Every year, in the second week of November, this country honors its heroes. Veteran’s Day is a stark reminder that courageous men and women have fought hard for America’s freedoms. In the addiction community, it inspires us to pause and reflect on the effects of war on our soldiers, long after they leave the battlefield.
Returning home to civilian life is difficult, and physical pain is only the start. 20 percent of the vets who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also suffer from an addiction or dependence on drugs or alcohol.
But, solders are strong, and they are resilient. Few know this better than Worcester resident Joe McCormack. Below, see his story in his own words.
What is your history with the military?
I served in the Navy. I enrolled shortly after 9/11 and served in missions Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom from 2006 to 2009. I was deployed as part of a nuclear submarine crew from Virginia to the Mediterranean for sea support. After that deployment, I went to the Middle East.
How did your struggles with substance abuse begin?
When I came home, I was declared 100 percent disabled by the VA, with knee problems, back problems, a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. I also needed a few operations. I was prescribed pain medications and I took them consistently. But when a lot of doctors began rolling back the number of prescriptions they issued, mine was cut off.
Going from daily pain medication to nothing at all so quickly was difficult, and I began to self-medicate with heroin. I became homeless, bouncing around Boston. I lost two really great jobs.
What has your recovery journey been so far?
I tried treatment quite a bit, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Some of it was court-ordered, and some voluntary. Eventually, I ended up in Worcester and my life changed. I completed detox and was sent to Veterans Inc. – a living shelter and transitional program – for aftercare. They then connected me with the local VA, where I was given health benefits.
But the VA in Worcester didn’t offer addiction treatment, so I was referred to Spectrum Health Systems. While addiction treatment was just one piece of the puzzle, without the stabilization services I received at Spectrum, I don’t think I would have been in a healthy enough space to do anything else.
Now, almost six years later, I am married with two kids and I own a home. It’s a night and day difference.
What do you wish you could tell other veterans about recovery?
You need to try to treat the root cause of the problem. Most veterans either have a pain management issue, a mental health issue or both. It all leads to addiction. If you can get to a place where you can stabilize for a minute, life can get a whole lot better. One of the biggest parts of transitioning is not having a sense of identity and purpose, but life can still have a purpose.
I’ll be off methadone in three weeks. I think there’s a lot of stigma about methadone, but I want people to know there’s an endgame and you don’t have to be on it for the rest of your life.
Seeking help for addiction is hard, but it’s important. If you know and love a veteran who may be struggling with a substance use disorder, ensure that they know about all the local resources available to them. You can learn more about Veterans Inc. here, the VA here and Spectrum Health Systems here. To learn more about methadone and MAT, refer to this blog.