Waking up inside of a jail cell wearing a green button down jumpsuit withdrawing from heroin is a feeling I will never forget. I’d close my eyes and pretend it was all a dream. My addiction had taken me in and out of hospitals, detoxes, rehabs, and psych wards but it was jail that scared the hell out of me. I was no longer seemingly invincible, or “too smart” to get caught. There I was, reflecting on a road of bad decisions that had brought me here. Sitting on a cold steel bed, perhaps that was exactly what I needed.
I spent years trying to be like all the other kids around me while never truly feeling like I fit in. My father's alcoholism, my family’s financial insecurity, a poor self image, and personal insecurities only widened the gap between myself and others. Instead of speaking up about what I was going through to get the help I needed, I found a means to cope. At the age of 14, as a way of masking my personal issues, I began drinking. While it may have started as an innocent experiment, by high school graduation I was a full blown addict. It was no longer just on the weekends or at social gatherings, I was using cocaine and alcohol on a daily basis.
Despite being an addict, my family had stressed the importance of college. They wanted something more for me, something that would open the door for their son to a world of opportunity. A college education became my ultimate goal. Thankfully, for me, college applications failed to ask the question “Are you a drug addict?”
I got into college. Yes, me, the drug addict. I made it this far, and I had some pretty bright ideas on just how I was going to be successful. I told myself I wasn’t going to use cocaine, I was just going to drink instead. My plan was to hit the reset button, this was my chance to turn things around. Unfortunately, I brought my biggest problem with me, me.
My first week of college I followed my plan from the second I got there, I began drinking. At this time, my drinking was already alcoholic in nature and I would never make it to a single college class. On my sixth day there, still yet to make it to a class, I got into a fight with my roommate. On the seventh day, my college kicked me out and my parents were forced to pick me up, still having the same tank of gas from dropping me off less than a week ago. While it may have been a wake up call for others, this was just the beginning of a slippery slope.
When I returned home my family life would spiral out of control and I would return to using drugs and alcohol. With the progressive nature of substance abuse my behaviors became more and more risky. My addiction turned to self medicating with prescription pills and eventually heroin. Inevitably, I would find myself in a jail cell facing 5 years in prison. I had my life stripped away from me. My clothes, money, wallet, valuables, and other personal items were taken and put in a bag labeled with a number. I was a 20 year old kid, and no one was coming to bail me out.
The first time I went to jail I thought I was going to be there a long time, but life had different plans for me. After just two weeks my world would be turned upside down. I got a phone call from my mom. I remember getting on the phone and hearing my Mom’s voice crackle on the other end. All she could say was, “Billy….Are you okay?” She was holding back tears knowing the pain she was about to bring me. “They tried to do everything they could, but he was just too weak and couldn’t pull through…” She continued to tell me how my Dad, William Egan Sr. had passed away at the age of 58 from a 40 year battle with drugs and alcohol. She told me this and I just froze. Tears ran down my face, and I was in such a state of shock I couldn’t even move to wipe them.
There I was 20 years old, wearing an oversized green jumpsuit in a county jail; the oldest of three, the big brother, and the first son, stuck and frozen in time after hearing the news of my father’s passing. Awaiting bail, I wrote my father’s eulogy from my jail cell. On October 16, 2008, after making bail, I stood in a crowded church with my younger brother and sister to give his eulogy. I remember telling myself somewhere along those few days that I would never pick up another drug or drink as long as I lived. I made a promise to myself, but a promise is only a set of words unless it is backed up by actions. Throughout the end of 2008 up until April of 2009, I backed up that promise with actions. However, in order for someone like me to recover from an addiction, those actions must continue to occur on a daily basis. After months of staying away from my old lifestyle, I drifted away from the people and coping mechanisms that had kept me sober. On the night of April 20th, 2009 I made the decision to use heroin again. I thought I could control my drug use and prove to myself that I wasn’t truly an addict. I rationalized and justified just using a little bit. This proved to be another bad choice along my journey that I will never forget.
I was in my friend’s bathroom when I relapsed. I used a single bag of heroin, walked into the bedroom, and laid down on the bed. The rest of the night is a blur, but through stories told to me by friends and family I have been able to piece together that night. The person I was using with walked into the room and saw that I was blue in the face and not breathing. She immediately began to inject salt water into my cold, icy, blue veins in order to shock my system and get me to regain consciousness. This kept me alive long enough for the paramedics to get there and administer Narcan. When they hit me with the Narcan, I woke up. My shirt had been cut off and I was lying on the bed with breathing tubes and wires running from me. I looked around the room in bewilderment. I had no idea what just happened.
My mom had got a phone call that night telling her that I was not breathing. She immediately put my brother and sister in the car in the middle of the night and drove to this house, not knowing if I would be dead or alive when she got there. As I began to come to it dawned on me what I had just done. I relapsed, and on my very first drug use, I overdosed.
I tell this part of my story to show you where it all began and how quickly I progressed. I am an addict. I use drugs and/or alcohol until I am either incarcerated or hospitalized. I can never stop on pure free will alone. It takes an intervention or an act of true love and compassion. I overdosed on April 20th, 2009 after several months of being sober, and for the next two months I continued to use drugs and alcohol on a daily basis. It got to a point where my family could no longer stand by and watch me kill myself.
To detox from heroin has to be one of the most painful things in the entire world. When you begin to withdraw you can't sit still. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. Your joints ache and your digestive system just goes crazy, you just want to crawl out of your skin. This is what a heroin addict in active addiction wakes up to everyday. I woke up on the morning of June 26th, 2009 with a serious hangover when the withdrawal kicked in. That day I went through my normal scheming and manipulating to get my drugs and to hide them from my family. It never occurred to me that my family knew. They all knew.
When I left the house that day, a true act of love occurred. My mom called the cops. She told them that I was using again and gave them permission to search her home and have me arrested. She decided that she would rather visit me through a glass window in a county jail over visiting my tombstone in a cemetery. I came home to two Spring Lake Heights police officers on my couch with a plastic zip bag full of my drugs. I froze and then I began to cry. I felt nothing but disappointment and shame for dragging my friends and family through hell. The tears rolled down my face as I was placed under arrest and I knew I was going back to jail.
The next morning, for the last time in my life, I sat in a lonely cold jail cell wearing an oversized green jumpsuit withdrawing from heroin. Every morning I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Every morning I wanted to go back to sleep, I wanted this to all be a dream. I did anything and everything to try to move forward. I read, I worked out, and I kept journals. More importantly, I began to realize who I was and how I had gotten here. I needed to make a change. Instead of being angry with my family for putting me in jail, I chose to look at it the way it actually is. They saved my life. They were not burying another family member due to drugs and alcohol. Whether I woke up in a jail cell or my own bed, the point was…I woke up.
When I was sitting in that jail cell I had two options. The first was five years in a state prison, the other was a state program called Drug Court. The Drug Court system offered me treatment options through rehabilitation facilities, halfway housing programs, counseling, and other therapeutic alternatives. The other option was a prison sentence. It was at that moment where I made my first right decision in a long time, I chose Drug Court.
This is the amazing thing about life. As long as we are alive, we all have the opportunity to wake up and make different choices. We can, at any time, make that switch. One decision at a time, we can go in a different direction, we can turn the car around. It all comes down to choices and sometimes making one good decision is all it takes. After I made that first decision, it was up to me to continue putting one foot in front of the other and continue along a path of good choices.
While I was in jail, I started doing little things to occupy my time and keep me moving forward like reading, writing, and working out. These little activities helped me pass the time while I was there, and at the start of Drug Court I continued with these activities. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were my positive coping mechanisms, mechanisms that would help in the process of recovering. During the Drug Court process I was able to attend counseling sessions. Through therapy, 12 step support groups, and proper medication, I was able to deal with my underlying mental health issue of depression. I understood and accepted that I was self medicating for all those years masking true issues. As a product of making the right decision I graduated from Drug Court and this past summer was the first time in my adult life that I was not on probation of any sort.
When I was about a year and a half into drug court, I had this voice in the back of my head still telling me that I needed to pursue that college education. I decided to enroll in Brookdale Community College. I will never forget what it felt like to be a student again. After everything I had gone through, I made a promise to myself that I was going to take full advantage of this opportunity. I would go on to graduate with my Associates Degree and a 3.9 GPA. From there I received a scholarship to attend Rutgers University of Newark. I am currently a senior, on course to graduate this year. I will finally be able to give my mom the gift of seeing her son graduate with a college degree. After graduation I plan to attend law school, spending as much time in the courtroom as I did my during my early adulthood I figure why not get paid for it.
More importantly, today, as a result of making the right choice on June 26th, 2009 I celebrated six years of being clean and sober. Thanks to the rooms, sober houses, unwavering support of family and friends, the Monmouth County Drug and Court Program, and relentless counselors, I have had the opportunity to get my life back together. I have been given a chance that some people don’t get and I’m doing everything to make the most of it. I proved that no one is hopeless or too far removed from the help they deserve. Trust me, I have been quite a ways down that dark path. I had the ability to get better and anybody is capable of doing the same.