A car accident left Josh C. paralyzed at age 18, crushing his plans to play college football along with his sense of self and purpose. Listen in as Josh shares his story of opioid addiction, treatment and recovery with host William C. Moyers. Josh explains how years of heroin use did a number on his physical, mental and emotional health and undermined his attempts to stay clean, and he describes how a comprehensive, medication-assisted treatment program helped him get into long-term recovery.
0:00:14 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of podcasts produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation on the issues related to addiction, treatment and recovery. I'm your host, William Moyers. I'm the Vice President of Public Affairs and Community Relations for the organization. I've been with Hazelden Betty Ford since 1996. But my personal connection goes back almost 30 years when I was a patient. Today we're joined by Josh C. Josh, for those who you can see, gets his very own chair among our podcast guests. And for those who can't see him, he is in his very own chair today. And with that, Josh, I'll ask you to tell us a little bit about your story.
0:00:59 Josh C.
Well, William thank you for having me on first of all. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to share my journey, talk about what got me to Hazelden. So yeah, I do have my own chair. I was not born with a disability, but when I was 18 years old, I felt like I had everything. I was a star football player on my high school team. We had one of the best teams in the state. And I wrecked on the day of the biggest game of my life. It was raining outside and I hydroplaned into a line of trees and I was paralyzed from the waist down. My team won the game that night and that game took us to the state championship and it was kind of like a movie. A few weeks later, I'm on a stretcher doing the coin toss for the state championship game. And it was then that I first was kind of presented to the entire community where I'm from back in North Carolina and kinda put on a mask. And I put on a mask that I would wear for the next 14 years. And that mask was that everything was okay. And that I was fine despite, you know, going from this star athlete to, you know, not being able to feel or use my legs. I just acted like I could take this on and be this inspirational figure for my entire community. And that, that was to my detriment very much.
0:02:44 Josh C.
Over the next decade, really, I watched as all of my peers went to college, started careers, got families. I watched as I refused to participate in life. I took my accident as the reason that everything was lost. And that I didn't wanna live this way. And I refused to live this way and how could this happen to me. And being full of so much self-pity that it came to a point where I just had to numb it away. I just had to numb it away. And that was when my journey with addiction like really started was after my accident, you know I would drink and I would use other drugs to kinda numb the pain away and so I was also having some health complications after my accident. And, I had a few back surgeries and then you know I'm introduced to opiate prescription pills. And you know something I discovered was that you know with my medical history, with me being a paraplegic, I could pretty much get a doctor to prescribe me anything I wanted. And I used that as a means to numb, not only the physical pain because I do deal with physical pain, but to numb away you know all the hurt for what had happened to me. And about in 2014, was when I first realized I've got a problem here. I've really got a huge problem here. Before that, I could use every means of denial that you could imagine. But at that point, I could see what it was doing to my family, I could see that you know no matter how much I tried to numb it away, I couldn't—I couldn't make it go away. I had to face, you know, what had happened to me. And at that point, I had gone from not just abusing opiate pills but I had gone all the way to heroin. And I was not you know what society might look at and say this guy's a heroin addict but you know as we're seeing now today with the opiate crisis in America, you know, no one is discriminated against in terms of who can become addicted to these things. And you know I was a heroin addict. And you know that was when I first asked my family you know when confronted if they would you know help me seek treatment.
0:05:30 Josh C.
And I had a few rounds of outpatient and, you know, something just was not sticking. I was—I was trying, I was giving a good effort, it felt like, but you know, I was also cold-turkeying opiates over, and over, and over. And no—no medication, you know, limited therapy, a couple nights of outpatient group a week and that was just not enough. So I came to a point, a year, a month, and ten days ago—
0:06:01 William Moyers
You count them.
0:06:02 Josh C.
[laughs] Where I—I was done. Everything that you know had happened, I just wanted to get away. And I just—I had to start over somehow. And I didn't know how to do that. And my family and I started looking at places for me to go to inpatient treatment. And we found the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center in Center City. And what was really important about that was that you guys were one of the only treatment centers we could find in the country that was happily willing to accommodate my disability. A lot of places were very resistant and you guys also offered the mental health, you know, co-occurring treatment that I needed to deal with the trauma of my past, my depression. You get—so Hazelden Betty Ford became you know this perfect place for me to go and start over. So, that was how I got from North Carolina to—to Minnesota. And talking to you here today.
0:07:13 William Moyers
Well you surely are a prime example, a living example, of the ability to overcome adversity and to turn it into opportunity. I was struck when I first met you in St. Paul where we both find common ground. That you've been so open about your journey from addiction and into recovery. What have you found being so public and so open about your story?
0:07:42 Josh C.
Sure, well a wise man was telling me about a month ago, he goes Josh, you don't owe anyone this superstar recovery. And you know I kinda—I thought about it when he said that and I was like yeah, I don't, but at the same time, the sense of relief that I felt after wearing that mask for all those years and telling all these people that cared about me that everything was fine, finally taking that mask off and being real and telling everybody hey, I've got a problem and I need help. You know, that was—it felt like for the first time since my accident, I could breathe. It was a sense of relief and that I could finally rest in the truth. And the truth has literally set me free in so many ways. And so yeah being public about my, you know, journey in recovery has been amazing, you know. I was—I was a little skeptical you know at first. That, you know, everyone would receive me, you know, with love and acceptance and, you know, things we all want as humans but you know, now, it's—I would not change that for the world. I'm so grateful for the opportunity that I've been given. People reach out to me through Facebook and say hey I have a son or daughter who needs help. Or I've got a problem myself and you being so public about your story really inspired me, you know to—to do something about it. And I think you know for a long time, you know, the—the concept of anonymity maybe has been a little misunderstood. You know, I—I certainly protect the means by which I recover, you know, because I can't speak for certain Twelve Step organizations but me personally, I'm liberated by my recovery. I'm allowed to yell to the world hey, I'm an addict in recovery and this is what recovery can look like. And so, you know, that is just something that I've embraced and I—I'm sure it's not for everyone. But in my specific case, you know, it has just been an amazing experience. And I feel like I can help and be the most useful to the world in that way.
0:10:12 William Moyers
You've shared very publicly on Facebook and other places, that's how I primarily keep up with you, some of the bonuses or the gifts that have come to you as a result of—of your journey in recovery, everything from the tires on this chair, to your car, to your new job. Tell us a little bit about the—that the gifts that you've experienced through this journey.
0:10:36 Josh C.
Yeah, it's just—it's phenomenal, you know. I still—I was driving to work the other day and—
0:10:44 William Moyers
Driving yourself to work—
0:10:45 Josh C.
I was driving myself to work from leaving my downtown St. Paul apartment which is on the 28th floor overlooking the river, and you know I just have to pinch myself over and over because I can't believe it's real. And yeah, that has been a result of me being so open about my recovery. And me embracing the truth is I'm finally giving myself permission to ask for help when I need it. And what I've discovered is that people have been more than willing to go out of their way. I had a new car donated to me, you know. I applied for a—a marketing job and I got it. And so, yeah, materialistically, so many things have come together. But what's even greater is that when I lay my head down at night, my conscience is clear. I was back home in North Carolina visiting my mom a few weeks ago and we were—we were eating lunch and she started tearing up for, you know, no apparent reason. And I was like Mom, what's wrong, you know, what's goin' on? And she just looked at me and she said Josh, this is the first time I can remember since your accident that I'm sitting down with you and I'm not scared that this is the last time I'll see you. And you know we just cried and held each other. And it was just a phenomenal experience that you know I—I can't express, you know, with words the gratitude that I feel to be able to have comfort, you know, like that to my mother who has worried about me for so long. You know and so it's just—it's been an amazing, amazing year and some change here.
0:12:39 William Moyers
That peace of mind that we get when we have no secrets or when we feel comfortable in our own skin, it is really one of the great gifts, one of the great dividends of recovery.
0:12:51 Josh C.
0:12:52 William Moyers
So tell us, you've been very public and we talked off-camera, off-audio here a little bit about your own recovery story. And the fact that in your recovery story includes the use of medication to help you stay the course. Can you share a little bit about that?
0:13:06 Josh C.
Sure. I told myself you know when I got up here, I said, you know, I think my recovery—my ability to recovery has directly correlated with my willingness to take suggestions. And so I told myself when I got up here when the plane landed in Minnesota, I said, you know whatever they tell me, whatever these doctors, whatever these therapists, whatever these professionals you know at this treatment center which is known as the best treatment center in the world, tells me is probably the best course for me, that's what I'm gonna do. Because Josh's way hasn't worked out so good. And so I yeah, I got up here and you know I deal with chronic pain, I live with chronic pain on a daily basis. And that was something that kept me out there for a long time. And the—the physical withdrawal, the physical nature of opiate addiction, is something unlike anything I think we've ever seen before. And I think a lot of the general public underestimates the—the physical dependence that your body creates when you're on opiates for as long a period of time as I was on.
0:14:23 William Moyers
0:14:24 Josh C.
And so yeah, I take Suboxone, and that's monitored by a doctor, you know, that's monitored by my therapist—
0:14:32 William Moyers
0:14:33 Josh C.
Suboxone is an anti-craving medication. It's what's called a partial agonist opiate. It doesn't get me high. I don't wake up every morning saying oh I can't wait. I need my Suboxone, you know, I take a daily dose for maintenance. And I've—there's a lot of controversy surrounding Suboxone in the recovery community. You know, some people see it as not completely sober and some people see it as cheating. And meanwhile, while—while they're shaming us for using Suboxone, people are going back out on opiates and dying.
0:15:10 William Moyers
0:15:10 Josh C.
So, you know, I'm very passionate and very open about the fact that I need Suboxone as part of my recovery. Now Suboxone by itself, you know, that wouldn't be enough to treat the mental and spiritual nature of the disease of addiction. But it gives me a chance to. And I don't think I would have a chance to without it because I tried before I came up here a few times without it. And the physical, the pain, and the withdrawal was—was so fierce and so long-lasting that I—I never had a chance to begin with. So Suboxone has given me a chance to recover. And my recovery is evident in everything around me. So, you know, I challenge anyone to say you know I'm cheating, you know. If I'm cheating, well I'm winning. And uh so. [chuckles]
0:16:00 William Moyers
[laughs] Well and your point too is that you don't just rely on that. You—you're a man of incredible spiritual faith, you've got a remarkable community, it's all those pieces that go together to—to make you the man in recovery that you are today.
0:16:14 Josh C.
0:16:16 William Moyers
So Josh as we—we need to wrap it here but before we go, I know there are a lot of our listeners a lot of our viewers who are probably are listening or watching and are suffering with chronic pain. What would be your message to a chronic pain person and their ability to find relief through treatment?
0:16:33 Josh C.
Sure. Um wow. [to camera] Look at me. Look at me. And I've seven back surgeries. I have lived with chronic pain for the better part of 14 years. I have told myself for years leading up to this that it didn't matter if I got clean or not because my life would not be good because I would be suffering from chronic pain. And I'm here to tell you that that is not the truth. And I had to take responsibility to find the alternative methods and the alternative therapies that would work for me to allow me to live the life that I live today. But I am hope. That no matter what you know level of pain you're going through, you can still have a high quality of life. And it can still be manageable. But, you have to believe that there's hope. And there is hope. Because I'm living proof that there is hope regardless of any circumstance that a person faces. If I can recover, anyone can recover.
0:17:43 William Moyers
[reaches out and shakes Josh's hand]
Josh C. from St. Paul, Minnesota, thanks for carrying the message and proving that from adversity comes opportunity. The opportunity not only to recover but to inspire others that they can, too. On behalf of the executive producer Lisa Stangl and our great crew, I'm William Moyers. This has been a Let's Talk Podcast. Please make sure to tune in or join us for our next program coming up soon.