"I've seen the good side of bad, and the down side of up, and everything between..." —Everlast, What It's Like

My name is AJ and I'm an addict.

For nearly ten years, beginning at the naive age of fourteen, I forced every drug you could imagine into my body, starting with the occasional joint in my girlfriend's garage, moving on to experimenting with pills: "Roxy's" (Morphine), "Hydro's" (Vicodin), and Codeine, then finally snorting and injecting heroin.

Over time, what started as a recreational habit spiraled into a full-blown addiction—I just refused to admit it. In my eyes, taking drugs was simply an alternative to conforming—playing the game so to speak—and a logical choice for someone who'd already been labeled an outcast to begin with. The stoner crowd was filled with renegades from all walks of life, united by a common goal of getting high, and for once in my life I didn't feel as though other's were judging me on the basis of money, status, or any of the other trivial bullshit our culture views as the end-all-be-all of popularity. Instead, it felt like I was taking part in something special, a unique sub-culture where the system's perception of "normal" ceased to exist, and the only requirement for acceptance was a habit—or so it seemed.

In reality, my existence was a poster-child for loneliness and depression; my addiction merely numbed the pain. It was my closest friend in a time of need, always willing to cleanse the emotional wounds inflicted by a lifetime of abuse, my mother's battle with cancer, the death of my high school sweetheart, and the loss of my child. It gave me the strength to carry on, to forget the past, and cope with life in a way nothing else could equal. It opened the door to my darkest desires, then pulled me to a side of life no one should ever have to experience: homelessness, lying to friends and loved-ones, criminal activity, ill health, countless near-death experiences, and involvement in acts most people would have difficulty even thinking about. It took me to ghettos and filthy shooting galleries, to hepatitis and HIV scares from sharing needles, to police stations and courtrooms, probation offices and halfway houses, even attempted suicide.

Despite everything, I never genuinely pursued sobriety. Occasionally—under pressure from others—I'd make a passive attempt at living drug-free, yet nothing I tried from travelling, to music, or even religion seemed to fill the emotional void left by their absence. It wasn't until I was flirting with death's doorstep, very little time left to live, that I finally confessed to myself that I had a problem. But by then it was too late. My addiction had gained so much control over me, both physically and emotionally, that even the threat of my own demise wasn't sufficient motivation to seek the help I so desperately needed.

My body abruptly shut down the week before Easter, 2011. During a visit to my mother's house, I fainted at the dinner table and was subsequently rushed to the emergency room in what the paramedics labeled "serious but stable" condition: my heart fighting for every beat, blood pressure non-existent, and my liver and kidneys beginning to fail. In other words, if I refused to take action, find treatment for my addiction, I was going to die much sooner than expected. Only then did I decide that twenty-four years old was too young to die.

A week later, with assistance from the staff at my hospital, I transferred into an inpatient rehabilitation center where, in a relaxed yet structured environment, I finally learned to face life without drugs; I learned to stop blaming others for my addiction, to find strength within myself, to let go of the past, and to search for hope in the future. In time, I came to view my addiction not as a personal struggle, or dark period of my life that needs to be discussed from a standpoint of shame, but as a stepping-stone to freedom: freedom from feeling bad about myself because of other's ignorance, freedom to repair broken relationships and forge new friendships, freedom to look in the mirror and see not the stupid teenager I was, or the successful young adult I could've been, but the beautiful person I am now and be content with her.

This is the beginning of a new chapter for me. I've been drug-free for three years now, and have gained a renewed outlook on life. Instead of a fix, I wake up with an hour of reflection and Buddhist meditation. Instead of liquor, I drink water and tea. I eat healthy, exercise, and do my best to live life to the fullest. But greatest of all, through freeing myself from addiction, I've gained the privilege of sharing my life with a beautiful, caring woman that I feel honored to have as my companion. If it weren't for her it might be easy to give up during those times when I feel the walls closing in on me, to fall back on what I know, and become yet another statistic. She is my rock, my anchor, and for that I owe her nothing short of my utmost affection.

But as I write this there are still stories from my past, many of which I've never told anyone, still weighing on my heart. They are stories I feel that to move on, to truly bring that chapter of my life to a close, need to be shared with the outside world. That's why I am writing this book. I hope that by reading my stories, other addicts, their families and their friends, will know that they are not alone in their struggle, and see that there is hope in this life for those willing to find it. No one forces an addict to take their first drug, and likewise, no one can force them to walk away. It's something they have to decide on for themselves. Then, and only then, can they break free and experience the joy of living without addiction.

—AJ Connor
Knoxville, Tennessee
January 27, 2014