None of my friends have anything to do with my decision to use drugs.  They never forced me to stick a needle in my arm.”  The truth is, though, it is nearly impossible to stay clean when you are an addict constantly in communication and association with other people using drugs.  That was one reservation of mine that I held on to for a long, long time.  A reservation is something that you don’t want to give up or stop doing that is holding you back from recovery.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not hang out with my using friends and stay sober.  It just didn’t happen.  There came a time in my life, though, after numerous overdoses, robberies, guns to my head, high speed car crashes, and near death experiences when I was willing to do WHATEVER was necessary to get sober.  I finally decided I wanted to live and that God had some type of plan for my life.  I surrendered.  I wanted to change, so I changed the one thing that needed to be changed: everything.  That included the group of people I associated myself with.

I finally gained the strength to tell my using friends that I was getting clean and that I couldn’t talk to them anymore.  I changed my phone number, deleted my old Facebook page and stopped hanging around places where I knew my friends would be.  After nine months of sobriety, I have come to the realization that I am a lot better off without the people I got high with.  In fact, they were not what I would call a “friend” today.  Looking back, very few of the people I got high with actually cared about me.  I have talked to a couple people that I got high with in the last couple of months to invite them to a 12-step meeting and they didn’t want anything to do with me.  The drug world is a world where you are only worth something if you have something for somebody else.  If you don’t have money or drugs then you are no good.  It doesn’t matter what any of them people think of me anymore in my life, I am a lot better off now without them.  I have my family, an amazing girlfriend, a recovery support system and a church family, and I am more than cool with that.

Looking at this situation from a sober mind today, I ask the question, “Is it possible for anybody to get clean while still hanging out with people they got high with?”  In my opinion, the answer is no.  I know that I can’t do it; I tried enough, and I don’t know anybody who has some good recovery that still associates with people who abuse drugs.  The saying, “the one thing you need to change is everything” holds true in my life.  I did change everything.  I tried countless times to get sober on my own terms with my reservations and I never sustained any clean time more than one day.  Recovery from drug addiction is more than just simply not using drugs.  Recovery is a lifestyle change; a personality change; an attitude change, and looking back at the person I was in my active addiction-that is alright with me.  Change is what I needed.  Change is what I accomplished.  Change is who I am.  A changed man that has changed one thing: everything.

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God Uses People

With a grateful heart, I turn now to the miracle of my son’s recovery from heroin and drug abuse.  For seven long years Aaron was enslaved and had become a completely different person, and experienced things a kid should never have to go through.  I have shared just a portion of what we, his family, endured during that long journey.  Believe me, there are many other things I have not shared in these writings!

One thing we never stopped doing was praying for Aaron’s deliverance and recovery.  Answers to prayer do not always come quickly and as our faith is tested we face the challenge to persist, even when things seem to be getting worse.  Another interesting truth about prayer is that, when the answer finally comes, God often-times uses people to bring it to pass.  This was the case in Aaron’s turn-around.  Some very instrumental people appeared in our lives at just the right time.

As 2012 ended and 2013 began, Aaron was still using heroin, even after his dreadful experiences in homeless shelters.  Though weary and worn, we were still praying amid our weakness.  He was admitted again to a detox center in Jackson-a place called Allegiance Recovery Center.  This time, everything began to fall into place.  This facility is more than a detox place.  They provide medicine to help with the agonizing withdrawals, one on one substance abuse counseling, and group therapy in a caring environment.  Aaron was blessed to have a compassionate therapist at Allegiance, a woman who had been addicted to heroin earlier in her life.  Aaron connected with this person.  God uses people.

When Aaron was released from detox, this woman assigned him to a case manager who works in our local area helping addicts and families.  The case manager would oversee Aaron’s recovery and provide assistance to us, as well.  Her name is Dr. Deb Smith, and she and her husband, Joe Lowe, operate a recovery outreach called Wellness InX.  From the get-go Dr. Deb took a personal interest in helping Aaron in many ways, guiding and pointing in the right direction.  She, as well as Joe, also helped us in some practical ways which proved very beneficial.  Though Aaron was still not in recovery, he was making progress now and we were finding cause for optimism.  God uses people.

Then one day Deb called with a question.  She told us of a man who had lost his son to a heroin overdose a year or so prior.  This man was making his life’s mission to reach out and help other families (and addicts) who are dealing with substance abuse.  “He would be a good person for Wes to talk to,” Deb told my wife.  “He wants to help people like you.  He is willing to call Wes if Wes is open to it.  Can I have him call?”  It surprised me that a father who had suffered the unspeakable heartbreak of losing a son to drugs would get involved in ministering to others in such a way.  I thought about how I would respond if I were to lose my son and came to the realization that this man was special.

When Phil called, we spoke for over an hour.  Phil shared his story.  His young son, Eric, was found dead in Phil’s basement-on Phil and his wife Pat’s wedding anniversary.  Then he asked about my son and I shared our story as Phil listened intently.  Phil told me it was his mission, not only to help families, but also to get involved in bringing about changes in the way the legal and judicial system view and treat drug addicts.  He spoke of the futility of sending people with a disease to jail, or to run-down “rehab” places that were “dives.”  Our sons had a lot in common…far more than I ever imagined.

One day, while speaking again with Phil, he asked if he could come to my house to meet and talk with my family.  As we waited for his arrival one evening, I had a mental image of how Phil would appear.  He had been the head of the Pulmonary Department at Sparrow Hospital for 30-plus years.  Surely, he would pull up in a Cadillac.  He would no doubt be the “sharp dressed man” ZZ Top sang about, right?  When this guy pulled up in an old car and entered the house in a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, I was amazed!  He introduced himself to my wife and I, as well as my daughter Sarah and sons David and Aaron.  Phil told Aaron to go to his room while he visited with his brother and sister.  He spoke with them about addiction, and sought to get them to open up about how Aaron’s addiction had impacted their lives.  Then he asked for Aaron to come to the living room.

What happened next was simply a “God thing.”  Phil told Aaron that his son had died as a result of a heroin overdose.  Aaron had something in his hand, a small clipping from the newspaper.  It was Eric’s obituary.  “Is this your son?” Aaron asked.  Surprised, Phil responded, “Yes it is.”  Aaron told Phil that he knew Eric.  They had spent several months together in jail.  “We hung out a lot in jail and talked a lot,” Aaron said.  “Your son was a really nice guy.”  When Eric passed away while Aaron was still in jail, he had cut his obituary out of the paper and had kept it for over a year to use as motivation.  Upon meeting Phil, he recognized his last name and also noticed how much Phil resembled his son.  We didn’t know it, but Eric’s passing had impacted Aaron, and now, here was Eric’s Dad, sitting in our home, reaching out to help.  God uses people.

Phil became a part of our lives, and more importantly, a huge factor in Aaron’s recovery.  Phil took on the role as Aaron’s Recovery Coach and time will not permit me to tell you all of the things this man has done for my son.  Phil has spent countless hours investing himself in Aaron: calling him, taking his calls when Aaron needs to talk, meeting with him, making a plan for recovery every month, taking him out to eat, doing special things with him to celebrate the milestones in his recovery (3 months, 6 months, 9 months).  Phil has made a profound impact in our son’s life (as well as ours).  It is not a coincidence that Aaron found sobriety after Phil appeared in our lives.  Aaron has been clean since May 16, 2013, a wonderful answer to our prayers.

We know that God used Phil in a unique way to reach Aaron.  In the past year, Phil was instrumental in organizing a group called FANS (Families Against Narcotics) in the Greater Lansing area.  FANS is a support group for families of drug addicts, as well as recovering addicts, and active addicts seeking recovery.  FANS meet on the last Tuesday of each month at 7:00 PM at University Lutheran Church in East Lansing.  The group has been growing in number each month as hurting people come, seeking insight, comfort, hope and inspiration.

There were times during our seven year journey through Aaron’s drug use when I felt like my prayers were not being heard.  On some occasions I was so defeated that I didn’t pray for periods of time.  But God, in his mercy, was faithful and he ultimately answered our prayers.  He guided Aaron to a special therapist in detox, who assigned Aaron to a case manager in our town who introduced us to Phil.  God uses people!  Don’t stop praying.  Your answer may be right around the corner.  As Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Call unto me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things which you do not know.”

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Back To The Shelter

Following that frightening encounter with the drug dealer in our driveway, we talked with Aaron about what had just happened.  He was sorry for putting us in that situation.  It concerned me that a Lansing dealer now knew where we lived.  It was around 10:00 PM and Aaron asked if he could spend the night, saying the V.O.A. would not let him back in at that late of an hour.  I insisted on taking him back, though, convinced that they would take him.

When we got to the V.O.A., it took them a while to come to the door.  Finally, a man greeted us and we stepped inside.  I identified myself as Aaron’s Dad and told him what had happened, asking that they admit him.  After consulting with another man, the guy told me that technically, Aaron had left the program and could not return for 30 days, as per their rules.  I tried my best to get them to make an exception due to our extenuating circumstances: I was a Pastor, my son was addicted to heroin, we were exercising tough love and he couldn’t come home.  But the V.O.A. turned us away.

As we drove through Lansing, Aaron said, “Dad, you can just drop me off at the next light.  I know you don’t want me to come home.”  I asked him what he thought he could do at 11:30 PM in Lansing, with no place to go.  He said he’d find a park and seek out a place to sleep.  That I could not do!  “No, I’m not doing that, Aaron,” I said.  “You can come home for the night and tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do.  But it’s only for the night.”  When we returned home, Aaron had a snack and went to bed.

The next day we took him to what was described as a faith-based shelter for the homeless in Jackson, about 35 or 40 minutes from our home.  Its location was not too appealing, being in a ghetto part of town.  The accommodations were not too pleasant, either, lacking in cleanliness.  Aaron’s residency there would only last for a few days, though, as he would once again find himself in a dangerous predicament.

One afternoon a staff member called, telling us Aaron, while outside the shelter, had taken money from a drug dealer.  Aaron was inside the shelter now, and the dealer was circling the facility, looking for him and making threats.  “You can come and get your son, or I will have to call the police,” she said.  “But you have to decide fast, because we are all in jeopardy with Aaron being in the building.”  It occurred to me that if I showed up to get Aaron, I, too could be in “jeopardy” if the drug dealer saw me picking up my son.  We opted for letting the police get involved.  But before anything else could transpire, Aaron fled without anyone seeing him: residents, staff, and most importantly, the irate drug dealer.  Aaron had overheard the staff members’ phone call to us and in fear of the police being called somehow found a way out without being noticed.

Aaron made his way to another part of town and began calling us, begging us to come to his rescue.  He was at a drug store, in hiding, with the drug dealer driving around looking for him.  It was now dark.  I felt I had no choice but to go get him, not wanting him to be harmed or killed.  He gave me the location of the store and when I pulled into the parking lot, Aaron emerged from inside like a bat out of hell and hopped in the car.  “Hurry up, Dad, we gotta’ get out of here quick,” Aaron said.  I hurried up out of there!

As I drove up 127 North with one eye on the rear-view mirror, I asked Aaron what had happened earlier that day.  He was standing outside the shelter when a man approached him, asking him if he wanted to make some money.  Aaron got in his car and the man drove to Best Buy.  He gave Aaron cash and told him to go into the store and make a purchase of some kind (who knows what that was all about, or what may have happened to Aaron as this venture played out?).  When Aaron went into the store, he snuck out another entrance of the store, with the cash, and ran away.  Aaron walked to another part of town and found a dealer in Jackson where he bought some heroin.  He didn’t know anybody in Jackson and didn’t have anywhere to go, so after walking around town for a while he figured he would go back to the shelter really quick and get his belongings he had there.  As soon as he got there, though, was when the angry dealer he had just ripped off showed up looking for him, making threats and demanding that Aaron be sent out to him.  That is when Aaron snuck out.  It was another close call for Aaron, and yet another wild chapter in his, and our story.

Suffice it to say, we were done with homeless shelters.  Looking back on Aaron’s exposure to the homeless lifestyle, however, I think it brought him to the point of brokenness.  He was realizing that drugs were not worth it, and he was ready for change.  The story gets better from here.  Aaron was headed back to the detox center in Jackson.  He would complete his stay this time, with no departures.  Now open to sound counsel, he received good guidance there, and in the process, would be introduced to some very special people who would be instrumental in his path to recovery.  After 7 long years, we were getting our son back, and let me tell you, the real Aaron Emerson is a good guy to have around.

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Drug Dealer In My Driveway

One evening we were the recipients of another alarming phone call from Aaron, who was supposed to be at the Volunteers of America.  “Mom, I’m with someone and we’re on our way to the house,” Aaron began.  Rhonda reminded Aaron that he was supposed to be at the shelter and that he was not allowed to come home.  “You don’t understand mom,” Aaron said.  “I owe this guy money!  I’m in his car and I have to pay him.  He’s demanding his money.  We’re about to be there in ten minutes.”

At first, we did not believe Aaron.  There had been times in the past when, in an attempt to get money for heroin, he told us that he owed dealers money and had to go pay them immediately or his life would be in danger.  It is true that dealers will at times “front” their customers with drugs with the expectation of being paid back.  But, it is also true that addicts often make up this scenario with caring family members or friends so that they can get the money to go buy their drug.  We had fallen for this trick more than once.

Turns out, this was no lie.  After being put out on the street with the other residents at the V.O.A., Aaron was spotted by a heroin dealer he had been “fronted” by some time previous.  Aaron was walking around on a street in downtown Lansing, not too far from the V.O.A. when the dealer pulled up next to him and told him to get in.  Aaron declined at first, but when the dealer revealed a gun, he was forced to get in the vehicle.  The dealer demanded his money and, when he found out Aaron had none, decided to pay a visit to our house.  As the clock ticked away, Rhonda and I frantically debated what to do.

Moments later, a car entered the driveway and Aaron quickly came in the house.  It was clear to us that this was no caper.  Aaron’s frightened demeanor said it all.  “Dad, please give me the money.  He’s got my phone.  All he wants is what I owe him.”  I told Aaron that I wasn’t giving him anything and was going to call the state police.  “Well, you better make it quick, and lock all the doors, because he has a gun and he isn’t messing around,” Aaron replied.  Instead of calling the police, I decided to call the dealer, who was beginning to honk his horn.  Dialing Aaron’s number, I played dumb.

“What can I do for you?” I began.  “I want my money, right now,” he answered.  I asked him what the money was for, and he said it was for giving Aaron a ride home from Lansing.  “How much money?” I asked.  He responded with a terse “30 dollars.”  I then attempted to negotiate with the dealer, explaining that it didn’t cost 30$ to drive from Lansing to Mason.  I offered him ten dollars, to which he responded “No, thirty.”  I bumped my offer up to 20$, and was once again rejected, this time with a warning.  “Okay, I’ll be out there in a minute,” I said.

I was about to have a face to face encounter with an angry drug dealer in my driveway.  It occurred to me as I walked out the front door that I could be placing my life on the line.  As I approached the car, the man behind the wheel said, “Look man, I don’t want any trouble.  I’m not going to hurt you.  Just give me my money and I’m out of here.”  I thanked him for that bit of assurance, handed him the cash, and asked for Aaron’s phone.

Handing me the phone, the drug dealer, raising his voice, made a parting statement.  “I don’t use heroin, man.  I don’t do drugs, but your son is a bleeping heroin addict!  Your son needs rehab!”  With that, he backed out of the driveway and raced down the street.

Strangely enough, there is truth in what that dealer in my driveway said.  Many dealers do not use heroin themselves.  They just sell it to kids like Aaron, putting their clients in grave jeopardy.  In the broad daylight and the darkness of night, dealers are everywhere, peddling deadly dope on main streets and side streets.  Transactions are conducted in the parking lots of stores and businesses out of their cars multiple times a day, day after day.  Users know where they operate.  Many users’ families know, too, as do the neighborhood people in these areas.  Something tells me that the police know, too, but rarely are the dealers apprehended.  I find that to be perplexing and disturbing.

I feel the need to interject something else at this point.  When Aaron started this website, he asked me to share my story and insights, holding nothing back.  Obviously, these events are not anything my son is proud of.  In fact, it still pains Aaron to think back on all that we went through, and he regrets what happened.  He is still working on overcoming the guilt of what addiction did to his family, because he loves us dearly.  Aaron is not proud of these things, nor do we, his parents, wish to be pitied or viewed as victims.  Aaron and I know that there are families going through the same types of experiences, and we just want to help encourage you.  I respect Aaron for giving me the green light to write freely and openly.  Very few people would dare risk their reputation for the good of others.

Anyway, as I went back in the house that night, one emergency had been handled.  Now we were back to another point of decision that night of what to do about Aaron, the son the drug dealer said needs rehab.  I had given him the ultimatum.  He could not live at home until he was in recovery.  That night, we were about to hit the road again.

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New Approach To Treatment

I am a student at Lansing Community College and one of my classes I am currently taking is Understanding Substance Abuse. We just had to write a critical analysis paper on an article of our choice that we found having to do with the addiction field. I came across a very well-written article that I really enjoyed and agreed with. It was written in Time Magazine and was about the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s response to the growing heroin problem in the United States. They came up with some proposals to help deal with the epidemic. I wrote an analysis on the article and I wanted to share what I wrote with my blog, so I put it in here. Read it and I would love to know what you think about it. Also, I put the link to the initial article I analyzed at the bottom and I would encourage everybody to read that, too…

I am writing a critical analysis paper for my Understanding Substance Abuse course I am taking at Lansing Community College. The article I will be analyzing is titled Obama Administration Cites Heroin Concerns After Hoffman Death. This was published in Time Magazine on February 11th and I came across it on Time Magazine’s website, This article was written by Eliza Gray. Eliza Gray is a staff writer for Time Magazine. After researching Eliza, I did not find much information on her. She has previously written for numerous newspapers and websites including Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The European Voice,, and I did notice, however, that a lot of the articles she has previously written for Time Magazine have been about a lot of the issues that have to do with drug addiction and other types of articles on topics in the addiction field. This article I am analyzing is not the only piece she has written about heroin. She also has written a lot of articles on the legalization of marijuana, the health risks of cigarette smoking, the relatively new e-cigarettes, and a lot of other articles in this topic.
I believe the intended audience for Eliza Gray’s article is anybody who reads Time Magazine. Time Magazine is a very widely-read magazine and website. This article was written on Time’s website that is intended for readers in the United States. Time Magazine has a large base of readers all over the world, but especially in the United States. This article was published on the website for all U.S. readers so it was available to anybody who logs onto their website.
This article was written to acknowledge that the Obama Administrations “drug czar” addressed the nation’s growing heroin and opiate problem after the widely publicized death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, R-Gil Kerlikowske, addressed the nation and called for a different approach to this problem that is considered by many to be an epidemic. Gil went over a plan that his administration is recommending that includes a more health centered approach and uses a lot of harm reduction methods. He cautioned against the approach that is geared toward law enforcement.
Eliza Gray published in her article a lot of statistics to support the growing problem that the nation is dealing with in the abuse of opiates. From 2006 to 2010, the number of overdose deaths from opioids increased by 21 percent. In 2010, roughly 100 Americans died every day from overdose, and more than 40% of those deaths were from prescription painkillers. There were about 16,600 overdose deaths from painkillers and about 3000 from heroin.
Eliza Gray reported that the death of Hoffman and the string of 50 deaths in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland from heroin laced with the painkiller fentanyl put a spotlight on the nations rise in heroin use. There were 373,000 people who used heroin in 2007, but in 2012 there were 669,000. Gray also wrote that the demographics of heroin use have changed, switching from a more urban drug to what she said is now more rural and suburban.
The Obama Administration went over some techniques to put a dent in this problem. Some of those methods are to cut down on the availability of prescription drugs by using take-back programs, which get unused prescription pills out of homes, to crack down on doctor shopping, and to start encouraging law enforcement agencies around the country to start carrying Naloxone, which is a drug created to prevent overdose by delivering it nasally.
I think this was a very well-written article that addresses a very important topic. Eliza Gray gave quite a bit of key statistics that support the Obama Administration’s response. With the statistics given, it is impossible to argue that the nation’s opiate and heroin problem is growing and is getting out of hand. I believe Eliza did a great job in structuring her article, giving the administration’s statements up near the top and then to support their claims with the stats.
To conclude my analysis, I would like to say that I agree with the proposals from the Obama Administration. After the overdose death of a widely known celebrity and the news of the string of deaths caused by heroin laced with fentanyl, this is a great opportunity for the addiction field to get people on board with ideas like what the Obama Administration proposed. This opiate problem is obviously not easy to fight and is not ever going to fully go away. There are always going to be people using opiates but the statistics given in this article are impossible for me to ignore. I think it is time to change how our nation deals with this problem. Locking opiate addicts away in jail has obviously not done its intended job. It is time to start utilizing other techniques that support the harm reduction model. I strongly support the proposal to start encouraging law enforcement to let their officers carry Naloxone. This could save many lives and give addicts another shot at life. Recovery from opiate addiction is hard, but it is certainly possible. This problem is affecting people from every walk of life and it is time for our society to do something about it that will actually help. This is the perfect opportunity to start. This was a great article that will hopefully get other people on board.

Here is the article from Time…

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