When Kyle Shaw of Miamisburg speaks about his path from incarcerated heroin addict to running a recovery housing non-profit, he tailors the story depending on the audience.
With the men in the STOP program — people on probation who will soon transition from jail and back into the community — he talks a lot about the pull of the “lifestyle” and the particulars of his various stays in jail and prison.
While addressing staff members at Kettering Medical Center he talks about the rare cancer he had at age 18 and how the pain and illness drove him to harder drugs.
But each time he shares his story, he credits his more than four years of staying clean to his faith and to removing himself from the same influences that pulled him under time and again.
“If I wasn’t changing everything I wasn’t going to change anything,” he said.
The message of complete surrender to a new life is one shared by many in recovery. This newspaper is telling the stories of local people who have moved past opioid addiction in order to show the other side the epidemic that has impacted thousands of people throughout the Miami Valley.
No two recoveries are alike, but these stories show recovery can and does happen, even if it doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
‘I was constantly partying’
Shaw’s story shows the roller-coaster form recovery can sometimes take.
He started by smoking marijuana — around age 10. Not until he was nearing 30 did he finally turn the corner.
“By the time I was 15 years old I’d done every drug there was except crack and heroin,” he said. “I used to walk in the front door of Stebbins High School and right out the back. I’d come back at lunch and sell drugs… I was constantly partying.”
After going through the ninth grade three times, he was kicked out of school. He later dropped out of the Miami Valley Career Technology Center.
HOW TO GET HELP: An opioid addiction resource guide
Then at 18 came two events that could have been the catalysts to change course. Except they weren’t.
First he learned he would become a father. Then, two days later, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — a sarcoma that was growing in the connective tissue at the back of his head.
“They couldn’t figure out how it got in the back of an 18-year-old boy’s head,” Shaw said. “They said that type of cancer was normally in like 70- or 80-year-old men’s legs.”
Chemotherapy and radiation took a toll on Shaw’s body and he endured setback after setback in his treatment.
“Anything and everything that could go wrong went wrong,” he said.
On one particularly bad day, a family member offered him crack cocaine and said it would make him feel better.
“I thought well, I’m dying anyway so I might as well,” Shaw said. “God delivered me from cancer but here I was a crack head.”
His 20s were defined by repeated incarcerations and squandered chances. He went to jail the first time because he failed to complete treatment in lieu of conviction, the court system’s olive branch for avoiding jail.
“I tried to change some things but I wasn’t completely surrendered,” he said. “I got home and continued to use.”
At that time he lived with an uncle who was bipolar. Shaw thought he could calm his uncle down from a manic episode by giving him Xanax.
“What I did not know is that he was already taking methadone,” Shaw said. “So I gave him a handful of Xanax and overdosed him and killed him.”
That’s when another family member put a pistol to Shaw’s head. “Only by the grace of God he didn’t pull that trigger,” he says.
Cancer didn’t cause him to quit drugs, nor did the gun episode. Instead, he got high on Xanax and stole his family member’s guns — which landed him again behind bars.
In prison, he quit smoking, underwent drug treatment and got his GED.
“I really wanted to be done,” he said of the transition to a better life. “I’d get home and just be a good dad.”
For some, that’s all it takes. But when Shaw got out of prison and went looking for pain pills on the street, a different drug was “popping up everywhere,” he said: heroin.
‘I burnt all my bridges’
After throwing up the first time he tried heroin, Shaw soon found his new drug of choice, and within a year he was at NOVA House, a treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction. He says he worked hard during the treatment and his counselors believed in him, believed he could push through.
But once again, that proved to be wishful thinking.
“I came home from the Nova House, and I started hanging out with my treatment buddies,” he said. “We thought we’re going to do this thing together. Slowly but surely one of them fell off and then we all fell off.”
Shaw was going to a methadone clinic at this point, but he was also selling heroin.
By September 2013, at age 29, he thought he was doing well if he just stuck to smoking weed and taking an occasional pill while going on suboxone — a drug that mimics opioids to the brain’s receptors but doesn’t get the user high.
“I always tried to substitute one drug for another. Tried to just smoke weed, tried to just drink,” he said. “Somehow I thought that I could control the disease and still partake in the lifestyle and not suffer the consequences, but it never worked like that.”
He and his girlfriend at the time went on a week-long bender that included heroin, crack, and committing robberies.
“When I finally got arrested it was like 3 o’clock in the morning. I threw half a gram of heroin over a fence,” Shaw said. “I don’t know how I didn’t overdose that week.”
He spent 60 days in the Montgomery County Jail, only this time was different. This time he was honest with himself.
“Here I was almost 30 years old, didn’t have nothing to show for my life,” Shaw said. “Got my grandma’s car impounded for like the fifth time. My daughter had to come down to that county jail more times than I like to admit. I burnt all my bridges with my family and friends and loved ones. I was just disgusted with what I saw.”
He prayed every day, and not the “God get me out of this” prayers he’d said in the past.
“It was sincere and it was from my heart and I wanted to make sure that God knew that,” he said.
‘I had to change everything’
When Shaw got out of jail he encountered a familiar barrier to people trying to stay clean: the environment that greeted him was no different than the one he left.
“I think this is why a lot of people fail at recovery attempts,” he said. “I came home to the same house I grew up in, the same house I sold drugs out of.”
“I quickly learned that I had to change everything.”
Now Shaw helps others do the same by running recovery housing where those coming out of drug treatment or jail can begin their recovery in a sober, caring environment.
Whole Truth Ministries has one recovery house in Riverside and has plans to bring another online in Miamisburg this year.
The non-profit is partnered with the Montgomery County ADAMHS Board and gets some funding from the county, which has recognized the importance of sober housing to long-term recovery.
Shaw shares his story with those in the program: his cancer, his incarcerations, his brush with death and his setbacks.
And he shares something else.
“Sept. 5, 2013,” he says, “was the last time I got high.”