Friday will mark 19 years since Paul Sullivan last used opioids.
The 58-year-old’s next goal will be to stay clean for 19 years and a day.
“It really is one day at a time,” he said. “People can get better, but it’s never easy. The minute you think you have it beat is when you get in trouble.”
Sullivan, my former teammate with the Lower Township Whalers of the Atlantic County Baseball League, is proof that opioid addiction has no boundaries. Addicts span every age group and economic class.
Paul, a former football, wrestling and baseball standout at Lower Cape May Regional High School, said he never even so much as smoked a joint growing up.
After graduating from Lower Cape May in 1978, he headed to Kutztown University to play baseball, then became a social studies teacher and wrestling and baseball coach at a high school in North Jersey.
He was also an amateur boxer and remembered getting knocked out during a sparring session one day. He said doctors later prescribed Vicodin ES to deal with headaches.
Thus began a downward spiral that lasted for decades.
He thought he had hit rock bottom in 1991, when he made headlines in The Press. He was arrested in Stone Harbor on Aug. 31 that year for allegedly forging prescriptions throughout Cape May County to obtain more than 400 tablets.
“That was the lowest point of my life,” Sullivan said. “I was humiliated. I had disgraced my family and couldn’t face them. And they wanted nothing to do with me after that.”
He got clean and stayed clean for a while. He got a job as a room service waiter at an Atlantic City casino and went back to school.
Six years later, however, came another relapse. He started using pain pills again, and when he ran out, he would turn to heroin. Ultimately, he was arrested again and served 18 months in jail.
When he got out, he was determined not to relapse again. He began attending recovery meetings and sought therapy. One of his counselors and biggest supporters was a friend named Larry, who was also a recovering addict.
“Therapy doesn’t work if you’re talking to someone who’s never been in your situation,” Sullivan said. “You need someone who has been there like you.”
Sullivan turned his life around and has devoted his life to helping others.
He recently earned his second doctorate degree in clinical psychology and works as an addictions counselor at two facilities in upstate New York.
But challenges remain.
Sullivan still can’t go home again. He said he hasn’t seen his family in 15 years. He hasn’t been back to Lower Township since 1995. When his father, Robert, passed away last June, he did not attend the funeral.
He suffered another painful loss recently.
Every year for the last 18 years, Sullivan and Larry would get together once or twice for a reunion and celebration of their sobriety.
He was looking forward to another visit when he got word last month that Larry had died of an overdose.
“After 18 years, he probably figured he could handle it,” Sullivan said. “He probably thought he could do it one time and be OK.”
As Sullivan knows, it’s never OK. Each year, each month, and even each day is a decision not to use again, to choose not to swallow a pill or inject a needle.
When he’s not counseling others, he sees his own therapist once or twice a year and goes to meetings once a month.
“I still get those thoughts and cravings,” he said. “You can’t fight them. You deal with them and continue to follow the path that got you and kept you clean. Could I use again and be able to handle it? Maybe, maybe not. I choose not to take that chance.”
Paul requested a copy of the story from his 1991 arrest. He wanted it as a reminder of that low point in his life.
He also wants a copy of this one to show his patients in hopes it will serve as proof that comebacks are possible.
Maybe, one day, he’ll even be able to go home again.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.