LACONIA — "Three weeks ago, I woke up on a couch with blood dripping out of my nose and soaking my shirt," Austin said. "A friend had stayed awake all night to make sure I kept breathing. I was using on Christmas Day and I got here on New Year's Day."
"Here" is a large, rambling white frame house on Messer Street, one of a half-dozen properties that together make up the campus of Riverbank House, a community for men seeking to recover from addiction that lines the banks of the Winnipesaukee River just north of the Church Street Bridge. In 2012, Randy Bartlett, whom Dan Farrell, a 24-year-old recovering alcoholic in charge of marketing calls the "Wille Wonka of recovery," founded Riverbank House at 96 Church St. With the acquisition and renovation of neighboring properties, the community has grown from 16 to 36 beds and is on the brink of adding another 30.
Austin is spending his last days at "the launch," or crisis stabilization facility, the first stop on a continuum of care leading to recovery. Michael Metz, the program director, explained that clients spend between seven and days at "the launch" where, under the supervision of a physician, they are given a protocol consisting of medications four times a day to dispel the physiological symptoms of their addiction. Metz said that during their first days clients are gradually introduced to the subsequent steps of the remaining phases of their recovery program.
After detoxification, clients are transferred to Riverbank House to begin a six-month program that may be followed by as many as 18 months of transitional living. Bartlett believes that length of stay is the single most important predictor of success in overcoming addiction. The average length of stay as Riverbank House is between 60 and 180 days.
"I've never felt this good in my entire life," Austin said. "I stopped learning at 17, but I'm learning something new every day."
Now nearing 30, he said he grew up around alcohol and began drinking constantly as a teenager. Originally from Manchester, he lived in Rockland, Maine, where, as a junior in high school, he was an all-state linebacker whose prowess on the gridiron drew attention from college coaches.
"I shattered my ankle playing basketball," Austin recalled, "and began taking painkillers." At 17, he was "speedballing," or mixing cocaine with prescription opioids. And he continued to drink.
"I loved to party, so I did the cocaine that kept me going so I could drink," he said. He enrolled at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. He played football, continued to drink and drug and got into so many fights he was ultimately told to leave.
Austin enlisted in the Navy, where he became an air traffic controller on an aircraft carrier.
"I landed jet airplanes on the deck of a carrier," he said.
But, he continued to drink and after a rugby match in Malaysia awoke to find himself in handcuffs. Posted to San Diego, he returned to drugs.
"That was the downfall," he said. "Coke pills, heroin — everything — and I got kicked out of the Navy."
Returning to Rockland to live with a sister, Austin began working on lobster boats. Although he continued to drink, he gave up drugs for a spell, but soon began using again. For three years he said he lived for cocaine, pills and heroin before checking into a detoxification program in June 2015.
"I sobered up, then had a beer at my sister's wedding and went back to doing drugs, " he said. He remembered thinking he was a lobsterman as he shuffled from one job to the next, then confessed, "All I was doing was getting a reputation as a drug addict."
Then Austin woke up covered in blood, on the couch. As he poised a needle over his forearm, he asked himself, "Why am I doing this? I don't need this. It's overwhelming," he continued. "You just don't want to be sick," he said, referring to the pangs of withdrawal. "You're always chasing. I got tired of chasing that dragon."
He said that the $20,000 he had saved to tide him over during the winter was gone and he figured "if a cat has nine lives, I've got five already."
"I reached out," Austin said. His family, with who he had not spent Christmas in years, came together for him.
"My father told me 'I want to die before you do,'" he recalled.
Austin called Bartlett, but hesitated when he learned the cost of the program.
"Randy, told me to get myself down here and we'd work it out," he said. "I'm paid up for three months."
"I'm high on life. I can do this," Austin declared. "I landed planes on an aircraft carrier!"
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