COMBAT Saved My Life

FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2019

COMBAT saved my life.

Four years ago, my recovery journey started with a drug treatment program paid for by COMBAT. If I hadn’t gotten that treatment, today I’d either be back in prison or dead.

Before, I was stuck on a dead-end path leading to nowhere. Then, I got help turning my life around and pointing it in a new direction. Now, instead of rotting inside a jail cell or my grave, I’m trying to help others take their first steps on their own recovery journeys. At 41, I’m finally doing some good with my life and, I believe, doing some good in the community.

These Are People Who Have Just Died & Need Help

Last fall, I went to work for Comprehensive Mental Health as a Mental Health Technician for their Gateway program. That would be the same program that saved my life back in 2015. I still coach clients there, but in March I became a Recovery Coach (Certified Peer Specialist) with CommCare’s EPICC program in Kansas City. EPICC stands for Engaging Patients In Care Coordination. Recovery coaches go into emergency rooms and meet with people who have overdosed on heroin or other opioids and try to get them into treatment. 

These are people who have just died and need help. And that’s how I look at it: they died but just got lucky and were revived. The next time they might not be brought back.

I was in the ER several times throughout my own addiction, usually for meth but never heroin. They’d get me stabilized in the ER and send me on my way with a list of treatment options. That’s what they do: medically clear you and send you out the door with a list.

Of course, I never followed up on that list. I just went back to doing drugs.

I Just Choose The Wrong Path In Life

You might say I never had a chance to avoid the life I was living. As a kid I did not know I had a choice. Today, I know that I did, and I just choose the wrong path in life.

I grew up in Kansas City, the offspring of a father addicted to crack. Mom was only 19 when she had me. She told me once about how she quit using cocaine cold turkey in the 1980s because she had sons to raise. She was definitely attracted to bad boys; both of my stepfathers were incarcerated for manufacturing meth. 

When I was 12, I went to live with my grandma, who was the best influence on me growing up. But I guess maybe it was a little too late by then. She was a really good person. Her mom had a brain aneurysm, so grandma gave up making a good living selling homes to take care of her mom, and she started bringing other people into her home to take care of them too. She liked to have a drink on occasion, so there was alcohol in the house. 

I started sneaking gin out of grandma’s bottle, then filling it back up with water. I then tried marijuana in junior high. Within a couple of years, I was turned onto many different things, including methamphetamine by the time I was 14.

When I was 16, I got into my head that I was going to be a gangster and joined a street gang. I was selling and using and doing all the things wrapped up in that lifestyle. By 17, I had been arrested for my first felony. By 19, I had dropped out of school in Hickman Mills and was in prison. 

My So-Called "Life"

I have since lived in Cameron, Fulton, Moberly and St. Joseph. When I say I lived there, I mean spending time in the Missouri prisons in those towns. I have been jailed for tampering, attempted arson, possession of a controlled substance, DUI, domestic violence, burglary in Kansas, lots and lots of misdemeanors.

And that was my so-called “life.” In and out of prisons, jails, hospitals, mental wards. 

When locked up in an institution, I’d swear off the drugs, say to myself, “I am never going to do that again.”

After I’d get out, sometimes I’d make it three weeks, other times three months. Eventually, I’d wind up right back in the same spot, doing drugs. I did a lot of meth, but also PCP, and most other drugs. You name it, and I was involved in it.

Looking back on all that, I’ve got to ask myself, “Why am I still here? How did I survive all that? Why am I not in prison for the rest of my life?”

My COMBAT Story By Tommy McGee

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I Didn't Want My Kids Seeing Me Like This

The way my life was going I seemed destined to wind up at some point being locked up permanently. 

In between my prison stays, I had five kids. The best I thing I ever did. After my second son was born, I even had three years when I stayed clean, but it didn’t last. When you’re working an honest program, you learn you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Honestly, I wasn’t a good father. I left my wife around 2006. I went back to the drugs and back to prison.

I got out of Cameron in 2012 or ’13. A couple of years later, I’m doing drugs with this younger crowd, kids in their 20s. When all the drugs were gone, they burnt out of there real fast—left me all alone. I'm feeling real low. I'm sick and ashamed. How low can I get?

In the middle of all this, my ex-wife shows up with my kids, and she tries to talk to me: “What are you doing? We don’t want to see you like this. You are better than this.”

What was I doing? I didn't want my kids seeing me like this.

I spent the next couple of days just reflecting, trying to figure out why do I keep doing the same thing over and over and over. It is insanity. Here I am, 37 years old. I’m tired. I’m sick. All I’ve got to my name, to show for my life after 30-some years, is a bag of clothes. That’s it.

I Got Lucky

That’s when I made the call to Comprehensive Mental Health out in Independence, and that’s when they told me it’d be about four weeks until they could get me in for treatment. They told me I’d have to be clean when I came in. I had to stop using.

My clean date is March 5, 2015. I made the call. That’s the day I quit doing drugs and started trying to fix my life.

But I got lucky. Comprehensive Mental Health called me back after only three or four days and told me they had a no-show. Could I be there by 9 o’clock the next morning? I called my cousin and said, “Please take me to Independence. I need some help.”

Could I have made it four weeks, instead of just four days, trying to stay clean on my own? Maybe in a couple of weeks I would have come into some money, and instead of still wanting help, I might have been looking to buy more drugs. I can’t honestly say that wouldn’t have happened. Who knows where I’d be now if Comprehensive hadn’t called me back so soon?

That’s why it is so important to get people treatment as soon as possible. For a lot of people with addiction the only thing tougher than making that call, to reach out and ask for help, is then being told you’ve got to wait.

Fortunately, my wait wasn’t a long one. 

27 Pounds Gained In 30 Days

I went through a 30-day inpatient treatment program, and for the first time I really opened up. I dug deep. I talked about things I never had before. I talked about the death of my brother, the deaths of my friends. I got my strength back physically. I weighed 148 pounds when I was admitted and put 27 pounds on in those 30 days 

When you’re doing meth, you aren’t eating, you’re not sleeping, you’re paranoid, and you’re delusional. I’d go days without sleeping because I was thinking the cops might be right outside my door or that I was just going to miss something.

During inpatient treatment, I got my feet back under me. But the real test begins when inpatient care ends, when you have to start over again on what you’ve really been missing out on—having a life.

Dealing With The Wreckage In My Life

The treatment staff recommended putting some distance between myself and my old drug life. When I was done with the inpatient program, I moved to the Union House transitional housing facility in Independence and continued with Comprehensive’s outpatient care. I got work. I rode the bus an hour and 15 minutes to my job at the I-Hop on 350 Highway. I was going to Alcohols Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

And I started dealing with the wreckage in my life.

From the I-Hop, I went to work at Applebee’s and in 18 months missed just one day of work. Then I did lawn care work for a couple years. Then these opportunities with Comprehensive Mental Health and CommCare came into my life. 

From "Mess" To "Message"

It’s amazing to me. The “mess” I had made out of my life can now be a “message” for someone else going through addiction. Give them hope. Get them to make that call and get help. If I can get clean and stay clean, if I can find a new way to live and become a productive member of society, so can you.

I have a career now. I honestly believe God kept me alive to do this work, talking to other addicts, giving them the good news that recovery is possible.

I am alive and well—clean now for four years, two months, two weeks. I’ve completed transitional living and share a duplex in Independence with my 17-year-old son. I’m working on building up my credit score and saving toward buying a home. That's what  I really want, a houseto go from couch-surfing or being in prison to finally laying down some roots.

Recovery Is A Process Without End

One day at a time, I am continuing my recovery journey. I’ll never say I am recovered. It’s a process without end. When I have a client call asking for help, I’ll tell them to meet me someplace I know is safe for me, like a church holding an AA meeting. I won’t let myself be in a position where they might pull out drugs or utensils. I can’t. I am an addict. 

And I have to keep being honest with myself. A lot of my recovery has been about getting and staying honest with myself about what and whom I was.

Otherwise, it’s impossible to move forward, to change who you are.

I still go to meetings. I enjoy going to meetings, being involved in the recovery community. I go to events—campouts, barbecues, managing a recovery softball team. I have a whole new set of friends.

One of the things I learned in the 12-step program is that gratitude is an action. If I am grateful to have a bed, I should make it. If I am grateful to have a job, I should work it. If I am grateful to have clothes, I should wash them. 

I had never thought of life like that before.

COMBAT didn’t just save my life; it gave me a chance to change my life for the better. I am grateful for that, so I’m going to keep on working on being a better person, helping others and staying on the right path. 

It’s amazing to me. The “mess” I had made out of my life can now be a “message” for someone else going through addiction. Give them hope. Get them to make that call and get help. If I can get clean and stay clean, if I can find a new way to live and become a productive member of society, so can you.