DAYTON, Ohio—Billy Brokschmidt can’t remember the number of times he overdosed and stopped breathing, but it was “probably several dozen.”
“When I was down in Florida, I was staying with this girl named Amy—she was letting me sleep on her couch—and I overdosed at her house many, many times. And she would just breathe for me for a couple of minutes until I snapped out of it.”
Brokschmidt, now 40, spoke of his 15-year opioid addiction from his home in his sister’s basement in Dayton, Ohio, one of the areas in the country hit worst by the opioid crisis.
It started when he was 23, married, and in the Air Force—his dream job since he was a child. He had to have a series of operations on his kidney and was on convalescent leave on and off for about 18 months. For pain, he was prescribed Percocet, a drug containing opioids and Tylenol.
“I was getting at least 100 Percocets every month. If I ran out, I just went and asked for more, and they’d give them to me,” Brokschmidt said. “They’re not doing that now because it’s created a lot of problems for them, but at the time, that was the wisdom.”
The Percocets were Brokschmidt’s first exposure to opioids and addiction. “I was really unprepared for it. I didn’t know anything about withdrawals,” he said.
The first time he went into withdrawal, his wife called an ambulance—they both thought he was dying. He was taken to the base hospital in South Carolina and felt instantly better as a shot of morphine was administered.
“I watched it go in and felt myself get better as they were giving me the shot,” Brokschmidt said. “That was the moment I knew what was going on. That kicked off a 15-year addiction.”
In time, the Percocets weren’t enough and the amount of aspirin in the pills was making Brokschmidt throw up. So he started taking different oxycodone pills, Dilantin, and other prescription opioids. He got to the point where he wasn’t taking them to get high, but just to stave off the horrific withdrawal process.
“It took about maybe seven or eight years of pills before I finally started using heroin,” he said. “And eventually that got to a point where … you’re doing it just [to] get out of bed and function.”
Brokschmidt tried to describe the withdrawal process, which is so bad, he said, it’s the reason most addicts keep taking drugs.
“There’s nausea, diarrhea, cold sweats, muscle aches, joint aches, stuff like that. Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had and times that by about a thousand. And I’m not exaggerating. When it gets you, you can’t move. You actually curl up, and you’ll just sit there and keep sweating, and all kinds of other nasty stuff happens,” he said.
“So in order to avoid that, addicts have no fear of death. We’re terrified of that sickness—we’ll take a drug that we know is potentially fatal to avoid that sickness.”
A Miserable Existence
Every day becomes a desperate search for drugs to stave off the withdrawal sickness, commonly known as “dope sick.” Getting money for drugs becomes an overwhelming force that overrides moral reasoning, and this is how addicts tend to destroy their relationships and jobs (if they still have one).
“So every day, every single day, you wake up and you’re already feeling bad,” Brokschmidt said. The severity depends on when you last took drugs and what kind of drugs they were. Heroin lasts a little longer, but fentanyl, the synthetic opioid flooding Ohio, only lasts a couple of hours.
“So pretty much right away, you have to start figuring out, ‘How am I gonna get more for in a few hours when I start to detox again?’” he said.
“Usually I would steal or come up with some sort of lie or scheme to talk people out of their money. There were a couple of us that did it every day together. And we got pretty good at it. We would go to malls, grocery stores, and feign some sort of situation that required immediate money.
“We had about a $300-a-day habit that we were supporting primarily by that method.”
Now, Brokschmidt is still amazed every day when he wakes up feeling so good.
“And I don’t have to sit there and think about what awful thing I’m going to have to do to get money so I can go buy dope,” he said.
“I get the feeling that people that have never done drugs before have this idea that addicts are all partying somewhere having a good time. … That’s generally not the case. It’s a pretty miserable existence.”
Brokschmidt ended up living in his car, sleeping on the back seat under a blanket. He had overdosed in the car, and the fire department had broken a couple of windows to get in. They saved him, but it made a desolate winter in Ohio even worse.
“I knew it was a bad situation obviously, but I didn’t let that living situation get in the way of me finding dope every single day.”
But his dire living situation did help steer him toward getting clean. Brokschmidt had tried to get clean about 11 times during his 15-year addiction, but nothing seemed to stick.
“I went to three different treatment centers. I traveled across the country trying to get away from it. One time, I went to Wichita, freaking Kansas. Literally in the middle of nowhere. I thought for sure I’d be safe there. I found dope within three days.”
He had tried to get clean by going it alone or with people who were in a similar situation. “It was just a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“At no point during this time did I want to be addicted,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I kept trying over and over again. I went to three different residential treatment centers. And I tried a couple, what they call, holistic approaches, as well. And none of them were working for me. I didn’t think anything could work for me.”
Success at Last
Two big differences stand out about Brokschmidt’s last, and successful, attempt at treatment. One, his living conditions were extreme enough for him to want to change, and two, he didn’t try to do it alone.
“I had to have the right people around me to do it. And that included disconnecting from basically everyone that I knew. After 15 years, everyone I know, socially, is an addict. So I had to cut that part out of my life. I had to delete every number in my phone.”
Besides his family, Brokschmidt found a huge amount of support among the local Dayton Families of Addicts (FOA) group. FOA is a nonprofit support group founded in 2013 by Lori Erion, a mother who was trying to navigate the addiction and recovery system while her daughter was hooked on heroin.
The meetings are weekly and unlike AA, they’re not anonymous. Addicts and anyone touched by addiction are welcome to attend. Six people turned up at the first meeting in 2013, and the group has since grown to about 90 on an average week.
It was at his first FOA meeting that Brokschmidt had a life-changing moment.
“Every week, about half the people are family members that’ve never touched a drug. They just don’t know how to deal with what’s going on with their loved ones,” he said.
“So this mother asked a question that I knew the answer to. I can’t overstate how important that moment was. That was the first time I felt useful to society in 15 years.”
Brokschmidt said answering that question was so monumental, it is up there with the moment his son was born.
“It was absolutely instrumental to my recovery progressing as well as it has so far,” he said.
Brokschmidt launched himself into helping FOA and hasn’t looked back since. He has been clean for two years in March and attributes it to his volunteer work helping other addicts.
“Most people in recovery that I talked to say they struggle with it, if not every day, then at least on a regular basis. For whatever reason, I don’t seem to have that problem. I really think it’s because of the volunteer work,” he said. “The constant exposure to it is somehow making it so I don’t have a daily struggle with trying to stay clean.”
He is a peer supporter who tries tirelessly to help addicts who overdose and those who want to get clean.
The Dayton Police Department prints off a list of people who have overdosed in the past week, and often Brokschmidt rides with an officer to visit them.
“We’ll just go to the address … and offer them treatment. While we’re doing that, when live overdoses happen—we get about eight every single day in Dayton—so when live overdoses happen, we stop knocking on the doors, and go to the overdose,” Brokschmidt said.
“Most of the people I talk to don’t take my help or listen to it, but we get a few that do. And if I’m able to stay in contact with them, it’s fun to watch their progress. You can actually see the personality changes.”
Brokschmidt said one doctor told him that it takes up to a year after a long addiction for the brain chemicals of a drug addict to get back to a level that’s healthy and normal for a human.
“And if you watch somebody in that process, you can see what they’re talking about, just how they react to things,” he said.
Solving the Crisis
Eighty percent of new heroin users start their addiction through prescription pills.
“That means 80 percent of heroin [addiction] is preventable,” Brokschmidt said. “So if we can rein in the drug companies especially, and the physicians that are prescribing these drugs, that literally eliminates 80 percent of the addicts on the street today. So that right there is the lion’s share of dealing with it.”
But recovery is where his time is spent, and that’s a complex beast.
Formed by his own experiences, Brokschmidt’s wish would be to have recovery services available immediately to addicts.
At one point, it took two months for Brokschmidt to get into a residential treatment center—not because there were no beds available during that two months, but because of insurance problems.
“I very well could have died during the intermediate time. You know what I’m saying? Cause you know in your heart I got high every single day of those two months, waiting,” he said.
In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, and almost two-thirds of those deaths involved an opioid. Forty percent of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.
“So I think that when somebody calls wanting help, [and] you ask them to wait, you’re gambling. You’re playing with that person’s life.”
At the least, Brokschmidt said, there’s a real need for immediate, 24-hour detox centers, for both overdose patients and addicts who want to get clean.
“It needs to be as easy to get the help as it is to get the dope. So I can call a dope [dealer] right now and have it delivered to my house faster than a pizza could get here,” he said.
“[And] when someone overdoses, the ambulance doesn’t take you to the hospital, they take you to the detox facility.
“It’s got to be medically assisted or people won’t go to it.”
The most commonly used version of the medication-assisted treatment is suboxone, which is a combination of buprenorphine (an opioid) and naloxone (which blocks the effects of opioids).
Suboxone has been used for opioid addiction since 2002, and methadone, the other main medication-assisted treatment, has been around for decades.
Vivitrol is a relatively new drug, which is an injection of naltrexone that blocks opioid receptors in the brain for one month at a time.
Brokschmidt said of all the people he has ever met, only one person has said they gave up drugs cold turkey the first time they tried.
“For the other 99.99 percent of us, it’s a process. It takes several attempts. I do believe if you make enough attempts, you will get there eventually,” he said.
“The problem is, most people die or end up in prison before that happens.”
A Bright Future
Brokschmidt is making up for lost time, and although his Air Force dream is gone, he is now working toward gaining more credentials in the recovery field.
“Really, after 15 years, that’s the only thing I’m an expert at now,” he said.
He has repaired relationships with family members and is thankful to be living in his sister’s basement, which is decked out like a man cave with a pool table, dart board, and his bike—his prized possession.
Last summer, Brokschmidt finally told his son, now 14, about his addiction and recovery.
“I actually hid it from him his entire life. He never knew. He lives with his mother, and that’s the reason I was able to hide it from him,” he said. He is looking forward to visiting his son in Florida this year.
“I don’t have bad days anymore. The last two years have been super cool. I’ve been having way more fun than I deserve,” he said.
“Every morning, I wake up, and I’m just happy.”
If you or someone you know needs help for an opioid addiction, call the national helpline:
Or find resources online at SAMHSA.gov