About nine years ago, an 18-year-old Josh Sabatini was hanging out with some random friend in some random house on some random night.
He was used to drinking, sometimes smoking, occasionally taking a pill or two.
On this night, though, Josh decided to try heroin for the first time.
The friend, who had some experience, told Josh that maybe he shouldn’t. But Josh insisted, and the friend relented, tied Josh off and shot him up.
“It knocked me flat on my back,” said Josh. “I recognized in that moment that I was going to do that again. That whatever this was, I had been looking for it and found it without even realizing I was looking. This thing here was more powerful than anything I ever experienced.
“This was the closest thing to euphoria that I’d ever felt in my life, and why not visit that again? I was coming back here again and again and again.”
For nearly three years, Josh visited opioids again and again and again, shooting heroin, then, when a friend got hold of a bunch, hydromorphone.
When Josh was using, from 2008-11, opioid addiction was nothing new. But it wasn’t the epidemic it is now.
In 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health, about 20,000 opioid overdose deaths were recorded in the U.S. In 2015, that number jumped to nearly 35,000. Heroin overdose deaths increased from fewer than 3,000 in 2010 to about 13,000 in 2015. The number of deaths from heroin combined with another drug – in most cases, fentanyl – went from about 6,000 in 2010 to more than 20,000 in 2015.
“I didn’t personally know anybody that was addicted,” said Josh. “It wasn’t an issue for the people in my community.”
A 2008 graduate of Bethlehem-Center High School, Josh was an athlete who was voted prom king by his peers. His childhood was normal, and his parents, Kellie and Larry Sabatini, worked hard to provide for their son and daughter.
School was never really his thing, but football was, so he enrolled at Waynesburg College to play.
An injury in the first game put an end to sports for Josh.
“I was done with football, and, therefore, kind of done with school. At that point, I started to party a little bit,” said Josh, who dropped out soon after.
The partying led to experimentation, which Josh said he didn’t plan and didn’t anticipate.
“It was just kind of part of the night. Nothing was a big deal for me yet. I was kind of floundering,” he said. “Partying was just kind of what happened.”
That first hit of heroin changed everything, though.
“When I look back now, it’s hard to comprehend what I was then. Obsessed is what it is, but that’s not a good enough word. Addicted is the word,” said Josh, 27. “The idea of getting high drives your life, and nothing and nobody is bigger than that. Whatever you have to do to make that happen, you will. I became very good at manipulating people. And lying. And spending a lot of time alone so that people wouldn’t know.”
Josh kept different hours from his parents, with whom he lived, and held onto a job.
“I didn’t know it was as bad as it was,” said his mother, Kellie. “I thought he was partying, maybe smoking marijuana. I was clueless that he had an IV heroin drug problem. I ... started going through his phone, watching his bank account. We did what most families try to do and manage on our own. I took his car keys and drove him to work.
“Now we know people would deliver drugs to our door while we were sleeping,” she said. “It was a nightmare.”
Josh said he pawned some of his own items, took out cash advances on his paycheck, then stole things from family and sold them.
“I remember knowing I was in trouble, knowing that this was bad and also knowing that I began to feel normal whenever I was high. My tolerance had grown at that point. It was difficult sometimes to get that euphoric high. To feel normal throughout the day, I had to get high. It was very hard to picture life without that,” Josh said. “At that point, future plans stop. You don’t necessarily see a future. You just simply see the next day of, ‘How am I going to get high?’ It’s actually incredibly stressful.”
The addiction, he said, was “short and fast.”
“Three years, literally, almost killed me. I had destroyed myself and people around me in a very short time.”
One day in 2011, Josh shot up and vomited. The next day, his eyes, nose and chest turned yellow.
At Washington Hospital, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a liver disease that can be spread through IV drug use. Though his doctor knew he was an addict, Josh told his parents he contracted the disease from a recent tattoo.
Kellie grew up witnessing her parents deal with her brother, who, at 38, died in recovery from a heart attack after a 20-year addiction. Kellie couldn’t believe her own son was an addict until the diagnosis opened her eyes.
“Josh was a functional drug addict who never missed work, never missed church and did everything he could do to mask this. He was a great kid even when he was an addict. When he was stealing and pawning, he would come home at night and play cards around the table with us. He was never disrespectful, never mean, never rude,” she said. “There was a time I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and said 25 times, ‘Your son is a drug addict.’ And I still didn’t believe it.”
The night he got sick, Kellie called her sister, who is a nurse. She told Kellie to look in his eyes.
“They were as yellow as the sun,” Kellie said. “I’m driving him to the emergency room. He knows what it is, and I don’t. (Staff) told me he had hepatitis C. They’re telling me he didn’t get it from a tattoo; he’s a drug addict. My brother died. I thought (Josh’s addiction) was a death sentence. I thought, ‘I’m going to watch my son die the way I watched my brother die.’”
Josh continued to deny his opioid addiction, but Kellie no longer believed him. A few days later, he broke down and admitted he had a problem.
“As scared as I was to not be high, I think at that point, for the first time, death became a real fear for me,” he said.
Kellie immediately called a local treatment center, where detox and in-patient treatment typically lasts two weeks to 28 days.
Before Josh could get in, a pastor of their church called and recommended Teen Challenge – now Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge – a faith-based recovery program with a long-term option that lasts 11 to 14 months.
Kellie said it took months to persuade Josh to go to long-term treatment.
“He knew he could quit for 28 days, so he begged to go to Greenbriar,” Kellie said. “In my heart, I knew (Teen Challenge) was the answer. I said, ‘You have to go to this program or you have to leave.’ I said, ‘You will leave this world as you came in – naked and hungry. I can’t watch you die.’ I said, ‘In order to be a part of this family, you have to go.’ He actually agreed.
“It was the Fourth of July. We dropped him off at this place he knew nothing about. He comes back a God-loving, amazing young man.”
For the next 14 months, Josh lived at Teen Challenge, first in Allegheny County, then Rehrersburg, where he dedicated his life to recovery, following a program that included counseling, Bible study and work.
“At this point, I am an unbelievable advocate of long-term recovery,” he said. “It is a ridiculous notion to think a man can inject drugs in his arm for years and learn everything that he needs to learn in 30 days to stay clean.”
The program was effective because it wasn’t about not doing drugs, he said. It was about creating a new lifestyle.
“I’ve always said a diet sucks because all you think about is food. Not trying to do drugs sucks because all you think about is drugs. The best diets that work are the diets that come with a lifestyle change, making a commitment to become a different person,” he said. “It’s about becoming a new me, and that’s what this program did for me. I became a different person than I was.”
Josh is employed by Blainesburg Bible, the church that supported him through his recovery, as an outreach coordinator. He works with youth and occasionally preaches before the congregation. He speaks at community events with Western Pennsylvania’s Fight Against Addiction.
Almost immediately after leaving rehab, Josh started meeting with families of addicts. He’s met with 20 or so people who are addicted.
“When I came out, people, for the first time, were coming to a place where white middle-class kids were addicted to drugs and their parents didn’t know what to do. I began to ... share my story a little bit and make myself available,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily trained, but I was free, and I was willing to come and say, ‘Look, regardless of what people say, this is beatable. This is 100 percent beatable. I know people that beat it every day. I know guys that went through the program with six, seven, eight years clean, have a family, have kids. I have a wife now; I have a house. I have a dog. This is possible to beat.’”
Josh met his wife, Lindsey, after he got out of treatment, at a restaurant where they were both working. While Lindsey didn’t know him while he was using, Josh said she is one of his biggest supporters.
The family’s goal is to prove that success is possible and to end the stigma associated with addiction.
Like Josh, Kellie said she always speaks up when someone shares a story about addiction. Her daughter, Rachel, is also a recovering addict. Rachel, too, went through the Teen Challenge program and has been in recovery for months.
“I was never that parent who said, ‘This will never happen to my kids,’ because of my brother. Those (public service announcements) used to say, ‘Have dinner together, then your kids won’t do drugs.’ That’s not true. We talked. We had dinner. ... Both of my kids ended up on drugs. If you think that’s not a hard pill to swallow, it is,” Kellie said. “Nobody wants to raise a drug addict. We live in a small town. Everybody knew my son was a drug addict. We were vocal. We talked about it. If people asked, we told them how he was.”
Kellie is a part of online support groups for parents of addicts. She says that while she sometimes has guilt because her children are in recovery while others have children who are still addicted or who have died, she shares the successes because it’s encouraging.
“It’s a tremendous blessing. We have an obligation to share that. When much is given to you, you have to give back,” she said. “If you can give hope to one family, you still have an opportunity. I will stand and shout my story from the rooftops if it offers other families hope.”
While there is support in the recovery community, Josh is disturbed by the amount of criticism addicts receive from those who have not been affected by it.
“There was no excuse or reason I should have done drugs. I had a great family. I had a great home. I had everything I ever wanted and more. There was nothing in my life that drove me to drugs other than the fact that I was just a punk who liked to party,” said Josh. “People who are addicted – they sometimes and very often have very tragic pasts. ... For me, that wasn’t the case. If there was ever anybody who didn’t deserve help, it was me, because I had everything that life could offer somebody. And I took that and I threw it all away.
“I think people need to remember the addict is a person. The addict has a heart. The addict has a soul,” he said. “We don’t get to decide whether a life is worth saving or not. These are people. Just because they’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a second chance. Or a third, or a fourth, or a fifth. It’s not our job to put a limit on that.”
When he speaks at events, Josh illustrates the stigma of addiction in the vein of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
“If I took the worst mistake that everybody made and I made them wear it on their chest, and I defined them by it, and I judged them for it every day, they would hate it. They would say, ‘That’s not me. I’m more than that. I screwed up.’
“I think that’s what the addict is. They’re a person that gets judged for their worst mistake every moment of every day. It’s important that we remember that we wouldn’t like that, and if we needed help, we’d want someone to help us.”Learn More About the DOA Series