Heroin addict emerges from a cave to help others
The cave high above Tempe, Arizona, hangs like a shroud over another life. In that awful sanctuary, Kristoph Pydynkowski loaded up on black tar heroin. Road Dog, his running mate, was gone and he was alone, staring at addiction, staring at dark empty skies that promised nothing but pain.
That was 10 years ago. It could have been 10 minutes ago. A junkie, he says, gets up for the bathroom and years pass before he gets back. Drugs are the pause button on life. Pydynkowski says he was shot at, stabbed, beaten, kidnapped, left for dead on streets with no name two dozen times before strangers scraped him off. Now he comes packing that ruinous history to do some good, bounding out of the First Congregational Church and its 12-step meeting on this sunny Cape Cod morning in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
At five-foot-eight and 165 pounds, he struts like a bantam rooster in white T-shirt and black cargo shorts. He's Ishmael's harpooner pal, Queequeg, with a Boston accent. A mohawk down the middle of his head ends in a small ponytail in back. Red, black and blue tattoos sheathe his right arm. His throat is inked in cursive like a curious noose. "Blessed," it reads, with stars and curlicue marks etched on his face, relics of the blurry years.
The tattooed one has come full circle. At 38, he's a state licensed substance abuse counselor. The job, the Labor Department predicts, will be among the 30 fastest-growing in the U.S. for the decade ending in 2022 as insurance plans allow for more and varied treatment for addiction.
He is also a nationally certified recovery coach and supervisor of five who do the same work at Gosnold on Cape Cod, a non-profit addiction treatment center. Recovery coach is an oldish phrase with a new twist. They're counselors, cheerleaders, scolds, skateboard buddies who shadow their patients 24/7 if need be, and they just might represent the best weapon yet against killer opiates, especially heroin and its seductive cousin, Oxycontin.
"From the moment I leave my house at about 6:10 in the morning, I'm driving around pretty much all day," says Pydynkowski, who earns about $58,000 a year. "My job is to help people on a daily basis, sometimes hourly, to get through cravings, triggers, to help them realize their dreams."
The dawn-to-dusk attention often ending with a text message to say goodnight is the future of care, Pydynkowski says. Clients with their families help pay for this pilot program Gosnold began in 2012 or they can qualify for scholarships. Many do get better and stay that way. Average days clean for 64 patients went from 52.3 days out of 365 before the program to 160 days after the group had spent 12 months in it.
The good results at Gosnold come buried in a calendar of bad news elsewhere. In February, the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman fatally overdosed. In that same month, Massachusetts State Police reported 185 heroin deaths in the previous four- month period, and that excluded the state's three largest cities. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said U.S. heroin deaths had doubled to 3,635 from 2010 to 2012. The region with the biggest jump -- 211 percent -- was the Northeast.
Back in the church parking lot, Pydynkowski looks for his latest charge. "Mike, over hee-ah!" he says, motioning a tall athletic young man to his car.
Mike Frantiska, 22, has just come from a 33-day stint at a Pennsylvania rehab. His is a tortuous history of intravenous heroin use. He's been in facilities in Maine, Oklahoma and near the family home in western Massachusetts.
It's Pydynkowski's turn.
He can work up to 100 hours in a busy week. On this day, he picked up Frantiska for a coffee stop and then the 12-step meeting in the church and now a one-on-one at a picturesque garden hideaway on an ocean inlet.
The two place chairs on a wooden dock under a sky that glows like a blue pearl. Pydynkowski says he uses Cape Cod's beauty to graft positive experiences onto young minds addled by chemical abuse.
"Let's talk about goals," he begins.
Frantiska cuts hair for $20 each and says he wants to go to barber school.
"Good," Pydynkowski says, moving through a lengthy questionnaire. "You have a sponsor, you have me, you have all these people in your life. I'm excited for ya, I really am."
They drive to a gym and a workout that helps ease the anger and shame of a man on the rebound. Pydynkowski talks excitedly about how opiate abusers are often hospitalized and sent right back into a reliably familiar universe of abuse.
"It's insane!" he says.
Pydynkowski was treated at Gosnold and later decided he wanted to work there. Ray Tamasi, Gosnold's chief executive officer, first saw him filling out a job application, took one look at the tattoos and piercings, and made a beeline for human resources.
"It ain't happenin' with that guy," he recalled saying.
Tamasi's staff pushed back. Pydynkowski, the patient, had built a reputation as a good listener. Gosnold needed him. OK, Tamasi said, he can wash dishes. "I never thought he'd take the job."
Pydynkowski grabbed the chance, took counseling classes and rose through the ranks.
Back at the gym, Pydynkowski and Frantiska finish up and hit the road.
"You still doing that Red Bull?" Pydynkowski asks.
"Yeah, but I'm not splurging."
This sets off a Pydynkowski rant on the evils of energy drinks. "Coffee, OK. But everyone gets squirreled out on that other stuff and wonders why they can't sleep!"
He drops off Frantiska and heads home to a red saltbox Colonial with three bedrooms. It's noon. Later he'll skateboard with two patients, including Jeremy Wurzburg, a 21-year-old former intravenous heroin user from Rochester, New York, who says Pydynkowski saved his life: "I don't think I would have stopped without him."
Pydynkowski changes out of a T-shirt and cargo shorts and into a dark suit ahead of the weekly staff meeting. Queequeg transformed. He likes the professional look. It reminds him that he's come a long way.
Adopted at birth, he grew up in the Massachusetts communities of Danvers and Peabody where he excelled at soccer. His creeping addiction first showed itself in his early teens when he'd stash booze that he stole from high school parties in the woods to keep himself supplied. Later, he binged on club drugs and shot heroin for the first time in a Dunkin' Donuts bathroom.
He won a soccer scholarship to West Virginia Wesleyan and dreamed of going pro but couldn't stop using, he said. He flunked out there and at three succeeding schools.
His father sent him in 1999 to an Arizona rehab, where he was kicked out for shooting crystal meth. Thus began a dangerous five-year odyssey: breaking all ties with home, living in that dark cave, panhandling in parking lots of Nevada casinos for drug money, and finally back to Massachusetts and eventually Gosnold, where a bigger goal replaced his soccer dreams: redemption.
Today, he's married and his wife has recently given birth to their first child, a son.
Before his child was born, he had brought a visitor to an upstairs nursery in his home and showed a crib holding tiny baby clothes. He picked up a New England Patriots onesie. His eyes welled up.
"I got a second chance," he said in a whisper. "I've gotten to live two different lives in one lifetime. And every day, every single day is like a blessing."