“My Name is Joshua Kuhlmann. I am an alcoholic. I am a meth and heroine addict, but only when accompanied by alcohol.” This is how I would’ve identified myself the last time I walked into treatment. I was 39 years old, this was approximately my 9th round of treatment, 2nd round of inpatient. This time I knew it was the last time, I felt it deep within me, I was finally bowing out of this life I became to know and rely on.
For all the thoughts and words that come to mind when we hear words such as “recovering meth or heroine addict” – vulnerable, courageous and inspirational most likely aren’t on the top of many’s list. When actually, those are the words that are deserved for anyone who has succumbed to any type of an addiction, and especially the wrath of harsh substances such as these. To not be able to see your life beyond your next sip or hit, to have your mind so overtaken by something that literally owns and destroys you, as well as every facet of your body and life, is something many more know then society cares to recognize. This is not always what it may seem from the outside looking in, it’s far deeper then that. It’s a world of it’s own that only exists to those caught in it’s darkness – it’s mental illness in another realm – masked by and numbed by a substance. To hear someone’s countless stories of being at the bottom of this barrel for years on end, only to see them a year later, an entirely different and new being – watching them rebuild their life literally one minute, hour or day at a time is quite amazing. To beat the mindset of knowing that at any minute they could go back to any of it with a simple phone call – is inspirational!
Thank you Josh, for not only sharing your story, but teaching and reminding me what the meaning of truly being one’s self looks like. To be forced to function in every single area of your life with total and complete surrender, vulnerability and sobriety is not a task many care to attempt. To be back in the work force, raising children, building and starting new relationships, a home and most importantly rebuilding yourself! Everyone “lives their life”, many never walking down the path of addiction, but few live their lives consciously, always looking to improve themselves, being open and adaptable to change and giving gratitude for the simplest of things the rest of us take for granted. And that is just a few of the great things we can learn from you and all those who have walked this with you. You have so much to be proud of and so much more to look forward too on this new and exciting, while also challenging-in-it’s-own-way journey.
Here is Josh’s story, which will be followed another entry from his sister, Jodell, who will give us a glimpse of what it was like to stand on the other side, from the outside looking in.
At what age did it begin and were there any underlying reason? What substance did you start with?
It began when I was in elementary school, when my dad passed me a beer to take a swig. There was this feeling of acceptance I got, being “one of the guys”. It was a rush, a relief, as if I was on top of the world, all my problems washed away in that one sip. It was the social norm for my parents to host card parties and sit around and drink, especially in a small town. This was the normal setting I was exposed too, so it didn’t seem foreign to me. From that point forward it slowly, but consistently grew – it planted a seed of acceptance that I didn’t realize would snowball into something far bigger.
Let me just give you a bit of a timeline of what this life looked like. I rang in my 13th birthday smoking weed for the first time, which then led to regular use. At 14 I got what was the first of many minor consumptions. Age 16, my senior year, brought with it my first round of outpatient treatment. Although the drinking didn’t slow, I wanted to be able to participate in football, and this was mandatory in order for me to do so.
I graduated at 17, this just gave me even more time during the day to indulge in partying, with that came regular use of cocaine. I had a great job, making good money removing asbestos from homes. At 19 I buy a house, drinking copious amounts of vodka, while feeling daily rushes of regular cocaine use. I can average 2-3 days before crashing. A majority of this great income is spent on sipping, chugging and snorting. One of what will be four DUI’s follows shortly after, along with 3 friends committing suicide. This scares me, but I’m still feeling as if I need these outlets in order to be “social” because my anxiety is so intense. Age 20, I lose my job because I’m not able to function and make it there regularly, but not a huge deal, besides, I’m making enough money dealing. I’m feeling really good about myself, people look up to me and respect me and it fills another void. The reality of my friends deaths start to settle a little too close to home, so I move to distance myself from this, with the hope of going to college and playing football to get my life back on track. This instead turns into more hook ups and even better money selling coke! It’s funny how you say you’ll “never” until you’re standing there doing that “never”. I swore I would never shoot up, but somehow find myself doing just that. This is what my life from age 20-30 consisted of – partying day and night, selling coke, having sex with multiple women – living the high life.
Roughly at the age of 30 I OD’d (for the 1st time) off percocet and oxy, followed by a 3 day coma. I wake up pissed, wanting out, and begging my mom for money to go get another liter. I fractured my spine from having alcohol withdrawal seizures. The realization of this injury from having seizures from withdrawals, is a bit of a scare. So, I decide another round of inpatient treatment is necessary. That followed a half way house, with 60 days of sobriety, only to get kicked out of 2 more half way houses. Another overdose – this time on heroine. I end up enrolling to college, which lands me a $5000 check to live off of and supply my needs. At one point I end up in the Anoka County Courthouse bathroom drinking rubbing alcohol to keep the shakes at bay, with nowhere to go and no clue what my next move will be. This leads me back to parents again. Although I’m working, I meet who becomes my long time girlfriend, who just happens to be a bartender. This works out well considering she supplies my booze stash. She enables me even more, always paying the bills, which allows me to carry on with my lifestyle while she works, in turn I’m caring for her daughter. This works out great, I’m home more at least, out less partying, but still feeding off the toxicity that has always resided between us.
When I’m 32 I’m in the beginning stages of liver failure, noticeably jaundice, with extreme pain. This leads to a week of sobriety after being hospitalized, but corrected itself, only to have repeated itself. This is a realization that the half gallon of vodka is no longer feasible, so I pick up meth, besides it’s a great diet regimen! 😉 After awhile I’m going through an 8 ball of meth at a time just to keep me going. 3-4 years of meth, followed by heroine for a change of pace. It’s like a version of a doctors prescription to alternate between Tylenol and Ibuprofen, except I’m alternating meth and heroine. I wasn’t biased towards one or the other – unlike others – I had friends on both sides of the track. For those few years, I never intentionally slept. I mean I slept, but I never thought “I should go to bed” or “it’s bedtime”. I crashed wherever, whenever, but it was only at that point that I got rest.
At this point I can’t see the light of day, nor do I have alot of motivation to do so, this is just simply my life day in and day out. I am a master manipulator using and abusing anything and anyone that gets me from one hit to the next. While it feels good to feel good, being admired by so many, what I don’t realize, is, I’m being manipulated, used and abused by all around me just as much. So, here I am, feeling on top of the world, only having occasional rising fears of being without my safety nets.
Addiction of choice and why – explain the highs and the crashes – what did it feel like physically, mentally and emotionally.
Alcohol was always a factor, it was the first thing I did each morning and the last thing I did each night. Within a few hours of waking I had the shakes, looking for my next swig of booze – preferably vodka. The drugs weren’t near as important to me as the vodka. Drug of choice would be ecstasy, but isn’t something I did alot of because it was tough to keep the high for extended periods. The booze was my coping mechanism, while the drugs made me feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof, adding to my confidence. As my roommate says heroine was “a warm blanket of amazingness”. You could be getting your head bashed in with a club and think everything was good! But when the vodka was dry – it was instant panic, I was legit scared to think of not having any. I never did the drugs without the booze, to do it sober was actually scary to me. Straight up, uncontrollable anxiety.
How do you think this affected those around you? At the time, did you think there was any ripple effect to your family?
Nope, not at all. I thought I appeared to ‘have it all together’ and someone to be looked up too, and honestly, I was – in that world. Outside of ‘that world’, it was total denial when it was brought up to me, I didn’t think it was anything I couldn’t control.
Turning point in your life – the last straw – the one that started your journey to get to this point.
I think subconsciously, I knew when I was 32, when the realization that the onset of liver failure had begun. That scared me, but instead, I buried myself deeper. Fast forward to 2015, I have 2 warrants out for my arrest due to drug sales after being caught with a wire. After ins and out of what I hope would be a pass back out the door after lack of evidence, my lawyer informs me another county has additional sale charges on me. But, even then, I’m feeding myself lies to keep myself sane. This is the realization that my avenues of escape are looking thinner by the minute and I should probably start prepping myself for a long haul of sobriety, whether prison or long term treatment, I wasn’t getting out this time. I actually tinkered with the thought of taking the 120 months in prison over the option of mandated inpatient for a year.
The real, official turning point is when I’m sitting in the wreck room in jail – I come across the Holy Spirit Handbook. This changes everything. This is literally my “coming to Jesus moment” in a way I’ve never experienced before. There’s this feeling of total and complete peace, calmness and serenity that flows over and through me. And this time, I don’t have an ounce of any substance in me. For the first time in my life, I know I’m going to be OK, and I’m actually excited about being admitted to MN Adult and Teen Challenge. This is the start of a new life I didn’t know was possible, or perhaps wasn’t willing or ready to embrace all those years. It was better then any high I had ever experienced, it was the most peace and comfort I had felt my entire life.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since being sober?
I would have to say keeping my anxiety in check, although nowhere near what it used to be, it still arises, especially in a social setting. Learning to be aware of it and trying to find coping mechanisms to offset it is a work in progress. Another thing that I’ve been trying harder to work on, is learning to focus attention back on myself, doing the inner work required to heal. It’s always been a mindset of blame, pointing the finger outside of me, that I’ve never taken responsibility for my actions. Now I’m trying to learn how to balance things, patience with my kids and family, but especially with myself. Learning how to co-parent while also setting boundaries, recognizing manipulation, being open to feedback without defaulting to blame and just establishing myself. To try and retrain my brain to remember things and be aware without going back into default mode. I started so young, I don’t know that I was ever able to establish myself and my own true identity. I guess that’s the beauty in rebuilding.
What do you think are the biggest problems that come with the stigmas of addiction? What are some missing factors you feel are being overlooked when addressing these issues and the judgement that comes with them, especially in younger kids?
The lack of understanding coming from all angles, especially at home. I told my dad once about my anxiety, (although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time), the response was along the lines of “deal with it, don’t be a pussy”. But the older generations didn’t discuss their problems, so maybe he didn’t know any other way to respond without thinking something was wrong with me.
I was sitting in jail after my second DUI, flipping through a magazine when I came across a Paxil ad. As I was reading the side effects such as racing thoughts, shortness of breath, restlessness, irritability, or difficulty in public places – I came to the realization that this was me! I am that blue pill – more like I need that blue pill! To realize that other people had these same symptoms was amazing to me, because I thought it was just me! I was so excited about the fact that this pill could help me that I went up and asked the desk clerk to give me some, not realizing it wasn’t that easy.
Another thing people don’t realize, is this isn’t just one set of people or only people of a certain social status engage in substance abuse. I used with plenty of people that came from higher social statuses, kids of doctors and other respectable careers. The stigma that only people that come from crap households or poverty level use substances to cope, couldn’t be farther from the truth! And yet we were viewed as the “scum” or “losers”.
Sometimes I wonder if I had known or learned to cope better with my anxiety if I wouldn’t have went to other substances to rid myself of these feelings that in fact were normal to many. Sometimes I think my parents should have just left me sit in jail the first few times I was in, maybe it would’ve changed my mindset. Instead it just enabled and reinforced my behavior, knowing they’d come to my rescue when I got caught again. But, I guess it’s hard to say for sure, either way, this was how it unraveled for me.
Has it changed your path or purpose in life since? Do you feel you endured it for a reason and are meant to do something with it?
Absolutely. I’ve lived my life unknowingly being so selfish, only worrying about myself, but now I know it has nothing to do with me. I realize it was all fake and false before, even looking back – there were so many odd things that happened that lined up in my favor – that redirected me. My life resides in Christ, which in turn out flows into everyone around me. The fact that I’m alive is evidence in itself of what my life purpose is. No one endures what I did and almost dies that many times for nothing. It’s all part of a bigger plan.
There is no denying that overall substance abuse, especially in meth and heroine are on the rise – what do you think are significant contributing factors to this problem?
Prescription pills are a big factor. Although this wasn’t a direct reflection in my case, I do hear of prescription pills being a sought out source, it seems common within the treatment world. They’re fairly easy to get a hold of. As far as the rest, I don’t know if there’s a certain “go-to” I think it depends on preference or whatever is available.
What and who do you see yourself as now? How would you identify yourself?
I am Joshua Kuhlmann, I am a child of God, saved by Jesus Christ. I know what the highest of highs feels like, along with the lowest of lows – simultaneously – from trying to catch a buzz in a courthouse bathroom to sitting in a jail cell reading the Lord’s word. I have done alot of shit, seen alot of shit – but I am truly grateful for every part of my journey. Because I know what it’s like to stand on that side, and I look forward to spending the remainder of my life standing on this side, helping others in their journey of recovery!
*If any of this resonates with you, or you know of someone it may help who is personally struggling or has family that is, please feel free to share on social media to bring forth awareness and hope, while breaking down stigma around this subject!*