Stephen Mason, peer recovery specialist and regional overdose specialist with TN Save A Life and the TN Department of Health and Substance Abuse Services, understands what drug addiction is all about because he struggled with it for nearly a decade, but he’s been sober since 2016 following his enrollment in a court drug program.
These days, he’s encouraging other addicts to seek recovery and is teaching others how to reverse an opioid overdose with NARCON.
Mason started drinking with friends in high school, then got hooked on pain killers at the age of 17 when he broke his ankle. A doctor gave him hydrocodone for the pain until he was able to see an orthopedic specialist, and when he ran out of that, he was given some more pain killers at a hospital. The orthopedic surgeon gave him oxycodone.
“I not only became physically dependent, but emotionally dependent,” said Mason.
The pills took away his social anxiety and gave him a warm, fuzzy feeling.
“Nobody ever asked me if I was genetically predisposed,” he said. But, he was. Before long, he was stealing from family members and selling drugs to others.
As his disease progressed, Mason began taking amphetamines like Adderall and Vyvanse and in later years started using methamphetamines, Dilauded and Oxymorphone intravenously. During that time he committed five felonies. He wished that he could stop, but felt like he’d probably never get off the drugs.
“I felt shame, guilt, remorse, loneliness, sad and hopelessness …There is that stigma.”
He made up his mind that no one understood him. When his deeds caught up to him, he was sent to jail for one year and was ordered four years’ probation. During his probation, he wasn’t asked about going for treatment, only whether he had a job and a home address.
Once his family intervened and sent him to Moccasin Bend, he was given an evaluation for anxiety, but not for drugs.
“I white-knuckled it,” he said “I was eventually going to relapse ... and I eventually did.”
He would have stayed where he was if he didn’t get help. Each time he tried to stop, it was more difficult than the time before.
People would find him slumped over inside of his truck with the motor still running. He overdosed four times and doesn’t remember who saved him. Following his last arrest, he faced a 12-year prison sentence, and he begged the judge to put him in a Judicial Recovery Program, and he did. When he went into treatment, he was taught about the disease, addiction and behavior modification. He said he also felt loved.
After 68 days in treatment and at the age of 26, he was clean. Mason attributes his healing process of his brain to the Lord.
“I got in a good relationship with God,” he said.
Addiction is a chronic disease that can start with trauma and could stem from childhood experiences, Mason said. Codeine, morphine, oxycodone, oxymorphine, methadone and other drugs attach themselves to opioid receptors. Drugs activate dopamine in the brain, which signals pleasure.
“Alcohol plays on the same pathway of drugs,” he said.
Mason explained that the reason an addict can’t just stop using is because his or her brain structure and function is altered through addiction. While in recovery, it takes a minimum of 90 days before brain function begins to work properly, and depending on the substance, it could take 18 to 24 months or two to five years to change the brain function when a user has been on methamphetamines or heroin.
In addition to working as a peer recovery specialist and regional overdose specialist with TN Save A Life and the TN Department of Health and Substance Abuse Services, Mason works with Juvenile Recovery Court in Franklin County, taking inmates for treatment and helping others he used to hang out with before he went into treatment.
“A lot are in recovery now,” he said.
He has partnered with the Lincoln County Anti-Drug Coalition, along with Josh Crews with TN Save A Life, to offer Naloxone (NARCAN) training. NARCAN can stop an overdose. He covers 13 counties and teaches approximately eight to 20 NARCAN classes per month, teaching others to save the lives of those who overdose.
Despite the dark period in his life, Mason has been able to maintain his relationships with family and friends, avoid the stigma, and he feels called to open a men’s residential program sometime in the future to battle addiction.
“I’ll be working with guys straight out of the fire,” he said.
Call the Tennessee REDLINE at 1-800-889-9789 for immediate help for anyone suffering from a substance abuse disorder.
You can also visit www.taadas.org/our-programs-and-services/redline for more information.