My Sponsor Overdosed, But Let’s Start From The Beginning

two men standing on the beach at dusk as the waves crash

My Sponsor Overdosed, But Let’s Start From The Beginning

I entered into treatment in December 2015 – it was my mother’s birthday. I spent 42 days at an in-patient facility in Georgia – that’s how I met Shea. He was on the kitchen staff and we became friends through competitive games of ping-pong. When I completed my stay, I hesitantly transitioned to a halfway house. I was hesitant because five days before being discharged I was told I was unable to return home to Jacksonville because my mom changed the locks and my girlfriend at the time was unwilling to let me stay with her.

I was given an ultimatum – be homeless or go to a halfway house. I had been homeless once before in 2004 after coming back to my parents’ house from a night of partying and saw my mother throwing trash bags of my stuff down the stairs while yelling at me to get out. I slept on a friend’s couch, but because he was also in active addiction the situation became violent and unsafe for both of us. Two months later I made a deal with my parents to move into their spare condo. It would be another 10 years of active addiction before seeking treatment.

I never forgot how it felt being homeless, and I didn’t want to go back… so off to the halfway house I went!

I was told it would be a three-to-six month program. This timeline fit my hopes of a short stay. The only person we were able to communicate with on a daily basis was our sponsor. We had one 15-minute call to our family every Wednesday. We were required to participate in therapy sessions and 12-Step fellowship meetings, and with it, we were assigned a sponsor – Shea just so happened to be the person I was paired with. He was a senior member who went through similar treatment, was well-versed in the 12-Step program, and had about two years of sobriety. Our personalities complimented each other so well and we instantly hit it off.

Shea was my first sober friend outside of the halfway house. He could sign me out and we would leave to do things like putt-putt, see movies, and go to dinner. He introduced me to having fun in recovery because up until that point it was ALL business and no fun. One of the biggest things I stress to patients and alumni at Lakeview Health is finding ways to have fun in recovery because if you’re not having more fun in recovery than you were in active addiction, why would anyone remain sober? For me, that required having someone like Shea to show me the ropes and introduce me to other sober people.

Shea was my sponsor for six months and helped me work through everyday situations, including the stress of being newly sober living in a halfway house with seven other men. In that time I told him everything about me – no filter or mask, no lies, and no fear of judgment because I could be completely transparent with someone for the first time in my life. I was in the halfway house for 5 months and 19 days before I had to move back to Jacksonville and start Step 9.  I moved back in with my parents and had to find a new sponsor who was local, but I would talk to Shea frequently and still confided in him.

Almost two years after I moved back to Jacksonville, I got word from a friend that Shea had overdosed and was in the hospital – he was alive. I called him to check-in, and what I got was not the person I had been so connected to. He was back to be a shell of a person in active addiction. I wasn’t happy with the lack of seriousness and nonchalant attitude he had towards the situation. I tried to support him and help the best I could over the phone, but deep down I knew he would use again because this wasn’t enough of a wakeup call.

After that, we stopped talking because the Shea I knew gave up. The Big Book says, “we find it a waste of time to keep chasing a man who cannot or will not work with you. If you leave such a person alone, he may soon become convinced that he cannot recover by himself.” Basically, Shea was back in full swing active addiction, didn’t want help, and was unwilling to take suggestions. I backed off and did not regret that decision because trying to help him could have put my sobriety in jeopardy.

On December 3, 2017, I got another phone call and remember every detail of that day.

I had just arrived at a Jaguars game with my dad and a friend when I received a call from JT, a mutual friend of mine and Shea’s who still lived in Georgia – Shea overdosed the day prior and passed away. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I hate to admit I wasn’t surprised based on my last conversation with Shea. Thankfully I had done enough interpersonal work and knew if I let my emotions dictate my decisions, it would negatively impact my recovery. Meaning if I made an emotional decision based on the news of Shea’s death, it could trigger a pity party and make using an attractive way to cope.

I called my sponsor that night to process everything because talking about it was the best way I was going to get through it. My sponsor and I both agreed it would have been selfish of me to think there was something I could have done to prevent what happened. I am not the Higher Power. I had no control over Shea and his decisions. It’s important to remember everyone’s recovery journey is different. Sponsors are humans who are recovering from a disease and helping others suffering from the same disease – they are not meant to be put on a pedestal.

I had the opportunity to go to Shea’s funeral in Atlanta. I gave my condolences to his family and was asked to speak at the service about how he impacted my life. I was nervous, but it seemed like the least I could do considering how much he influenced me. There is still such a stigma surrounding addiction and those who die from overdoses, and who knows how everyone at Shea’s funeral felt about it. However, I didn’t want the nature of his death and circumstances surrounding the end of his life to hinder the fact that he saved mine and kept me from being the person in that casket.

Rest in peace, my friend.
Shea K | May 22, 2019 – December 2, 2017