Andrew McKenna robbed his first bank and he felt in control again.
The former federal prosecutor and Schenectady native’s life had long since spiraled out of control as his drug addictions grew from prescription painkillers to heroin.
His choices had cost him his prosecutor’s job, and he saw that they were about to cost him a lot more: the right to see his sons.
“I couldn’t conceptualize ‘Wait a minute, if you rob this bank and you get caught you may never see your sons again,’ ” McKenna recounted Wednesday to an audience at Schenectady County Community College. “But you’re so angry and sad about not seeing your sons, that’s factoring in your decision to go rob a bank — you see how insidious it becomes.”
McKenna, now 46, went on to rob a total of five banks and two Price Choppers in October and November 2005. He served five years in federal prison.
McKenna has since written a self-published book about his experiences with addiction, “Sheer Madness: From Federal Prosecutor to Federal Prisoner.”
He’s also taken to talking to local high school and college students as well as others about the need for early intervention and prevention.
He told of early bouts with alcohol, marijuana and some other drugs while a student at Linton High School, then getting himself together and making it through college and even law school.
But a back injury suffered in one of two stints in the armed forces eventually led him to painkillers, then heroin.
McKenna, now of Rensselaer County, emphasized addressing problems early. He cited changes in normal activities, irritability or other indicators.
“The sooner you catch that, the better off that person is going to be and the more help you can do,” McKenna said. “Because once that goes and if it leads to drugs, alcohol or self-destructive behavior, it’s so much harder to get that person back.”
He recalled his own problems in high school. He’d played sports when he was younger, but moved to a different, secret, group of friends as he got older. He stopped playing sports.
After a series of problems, his brother suggested he join the Air Force. He did and was on a new path to college, law school and then the Marines. It was in the Marines that he suffered his back injury.
From there, he landed a job with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington as a prosecutor. His back flared up and he began using and abusing painkillers. After one particularly successful case, he celebrated with a night of pills, cocaine and alcohol, he said.
The next morning, he stole a Rolex that was used as evidence. He was caught and forced to resign.
He returned to the Capital Region, catching on with a local law firm. His addictions quickly grew to Oxycontin, then heroin.
“Before long,” he said, “I’m doing bags and bags of heroin.”
Then one morning, instead of going to Family Court for another hearing about his sons, he robbed his first bank.
Two of the banks and one of the Price Choppers were in his hometown of Schenectady.
On Wednesday, he read from the first chapter of his book, the chapter in which he tells of his arrest and finally sitting in an interrogation room, sick from heroin withdrawal.
He’s been free now for three years. He said his time in custody and then rehab at Conifer Park once he got out helped him kick his addiction.
Through his treatment at Conifer Park, he said, he came to understand his actions were about the anger and despair that resulted from the situation in Family Court, a situation he created, a situation that he put his sons in and their mother in.
He’s also staved off the depression that had haunted him since his teen years.
“Probably the most important thing is being self-aware of when I’m slipping mentally into a period of anxiety or a period of sadness, being aware of it and identifying it right away,” McKenna said of staving off the depression.
The first thing, he said, is picking up the phone and calling somebody.
In his time since his release, he said he has also reconnected with his sons. He’s able to spend time with them every couple of weeks.
Now he’s trying to use his story to help others. Writing about it in his book and sharing it with groups, including students.
Talking to students and, hopefully, getting through to them is the most important part, he said.
To those who are going through tough times, whether it be from addiction or something else, McKenna’s message is one of looking forward and using the resources available.
“When it seems like it couldn’t get worse,” he said, “that’s a sign that things are going to get better. You can rise above the challenges you’re going through right now.”
McKenna’s book is available at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady and the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. It is also available online at Amazon.com.