For people struggling with addiction, it may feel like there’s no way out, but Dean Malanga is proof that it’s wrong. He shares his comeback story of addiction, the dark places that it brought him to and the people that were affected because of it. Determined to dedicate his life to help others heal from addiction in any way he can, Dean tackles how rock bottom can be a foundation where you can completely rebuild your life and make it beautiful again. He talks about the support group that has helped him throughout his recovery from addiction and debunks the stigma that people have about those affected by the disease. Dean reminds everyone that no matter how low you may get, there is still hope and change is possible.
We have a good friend of mine, Dean Malanga. I have known Dean since we started playing hockey together at the age of ten. Dean has one of the most inspiring stories you’ll ever hear. Dean shares his comeback story of addiction, the dark places that brought him to, the people that were affected and how rock bottom can be a foundation where you can completely rebuild your life and make it beautiful again. Dean owns every inch of his story. He weighs all of the cards out on the table. It is very real and that’s what I love most about it. Dean has dedicated his life to helping others heal from addiction in any way he can. This is dedicated to the beautiful people, loved ones we have lost to this disease and to the loved ones that are fighting.
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Recovery with Dean Malanga
Dean, how are you doing?
I’m good. Kevin, how are you doing?
Dean’s got an amazing story. Dean, where are you from originally?
I grew up in a small town down in the Jersey shore called Lavalette. When people don’t know where it is, I say, “Have you ever seen the show Jersey Shore? That’s in Seaside and that’s two towns away from me. It’s a small town. It’s like two miles wide.
What’s it like growing up down there? It gets pretty bare in the winter.
It’s a ghost town in the winter time. I would be able to drive from Point Pleasant, which is ten miles away down to Lavalette on Route 35 and see maybe two cars. In the summertime, it’s a different story. It’s crazy down here in the summertime. I live in Point Pleasant. I bought a house in Point Pleasant.
What were you into growing up?
Growing up by the beach surfing. When I was young, I was at the beach every day. My parents would bring me up to the beach every day, everything like body boarding, surfing. Surfing was a huge part of my life until my dad got me into fishing and I started fishing. My grandfather was a big fisherman. I started fishing with my dad. I fell in love with it. When I was thirteen, I got a job on a fishing boat out at Point Pleasant. From there on out, I worked on that boat on and off every summer until I was about 22 or 23.
You got to wake up ridiculously early for that.
At the time I thought it was ridiculously early, but I wake up for work at 3:30 AM. It wasn’t that bad. I had to be at the boat at 6:00 AM. It’s funny, I would get up around 5:15. My grandfather loved the fact that I was working on a fishing boat. My grandmother would make me bacon, egg and cheese every morning. My grandfather would bring it on there. He’d bring it over, wrapped up in tinfoil with chocolate milk and I would eat it in the boat every morning.
I met you through playing hockey since we were ten. How’d you get into hockey?
My dad was always a hockey fan. He started my brother playing roller hockey. I’m two years younger than my brother. We all started playing roller hockey. He started a Little League in Lavalette, which it was hard to feel the team. For example, Lavalette grade school, kindergarten through eighth grade, there was right around a hundred kids in the entire school. I didn’t stay there. In sixth grade, I went to a different school, but my eighth-grade class graduated with thirteen kids. We had this small team called the Lavalette Lasers. That’s where it all started. We played at the Atlantic Club. They had a little roller hockey rink set up in the parking lot. I used to get dressed at my house in Lavalette. I would sit on the backseat with my helmet on, my gloves, pull up to the rink, get out and skate. That’s where it all started. Squirts is when I started playing ice hockey. I started playing in house ice hockey at Bricktown. The Eagles, and that’s where I met you.
I think we were ten. Mark Stall, that was my first travel team. That was unreal.
That’s where ice hockey started for me. I pretty much gave up roller hockey and I played straight ice hockey.
It made a huge impact on your life where you went to high school for it.
You know what it’s like. God bless our parents for taking the time out of their lives to help us. Every practice late at night, getting up at dawn, 5:00 AM to bring us to practices, traveling all over these places to bring us to games. Playing on a travel hockey team, you have to be committed, but it was so much fun. It was awesome going away to tournaments, staying in hotels, playing mini hockey in the elevators. I fell in love with hockey. I was playing baseball and soccer when I was younger. I started playing ice hockey and I was playing soccer. I had to make a decision between soccer and ice hockey. It was hands down ice hockey. I was a little too physical for soccer anyway.
You’re always way bigger than everybody else.
I was a big boy when I was a kid. I definitely haven’t gotten any smaller either.
When did all this start for you this? What we’re about to get into?
My addiction issues. I always like to start from the beginning because there’s this common misconception and there’s this common stigma about people who suffer from addiction problems or alcohol problems. Especially addiction problems, people think that they’re people who have a bad upbringing, come from a shattered home or live in the inner city. That’s not the case. It affects everybody. If anybody says that it doesn’t, then they’re lying to themselves.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have.
It doesn’t matter where you live, how much money you have. You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer. This disease doesn’t discriminate. It affects everybody. You could go into a room full of twenty people and ask them to raise their hand if they know somebody who’s struggling with addiction or alcoholism and I guarantee you, fifteen or all of them will raise their hand and say, “I have a family member, I have a friend.” It affects everybody. I can talk for hours about this stuff because it’s what I’m passionate about because it’s terrible out there. For example, my best friend in high school. We grew up playing hockey with him forever. He was 28 years old the day before he’s playing on the first day, overdosed.
It’s probably bad everywhere, but I feel like most people in New Jersey know somebody that’s had a good friend, family members passed away from especially with the pills.
The pills, that’s how I got started, was the Percocet to Oxycontin. I got started when I was in my freshman summer of college. When I came home from school, I was introduced to Oxycontin for the first time. At this point in my life, I went away to college and in my freshman year, I made the varsity hockey team. I was doing great. I was playing first line defense. It was awesome. I did great in school. I was a nursing major. I like super hard classes, I got all A’s and B’s and, but when I went into college, I went to school with this mentality that this was my time to experiment. This was my time to have fun. I was fully committed to the education aspect of it, but I was going to have fun. I was going to experiment, I was going to try new things. I know a couple of weeks into my first semester up there, I was at a party at the hockey house, which was five guys on the hockey team, older guys, all juniors, and seniors.
They all liked me because I was a good hockey player. I was fun to be around. I’ll never forget it. One kid asked me, “Come up upstairs. I’ve got to show you something.” I went into the room and there are four other kids on the team and they are doing cocaine. I’ve never seen it in my life. Growing up, I told myself like, “I would never touch that stuff.” I would never go near that stuff. I told myself I would never smoke pot. I told myself I would never drink until I was 21. I got to high school and I started drinking and I was like, “I’m drinking. I’ll never smoke pot.” I started smoking pot. I was like, “I’m never going to do any hard drugs.” That night at that hockey house, I tried cocaine for the first time. My brain is wired differently than people because I fell in love with it. Granted, I knew it was bad, but everybody was doing it. It was socially acceptable in that scene. I did it on the weekends, but I would party Friday, Saturday night, and then I’ll go to class Monday through Friday, study for my test. I go to hockey practice, go to hockey games on the weekend.
You’re very high functioning but you’re having fun at the same time.
At this point, it was all fun. I haven’t crossed that line. You’ll hear people talk about that imaginary line, where once they crossed that, there’s no turning back. At this point, it was all fun for me because I was still doing what I had to do. I did that in my freshman year. I had a great time. I got good grades, I partied, and I did great in hockey. I went home and started working on the fishing boat again. I’m pretty sure anywhere you go and there’s a fishing town or some fishing industry, there’s a big scene of drugs and alcohol. Fishermen are notorious drinkers and druggers. I met a guy, I worked with this guy in the boat and he said, “Percocet, you want to try one?” Again, I’ll go back to that mentality I have at this point in my life, I was like, “Why not? I want to experience it.” I tried one. I knew it made me feel good, but it wasn’t like I did that. From there on, I was gone. I did it a few more times that summer and that was that.
It is scary how good they make you feel. It takes you to like a whole different realm that you’ve never thought was possible.
I’ll get into the whole opiates, the whole thing with Purdue Pharmaceutical and all that BS and how they marketed it back in the day. It takes you to a different level. You feel great. Nothing can hurt you. You’re in a great mood. I did them a couple of times that summer. I drank a lot and I partied a lot that summer, but I was working on the boat and I was making money. I went back to college for my sophomore year. When I got back to school this time, I got a house with four other kids in the hockey team. We got this cool little house right off campus. I wasn’t in the dorms anymore and so I had the freedom to do whatever I want. I didn’t have to worry about my RA walking in on me or getting in trouble because it smells like pot. It was my house, so I could do what I wanted.
I started off the semester strong. I was named the captain of my hockey team my sophomore year, but the partying started slowly taking over. In the beginning of the semester, I was attending all my classes. Halfway through the semester, I started skipping out on a class here and there, drinking a lot during the weeknights. By my second semester up there, I was drinking every night. I was doing a lot of cocaine. I can look back and see this is a warning signal, a red flag. It’s easy to look back at my past and see where my addiction started. I see with a clear mind, and this was one of those times when I would get home from class, I would pick up a twelve-pack on the way home, I would drink all twelve beers and I would smoke. By the end of the night, I was going out and trying to find cocaine and I’m in my room by myself, not even going out to a party.
It wasn’t I was locking myself away. I would go out with my friends on the weekends and everything, but when I couldn’t get any of them to tag along with me, I was still going to do it. In my mind, I pulled myself like, “This is what everybody’s doing now. It’s just college. It’s what you do in college.” That was my sick thinking. Obviously my grades started to suffer. I didn’t go to as many classes. By the end of my second semester, I was in full on party mode. I got my grades back and stayed in that nursing program. I think you needed a 2.85 or 2.95 GPA and I got 0.5 below what I needed to stay into the program. I got this letter in the mail saying, “You’re no longer in the nursing program but you can come back to East Stroudsburg for the summertime and take classes. If you pass these classes, we’ll allow you back in.”
My mind was set. I grew up at the beach and I wanted to be home. I wanted to be near the ocean, I wanted to be fishing, and I want it to be hanging out with my friends. It’s that whole mindset I had about going into college. Hockey’s cool, playing sports in college is cool, but this is about bettering my future, getting a degree. That was out the window at this point. I just said, “Screw that. I’m not going back to landlocked Pennsylvania for the summertime. I want to stay here and party and I want to drink.” That’s what made my decision. I was so terrified of not being able to do that as if I was missing out on some great experience.
That’s honestly how you feel as a twenty-year-old. That’s all that’s going on. You’re like, “This is it.”
I thought that was the whole world. I made the decision not to go back to East Stroudsburg. I told my parents it’s not what I wanted to do. I started looking at other schools that summer, but that summer was also when my real addiction issues started with the Percocets. I was working on a fishing boat and I’d walk off the fishing boat with $200, $250 in cash every day. In the beginning of the summer, I would still go out with my friends, drinking and everything, but I was doing Percocets. I would go to work in the morning. I would take all my money and buy the pills with it at the end of the day. It was a vicious cycle over and over and there was no awareness about them. This was when the whole epidemic started, because nobody talks about them. There was no education; there was nothing. I didn’t know you could get addicted to them. I didn’t know there was withdrawal. I didn’t know how dangerous they were. I knew they made me feel good and I knew a lot of people that were doing them.
They were giving it out like candy. The doctor’s like, “To get out an ACL injury, here’s a huge script for you.” It was unbelievable.
When you get your simple shoulder injury or something, he’s like, “Here’s twenty Percocets, 30 milligrams.” Are you kidding me? The market was flooded with these things. That also goes back to Purdue Pharmaceuticals with the campaigns they were introducing back in the day. They had all these giant conventions. They flew all these doctors and put them up in a nice hotel, fed them and introduced Percocet or Oxycontin, whatever they introduced, saying “Less than 1% chance of addiction,” where they blatantly lied. Doctors, they didn’t know any better. They listened to the professionals. Somebody comes in with a shoulder injury or pulled a muscle in their back, “This is a miracle drug. Twenty Percocets, here’re 30 Percocets.” These people are getting all these and they’re taking a few whatever, put them in their medicine cabinets and then they’re all over the place.
It’s a billion-dollar industry.
That summer I was doing a lot, three, four a day, spending a lot of money on them. I didn’t know that I was going to get these withdrawals from them. Over the summertime, I got into a school called SUNY Maritime. I think the only reason I got in was that the hockey coach grew up in Bricktown and he knew Brick Hockey Club. He knew of me from playing at Brick. I remember going to maritime that summer and he brought me in with my application to the admissions counselor. He came out of his office and was like, “You’re in.” This was some cool maritime. I actually looked at this school before any nursing or radiology schools. Merchant Marine, you’re on a ship, you’re on a tug boat. Me being on boats my whole life, that was perfect for me.
I was excited to start there. I remember getting up there the first week of classes and I woke up on a Monday. I felt like I had the flu and I was like, “What is going on?” I remember talking to my parents like, “I’m sick. I think I got the flu,” and they’re like, “It’s the first day of class and he’s sick.” It passed after like three or four days or whatever. I got over it. I had this insane anxiety and depression, which I’ve never experienced in my life. I was always a happy kid. There’s no history of it in my family, and I remember experiencing this. I thought it was because I went from East Stroudsburg, where I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to. It was a para-military school. I’m wearing a uniform every day. I’m waking up at 5:30, 6:00 AM to go salute the flag no matter what the weather is. There were room inspections. I had to be cleanly shaven every morning. I thought that’s why I was getting these feelings.
You had a lot more going on.
It took me a while to put two and two together because I would go home every weekend from maritime and I would get high. I would do pills. I would drink. I would party and then I’d go back to school on Monday and get these crazy feelings of anxiety. I remember calling my parents up, crying my eyes out. I’m saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel like I just need to run.” It was crazy. I felt like I wanted to just get up and run.
Do you feel like you had to work it out or sweat it out or something?
It wasn’t even that. It was like this restlessness, this crazy feeling of anxiety and sadness. I needed to get away. I had nowhere to go, but I knew I needed to run.
How long were those waves lasting for?
It would be intense for two days and then it would taper off. My dad would talk me off the ledge or I would tough it out and fight through it. I realized later that these withdrawals I was having then we’re were nothing compared to what’s to come. That year, I told my parents I had all these issues and they set me up with a therapist who I would go and talk to. They also send me over this psychiatrist. I got an appointment with her. This is another pet peeve I have. I sat down with her for twenty minutes. My first appointment with her, she asked me what’s school like, what was I feeling?
Within twenty minutes of talking to me, apparently she knew that I had depression, anxiety, and ADHD. I walked out of there with prescription to Lexapro, Xanax, Klonopin, and Adderall. Opiates is what brought me to my knees, but it didn’t matter what it was at this point. If it made me feel differently than what I felt, it was okay by me. I walked out of there like I hit the lottery. I was sick and I remember getting those prescriptions filled up and I was like, “This is great.” I’m going to do great in school because I have Adderall. I’ve experimented with Adderall at East Stroudsburg studying for exams and everything.
You had things to combat the lows.
I had bottles. It was like a roller coaster, Xanax are downers, Adderall are uppers. I was going nonstop. I didn’t even take the Lexapro. I remember at one point I have seven or eight filled bottles of Lexapro just sitting in my room. I didn’t take them because I thought I didn’t need them. At this point, I realized that anxiety and that depression was from the withdrawals. It didn’t stop me though. I think at this point, I was right there. I was walking a fine line and it didn’t take much time for me to step over that imaginary line. I went back, I finished school and I actually did good in school that year with all A’s and B’s.
Were you keeping it to the weekends at that point or was it dabbling?
At that point, it was the weekends for the Percocets and everything besides the Adderall. The Xanax and the Klonopin, I didn’t even take that many of them. I didn’t like that downer feeling. It sounds stupid because the Percocets are basically the same thing, but the Xanax, I remember taking them and not remembering anything. At one point, I lost days because it’s crazy. It’s sad. I would do the Adderall during the week and then I’d go home. I do the Percocet, when I come back to school. The Adderall helped with the withdrawals because it gave me energy and it kept me going when the withdrawals from the Percocets want to bring me down. It put me in a good mood. I went home that summer. I got all the grades. My parents were happy. I went back to work on the fishing boat. This is a summer that things turned. I definitely crossed that imaginary line. I’m doing pills every day, going out drinking, everything. If you put in front of me, I wasn’t going to leave. It wasn’t going to say no.
I went back to the maritime. Somewhere during that school year, I was home one weekend and I was trying to find Percocet. I was doing the same old thing and they were drying up, getting harder to find. They’re becoming more expensive. The girl who I was getting them from said, “I can get you these, but I’ve got to go here and I’ve got to pick something up for myself.” I said, “All right, let’s go.” I remember her getting back into my car and she had these little white squares and I was like, “What’s that?” She’s like, “That’s heroin.” I was like, “How much does that cost?” She’s like, “These little squares are only $10.” At this point, I was spending $30 for a Perc 30 and I was like, “What’s the equivalent of that to the Percocet?” She’s like, “It’s strong. Maybe one or two bags is equal to Percocet.” Here I could get three Percocets for $100 or I can get ten bags of heroin.
I was like, “Let me buy two of those from you.” After that day, I never bought another Percocet again. I tried heroin. I’m not ashamed anymore. It’s part of my life and made me who I am. I’m just going to get real. At this point, I was sniffing them. The Percocets, I was always sniffing them. The heroin, when I started doing it, I was sniffing it. I would go back to maritime, come back on the weekends and get a bunch of heroin. I go back and I still had my prescriptions to all the other drugs that I was prescribed too. I stopped going to class.
How did you look at this point? Did anybody at this point pulled you to the side and said, “Dean are you good? Are you okay?” Do you have it together?
I somewhat had it together. I was able to save face in front of my parents and my family. I talked to my mom about it and she’s like, ”I knew something was wrong. It’s the mother’s intuition.” At this point she didn’t know what it was like. She thought I had the mental issues that were brought on by drugs and alcohol, the depression and the anxiety. She didn’t know what was going on.
She didn’t want to think that either.
Her sweet little boy, there’s no way he’s doing heroin. I was back in the Bronx. Our school is in the Bronx. I finished up that semester. My grades weren’t great. I almost got kicked out. They were like, “We’ll let you come back for another year. If you can bring your grades up, we’ll let you stay.” That summer I went back to Jersey and went back to the fishing boats, and it’s the same old thing. I make $200, $250, $300 a day, spend it all on drugs, go back the next day, do the same thing, nonstop. I was never home. This was when my parents started to worry about me. I held it all together somehow. I knew at this point, I was full-blown addicted. I always told myself, “Once I graduate school and I get my degree and I get a real job, I’ll stop. Once I get a girlfriend that I’m serious with, I’ll stop.” It was always these outside forces that I told myself if this happens or that happens, then I’ll stop. I was so dumb at that point that I had to want it.
I had that girlfriend. The degree wasn’t it. I was like, “I’m dating this girl now. I really like her, maybe she’ll help me straighten out.” That wasn’t the case. The cycle kept up. I went back to maritime and I basically sat in my room during the week and sat on my computer. That’s all I did. I would barely leave the room. Remember, this was a school that randomly drug test you. They knock on your door at 5:30 AM and say, “You’re coming to get a drug test because you’re working on ships, you’re responsible for other people’s lives.” I was always terrified of that. I would set my alarm for 4:30 AM and I would leave my room and go hide out. I would go hide out downstairs at one of the common areas in the dorms. My roommates called me, then I knew I had to go take a drug test, but I knew I could somehow cheat. I was always scheming.
My mind was running 24/7 scheming. I used to say that year, it was the most exhausting thing you could ever imagine. I can’t even believe it. I’m coming up on years sober and I look back, every day I think about it because it’s good to keep it fresh in my mind to remind myself that I never want to go back to that place ever again. It was exhausting. On the weekends, I would get heavy into the heroin, I would come back to school on Monday and I maybe have a couple of bags left, so I would do it Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, I was freaking out. I was stuck in this dorm room, there’s a weight on my shoulders. My parents are paying for my college. I’m not even going to class. I haven’t been to class. I haven’t passed the test. I had that need to run. I would leave my room, I’d walk off campus to the bus stop, BX40. I forget the name of the bus.
I would take the BX40 to another stop in the Bronx and get on the BMX9 and take that into Manhattan. It was a ten-minute bus ride to the BMX9 and a 45-minute bus ride from there to Penn Station. I would jump on a train in Penn Station, an hour and 45-minute train ride back down a Point Pleasant. I’d meet up with somebody, get what I could with the money I had that I was making up excuses to my parents why I needed money at school. I’d put it in my account. I’d use that to get home. I’d meet up with them for maybe twenty minutes and I jump back on the next train, an hour and 45 minutes back to the city, 45 minutes back to the Bronx and ten minutes back to campus. I won’t go to any classes during the day. That’s what I did, and then I’d be good for another two days. I’d go home on the weekend and keep going. I failed all my classes and that was that. I remember going back to New Jersey.
What month is it at this point?
It was summertime. To backtrack a little bit, at that point in that year, I don’t know if it was the summer before that or during that school year, you do this and you build up a tolerance. Maybe, in the beginning, I was doing maybe five bags and then a couple of months later I needed ten to get any feeling. All of a sudden I’m doing twenty. This kid who I was getting from, I met with him one night in Bricktown and he was like, “Have you ever tried using a needle?” I was like, “No, I don’t know how to do it.” He was like, “I’ll do it for you.” We were sitting in his car and he puts the needle in my arm.
Was that a completely different level?
You’re putting it right into your bloodstream as opposed to inhaling it up your nose and then it has to go through those barriers. Whatever the science is behind it, you dissolve it in water and you put it right into your bloodstream and it hits you immediately. I was hooked from there on out. I was already hooked on the drug, now I was hooked on the needle part of it. It was almost like I was addicted to the drugs, but I was also addicted to the ritual behind it, going to meet the drug dealer, getting it, sitting in my car, mixing it up. The whole thing was part of my addiction. I’m 24 years old. I’m living in my parents’ house. I have five years of college under my belt with no degree to show for it. I had tons of student loans. I’m an active IV heroin addict and I’m hiding this from my parents.
I didn’t have a job at this point and I needed this drug to survive. With no money, what do you do? For me, unfortunately, I lied to, and I manipulated. I stole from the people that love me the most. My mother, my father, my sister and my brother. It didn’t matter who you were, what your relationship was with me, my ex-girlfriend, I would take her debit card and go to the ATM and pull out $400. It did not matter. It turned me into somebody I never thought I would be and it took over my life. The sick part of my mind thought that I would still be able to complete school for some reason, while doing this. It’s that thought that like, “Today is going to be the last day. Tomorrow I’m going to stop.”
When you’re this far in, what is the mentality like? Do you think everything’s good even though it’s not and you’re not affecting anybody around you?
I thought that I had everything under control. I was under this mindset that everything was going to work out. I didn’t have to put any effort. Something was going to come to me. I thought I was still hiding it well. Meanwhile, throughout my drug addiction, I have totaled four cars and accidents. I’ve walked away from each one. The last one was the worst, and I’ll tell you about that. Here I am home, and I got a job with one of my dad’s friends doing sprinklers. I did that for the summer. My friend from high school called me, one of my best friends from high school. He was in a union, Local 1556 with dock builders, so pile drivers, drilling in New York and Jersey. He called me. He still didn’t know how bad I was. He knew I partied and everything, but I hid it from everybody. I would go over to my ex-girlfriend’s house and hide in her house. Even her, somehow I hid it from her too. I always had an excuse. I always had a lie. I was a good manipulator. I would do anything for the next high.
He called me up and he said, “We’re slammed. Our company’s slammed. I can get you into the Union full book,” which means usually there’s a five-year apprenticeship. You start out making a certain amount of money and each year you work your way up. He was, “I can get you in full book. You have to give me a commitment and say this is something you want to do.” I was like, “Yeah.” In my mind I’m like, this is what I needed to get to put it all behind me. I’ll have a great job. It’s a career job. I’ll make really good money and this is what I thought was going to help me. I’m in the pile driver’s union, I’m up in Weehawken on my first job and trying to hide everything. I go from not making much money at all to making $1,200 a week. This is great. I’ll have money to get high, have money to put gas in my car. I’ll have money to eat.
I get paid on a Thursday, anywhere between like $1,000, $1,300, $1,400, depending on how much overtime I worked. By Monday, Tuesday afternoon at the latest, it was all gone. My addiction went from here to off the charts because I couldn’t stop. It was more and more. I have all these things and this crazy weight on my shoulders and I needed to numb that. My life wasn’t that bad. I had a family that loves me. I had a family that put a roof over my head. I was so far gone into this, there was no way I was getting out of my own. It all came to a head for the first time around Christmas 2014. I took my grandmother’s credit cards. I went to JC Penney and I took out $1,000 in gift certificates. I went to a pawn shop and I traded them in for $500 cash so I can get high.
My grandmother called my mother and asked her. She confronted me and I broke down to them that night in my living room and I said, “I have an addiction problem.” My girlfriend at the time was there. I was crying my eyes out, trying to make everybody feel sorry for me. My parents were shooked. They were devastated. I didn’t tell them the extent of it, I told them I was doing Percocets. I never told him I had done anything intravenous or anything like that. I go for my first trip to detox. I went to a place called Discovery, in Marlboro. I remember that night I was leaving and drugs are a huge part of my story, but alcohol was right behind it. It didn’t matter what it was. If I didn’t have my drugs in the morning when I woke up, I was drinking vodka or gin. I remember drinking Snapple and vodka on the way to detox my first time.
I remember getting in that detox, feeling like crap for a few days. I started to feel better. I remember telling myself, “I can’t do heroin anymore. I can’t do opiates anymore, but I’m still going to drink and I’m still going to smoke weed. I’ll still go out to the bars and maybe do a little cocaine, but I can’t touch the opiates.” From that detox, I was there for seven days. They tried to get me into an in-patient where I would stay there for 30 days. I said, “No, I don’t need that.” They’re like, “You can go to intensive outpatient treatment.” You get there at 8:00 AM, you go through groups the whole day, and you leave at 3:00, five days a week. They drug test you. I started doing that. Four or five days into it, I was drinking again, another couple days I was smoking weed again. The next thing you know, I’m doing heroin again.
I didn’t see the progression at that point when I could look back and see how that affects me. That’s why I’m stone cold sober. I don’t drink, I don’t touch anything. Everything is off limits to me. It took me a while to realize like that’s what I needed to do to get this under control. I go through this intensive outpatient treatment and I graduate. They graduated me, I’m still smoking weed, I’m cheating on the drug tests and I’m still getting high. My parents are relieved that I’m doing good. I told them everything they wanted to hear because I was so set on hiding this again. I went back to work in the union. I maybe made it another two or three months, but the whole time I was getting high again. It started out slow and within two weeks, progression took over and I was right back to where I left off.
I was driving home from work one day and it was raining out and I was on Route 37 in Toms River. I think I nodded off while I was driving. I came to and there was a car, red light, and I slammed on the brakes. I slid and turned. I bounced off, nicked that car and slammed into a pole, a red light. The first thing that came to my mind was, “Hide everything in my lunchbox.” I brought it to work my little cooler. I put everything in there. Ambulance and cops showed up. I played it off like I was fine and it was the rain. They were like, “You need to come to the hospital,” because I bit the inside of my mouth and I know I separated my shoulder, but I told them I was fine. I needed stitches on the inside of my mouth. I was like, “I’m not going to the hospital.” I took my lunchbox. They had my car towed and I walked down 37 to the nearest fast food restaurant. I went to the bathroom, I got high.
That was my thing. To run away from my problems, I would get high. That’s what I did. I thought that as long as I could have that, everything will be all right. If I could get one more, everything will be all right. It was piling on me. I got another car. I hid it from my parents. There’s a Sunday or something and I was driving down Route 37 again, going home towards Lavalette. I was driving erratically. I was smoking weed and the cops behind me pulled me over. They noticed I’m messed up. They pulled me out of the car, asked me if I have anything. I said, “I have a little bit of weed.” He says, “Weed’s practically legal. I’m looking for heroin or something.” I said, “No.” Another cop car pulls up and goes, “We could either impound your car or you can give us permission to search it. We already know you have weed in a bowl, but we want to know if there’s anything else.” Long story short, they searched my car, they find a bunch of empty bags, paraphernalia, needles, everything. I got arrested and there goes my second trip to detox.
I went to the same place, seven days. I went and I stayed at that place and did a 30-day in-patient treatment, where I wasn’t allowed to leave for 30 days. I attended groups and everything. I remember sitting in there and for the first time I was like, “I know I cannot drink. I can’t drink, I can’t do anything because it’s just going to lead me back.” If you hook me up to a lie detector test and you said, “Dean, do you want a drink? Do you want to get high anymore?” I would’ve said no and I would have passed with flying colors. With every fiber in my being, I wanted to get my life back. I didn’t want that. I did the 30 days. I told my therapist. My family came in for a meeting and my therapist was like, “I really think he’s serious. I think he’s got it this time.” I was like, “I feel really good and I know I can’t drink. I know I got to be stone cold sober. I’m going to go to meetings.”
You felt that too. You felt good, you’re like, “This is it.”
I knew I couldn’t do any of that anymore. I got out of that rehab. It was early July. I don’t know what the exact date was. I know I was pissed because I was in rehab and I missed all these shark tournaments I love doing. That was on my mind. I can’t believe I’m stuck in here. By the end of it, I was happy I was there because I thought I knew what I had to do. I get out of the treatment, I’m home, I’m going to meetings every day. It was like the fourth day I was out of treatment and I woke up. It was like 9:00 or 10:00 AM. My parents run a family business, a motel in Lavalette, so everybody was gone. My dad was at work. My mom was at the motel and she would leave me her car so I can go to meetings. I was going to a meeting at noon every day. I woke up and like this thought just came over me like, “This would be a good time to have a drink. Why not?”
I had no defense. That thought popped into my mind and that’s all that mattered. I went into the liquor cabinet, I got gin, I got some orange juice. I filled up a big water bottle with gin and orange juice. I started drinking. Four hours from that first sip of alcohol, four hours to the minute, I was in a welfare hotel room and Seaside Heights with a needle in my arm again, just like that. There was no slow progression like the last time. It was alcohol, then off to the heroin. I couldn’t believe it, I was there again. This was on a Sunday. I knew I was going back to work on Monday. I did that Sunday. I went back to work on Monday. I was working in Jersey City. I worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is payday. I’ll never forget this. I was driving home on the turnpike and good day at work, nothing went wrong. I hadn’t gotten high since that Sunday, I was doing all right. It was almost like my mind went on autopilot. Before I knew it, I was in Newark and I was cashing my check. I was driving down looking for the sketchiest place in Newark. These are bad neighborhoods but when they see a young white kid driving down the streets, they come running out to your car, “What do you need?” I would park my car and walk down to the street and walk up to random people and be like, “You got any heroin?”
I ended up getting $500 worth. At this point, it wasn’t heroin anymore. It’s not out there. It’s more fentanyl. This is the horse tranquilizers that they’re putting in this stuff. As I got into the turnpike on the entrance ramp, I pulled over onto the shoulder. I remember breaking open the bag and dumping them out. I was like, “This seems like a lot.” I was like, “I’ve got to be careful because my tolerance is low.” I remember doing what I had to do and I started driving again. I remember pulling back onto the turnpike. The next thing I remember I was getting pulled out of my car by a state trooper. I got onto the Turnpike, I started driving up to the toll booth. I overdosed. I swerved onto the oncoming traffic and people coming out of the toll booth the other way. I got into a head-on collision with a lady. Thank God that it was by a toll booth and we were going relatively slow. Who knows how long I was slumped over my steering wheel because by the time of state troopers and the ambulance got there to me to pull me out of it, I don’t know how long it was. I still don’t know to this day.
They Narcan me and pulled me out of the car and I got arrested. Here I am in state police barracks somewhere outside of Jersey City, handcuffed to the bench, looking down at the ground and like, “How did I get here again?” For the first time my life, I realized that after I hit this lady, thank God she was okay. I vividly remember the police officer’s telling me, “She’s okay, you got really lucky.” For the first time my life, I realized that I wasn’t just harming myself. My mother cried to me and begged me like, “Why can’t you just stop?” I go, “I’m not hurting anybody but myself.” I didn’t have an answer for, “Why can’t you just stop?” I wish I could’ve. I can’t tell you why not. I was sitting in that cell and like, “I’m just like a wrecking ball. Everybody I come in contact with, I harm in some way. I’m always trying to get something over on somebody.” I realized that I was going to die if I didn’t do something about this. My ex-girlfriend drove all the way up there, picked me up. I went back to her house, which is actually on Normandy beach.
I remember saying like, “I’ve got to go. I need to go to work tomorrow.” I had just overdosed and gotten a head-on collision and the only thing I could think of was going to work. That was going through my mind, I had her drive me up to an ocean block and drop me off. I said, “I just need some time to clear my head.” I remember I hid $300 in my shoe before she came and got me because I didn’t want her to know that I had any money on me. She dropped me off. I grabbed the bike and I drove right to the seaside and I got high again after just overdosing and being in this accident. The cops ended up calling my parents and so they knew what happened. My mom was calling me nonstop. I finally went home at like 2:00 AM and she came in to check on me. I passed out upstairs on the floor with all these little heroin baggies around me.
She woke me up to make sure I was like still alive. I was just high. That next day, that was July 31st of 2015 and that was the last time I ever got high, drunk or anything. I went down to a place called the Seabrook House in South Jersey and I knew I had to do something different. I knew I had to take this seriously or else I was going to die. I met some good people there. My roommate actually who I met there, I talk to him once a week. I went to this 30-day treatment program and there’s a week, ten days left then they have this family matrix thing. My father refused to come. My dad dropped me off at that place to Seabrook House. You’ve definitely seen Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne says to Morgan Freeman, he’s like, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” My dad looked me in the eyes and said that to me and then turned around and walked away.
My dad refuses to come to that family matrix thing. He was done with me. My mother came and it was emotional. She talked to some people there. She actually sat next to my roommate’s mother. His name’s Matt. I don’t know if God put them there together in those seats. They started talking and she brought up a place called The Granite House that was in New Hampshire. It was a long-term treatment facility, six to nine months you live there. She mentioned it to me and I was like, “No way. I’m staying in New Jersey, I’ll go to a sober house around here.” I was so worried about getting back to work and making money because I thought that money would solve all my problems, when in reality I had bigger issues than that.
I needed to deal with like the problems up here before any of that can come from it. I remember I fought her about it and she was begging me to go there and I was like, “Mom, I’m not going to New Hampshire.” Matt was my roommate and his mom wanted him to go there too. He was like, “I think I’m going to go.” I was like, “I don’t know.” I remember I couldn’t sleep for three nights thinking about this. I remember one morning I woke up. I don’t know what happened. I woke up and I was like, “I’m going.” I called my mother. I asked somebody, I was like, “I need to use the phone right now.” I call my mother. I said, “Mom, I’m going. Set it up.” She started crying.
She said, “It’s a good decision because if you said you weren’t going, me and your father weren’t coming to pick you up. You’re on your own.” My Dad picked me up and drove me straight up to New Hampshire. Me, my friend Matt and my friend Chris, who I also met at Seabrook House all went there in a place called The Granite House. They introduce you to Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s super strict. It’s set up in three phases. The first phase is you’re only allowed to leave the house to go to the convenience store. You have to be with somebody. You get $20 a week allowance for cigarettes, drinks or snacks, and you have to show all your receipt so they know you’re not hiding money. You do all your own food shopping. You get $80 a week for that. It was strict.
Were you like, “Screw this place,” when you first got up there or a little bit of both?
Both. I went up there because they say it’s a three-month minimum. If you’re coming to The Granite House, you have to stay for a minimum of three months, 90 days. I went up there with the idea in my head that I was only going to be there for 90 days. I got up there and I was like, “I’m a big kid.” I was 180 pounds soaking wet when I went to rehab, to put that for example. I’ve been sober for years. I weigh 260 pounds. I’m not overweight or anything. I’m a big person. I have a picture of me at my brother’s wedding. I look at it and I have it saved on my phone. I look at it from time to time to remind myself I never want to go back to that. My suit’s hanging off me. My cheeks are sucked in. I looked like a zombie. My eyes were sunken in.
I got up to this Granite House and I don’t know if you’re familiar with twelve-step programs, but Alcoholics Anonymous has a twelve-step program. I got introduced to that. I was handed the Alcoholics Anonymous book and they call it the Big Book. That night I went to a meeting, I got a sponsor immediately. I started working with a sponsor. I started going through the steps and within a week to ten days, something changed in my head. For the first time, I thought I had hope that if I try and I put my heart and my soul into this, I think I can get this. I have that feeling. I called my mom and I told her that and I said, “If I do this, honestly, I think I can get this under control.” Honesty is a huge part of the program. You don’t have to be honest about everything. You can’t lie about anything. I put it all out on the table. What I liked most about this place as opposed to other rehabs I’ve been to, you go to other rehabs newly admitted and you have to go sit down with the doctor. You sit down with a doctor and kids were going there, sit down to the doctor and be like, “I have depression,” or the doctor would prescribe them depression medicine.
I sat down with the doctor at this place and I told them, “I think I might be depressed.” I thought maybe I was depressed, and instead of writing me a prescription, he said, “How about this? You come back to me in two weeks, but in those two weeks, when you guys go to the gym every day, I want you to take a run. I want you to work out, but I’m not prescribing you anything until we see how you feel in two weeks.” That to me was huge because instead of just writing me a script, I realized after the two weeks that I wasn’t depressed. I started settling in to this place. I hit it with 110%. I stayed there for six months. I was supposed to be there for three. Actually, I think I graduated in six and a half months. I remember calling my mom. I remember me and my friend Matt made a pact, “Let’s just see this thing through. You stay, I’ll stay. What do we have to lose? We’re not missing anything back home. This is our lives we’re talking about.” I called my mom and said I wanted to stay the whole time and they were more than happy.
My mother was actually finally sleeping and she wasn’t up worrying about me. I saw it through and I graduated six and a half months. They asked me to be the manager of one of the houses. There are three separate houses. The first phase was super strict. The second phase was a little more lenient. You had to get a job in the second phase. You had to work. You can only work 30 hours a week so you didn’t overdo it, but they slowly got you used to the normal life. The third phase was the house that was a block away where you lived on your own with other people in the program. They wanted me to manage that house. I would live for free, but I would enforce the rules at that house. I did that for another five or six months. I was ready to move on from there. I moved out of there and I got an apartment with two other kids that were both sober and I lived there for a year.
When I got arrested there in Newark, I was charged with possession of heroin, DWI. I had been charged with a DWI and a possession charge. I didn’t have a license where there’s no reason. I was in no rush to get back to New Jersey. Plus, up there, I got set up with this guy. His name was John and I met him through mutual friends and he was looking for somebody who struggles with addiction issues, who was an athlete growing up. I met him for coffee one day and he had lost his daughter, who was an exceptional basketball player, to a heroin overdose. I sat down with this guy for about an hour in a coffee shop in Manchester, New Hampshire. He explained to me what you wanted to do.
What he wanted to do was go to local New Hampshire high school sports teams. I have a PowerPoint presentation set up where he educates the kids on opioid awareness. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts up there, it’s bad. He had this great idea to try to educate them, to high school basketball teams or any sports team, but he wanted somebody who was young, who was an athlete growing up to tell their stories, so the kids had somebody to relate to. He’s like, “I’m 60 years old. I have a gray beard.” Standing up here talking to these kids isn’t going to get through to them. I’m getting old but we’re still somewhat young. We started off with a basketball team and it morphed into full student body presentations in front of the entire high school, 800 kids, 500 kids, health classes.
We would go to town meetings and give the presentation to towns where the opioid crisis was bad. It morphed into this awesome thing where we would go around and talk to these kids. That helped me tremendously. It helped him with the loss of his daughter. I talk to him and it was a cool experience to actually give back for once, because for so long, I took and I took. I don’t regret anything that happened to me. If I could go back and change it, honestly, I don’t think I would because without what happened, without what I went through, like I wouldn’t be half the person I am. That’s why I called him and I talked to him. If you guys go to college next year, you’re at a party, somebody hands you a little baggie with some powders and pills and say, “Try this,” I want you to just think of me. Think of me standing up here and telling you this story. He tried that powder the one time and he almost died. Try to help one kid and steer them in the other direction.
That’s huge for them too, because you’re not taking the standard approach where you’re like, “Don’t do drugs.” That’s almost like, “Don’t think of the color red.” You’re going to think of the color red right away. It’s like, “Think of me, look at where this brought me. It’s not a road you want to go down.” You’re not telling them what to do.
I tell them, “I understand it’s high school. You guys are starting to drink and I’m not telling you that drinking is this terrible thing. You’re young, I understand and I was in your shoes. I’m telling you to be aware of what you’re doing and be aware of your decisions. Be aware of your surroundings and who you associate with. If you associated with the wrong person or you try the wrong thing, it can change your life forever. It changed my life dramatically. I’m in a unique position where I can help other people. I could sit here, play the pity party and say, “Poor me, look at all this stuff. My life was so hard. Look at all this stuff I went through.” It happened. The past is the past. It’s part of who I am. Why not talk about it? I’m not ashamed of it anymore. I own up to it. I made my mistakes. I had a rough couple of years there. I hurt a lot of people, but a lot of them on the other side of it, I made a lot of amends. My family trusts me again. If I could talk about it, I’ll talk to anybody about it. I’ll talk to a brick wall about it if it’ll listen. I went to my high school. I’m going to speak in my high school. I think that’d be good.
Can you help somebody that doesn’t want to be helped? Your mom trying to help you, she’s begging and everything, how do you get through to somebody that doesn’t want to be helped or do you just have to let them run their course?
Pretty much, in my experience in dealing with a lot of people who went through what I went through, they have to hit enough pain to want to change. They have to hit enough consequences to want to change something. They have to see it. Somebody who goes to work every day gets a paycheck is able to pay their mortgage or able to hide it from their family. It doesn’t have any consequences. They may not see if they have a problem. They have to hit that pain to want to make a change. I think 98% comes from within. They want to have to do it. Can you push them in the right direction? Of course. At the end of the day, they have to want it.
How did you go about reintroducing yourself to live in New Jersey? You’re on the fishing boats, you’re still working, you’re still around people that you grew up with. How do you successfully reintroduce yourself to your life?
I stayed up in New Hampshire for two years. I made sure I had a good grip on my sobriety, my network in Alcoholics Anonymous. I have all sober friends. I had been back to New Jersey a bunch of times while I was living up there, for holidays or a week here, a week there to see my family. I immersed myself in recovery. I did everything I possibly could because I wanted it so bad. I got to a point where in the beginning, the first couple of months, I would think about it all the time. I can’t tell you the last time I thought about having a drink, getting high or anything like that. I was so far removed from it and when I moved home, it was weird being back in my parent’s house. I was passing all these old places, where I used to pick up or I used to meet up with drug dealers. It is, but you have to be confident in your recovery. You have to stay connected through whatever helps for me and for a lot of people I know, Alcoholics Anonymous.
Was I a drug addict? Yes. Was I also an alcoholic? Yes. Are there Narcotic Anonymous meetings? Yes. There are Narcotics Anonymous meetings. If that works for you, great. What worked for me was AA, so I stick with that. I have friends in the room; I talk to people. It’s staying connected in that recovery network to keep it fresh in your mind and always wanting it. I have things in my life that I never want to lose. I have my family back in my life, my grandmother, my brother and my sister. My sister called my parents that she didn’t want to see me anymore before I went away the last time. My sister lives right up the street from me. I go over and cut her lawn for her, help her out, do what I can. It’s having that mentality of never wanting to go back. Life’s too good. Life’s too short. Life’s too good to ever go back for me. I’m 100% committed to this.
Dean, what is one piece of advice that has resonated with you over your last couple of years that you would like to gift to anybody that’s suffering through this? Whether it’s the person, their family, anybody affected by this disease, what would be your message to them?
Never give up. I don’t care how far in through the ditch you are, if you’re homeless, if you’re eating out of garbage cans. It doesn’t matter how low you get. The lower you get, you can only go up. Never give up. Never give up on your loved ones. You’re going to have to show them tough love. You’re going to have to make boundaries with them. You may have to kick them out of your house to help them hit a little bit of pain for want to change, but never give up on them. People who are suffering from addiction, you talk to them once and it could be the last time you talked to them. I would say just never give up on whoever it is. Never give up on yourself because there’s always hope. There’s hope in this. As unfortunate as it is, how many people are dying, there’s hope. I didn’t want to be another statistic. Keep the hope, keep the faith, change is possible. You’re going to have to make a lot of sacrifices, but it’s possible. Anybody can do it.
Besides AA, do you feel like you have to replace the addiction with a hobby? Do you feel like you have to dive into something else from the very beginning to keep your mind going or off of it?
In the beginning, definitely you have to stay busy. In AA, they have 90 meetings in 90 days, make sure you make a meeting every day. I talked to people who went to three meetings a day for the first four months because they didn’t want to drink again, but they also knew that if they were alone, they probably were going to drink. You hear that saying, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” That rings true for me, especially in the beginning. I always had to be talking to somebody, going to a group or go into a meeting to keep my mind occupied until my brain chemistry starts repairing itself. It rewires your brain, the dopamine, it rewires everything. It takes a long time for your brain to repair itself. Definitely, you got to stay occupied. I can come home from work, I could take a shower, sit down on my couch, put the TV on and just relax. I never would be able to do that. I know it might not seem like much, but for me that’s one of the greatest things is to be able to relax by myself, be in my own head and be okay with it. Not having to have that external influence to make me feel better, I’m okay.
If anybody reads this and wants to reach out, would you be willing to shoot your email address out for people that might need some help? What’s your email?
Dean, thanks for coming. I appreciate you putting all the cards on the table. It’s a phenomenal story. It’s so phenomenal because of how well you’re doing, how you’re giving back, helping people and that’s what it’s all about.
That’s it. You’re not here for a long time, but we might as well make the most of it while here.
Thanks for coming on. I appreciate it.
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