Walking away from the dragon: a recovering addict’s tale

Recovering heroin addict Jonny Szczesniak, 20, sits on a bench in his Parma, Ohio, apartment complex on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.

Alex Delaney-Gesing

Jonny Szczesniak was nine when he tried heroin for the first time.

He was at a friend’s house after wrestling practice when his friend began breaking down the drug on a table, then snorting it.

“I was like, ‘that looks fun,’ so (he) gave me a line at first, and I remember I came back, maybe once a week, to get high again,” Szczesniak said. “I didn’t know what it was; just that it was a substance that made me feel good.”

Two years passed before he was introduced to a more intense form of shooting the opioid: the needle. Szczesniak was sitting in his friend’s living room snorting lines, he said, when his friend’s mother walked past and offered an alternative form. She told him he was wasting the drug, and pulled out a needle.

When injecting heroin directly into the vein, its effects can be felt more quickly and intensely than other forms of use. While the dosage is stronger, the risk for infection is greater.

“I don’t like needles whatsoever, but that’s a drug in and of itself. I think that’s more addicting than heroin,” Szczesniak said.

He became addicted to the adrenaline rush. The feeling that hit him as the cool, stainless steel, hypodermic needle pierced his skin and exploded into his bloodstream, releasing a euphoria unlike any other he’d known.

Szczesniak began smoking marijuana when he was six years old. His sister, eight years his senior, supplied the drugs.

“I don’t know what her mindset was; I guess someone to get high with,” he said. “It turned into a once-a-month thing, and then a once-a-week thing, and then an everyday thing. It escalates pretty quickly.”

When he switched over to heroin three years later, he’d already become addicted to the lifestyle.

The thrill of seeking out danger and running the risk of fatal consequences pushed him to do more, to want more. “It (kept) things interesting,” he said.

As Szczesniak’s dependency grew into higher dosages in order to get the same high, he lost his will to choose. He’s overdosed more than once — and has died.

Waking up, there’s no feeling, he said. The addiction takes control until all that’s there is loneliness. You’re just looking for a way out, and when you come back, (you think) ‘why did I have to come back?’

“You feel cold and lonely and desperate. You don’t know what you really want, but you want to get better, “ he said. “That scared me.”

The lifestyle Szczesniak led was an addictive trap — a “paradox,” as he called it — where he continued to bury himself deeper and deeper into the idea of judgement and hopelessness.

Through grade school and high school, he continued to use. A wrestler for 12 years, his coaches threatened to kick him off the school team when they saw the track marks from the tips of needles scaring his arms and hands. In response, he switched to his feet. And began to use cocaine.

The time lapse in between dosages brought on withdrawal symptoms. His tolerance continued to build as the frequency in which he used went up. His attitude shifted, his group of friends changed; he became less like the boy his family knew and more like a stranger.

He got tattoos because “it was more intimidating. I thought I was a hardass kid.” Covering his hands and arms, he later added ink to his chest and back.

“I would miss practice every now and then because I was sick. But a lot of times I would go to practice when I was sick because I wanted to get my mind off (of the drugs),” he said.

The drugs didn’t affect his performance at first, but once he hit high school, the continual usage began to show. He shot up before matches and would collapse by the end, exhausted and coughing up blood.

Szczesniak’s mother thought he was going through the normal stages of teenage angst. That the mood swings and coldness were simply part of growing up. She didn’t think anything of his constant state of tiredness on and off the mat.

“As a mother watching your child crash (on the mat), I was just thinking, ‘Oh he just need more sleep,” said Larain Stumpf, Szczesniak’s mother.

He stopped caring about everyday things.  

“I’d ground him and he’d be like ‘I don’t care, I’ll stay in here a week. I don’t care,’” Stumpf said. “I (got to be) a little bit afraid of Johnny. I don’t even know if he knew that. He (became) so serious and had anger issues. I just didn’t want that to escalate (because) he didn’t care about any consequences.”

He stopped caring about school. Eight hours spent in a classroom was time that could be spent doing more important things: heroin.

“I just stopped going. I started not caring as much,” Szczesniak said. “My principal told me at one point, ‘There’s no sense in punishing you because it doesn’t differ your behavior.’”

Stumpf worked full-time throughout Szczesniak’s childhood — something she said she regrets.

“I could blame myself all day: I should have done this, I should have done that,” she said. “You blame yourself for so much. And it really isn’t my fault; I didn’t tell him to (start using).”

She first found traces of drugs in Szczesniak’s belongings when he came back from a camping trip with his father. Seeing charred foil and pieces of what looked to be a joint, Stumpf thought it was pot. She was wrong.

Bottle caps and lighters littered his room. She’d find the ends of pens scattered everywhere — just the ends. He denied any of it was his, placing the blame and ownership on friends.

Szczesniak didn’t have an issue supplying his addiction. He sold household items like furniture and personal possessions. If Stumpf gave him money for pizza on nights she worked late, he’d buy heroin instead.

He invested more of his time and money as the years slipped by, spending time in jail, solitary confinement, halfway houses, on the streets, homeless. His mother sent him to addict groups and a dozen rehabilitation centers, both in and out-of-state. His family held interventions in an attempt to make him see the destructive path he was on.

But getting clean was futile; he shot up as soon as he got out. The consequences at risk were evident, and he didn’t care.

“I realized that I can’t save him; he’s got to save himself,” Stumpf said. “(He) has to decide when he’s ready to get clean, and when he’s serious about getting sober. He’s responsible for his addiction.”

Coming out of rehab time and time again, nothing changed for Szczesniak. His mentality was one of indifference.

“I had consequences … I knew what was in front of me, and I didn’t care. I just kept rolling through it,” he said.

In February, Szczesniak chose to get clean for the final time. This is the longest stretch he’s gone since first trying heroin 12 years ago.

The first few days going drug-free were some of the worst for Szczesniak. His head pounded, simultaneously feeling on the verge of exploding and being consumed by fire. Creakiness overtook his limbs as though they had been transformed into that of the Tin Man: rusty and in need of a good oiling.

Szczesniak craved his own form of oil: heroin. The desire only worsened as he denied his body the drug. He began throwing up in excess, uncontrollable. Cold sweats and seizures overtook his body. Isolation was all he wanted, all he could handle.

“Your body’s in so much pain,” he said. “I (didn’t) want to talk to anybody, I (didn’t) want to be around anybody.”

The whisper that poked and prodded at his mind told him to go back to the dope. Just one hit. All the aches would fade until nothing but pure bliss remained. It would be instant gratification.

“That’s the worst part. If it was just a physical thing, I could (easily) lock myself in a room, sit there and be fine,” Szczesniak said.

He’s been heroin-free for eight months, as of Oct. 9. He keeps track of his sobriety through the smartphone app “I Am Sober”. It tallies the amount of money saved since he stopped using. So far he’s saved nearly $30,000.

Since completing a stint in an Arizona rehab facilitation center earlier this year, he’s turned his mentality around. He’s made goals, and acted on them; He’s looking to the future.

“Everything is different now that he’s clean,” Stumpf said. “Everything is falling into place, and he see’s that because he’s focused.”

To curb the cravings, Szczesniak receives vivitrol injections, a prescription medication used to block the dopamine, ‘feel-good’ effects of opioids. Naltrexone, its most active ingredient, is commonly used to treat alcohol and drug addiction. The medication makes its impossible for him to get high.

The blockage effects of vivitrol begin to fade after approximately two weeks. Szczesniak gets reinjected with the medication every three to four weeks. With it in his system, he’s able to focus — something he’s grateful for.

“I think it’s the best thing to happen for heroin users because it’s the closest thing to a cure we have,” he said.  

His mindset this time around is different, he said. He has experiences and plans in his life to look forward to now.

“I just don’t want to go back to that life anymore. I have much more value in what I have today,” he said.

Szczesniak has a four-year-old son he visits every other Tuesday and weekend. Born during his sophomore year in high school, the child lives with his mother. He said he wants to be sure of himself and his recovery before he takes on a bigger role in his son’s life.

“I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’ll screw up (again),” he said. “I’m not going to waste anyone’s time … (so) I’m waiting until I’m a year clean.”

Szczesniak moved into his own apartment this past summer. His roommate is a 1-year-old dog named Hank, who’s become an anchor in his everyday life. The place is a reflection of who he is, Larain said.

In lieu of family photos, picturesque sceneries and quotes with “most of all I believe in love” and “family” hang from the walls around the dining room table, an encouragement for the path he’s started, and the long journey of recovery that still lies ahead.

“It’s nice to have a pillow to lay my head in every night, and not have to think about whether I screwed anybody over today,” he said. “ I can sleep soundly … without having any nightmares.”

He’s taking small steps toward turning turning his life around — not jumping in headfirst, he said. After dropping out of high school during the height of his addiction, he’s gone back and earned his General Education Diploma. Next up is college, he said.  

He’ll be starting a new job in the coming weeks, getting his license, a new car.  “Just trying to get everything in line now,” Szczesniak said.

Being able to ask for help when he’s needed it has been a blessing, he said. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t know if I’d still be here today,” he said.

Stumpf said waiting for Szczesniak to reach out to her — and the rest of his family — has been difficult, but well worth the wait.

“A lot of people want (help), but they won’t ask for it. They know there’s a problem, but they won’t admit it. They want to stop using, but they don’t know how,” she said. “(But with) Johnny — he has us. He felt all alone, but we were all just here waiting for him to say that.

“We’re lucky to still have him … I didn’t think he’d live this long,” Stumpf said. “I didn’t think he’d live to be 16, actually. And now he’s 20. Thank God.”

Alex Delaney-Gesing is a senior reporter, contact her at [email protected].