As far back as I can remember, I never knew who I was looking at in the mirror. Needing to be one person at home, a different person in the neighborhood, and still a third person at school, I got lost in the shuffle and my brain never slowed down. That is unless I was under the influence of some kind of chemical.

For me, that started at age six. That was when my mother took me to my first psychiatry appointment. ADHD and depression was the verdict. After one visit the solution was clear, RITALIN! That would be the answer to my parent’s prayers. For me, that’s when the nightmare started. For the next six years it was one type of medication after another, the firing and hiring of psychiatrists when the game plan didn’t work, and last but not least, hospitalization after hospitalization.

I longed for a sense of feeling normal. I was jealous of my friends who never knew the pain of being made to feel like their existence was a burden on the lives of those around them. I remember contemplating suicide at age 8. I decided to share that with a school counselor I trusted. The next day I was back in the psychiatrist’s office. An increased dosage would do the trick. Year after year, grade after grade, I managed to disappoint the ones I loved. And they never hesitated to remind me. At age twelve, I was taken off of the medications and told to act appropriately. Adolescence would certainly fill the gaps left by the medications, my parents figured. It lasted about 7 months before I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Medications were all around me and they were making superstars out of the kids in the neighborhood. My best friend back then was smoking marijuana daily. He offered it to me on numerous occasions but I proudly declined and stood behind my dream of being a professional baseball player someday. But alcohol was different. I mean this was sold in stores.  I took my first sip of alcohol at age 12.  Marijuana quickly followed and shortly thereafter school ceased to exist.   At 13 years old I was introduced to the love of my life, cocaine. LSD and ecstasy soon followed. Heroin and meth evaded my blood stream until my mid-twenties. By 15 years old, I was a father and a high school drop-out.

At age 19, my grandmother, the only person in my family I ever got along with, passed away. I didn’t feel that pain until 13 years later. One day I woke up in a jail cell at 26 years old and thought that since I was still alive, maybe I should do something with my life.

I heard that the Army had lightened up on their enlistment requirements so I signed up to fight.  My recruiter told me to prepare for getting shot at because I would be in Iraq in less than a year.  Little did he know West Tampa had already prepared me for that.  Seven months later I reported to Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne Division. After jumping out of a few planes and blowing my savings account at the closest establishment, I was on a plane for the beautiful sandbox in the sky. I arrived in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17th, 2007 a lean, mean fighting machine.

Nine months later, I arrived back in North Carolina with one thought and one thought only. I need to get messed up and never come down. My time in Iraq felt like a lifetime and left a scar on my soul. I was quickly diagnosed with PTSD and substance abuse. Within a year of returning from combat, I was given my papers to leave the Army only to return to Tampa at the height of the recession and an unemployment rate we hadn’t seen since the 1920’s. From homeless shelter to detox facility, treatment center to county jail, park bench to strangers’ couches, I rolled like a stone and felt like one too. A steady dose of alcohol, Xanax and crack cocaine made sure I didn’t think about Iraq or anything else for that matter.

At 30 years old, I mustered up enough resolve to relocate once again in an effort to rid myself of the inability to drink sociably and feel like a normal person. Atlanta, Georgia would be home. In just a few short months, at 31 years of age, I was spending my days and nights under a bridge in downtown Atlanta. I had come full circle and was once again contemplating suicide. My entire family and circle of friends wrote me off as a lost cause. Completely alone and totally broken, I prayed for the first time in years. I came to the conclusion that it was going to be one last attempt at treatment or the barrel of a shotgun.

This is now…

That’s when God led me to the Extension. I felt the love and energy flowing through that place the moment I walked through the door. The counselors and residents loved me and supported me during the darkest time of my life, the first three months. Without the presence of a chemical, the previous 25 years of my life flashed before my eyes and I relived every moment, most notably-Iraq.

The Extension provided me with a comfortable, accommodating environment to start working on myself. The 12 steps of AA provided a newfound relationship with God and fear started to become replaced with faith. After 13 months at the Extension, I discovered my true calling in life. I now know my purpose, which is to be a counselor specializing in addiction and PTSD. I want to work with soldiers returning from combat and do for them what the Extension has done for me.

I recently graduated with an Associate’s degree in Psychology and have transferred my 4.0 GPA to Mercer University to work on a Bachelor’s degree. I have a very good job, a wonderful fiancé, and in May of 2015, a lifelong dream of mine came true when we welcomed a baby boy into the world. My life is better than I could have ever imagined and I owe it all to the Extension providing me with a solid foundation and the knowledge of how to manage my life without the assistance of a chemical. God bless!

-Alum of The Extension