My name is James Hatzell and I am a person in long term recovery. For me that means I have not taken a drink or a drug since August 1st, 2013. My recovery has launched me into a newfound appreciation for life and I am honored to be able to share it.
My recovery started after a long battle with substance misuse. The end of this battle left a 130lb man (40 less than I am today) to be carted out the door by a drug task force. I found myself in jail about 10 miles away from Penn State where I was supposed to start my junior year of college the following month.
It was about three days of hallucinations and withdrawals before my parents were able to bail me out and send me to rehab. Less than a week into my sobriety, I decided that I was going to take classes online for a semester and start them after my release from an inpatient facility. Jason Whitney, the Program Coordinator of the Collegiate Recovery Community at Penn State made this possible. He and my advisor worked together on faith to give me another chance at school.
About halfway through my stay at the rehab, I scheduled classes. This wasn’t your average class selection. I was on a payphone with a time limit. My advisor made it happen. My parents backed me. I may have been a felon in rehab who was pending conviction, but there was something comforting about continuing my enrollment at Penn State.
Eventually I was out of rehab and my life started to rapidly change. I followed my recovery plan. I went to the peer-to-peer support meetings and participated in them daily. I took all of the suggestions. I went to PHP, IOP, OP, and a drug counselor. I got a part time job at an antique shop which turned into a seasonal job selling computers. I ran a marathon with less than two months of training and made dean’s list for the first time in my life.
I wanted to be back at University Park desperately. I made a plan with Jason. I visited and hung out with the students who were in recovery. I made new friends. I got hooked up with a roommate who had four years of sobriety. I remember so many people questioning my decision to go back to school - as if I did anymore drugs there than I would anywhere else. I wanted to be around my peers and I wanted to get an education. Penn State was an amazing place to get sober.
The self-evaluation started to change during my time there. At first I felt like I was some sort of drug addict felon who could not possibly fit in with the other students. I felt alone in classes. It was all new to me. I hadn’t been to class sober before. I hadn’t studied without amphetamines. I hadn’t made friends without offering them a joint first. I always had the members of the Collegiate Recovery Community to keep me from feeling alone, but eventually I started to make friends with the people in my classes. Time showed me that I could remove the metaphorical asterisk that I carried over my head.
People recognized me. Professors called on me. I was no longer that kid in the back corner spaced out from the afternoon alcohol buzz and the hash he had just smoked on the way to class. I was a student who was getting an education. I achieved dean’s list again and again. I became used to school and comfortable with my peers.
The Collegiate Recovery Community played a huge part in my recovery and return to higher education. I instantly had an amazing friends group. We hung out regularly. We hiked, snowboarded, had fires, watched movies, and went out to eat. We traveled and went to concerts. We relied on each other and held each other accountable.
There were some bumps in the road and hundreds of times where life looked like it was going to fall apart. I had to go to court every month for a year and a half. Each time I was not sure if I was going to be charged or sentenced for the drug distribution I was guilty of. I remember the exciting feeling I got when I realized that there was a chance I could spend the summer out of jail and finish the semester, the feeling when I saw a possibility of finishing my senior year on house arrest. I really didn’t know when they were going to send me to jail to serve my sentence for dealing marijuana. The DA was very adamant about sending me away.
Penn State also was supposed to kick me out of school when I was convicted. I was getting denied from jobs because of my criminal record. There is a weird feeling about not knowing if you are going to be in jail or make it back to your 400 level statistics class in the afternoon. Somehow I never went to jail and was granted probation.
It all worked out.
Minimum mandatory sentences were declared unconstitutional in PA in a 3-2 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision. The judge decided not to give the DA their wish. She gave me a chance. Penn State decided not to kick me out. I couldn’t get a traditional internship, so I started a company. I fixed computers and helped a cell tower start up take off. Every time it looked like it was over or that it wasn’t worth it, things seemed to work out.
Through the numerous collegiate recovery themed trips I embarked on, I met Andrew Burki. Andrew is the CEO of Life of Purpose, an academically focused substance use treatment center. Being the philanthropist that he is, Andrew sponsored many of the recovery themed events that I participated in over spring break and Labor Day in South Florida and Georgia. Andrew offered me a job. Andrew offered me a dream job during the first month of my senior year.
I graduated from the Penn State University College of Information Science and Technology with degrees in Information Science and Technology: Integration and Application and Security and Risk Analysis: Internet and Cyber Security. Ironically, I was also awarded a certificate of recognition from the National Security Agency. My business was thriving and I was off to Boca Raton to start my new life. Life of Purpose had contracted me through my company for a few months before graduation so I was already familiar with my co-workers and hooked in. Today I am the Director of Technology at Life of Purpose.
Besides school and a professional career somehow working out after looking bleak and hopeless over and over again, I was given the gift of appreciation toward my family again. I had grown distant from everyone. My brother and sister were scared of me and my parents worried for me. I constantly disappointed them. Today I have a great relationship with not only them, but my extended family as well. I lived with my cousins the first month I moved to South Florida. I cherish the time that I spend with my family today because I am able to appreciate it. The time we spend together and love we share is unparalleled. I wouldn’t have made it this far if it wasn’t for their support.
Recovery is the greatest gift. It has given me everything I want in life. Each day is one of growth. I am excited to see what the future has in store for me, but today I am content in the moment. I consider myself an advocate. People with substance use disorders have been systematically oppressed by society. We have sat idle too long and watched our friends and family members get denied access to education, housing, employment, and treatment due to stigma and archaic judicial and healthcare processes. We are preyed on by the pharmaceutical industry and have the lowest research to business dollar ratio in health care. Hundreds of people die every day and I dedicate my life to helping these people not only one on one, but by changing the way we view and treat substance use disorder as a society. What we have is a medical crisis, not a moral tragedy. In addition to my role at Life of Purpose, I am a co-chapter lead with Andrew Burki of Young People in Recovery- Boca Raton. We refuse to accept the blatant denial of medical attention in the current state of our society by promoting social change and creating recovery ready communities.