The drugs made him feel like a man.
Mike Devlin was in his senior year of college in Vermont, and what began as a dependence on painkillers – an introduction made via sports injuries – had spiraled deeper: Cocaine. Heroin. Other opiates.
"I stopped playing lacrosse, and I started to lose my identity and sense of purpose," says Devlin, 24, who now lives in Dallas, Texas. "What made me feel like a man, and what made me feel needed, was this new identity: I'm a college student, I'm taking three classes, I'm working two jobs and on the side I'm selling drugs. I was pretty much living three different lives, between what my parents were thinking, what I was thinking with school and work, and then this life of drugs and crime."
If Devlin's story rings familiar, it is: The government estimates that nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population has used an illicit drug or abused prescription medication in the past month. And in early July, Hollywood stars and television fans were sent reeling after "Glee" star Cory Monteith was found dead, victim to a lethal combination of heroin and alcohol. The news turned attention to what some experts refer to as an addiction "crisis," particularly among young adults.
It's a struggle that perhaps no one understands more intimately than those who have lived it, and those who have loved an addict. Those like Devlin, who's now a house manager at the Gaston House, a sober living community for men in Dallas where he received care after completing rehab at Caron Treatment Center in Wernersville, Pa. Devlin opened up to U.S. News about his battle against addiction. His responses have been edited.
How old were you when you began using drugs?
I started experimenting with alcohol and drugs a little before high school. I played lacrosse my whole life, and during high school, I underwent a couple surgeries. I was prescribed painkillers, and once I started taking those, I realized I didn't need anything else.
When I got to college, I underwent another surgery and decided to stop playing lacrosse. Addiction is a progressive illness, and it was progressing. Right before my junior year of college, I spent my first summer away from home, and I kind of just lost hope in everything. I fell into the world of addiction and drugs altogether. That year, I found a sense of desperation and wanted to get help. I left school and came to an out-patient program in New York. At that point, it was the pills that were a problem for me, so I went back to school thinking, "Oh, I can still smoke pot, I can still drink, I can still do cocaine."
Eventually all those things weren't doing it for me, so I reverted back to what I know works for me. I went back to the pills, which started progressing into heroin. The big thing for me was speedballing – doing cocaine and opiates together. That's what made me feel comfortable, made me feel on top of the world.
When did you hit rock bottom and realize you needed help?
Around Christmas 2010, I had two jobs and was selling drugs, and I still wasn't making enough money to afford my habit. So I was robbing my friends, robbing the people I was selling drugs to, and I found myself in a really bad spot. I went home at Christmas and some of this stuff started to come to light between me and my family. I told myself again and again, "I'm gonna go back to school, and I'm going to clean up. It's gonna be OK." As addicts, we believe ourselves. I wanted to get clean, and I really believed that I was going to.
I went back to school, and about a week later I was robbing everybody I could. I ended up in a Motel 6. I had spent all the money I had left on drugs and I polished off everything, hoping I wasn't going to wake up. Later, when I turned on my phone, I saw text messages from people who were worried about me, and I had a text from my mom that said, "Just let me know you're OK." Being an addict – just as a human being – you have all this shame, this pain, this guilt. How could this woman still want to help me after all I'd put her through? I was asking myself all these questions, and I just said to myself, "You know what, I'm going to do it this time. I'm going to surrender and take direction and give life another chance."
How would you describe your experiences at rehab?
The strange thing was that I wasn't angry, and for the first time, I wasn't really scared. The woman who checked me in told me I looked too happy to be at rehab. At first I thought, "This is going to be a piece of cake." But then the drugs wore off and, you know, a week or two went by, and I started feeling miserable again.
After about a month at Caron, I knew I couldn't go back to Vermont. I needed to go somewhere where I was going to be surrounded by people who were struggling like me – but who were also trying to become young men who could live a sober life. And not just a sober life, but sober and happy. I knew there was a deeper, underlying issue, that drugs were not just my problem, but that there was something in my mind that led me to drugs. And that was something that was going to take more than 30 days for me.
What's your advice on talking to friends who are struggling with addiction?
I never wanted to hear somebody tell me what I needed. The friends who got through to me were the ones who sat there and began to understand me. They asked me questions about what was going on, so they could understand my story to the best of their knowledge, and then they used that to relate. My approach is almost exactly that: It's having a conversation with no judgment. As much as you can, try to relate to that person, and then plant a seed. Until somebody is ready to ask for help or accept help, they're going to go to any lengths they can to do what they want to.
What was your reaction when you heard the news about Cory Monteith?
Whenever I hear news like this, whoever it is, it hurts. At first I feel anger, because I'm not a super smart person. And I think, "If I can get this, anyone can." But the anger comes from pain, because I knew where he was at. I've been there and it's tough. The sad truth is, when you hear about someone who's been in and out of treatment, and dabbling with heroin and opiates and drinking, it's not a huge shocker. It's going to happen, and it's not going to stop. I've been sober for two and a half years, and I know people who have been for 12, 18, 20 years, and they've relapsed and died. It's something we have to deal with and conquer on a day-to-day basis.
This is part of a two-part series. For the perspective of Devlin's mother Anita, click here.