Brendan Norton is imminently qualified to help recovering drug addicts.
He has a master’s degree in rehabilitation, is a certified rehabilitation counselor and works at the Prevention Council as a family support navigator.
And, just like some of the addicts that he helps now, Norton, a Saratoga Springs resident, was hooked on prescription painkillers for years.
Norton’s path through addiction and subsequent recovery has been a long one, and started on a day that he says he will never forget. Thirteen years ago, on April 16, 2005, at age 23, Norton, now 38, fell down some stairs, resulting in a severed artery in his leg.
That life-threatening injury landed him in the hospital for two months and put him through 19 surgeries, including a total knee replacement and six screws in his ankle.
From that point, Norton said, things become unclear — and he isn’t quite sure when he realized that he was hooked on painkillers.
“It’s hard to say when my addiction really started,” he said. “A lot of the details are fuzzy. It was pretty painful.”
While he was in the hospital, Norton explained that he was hooked up to a morphine pump for three weeks to ease his pain. And when he was able to leave, the hospital sent him home with 200 hydrocodone pills.
Though the pills were meant to curb his physical pain, Norton pointed out that eventually, he started taking them to numb the emotional trauma he was suffering from as well.
When he returned from the hospital, he was bedridden for two months, then was on crutches for two years. He was a student at Siena College at the time of his fall, and while he was recuperating he saw many of his friends becoming successful and moving on with their lives.
“I basically felt left behind,” Norton said. “I didn’t deal with my feelings for a very long time.”
That feeling of abandonment sent Norton spiraling deeper into addiction. He began to visit various doctors, who he says would give him pills without question because his injury warranted the prescription. He never told anyone he was taking more pills than he was prescribed, and hid his addiction continued for about seven years.
Then one day after he got a refill on his medication, Norton said he took almost the entire bottle in three days. His wife found the nearly empty bottle and gave him an ultimatum: Get clean or get out.
Norton realized he was still dealing with the painful feelings that had pushed him to take the pills, and that he hadn’t improved. The ultimatum and that moment of clarity were the things that finally made him realize he needed to turn his life around and started him down the path of recovery.
“It was hard. The physical pain from going through withdrawal was the worst experience I’ve ever had,” Norton said. “All of a sudden, I’m feeling my feelings again. You just want to get out of your own skin. It’s awful.”
Norton’s recovery came from a combination of counseling and attending meetings. He’s been clean for three years but, he said, the fact that more and more people are dying from overdoses of drugs such as heroin mixed with fentanyl, which addicts buy on the street when they no longer have access to painkillers, needs to be addressed.
The problem, he said, is partly people being prescribed more pills than they need, but also the fact that there just aren’t enough treatment options for addicts.
Having more advocates prepared to immediately help addicts, including driving them to hospitals or meetings, would go a long way, Norton said. If addicts don’t have the opportunity or means to get treatment when they realize they have a problem, it could already be too late.
“People are waiting weeks to get into treatment,” he said. “Addicts need to get in when they have the moment of clarity. It may be life or death for them.”
He noted that prevention needs to start earlier and that students should be learning about the real dangers of drugs in school.
“Prevention is key,” he said.
Because of his story, Norton will be attending President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam. Last year, Trump declared the nationwide opioid epidemic a public health emergency, and Tonko has advocated for and proposed legislation that would broaden access to treatment for addicts.
“The spread of addiction is a public health challenge that will never be stopped by arrests and incarceration alone,” Tonko said in a statement. “Today, only about one fifth of the individuals suffering from substance use disorder are getting any type of treatment that can help them on the path to recovery. That leaves a huge gap and results in countless preventable deaths and unimaginable suffering on the part of individuals, families and struggling communities. There is hope for those suffering right now through treatment and proper support, but we must act without further delay.”
Norton is looking forward to the trip, but added that he doesn’t have all the answers about addiction. It can happen to anyone, he said, and can take them down regardless of their financial situation.
Everyone’s recovery is different, he added. Simply being there for someone struggling with addiction, and not being afraid to bring it up, could go far toward helping.
But the most important thing, Norton said, is lessening the “doom-and-gloom” aspect of the conversation when talking about addiction. He believes his story is a positive one.
Being an addict going through recovery is already harrowing, he said, and addicts need to know they aren’t alone and that no one wants to see them fail. Letting a recovering addict know there is a light at the end of the tunnel will only serve to help, he added.
“When you’re stuck in addiction, it’s hard to see positives,” Norton said. “If someone just catches a glimpse of a positive story, maybe that’ll help. Life does get better.”
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