Thomas Klemm entered the Administration Building on our Dowagiac campus as he had many times recently. He was interviewing citizens for his Eastern Michigan University research project. He’s a junior there, studying social work. The very profession that saved him from his addiction just three years ago.
Thomas started using drugs and alcohol when he was 14. He tried what he could get his hands on, which wasn’t much, until he hit 16. His access grew, and so did his need for substances.
“Right off the bat, I reacted differently to alcohol specifically at first,” Thomas said. “Then my drug use went down a pathway faster than most of my other friends. I probably went from drinking every weekend and doing I guess what you would call lighter drugs to hard drugs, to pills, to heroin in a year.”
Thomas was 16 when he first started intravenously using heroin, and now at 23, Thomas says he barely recognizes that kid.
Pretty immediately, Thomas’s parents knew something was wrong. His dad took him to a recovery meeting through the tribe’s health services. Thomas appreciated the men there who reached out to him, but he wasn’t ready to let go.
“I wasn’t anywhere near getting better,” he said. “I do that and it’s great and all, but I can’t stop getting high—I can’t. The whole time I really wanted to be normal. I really didn’t want to be this burnout drug addict already.
“I’m 16. My parents don’t even know the extent of my use. They had no idea I was using drugs intravenously or anything like that, but they saw there was something completely not OK going on.”
With little progress evident from the recovery meetings, Thomas’s parents sent him to the Keystone Treatment Center in South Dakota. There, Thomas felt free to be Native. He smudged; he sweat in a Lakota lodge, but his mind was still not set on getting clean.
Thomas says the other young people there made up a rough crowd. Many of them were coming from abusive homes, the foster care system, and Thomas—though he realized how privileged he was in many ways—was just as angry. He wanted out. After he got into two fights, Keystone kicked him out.
“Moments of clarity would happen, and they would vanish pretty quickly,” Thomas said. “I had decided I didn’t want to be a drug addict. I didn’t decide I wanted to get sober. I was hoping for door number three.”
He didn’t find that magical door number three, and instead got locked up behind one. Disorderly conduct, a hit and run, and a DUI each earned him jail time in South Dakota and back at home in Michigan.
When Thomas returned home from Keystone, he swapped out intravenous drug use for benzodiazepines, a type of psychoactive drug, and continued heavily drinking. He tried moving in with friends in Kalamazoo, but he wasn’t stable enough and couldn’t hold a job. At 19, he was feeling fried.
“I started experiencing withdrawal symptoms for the first time from benzos and alcohol use, the combo,” Thomas remembers. “When that happened, I called my mom, and that was the first time I said to anyone ‘I have a drug problem’ and meant it.”
Thomas’s parents gave him another shot at Keystone.
“I don’t know if I wasn’t detoxed properly, I don’t know if I was a little fried, I don’t know if I had lost my mind a little bit, but about 19 days in, I just had panic attacks all the time. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I really was a nutcase a little bit.”
Thomas was sent to a psych hospital.
He felt like life was over, like his future of jail time and psych ward visits was set.
“My friends are in college having the time of their life, and I’m lying in bed in a psych ward with fluorescent lights on and being observed every hour,” Thomas said. “This was never supposed to happen.”
Thomas decided there had to be a better way to live.
If you are struggling with addiction, call Behavioral Health at (269) 783-2476. They can get you started toward recovery today.
Read part two here.