By James Ward
September is National Recovery Month, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Recovery Month is an annual observance to celebrate those in recovery from substance abuse. It recognizes the strength and resilience of individuals living in recovery and encourages those with substance use disorders to seek treatment.
This past year I have been doing some volunteer work for the Alumni Association of the Morris County Drug Court (AAMCDC). The Alumni Association’s mission is to provide Drug Court graduates with access to support for sober living.
To get a better understanding of the substance abuse crisis, I recently spoke with Anthony Justo. Justo is the associate director of AAMCDC. He is also a man in recovery. Our conversation gave me greater insight into the insidious nature of substance abuse and the challenges facing those who struggle against it. I hope the following summary of our conversation will do the same for others.
JW: Anthony, would you tell me about your personal story, the beginnings of your problem with substance abuse and how those problems escalated?
AJ: I have an early memory. I was about 8 years old. It was at a family Christmas party with everyone around me happy and in a celebratory mood. I felt like a stranger. I felt like I didn’t belong. It was my first sense that something was wrong. I start with that early experience because that disconnected feeling stayed with me. My first sense of relief from it, was the first time I drank alcohol.
JW: Hold old were you when you first drank alcohol?
AJ: I was about 13.
JW: Were there other significant events that led up to your use of alcohol?
AJ: When I was 10 years old, my mother overdosed. I experienced it first-hand. At that age I didn’t know what was happening.
JW: That was a hard thing for a 10-year-old to witness. It must have been terrible and frightening.
AJ: It was. I then went to live with my father. My mother wasn’t in a position to care for me. When I was 13, I was involved in a bad accident.
JW: What happened?
AJ: Ironically, a drunk driver hit me. My friend and I were crossing the street, in the walk zone, when the driver drove through the intersection and hit me. I suffered severe trauma to both legs. All the bones, from my knees to my ankles, were broken. I was in a coma. The doctors thought I wouldn’t survive. They considered amputating both legs.
When I regained consciousness, they told me I would never walk again. My rehabilitation was long and difficult. I could no longer play sports. By then sports had become my only positive outlet. Being a good athlete was where I found some acceptance. Being a football player was directly tied to whatever self-worth I had. All of a sudden, that was gone. In its place I found alcohol.
JW: Do you remember your first experience with drinking?
AJ: I remember drinking my first beer. I had a little burning in my stomach, but then something else happened. When the alcohol took effect, I felt more comfortable with myself. The best word I can use to describe it is relief. I felt relief from that feeling of being disconnected, of being a stranger to everyone.
JW: That had to be a powerful emotion.
AJ: It was. And suddenly alchohol was a pseudo-spiritual solution for me. I wanted to drink whenever I could. Alcohol did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.
JW: A dangerous proposition.
AJ: More so than I could ever have imagined. What we called the dry goods came next. Marijuana, cocaine. I started getting into trouble. Stealing to support my habit. When I was 15 my father confronted me. You have two sisters, he said. I can’t have you living here like this unless you stop what you’re doing. It’s stop or get out.
JW: Which was it?
AJ: I got out. I couldn’t stop. I started surviving however I could. I would sleep at friends’ houses. I was without supervision. I could do whatever I wanted. What I wanted to do was alcohol and drugs. It became my way of life. I was expelled from school at 16. I didn’t see that as punishment, just more freedom.
I had used up all my family and friends’ favors. I had no education, no morals, no values. Around 2008 I discovered Oxycodone. It was instant love. At 18 I got an initial settlement from my accident. I knew nothing about handling money. Eventually I was spending over $400 a day on my habit.
JW: Was that your lowest point?
AJ: No. I had one final chance. My grandmother took me in. When I got arrested and my grandmother put her house up as collateral. She almost lost her house when I skipped bail. I was arrested again and faced a long term. At one point I was placed in solitary confinement. Alone in a six-by-10 room for 23 hours and 45 minutes a day. I felt hopeless. This was after I had tried medication, psychiatrists, jail time and detox. I twisted a sheet up so I could hang myself.
JW: And then?
AJ: As I was tying the sheet, there was a knock on my cell door. It was the guard doing his head count. That seemingly insignificant interruption led to my first genuine spiritual experience. I had this powerful, compelling feeling that everything was going to be okay. That I could live without drugs and alcohol. It’s hard to describe, but a power outside me made itself available to me.
JW: That day you took a first step to recovery?
AJ: Yes. Then I appeared in court and was ready to receive a six-year sentence. Just as I was about to go in front of the judge, my public defender lawyer told me someone wanted to speak to the court -– to make a victim’s statement. I expected the worst. But in an act of amazing forgiveness and compassion, the man asked the Judge to sentence me to drug court instead of the six years in prison.
JW: The judge did that?
JW: Did you feel as if you finally had a foothold to a better future?
AJ: I felt a sense of spiritual strength and optimism. Hope.
JW: What happened next?
AJ: For the first time I had some sense of values, a sense of what good behavior and practices meant. All this was followed by more divine moments.
JW: Divine moments?
AJ: I won’t try to describe it. I’ll give you an example.
AJ: While staying at Homeless Solutions, I had the thought that if I could get a job making $100 a day, that I could take care of myself. The $100 per day goal planted itself in my mind. At a recovery function a man asked me if I wanted a job in construction. I didn’t know anything about construction. He told me I could learn on the job, that they would teach me and pay me $100 dollars a day.
JW: The exact number you had targeted.
JW: Seeing you today, and knowing the work that you do, more good things followed.
AJ: I am exceptionally blessed. My sobriety date is October the 9th, 2013. Since then I have married and have a baby girl. I work fulltime as a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist. I have served on the board of trustees of NewBridge Services, a nonprofit organization that helps people of every age and background overcome challenges and live better. I was the first graduate of that program to serve on their board.
I do speaking engagements on recovery and volunteer at the Morris County Correctional Facility. I want my life’s work to be helping others. In 2019 I became the associate director of the Morris County Drug Court Alumni Association, where I work with Director Charles Johnson and his volunteer team to support Drug Court graduates.
JW: Congratulations on all of that. It is most impressive.
AJ: Thank you.
JW: What do you see for the future?
AJ: My wife and I have recently purchased a house. We purchased my grandmother’s house, the house that she once put at risk for me. I have graduated from the Weichert Real Estate School and am looking forward to pursuing that new challenge.
JW: You have had an amazing and inspiring journey. I have one more question for you. There are people who will read this interview who currently suffer from substance abuse. Some may be at or near their own lowest point. What would you say to them?
AJ: That help is available. Twelve-step fellowships are available in all areas, year-round. Most police departments offer assistance to those looking to get into treatment. There are recovery centers in the area like CARES/Community in Crisis that employ Certified Peer Recovery Specialists and facilitate recovery meetings. I would stress this – the most crucial thing I did in my recovery was to make myself open to all the help that was available. If you do that, there is hope. Recovery is possible.
JW: Thank you, Anthony – for sharing your story with such courage and transparency. I wish you well as you continue down your personal road to recovery.
AJ: Thank you.
James Ward is a novelist and short-story writer from Morristown. He serves as volunteer treasurer for the Alumni Association of the Morris County Drug Court.