Walking in his shoes
Jedediah Popp says he struggles daily to stay drug-free, and part of what helps him in his recovery is working with other addicts as a peer counselor at Turning Point of Windham County.

Walking in his shoes

A recovering drug addict describes his descent into addiction and the challenges of breaking free

BRATTLEBORO — There is no pretty way to tell Jedediah Popp's story of humiliation, pain, and a shameless need, which led to his breaking the law, two brushes with death with overdoses, and incarceration before he was able to stay clean for very long.

Today, Popp mentors recovering addicts at Turning Point of Windham County in Brattleboro in an medication-assisted treatment-specific support group he organized in response to the stigma drug addicts receive.

He works each day on his recovery, and he says that he is starting to find joy in the little things in life again, mentioning that only recently he found himself smiling spontaneously at something.

This small detail is noteworthy for its absence in his life since his addiction, he says.

He says helping people - he also mentors a young client with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism -and seeing other people happy because of something he has done is what brings him the most happiness.

But that is a big change from the place he was in 2008 when he started on the road to recovery.

Slide into addiction

Popp says his employers all knew him as a hard worker. He'd graduated from New England Culinary Institute in 2002, and he loved his work.

He began using cocaine in what he describes as an addiction to a lifestyle of partying where he could be around women. But as a chef in a busy restaurant, he had “normal aches and pains” from being on his feet for hours on end, and he found relief with drugs.

Popp began abusing methylphenidate (Ritalin), a standard treatment for his diagnosis of ADHD. “Then it became pot. Then cocaine made me feel really good.

And then his addiction began with one pill: “Somebody gave me a Percocet,” Popp said. He had taken the prescription painkiller before, but it had never done anything for him.

This time, though, “it felt really good.”

“It made me happy,” he says. “It took the pain away, the physical pain and mental pain,” he recalls. “It made me look at what was in front of me instead of what was inside of me.”

Popp recalls that when his illegal opiate pills were unavailable one day, his drug source returned with heroin instead.

His source? A family member who was already addicted to heroin.

“When I did the [heroin], I could just get this feeling right away after I sniffed it, then it just, it was like doing - god, it was more intense. That's when I realized that it was more powerful than most narcotics and a lot cheaper than pills.”

Gradually, as his tolerance for heroin grew, Popp went from sniffing the heroin, to using needles.

He describes the confused reasoning of the addict: waking up in the morning and feeling unable to face the day without the drug of choice. He got away with it, he said, because withdrawal symptoms are similar to flu symptoms.

Popp lived with his fiancée at the time. As his addiction grew worse, he found himself lying to her and to his boss about why he could not get out of bed and go to work.

His fiancée bought it.

Spiral into a dark place

At first, a little heroin would go a long way. “Even a little bit would get me really high,” Popp said.

But then he built up a tolerance.

As he did more heroin, “I was spending more money, and things were falling apart.” He would lie to his fiancée about where the money was going.

“She believed me that I had a cold or that I my back hurt really bad. There was a lot of lying, a lot of deceiving,” Popp says, his voice tinged with humility and regret.

“I was not aware of addiction at that point,” he says.

That changed.

“I remember driving one day, and I was really sick,” Popp recalls. “I started to think about how my life had been affected by my using [], how I was calling in to work when I didn't have drugs to use, how my relationship with my fiancée was being affected.” They were spending less time together as heroin played a larger role and interfered with the couple's life together.

That, Popp says, “is when I decided to tell her I was addicted to heroin and that I needed help.”

But he emerged from his first time in detox with a drug-free system but without any understanding about his addiction or the underlying behaviors, Popp says.

“Within minutes” of returning home from detox, he found a leftover stash in his apartment.

“And that was that. I was home literally two minutes before I used again.”

And this started a cycle of detox and relapse.

Popp said he found himself stealing money from his fiancee to get drugs, and breaking into people's houses he knew had heavy narcotics to steal their prescription. He would sell the opiate prescription he got from his physician for back pain, for the stronger heroin.

Some of this behavior came on the heels of seven-day detoxes at the Maple Leaf Clinic in Wallingford, as well as several detox stints at the Brattleboro Retreat, Popp said.

“My drug use became worse. I only used needles a couple time before but was now using them all the time, and that is when it began to fall apart. I remember being kicked out of two apartments.”

His fiancée finally discovered that he was stealing money for rent, and right after Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, she left him, Popp says.

He recalls “very, very dark times,” during which he overdosed five times. Twice, the ambulance came.

The dark place

A drug addict like Popp will tell you of the stigma of being a drug addict in recovery.

When an addict undergoes medically assisted treatment (MAT) as the best path to recovery, that stigma can be reinforced in the minds of people who find it difficult to understand and support the concept of a solution that involves not fewer drugs but more.

Even if these drugs - including methadone, Suboxone, or Buprenorphine - can pave the path to recovery, that recovery is elusive. Addiction, by definition, is a compulsion that is not easily controlled and never goes away. Particularly for heroin addicts, a cycle of relapse is a frequent and normal aspect of their recovery.

Recovering addicts can feel damned if they do and damned if they don't. But it's at this particular point in recovery for addicts when they most need empathy, according to addiction specialists and addicts themselves.

Popp had heard about Suboxone and decided to try it. But he still relapsed.

By this time, he had added to his list Fentanyl, another prescription opiate painkiller intended for cancer patients.

“Fentanyl was my thing because the heroin didn't do it for me anymore,” Popp says.

He overdosed on these illegal narcotics while at work in the kitchen, where he collapsed and vomited.

When the ambulances arrived, the EMTs found his heart had stopped beating, he says. They brought him back to life.

This time, right after he got out of the hospital, already on probation for a “whole different prescription violation,” Popp served 30 days for possession of a controlled substance.

“I violated probation and I was in jail for 30 days, and I was still on Suboxone,” he said.

There, he just lay in bed for a month straight.

His Suboxone prescription ran out before his sentence was up. When he got out of jail, he ended up relapsing.

“I was really sick because I did not have any of my prescription,” he says. “I had to go into some kind of program.”

He checked back in to the Maple Leaf clinic. Finally, he says, he was ready to learn how to stay sober, and, “I started talking to the [treatment] doctors to learn more about addiction.” Popp says he wanted to get better, and the doctors agreed to try again. He got back on Suboxone.

When he returned from Maple Leaf the second time, his fiancée sensed a change in him. He knew a lot about addiction and recovery. He was starting to go to 12-step meetings.

“But I was still being dishonest,” Popp says.

Five days out of Maple Leaf, he scored some Fentanyl again, and he overdosed for the second time. This time, his fiancée found him. Again, he had stopped breathing. Again, he had to be revived by EMTs.

“I was making french fries and I fell over. When [my fiancée] found me, I was blue.

“The apartment was full of smoke,” he recalls. “I'm very lucky it didn't burn, because oil will catch fire. When I woke up, I had no idea where I was - just like before.”

But Popp says with his life in flames around him, he began accessing mental-health therapy, attending meetings daily, and being among people also struggling with addictions. He finally started to learn how to manage his addiction.

Popp's struggle with his recovery follows a pattern of relapses he attributes partially to not understanding what he really needed to have his recovery start to stick.

And that, he says, is his main work now.

Shame and self-loathing

The shame and self-loathing with which addicts view themselves contributes to an addict not seeking help, a point underscored both by Popp and by Brian Condon, a recovery coach for Turning Point of Windham County in Brattleboro.

At the addict's lowest point, everything in his or her life supports the drug habit, requiring a fresh start for most addicts to escape reminders of the past, professionals say.

Leaving treatment, or being in recovery, without immediately changing the environment that supported the addiction - one's home and one's friends, for starters - spells doom for successful recovery in most cases.

As Popp struggled with his cycle of addiction, recovery, and relapses, he began to understand those truths.

With his life in chaos, his family and friends refusing to shelter him after he was evicted, and his mother not trusting him to be in her house without stealing from her, he camped out at the apartment of a woman who let him stay so she could get money for her rent and for drugs.

Still in southwestern Vermont, he called Habit Opco, a methadone treatment center in Brattleboro, to arrange to sign up for the methadone program.

He packed a bag of clothes and snuck out of the woman's apartment while she was sleeping to go to the clinic.

He had no place to live when he arrived, but he says he was determined to do what it took to stay clean and off drugs.

Each night, he would sleep in the shelter of the Staples shopping center across the highway. Each morning, he would visit his tote of clothing, stashed behind the former ReNew building off Putney Road, and hide his sleeping bag and pillow, pick up clean clothes, go to the Brattleboro Area Drop-in Center, shower, and do his laundry. From there, he would head back to Habit Opco on foot for his methadone treatment.

His feet were sore and blistered from the daily 5-mile round trip, his body aching and tired from the effort to just survive each day.

But since February 2012, Popp has been clean and sober.

Recovery and dreams

Every time Popp thinks about using now, he feels himself starting to go towards that “dark place.” He just remembers waking up in his own vomit in an apartment filled with filth and garbage. He remembers the lying and theft and deceit of that life.

And he does not want to be that person again.

What he does want, he says, is a life he can be proud of. He lost his last chef job because his boss found out he is an addict - albeit in recovery - after speaking on the radio locally about his experience.

Popp says he understands that “no one wants an addict for an employee,” touching on one of the toughest hurdles opiate addicts have to face when looking for work in the struggle to normalize their lives again.

“I understand people's stigmas with that,” he says.

What other people think about him is something he cannot change, so he focuses on what he can: his own recovery and helping other addicts. He has started medically-assisted treatment group meetings, and this approach - his answer to the stigma of opiate and heroin addiction, even among recovery groups - is setting a precedent.

His culinary school training was the right path for him, Popp says. He dreams of getting himself a food cart, becoming his own boss, and making people happy.

“I want to create an environment where people want to be,” Popp says. “I want people to like what I create.”

“I see everything for what it is, and for me that is working great in my life,” he adds. “I am able to apply that and put it into my recovery.”

He also wants to create something in the community for people who have been in his shoes.

He said he likes hanging out with people, knowing “there are people who like me for who I am and who want me to be around - that's the greatest feeling in the world.”

“I found out I don't want to follow people,” he says. “I want to create my own path.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates