When Nick S. finally received his “wake-up calls” from the universe, he was unlucky enough to be pelted by three within a week’s span, each foreboding the immediate danger of the addiction he’d struggled with for the past fifteen years. First, on the way home from a drug deal, about a week-and-a-half before his admission to Beit T’Shuvah, his car spun out on the road and he landed up in the hospital with two loaded rigs in his pocket which was promptly seized by the ER techs. He was lucky enough to be miraculously spared from more serious injuries, but he signed AMA paperwork when the doctors realized he was a junkie and refused to treat him with pain medication any stronger than heavy-duty Tylenol. That led to his second close call: he laid in a near-comatose state in his home for the next five days with an untreated concussion, and when he did have the good fortune to emerge alive from the brain injury, he was heavily into the stages of heroin withdrawal. He ended up deep in the process of kicking the opiate at his father’s house in Southern California as they awaited his imminent admission to Beit T’Shuvah, and that’s when Nick experienced his third “close call”. For three days straight, he could not stop vomiting. His father rushed him to the hospital when it was evident Nick could barely speak. That’s where the doctors told Nick he was 4 to 6 hours away from death due to dehydration. Nick had gotten lucky. But he walked away realizing that he wasn’t especially infallible or invincible as he’d once believed. He was just lucky. For now.
At the age of 15, Nick’s parents shuffled him from the Bay Area to a more rural community in Northern California. Although he mentions his new hometown was replete with natural splendors, it left something lacking for a teenager accustomed to bustling city life and a wealth of activities and amenities to explore. Perhaps it was this boredom that spurred his budding experimentation with drugs. Perhaps it was a different, more internal restlessness. Either way, when Nick took to drugs, he didn’t look back for a very long time.
In addition to the weed, benzodiazepines, and prescription opiates he’d already been abusing, Nick found his “first love” around the age of sixteen: ecstasy. “It gave me that ‘love, warm-hug’ feeling I felt like I’d been missing forever,” he says, “and I could be myself in a way I couldn’t sober. So I abused the hell out of this.” Nick adds as an afterthought, “the fact that I can still string sentences together is a miracle.” It was around the same time that Nick found out he’d been accepted to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu – known for their highly esteemed culinary arts programs across the country. By now his parents had picked up on his substance abuse and would have felt remiss sending him into the wilderness of San Francisco to live on his own at the age of 16. Nowadays, Nick sees this as a wasted opportunity, but it did not prevent him from becoming a chef. Continuing to live at home, he commuted an hour from his parent’s home to a different culinary school program in Sacramento. A little older than 17, Nick had graduated from that program. By 18, he’d been working in kitchens for 6 months.
Although his copious drug use never abated, it took some time for Nick to feel the impact of his addiction. At 20 years old, his life looked good – on the surface. He had two high-quality jobs in the culinary field, but he also worked all day. “I was just running myself into the ground – but I had everything that I wanted. I had a nice car. I had this, I had that. But eventually, I couldn’t sustain that anymore. And when I basically self-sabotaged those things, that was all the ammunition I needed to be like, ‘okay! Now let’s burn the whole thing down.’” It didn’t take him too long. By 21, Nick says he was “a mess”. His car was gone and his license had been revoked after he was charged with two DUIs. Although he rarely struggled with finding a job, he found it almost impossible to keep one. “My family was basically done with me already,” Nick says. And all of this destruction, and the full apprehension of his squandered potential, only drove Nick further into the carousel of self-medicating to cope with his feelings of defeat. Realizing that clearly there were factors much deeper than the drugs at work, Nick reflects: “I knew I had some sort of mental illness and that my drug use was more of a symptom than the actual problem, and I did my cries for help, but nobody really listened because my addiction was just so blatant and obvious. The things going on in my head were not obvious to other people.”
Back then, Nick saw his family’s love as conditional. “Rightfully so,” he tells me. “At the end of the day, now that I’ve got a clear head, the only condition was for me to be sober and get my shit together, but that was a rule I just could not abide by.” Back in his early 20s, he couldn’t see it this way. When his sister settled down and had a baby, Nick knew that the conversation was coming: she didn’t want a guy like him around her children. He began to pull away from their relationship before the uncomfortable topic was broached between them. Nick says, “Even in the worst throes of my addiction, I was well aware of what I was and who I was at that point. To protect myself, I would pull away from people before they would pull away from me. And that’s kind of been a common theme. Any connection that I was striving for that could potentially break my fragile little ego, I just didn’t try to make at all.” He sees that adopting this attitude throughout his 20s resulted in an emotional stagnancy that led him into a merry-go-round of anesthetization.
Nick tried heroin at the age of 25. Recalling this time, he remarks, “I remember very clearly the first time I shot up, I looked at the dealer I was with and I said, ‘This is going to be a problem’.” From then on, his job attendance and continued tenancy became predicated on getting his morning fix. If he couldn’t find heroin before work, he’d quit. Jobs never lasted longer than 3 months. But with his charm and his talent in the culinary field, this never felt like much of a loss for Nick, who never struggled to convince potential employers of his value. He says this fed into his devil-may-care attitude, because “I always managed to pull a hat trick at some point.” Once Nick realized how strongly the heroin controlled him, he quickly acclimated to it. He would do anything to avoid experiencing the agonizing feeling of being dope sick, and more, “I never wanted to be slapped in the face with that feeling I was out of control.” He describes this as a running theme of his life: the struggle to desperately avoid confronting sources of pain and discomfort. Navigating the intricate web of lies, toxic relationships, and manipulations he’d built for himself often ended up causing more distress than what he sought to avoid.
Nick’s only effort to get sober in March of 2017 was short-lived. Just shy of his 60-days-of-sobriety mark, a return from sober living to his family’s home up north shortly resulted in him uprooting a rig of heroin and instantly relapsing. Nick’s father persisted in trying to get him admitted into Beit T’shuvah, an effort that lasted over a year but would ultimately require Nick’s buy-in. Several times Nick would speak to Lysa Harrison, Beit Tshuvah’s admission coordinator, for an interview assessment, but he never followed up until 2019, and merely two weeks before he was slated to arrive, Nick was bombarded by the aforementioned tremors from the universe, pleading with him to wake up and smell the roses. “After those crazy nine days, I told myself, ‘listen, dude – you’re not that special,’” Nick recounts. He’d recognized that he was as close to death as any of the other people he’d known that had died from one stray dose of fentanyl-laced heroin.
“I walked in the doors here on the day I arrived and I just remember sitting down on a bench by the front lobby and taking just the biggest collective sigh of relief. Any other time I’ve walked into a meeting or a treatment center, there was this nagging sense of, ‘you’re full of shit, you don’t really want to be here, you’re just doing this to appease somebody or get somebody off of your back’. But after the universe KO’d me in the week before coming here, I was finally done. Just done. Since my first time picking up anything, I’ve never felt that level of completion. I didn’t want to be numb anymore. I was relieved to be off the merry-go-round.”
Nick has 105 days sober now, and counting. Since being here, Nick says the version of himself he was convinced “was dead and gone and was never going to be resurrected” is slowly but surely coming back. One of his most essential bulwarks of sobriety is an internship in the kitchen, a job he started the very first day of Beit T’shuvah’s resident quarantine. Nick saw a good opportunity to bring some happiness back to the community, which he observed, really needed some light. Right off the bat, he sought to cook with a level of love he hoped the residents would be able to taste, and it shows: recently, the kitchen staff has been showered with rave reviews. Knowing that his talent for cooking is helping give back to the community that saved his life gives Nick a sense of purpose and value which is indispensable to his budding inner strength. Nick tells me that for the first time in his life, “I go to sleep with a smile on my face, and I wake up with a smile on my face.”