A stranger’s confession: ‘I used to be a heroin addict’

One of those polite, “so where you from?” sort of conversations went this way: “I used to be a heroin addict.”

Not the sort of line to make a morning drive with a complete stranger very comfortable. And even if it makes no difference intellectually, and I was making no judgment, there is an inevitable difference emotionally if that complete stranger happens to be at the wheel of a large truck and you’re riding shotgun at 70 mph through the serpentine mountain passes of the Rockies.

The backstory: The brakes on our rental van for a group trip to Vail were less than ideal. Elevation of nearly 12,000 feet in places, you gotta come back down. Brakes tend to be handy in those situations. At journey’s end, with white-knuckled fingers, I arranged a vehicle exchange. Which is how I wound up with a former heroin addict driving a rollback truck with a Dodge van lashed to the back, en route to pick up another van.

Joe, the driver, had in the first 10 minutes already offered his thoughts on the Afghanistan withdrawal, life in the Rockies as an itinerant skier/snowboarder/bowhunter, the beauty of Colorado, the welfare state, rental-car employee incompetence, his loyal (and colorful-cussing) boss and his college football career.

Then he dropped the addiction bit.

He’s 31. He went cold-turkey to beat the addiction. Twice. The second time took. He’s been clean for nine years he told me as he navigated a curve 8,000 feet above sea level, with walls of pine trees reaching to the sky on either side.

Joe recognized he had to remove himself from those who offered their hands to drag him back down, rather than those with hands to help lift himself up. He left his native state behind and moved to Colorado. He’s living in his truck camper, cobbling together enough money through driving a wrecker and working at a restaurant.

The whole thing started with football.

He injured a shoulder playing juco ball, on a team that was nationally ranked. The treatment seemed to be the cavalier way of too many who treat athletes – take this and rest two days and get tough, and take another if you need it. The pain pills led to oxy. Oxy led to sniffing heroin. Sniffing heroin led to shooting up, he said, gliding down one last mountain and into a non-descript valley town.

The whole thing ended with football.

The focus required to play a sport enabled him to find a path. The inner-strength that carries through August two-a-days helped him to fight through the unimaginable pain of withdrawal. The athlete’s knowledge of one’s body – the difference between being injured and simply hurting – was a benefit.

He still loves football. He wishes he were still playing. He’d like to become a coach, but he knows a background check will be devastating. Then again, what life lessons could he impart that others might not?

Before Joe dropped me off at the airport terminal entrance and drove away to unload the car, he invited our group to his restaurant. We had other reservations in place, but nonetheless I left him with a tip for the drive – and he left my mind still spinning a bit. This is not the sort of conversation one expects early in the morning on a vacation.

As he drove away, I was conflicted.

I didn’t know whether to curse football for what it had caused in this young man – or praise it for how it may have saved this young man’s life.

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