This is the fourth part in a series on opioid abuse and addiction. — Eds.
Many people don’t make it out of a heroin addiction alive — let alone through-hike the Appalachian Trail while going through withdrawal.
Almost a year sober, Victor, Idaho, resident Brandon Wanthal, 23, is embracing his addiction and tackling his sobriety head-on.
“The biggest thing that I learned was that if I thought about hiking all the way to Maine when I was back in Tennessee, I never would have made it,” Wanthal said. “But I realized I could wake up one day and hike another 20 miles. And that’s what I transitioned to in my recovery.”
The approach is relatively new for Wanthal, who battled a gripping heroin addiction for years.
Wanthal said he used to shirk facing the addiction, preferring to come up with excuses.
Opioids, both prescription and illicit, are the main driver of drug overdose deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths in 2016, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than 1999. Overdoes-related emergency department visits increased by 30 percent nationwide last year.
With statistics like that, it can be difficult to believe there might be an end in sight. But for every fatal overdose, there is someone like Wanthal who makes it out alive and wants to share their story.
While every addiction is different, Wanthal hopes to help others by coming clean about his past, what worked, and what didn’t.
Wanthal grew up about 10 miles north of Boston. He described his childhood as a normal, blue-collar existence.
“I grew up in an average middle-class family with a loving mother and a loving father and a really tight-knit family,” he said. “We didn’t necessarily have everything we wanted; we had everything we needed.”
Wanthal excelled academically and in sports. He felt driven to perfection, sometimes to extremes.
“I was very fulfilled by external gratification,” he said. “I wasn’t OK until someone else told me I was OK. If I ran 5 miles today, I’ve got to run 6 tomorrow. If I bench 130 pounds today, I’ve got to bench 140 tomorrow. That’s kind of how my life always was.”
His persona as a “really clean-cut, straight-edged kid” who “didn’t get into any trouble” made him feel confident entering high school.
Life changed suddenly for Wanthal the summer between his freshman and sophomore year in high school, when he was the victim of a traumatic sexual assault. Shortly following the incident, he snorted prescription medication for the first time.
“Once I caught on to the idea that I could escape that — all the sudden I’m not thinking about what just happened — something clicked,” Wanthal said. “Within one month I became a daily pill user.”
Moving on to heroin
Addiction runs in his extended family, Wanthal said. He knows of at least 10 family members with opiate or methamphetamine addictions. The journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics said that addiction is considered heritable about 50 percent of the time, and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence says genetics and environmental factors are thought to play equal roles in the onset of addiction.
His assault came to light in school, where he became exiled, teased and bullied. He gravitated toward people with other traumatic issues, and “drug users became my comfort crowd of people.”
Wanthal was able to keep up the guise until the end of high school, when he started using heroin. It didn’t look from the outside like anything was wrong — he was checking the boxes, getting good grades and planning to go to college. But, he said, drugs continued to “take control of my life.”
“I was going through this big denial period where my life was definitely crumbling, but I was still able to hold on to this idea that I can’t be an addict,” Wanthal said. “Drug addicts don’t get straight As. I can’t be a drug addict. Drug addicts can’t go to Northeastern University.”
One day he walked into a friend’s basement. Drugs were spread out on the counter. His friends told him it was heroin.
“Immediately the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Wanthal said. “You don’t know anyone who says they messed around with heroin when they were a kid for a couple of years and are totally normal and cool. That doesn’t exist. Your idea of a heroin addict is the person in a dumpster in a city with a needle in his arm.”
Just once, he told himself. Just once.
“I do that first line of heroin, and suddenly I found what I’d been looking for my entire life,” Wanthal said. “I finally shut the voices up. I was always trying to get the most obliterated that I could so that I could just feel OK with me.”
It’s taboo to talk about how drugs make users feel for fear of inspiring others. But understanding why Wanthal turned to heroin helps make sense of why it was so hard for him to quit taking drugs.
He remembers a feeling of warmth and a sense of ease.
“It shut everything out,” he said. “The blinders went on. All the sudden I didn’t care what anybody thought of me. I thought I was on top of the world. You could put all my glaring character defects in front of me and I wouldn’t care — I had my body armor on. It would bounce off me like rubber. All the sudden I felt invincible.”
The next morning, he woke up thinking about where he could get more heroin. He got high every day for the next year and a half. He moved from snorting to injecting the drug.
“I always said I would never do that,” Wanthal said. “I’ll never do coke. Once I do coke, it’s all over. Once I’m doing coke, I’ll never do heroin. Once I do heroin, it’s all over, I can’t go further than that. OK, I’m fine, I’m sniffing heroin, but as soon as I inject heroin, it’s over.”
After being told he could get twice as high for half as much money by shooting heroin, Wanthal was in. Describing himself as a “full-blown addict” at the age of 18, “everything went full speed hell to the wall, completely shredded.”
A friend tipped off his parents, who confronted him. They pulled the sleeves of his sweatshirt up, revealing track marks on his arms.
“The best thing they ever did, and this might’ve saved my life, they cut me off right then and there,” Wanthal said.
They asked him if he wanted help, and he said no. There was nothing to get help for.
“My dad threw a gym bag in my hand and he said, ‘You have five minutes,’” Wanthal said. “‘Get out the door and come back when you want help.’”
They always refused his requests for money.
“I do think one of the only reasons I’m alive today is because my parents didn’t enable me,” Wanthal said. “Every time I wanted to get clean they were there, just like that. When I lived on the streets, they would drop me off pies and sweatshirts. Apple pies and sweatshirts. It breaks my heart.”
A rinse-wash-repeat cycle
Wanthal was homeless at 18, “living on friends’ couches, shooting up all the time.” He described “sketchy” situations he put himself in to generate enough money to finance his daily heroin needs.
He tried home detox, stayed clean for a week, convinced his parents he was fine to go off to college, and started as a freshman with a “monster heroin addiction.”
Within three months, state police paid him a visit for the amount of marijuana he was trafficking to pay for harder drugs.
“I started doing the outpatient program dance,” Wanthal said. “I was high every day, in and out of programs, falsifying drug tests. I’d throw Suboxone [a drug used to treat opiate addiction] in my mouth and spit it back out.”
His parents tried to commit Wanthal under Section 35 of Massachusetts law, which allows people to be treated involuntarily for an alcohol or substance abuse disorder if it can be proved they are a threat to their own life. It didn’t work, and he ended up back on the streets.
“My life at this point is so hectic and scary,” Wanthal recalled, describing his door being kicked in by state cops. “It’s insane.”
He went to detox again, where he was “pampered and cleaned up, pumped full of drugs, and start to feel fine.” He went to rehab again, and landed in a halfway house in Port Townsend, Washington. Within seven days of arriving, he overdosed, was kicked out and involuntarily committed to a state lockup.
“That becomes another rinse-wash-repeat cycle,” Wanthal said. “My disease followed me there, too. What ends up happening is that I’m not committed to sobriety. I’m not taking the necessary steps. I’m not taking it seriously.”
Another 30-day program later and Wanthal was homeless on the streets of Seattle, living in homeless shelters, smoking crack and shooting heroin every day.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m in this state of delirium,” Wanthal said. “At this point I’ve lost myself. I’m just convinced that I’ve gone so far that there is no other option. This is who I am at this point. Recovery is terrifying. The amount of effort that I know it takes to get out of these rock-bottom situations is incredibly intimidating.
“I’m a 19-year-old living on the streets of Seattle, carrying a roller suitcase, walking around shooting heroin with people who’ve been homeless for 30 years and have no teeth, watching people getting stabbed in the homeless shelter lines I’m waiting in to get a bed while it’s pouring rain.”
This went on for months. Another program, another bag of heroin. Wanthal went to a rehab facility in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, thinking it would change him. It didn’t. At that point, his parents were running out of money, so Wanthal bounced between state-funded programs and federal halfway houses. There was no magic bullet equation, he said, of a blend of spirituality, doctors and environment, to keep him clean. Nothing worked.
After a second overdose, Wanthal immersed himself in crime to finance his addiction — smashing windows to steal televisions.
“This two-year cycle of insanity ends abruptly with a federal sting on the streets of Boston,” Wanthal said. “I’m sitting in jail facing a five-year sentence for felony possession of stolen goods. I finally had to look myself in the face and ask myself, ‘Am I really ready to do five years in the state prison?’ I was no fool, I realized I would never last. I realized enough is enough. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. Everything I enjoyed about drugs was gone. I ran myself into the wall.”
After another smattering of detox, a halfway house and then a sober home, Wanthal decided he needed a major life change and flew out to Teton Valley, Idaho.
The last straw
“The biggest mistake I made when I was flying out here was that geographics don’t actually do anything,” Wanthal said. “No matter where I went, I took my addiction with me. There was nowhere to hide. The point is, it’s not the environment that’s important. It’s the person.”
Things seemed good at first for Wanthal. He worked as a lift operator at Grand Targhee Resort, paid his own bills and finally achieved some independence. Pictures showed him happy, smiling, surrounded by friends. His parents started believing him again. He was still reporting to a probation officer, on felony probation from his arrest in Boston.
“Nobody out here knows anything about my past,” Wanthal said. “I’m just Brandon the skier dude who dropped out of college, s--t got a little crazy and now I’m just ski bumming it like everyone else.”
He met a woman who became his fiancee here and stayed for two years. Life was going well, Wanthal said.
“There’s this funny saying that when life is going well, it’s really easy to stay sober,” he said.
In February of 2016, another trauma occurred for Wanthal. On the skintrack of Steve Baugh, a backcountry bowl behind Grand Targhee, his father had a heart attack and died.
“He was always my best friend,” Wanthal said. “I was four hours out there in the backcountry alone, with my dead father in my arms, screaming for help.”
At that point he’d made it a year and a half without hard drugs. His life changed again after his father’s death and a move back to Washington with his fiancee. He soon felt lonely there.
“My life is starting to unravel again mentally, directly correlated with the loss of my father,” he said. “And for whatever reason, I said, ‘F--k it.’ I said, ‘I was just going to do it once. I’m just going to do it this once and never again.’”
Heroin soon had its grip on Wanthal again. After a few weeks his fiancee put two and two together and said she’d drive him to detox or leave. She also told his mother. Wanthal then attempted suicide.
“I can’t even explain to you the state I was in,” he said. After a few more tries to convince his fiancee he’d get clean, she made good on her word and left. Wanthal hit rock bottom again.
“I’m just sitting there with a burrito from the local Mexican place and a bag of heroin,” he said. “I’m sitting there, just crying, literally sobbing. I had no money, no fiancee, and I’m shooting up heroin in a room alone that has no electricity.”
He called his mother, asking for faith, a bottle of NyQuil and, later, a ride to Georgia to start the Appalachian Trail. He wanted to withdraw at home, although experts usually suggest that medical detox is the most comfortable way to purge the drug.
The American Addiction Centers says that “due to its powerful withdrawal symptoms, those who are dependent on heroin should access medical detox in order to wean off the drug.”
Brandon, the addict
Wanthal credits a mental shift of colossal proportions with his sobriety.
“I didn’t want to be an addict,” he said. “I never embraced it. I was never comfortable with Brandon, the addict. I just wanted to be Brandon, the normal person. I could never look anybody in the eye and tell them that. I finally realized that I needed to stay true to myself, I needed to grow up and I needed to embrace who I was.”
When sobriety worked, Wanthal said, it was because he was the one driving his recovery. Not anyone else.
“Every time I got clean, I got clean for somebody else,” Wanthal said. “I got clean because my parents told me to. I got clean because the courts told me I was going to go to jail for five years if I didn’t. I got clean because my girlfriend told me I should stop. I got clean because life got unmanageable.”
He connected with an old Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor at home and told him he needed to go to a meeting every day. He went through withdrawals — throwing up compulsively, shaking, bleeding out of places you’re not supposed to bleed from.
“If you do withdrawals and you’re not on hospital drugs, it’s the worst thing that anybody can ever imagine,” he said.
Heroin withdrawal is not the same for everyone. The longer someone uses heroin, how it was abused and how much was taken each time are all factors in how dependent the brain and the body are on the drug.
Frail and underweight, Wanthal hiked 2,200 miles in six months.
“I would break down every day,” he said. “I would cry, I would scream. When I’d go into towns I’d go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings.”
It wasn’t an easy six months. He broke his ankle on the trail and got sick a few times. He started with $350 and sometimes had to leave the trail to earn enough money to keep going. While hiking he worked through how to respond to an offer of drugs or alcohol.
“Something changed in my mind,” Wanthal said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I would say no. I didn’t have that compulsion to say yes. I just said no. It wasn’t part of who I was any more.”
In October 2017 he finished the trail, six months sober. You can read his blog chronicling the trip at Medium.com/@bwanthal.
“What I learned on that trail was that in the beginning, I was caught in a mental prison, just constantly reliving all the wrongs that I did,” Wanthal said. “The biggest thing that trail taught me was I’ve got to learn to love myself. I have to learn how to be kind to myself.”
Now Wanthal is back in Teton Valley. It’s not easy being reminded of his father. He’ll be a year sober on his father’s birthday, April 8.
He has found a sponsor and is working through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and has started his own AA group to work through pieces of literature.
He tells people that he’s a recovering heroin addict. If people ask him if he wants to go to a bar, he isn’t shy about telling them he’s going to an AA meeting.
“I totally own it,” he said. “I told myself, ‘That’s who I’m going to be. That’s what I did on the AT. People would ask me why I was hiking and I’d say, ‘I’m not hiking only for myself but also to prove there’s a way out of this illness. I’m a recovering heroin addict. I’ve stayed sober this entire length of the way. I’m hiking for a purpose.’”
Embracing who he is and his past, Wanthal said, helps him stay accountable.
“I didn’t hide from a single person,” he said. “I embraced who I was. It’s what I have to do now. Because when I have bad days now, I have somebody to fall back on.”
Wanthal knows what helps.
“If I’m not diligent with my spirituality, my life crumbles,” he said. “But the most beautiful part of my existence today is that I have the ability to help somebody else. Nobody else needs to die from this disease. Why God didn’t choose me, I have no idea. I have a firm belief today that now it’s my duty to the still sick and suffering in hopes that not another life needs to be lost. Everybody deserves a second chance, and everybody deserves a chance to live.”
He sets himself up for success in his daily choices.
“I go over to the bar to watch a football game, and when the game is over, I leave,” Wanthal said. “I don’t have to fear anything in life because everybody knows I’m sober. That creates this buoy system.”
He practices gratitude.
“I get to open my eyes today,” Wanthal said. “I have an answer for life today, and I’m grateful to be alive.”
Relapsing is always on Wanthal’s mind. Relapse rates hover between 40 and 60 percent, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates. But addiction, like any other chronic disease, is treatable. It can’t always be cured, but it can be managed.
“That’s the scariest thing about addiction, and I live with it every day,” Wanthal said. “When I walk into bathrooms that are especially run down and solo and lock behind me, I sit there and I think, ‘This would be a really good place to shoot up a bunch of heroin.’ And then I’m like, ‘OK. I’m going to have those thoughts.’ That’s where the program comes into play. I feel safe when I’m close to the program.”
Even a six-pack at Broulim’s in Driggs, Wanthal said, isn’t worth tempting fate with.
“I know that’s not where it ends for me,” he said. “The idea that I’m normal needs to be smashed.”
That’s why he turns down powder day ski offers to attend meetings — even though it pains him to miss out sometimes.
“I’ll have plenty of time to ski in my life,” Wanthal said. “But if I don’t stay sober today, I might not see tomorrow. I sat there and I threw everything good in my life away over a substance because I was fooled last time. I’m not foolish enough to sit here and think anything different is going to happen. Life is good today. I may not have everything I want but I have everything I need. Life’s going to be all right. It’s important to keep that in perspective.”
On the Appalachian Trail, it was one step ahead of another. That attitude translates to Wanthal’s recovery and commitment to sobriety.
“If I sit there and I try to figure out how to sort my life out today, I’m going to get overwhelmed and I’m going to want to kill myself,” Wanthal said. “I’m going to want to use heroin. But I did realize that I could wake up one day and I know I could stay sober until the sun goes down. And then I could wake up and do it again the next day.”