A pathway to recovery

Justin Dennis, 36, of Winchester speaks about his life as a former heroin addict during the Community Forum on Heroin at Stimpson Auditorium at Shenandoah University Tuesday night in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Eight years have passed since Justin Dennis quit using heroin and sobered up.

Since then, he has found a wife, a meaningful job, and a message he carries to others trying to climb out of the pit of drug addiction.

“My message to anybody and anyone is hope and the promise of freedom from active addiction,” Dennis said in an interview Monday. “No addict need die searching for recovery.”

Dennis, 36, of Winchester, was one of several speakers Tuesday at a community forum organized by law enforcement and criminal justice officials, health care professionals and social service experts who work to limit the reach of heroin in the area.

The statistics so far for this year — eight deaths from overdoses — remain about as grim as 2014. On Monday during a visit to Front Royal, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring was told by State Police Special Agent Jay Perry, coordinator of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, that he saw no sign of heroin abating in the area, despite numerous arrests for trafficking offenses.

Dennis’ story offers a bit of hope for those tempted to give in to despair.

Dennis was an addict up until 2007, and he has the criminal record in Frederick County to prove it: case after case of probation violations linked to distribution of heroin, possession of heroin, possession of oxycodone, and possession of cocaine. Nearly all of them ended in guilty pleas.

“I was selling heroin in Winchester,” Dennis said. “I was stealing from my family. I would do anything to get money or drugs. Whatever I could think of and do, I would do it and wouldn’t think twice about it.”

He was imprisoned and jailed at different times for 2 1/2 years, four mouths and nine months.

“I was getting high in prison,” Dennis said. “My addiction never stopped, even though I was locked away.”

Now he works as a union electrician, earning enough money to support his wife and two children. He gets up at 3:30 a.m. to reach his work site in Washington, D.C., at 6 a.m. The workday lasts until 2:30 p.m., and on Mondays and Wednesdays he takes classes to further his education as an electrician.

“It’s just been up and up, and I’ve been blessed tremendously,” Dennis said.

Dennis’ last stint in jail was also the last straw for him. His life had cratered, but the deepening gloom brought with it the realization that he had to do something to give himself a better future. He enrolled in a 12-step program and started building what he calls “a relationship with God.”

The path toward a lasting recovery was long and rocky. Dennis began using drugs when he was 11. He said he was psychologically addicted to marijuana from the first time he tried it.

“I had so many insecurities,” Dennis said. “I was hyperactive. I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. I remember smoking pot and thinking ‘wow, this makes me feel good. It makes me feel comfortable’ and made me feel like I belong. It was something I wanted to do every day.”

As he grew older, Dennis hung out at parties where he was introduced to cocaine and other drugs. He tried oxycodone, part of the heroin family of opioid drugs, when he was 20.

“When I discovered opioids, it took me to that level of high I was seeking, then I chased it, and all the other stuff went by the wayside,” Dennis said. “The opioid is what drove me to a whole other level of addiction.”

Not long after trying oxycodone, a friend from the Baltimore area introduced Dennis to heroin. Within two months, Dennis realized he had become physically dependent on the drug.

Dennis described his withdrawal symptoms: “You feel like you’ve got the flu. Your body is shaking, cold sweats, cramping, and your mind is telling you the only way to fix it is to get more.”

The last time Dennis was released from jail, he set a new course for himself, something he had tried to do in the past without success. But this time was different. He found a job at a fast food restaurant and then managed to get hired at a thrift store, thanks to some sympathetic managers who made an exception to the store policy against hiring felons.

He worked at the thrift store for three years before meeting a former union electrician at the store who recommended him for a job interview with the union.

“He got me the job I have today,” Dennis said.

Dennis went to his first treatment program when he was 15, one of many false starts before he managed to loosen the grip of addiction.

“A lot of times the individual doesn’t really want it,” Dennis said of recovery. “They’re trying to get out of trouble. They don’t want to follow directions to a T. They want to do things that take them back.

“When the individual really wants it, and his whole life depends on it, it becomes a success story.”

Dennis sounded surprised as he reflected on the combination of good luck and his own grit that allowed him to go from a drug addicted creature of the street with no education to someone who has managed to find his way to a more stable, rewarding life.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Dennis he said. “It’s been good.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com