‘Wicked Sober’ Connects Addicts and Their Families With the Right Resources

As the addiction "health crisis" continues to weigh heavy on the state, Mike Duggan and his father try to offer addicts other options.

Mike Duggan is five years sober today.

“It’s been a miracle. There have been so many blessings over the last [few] years,” he says, looking back on his struggle with heroin. One of those miracles was giving his own father, a recovering alcoholic, a one-year sobriety medallion on Father’s Day last year. “[He will] be giving me my five-year medallion this week, which is a huge gift.”

Duggan became addicted to opiates when he suffered an injury during a hockey game in high school and was prescribed Percocet after surgery. That quickly led him into Oxycontin as the prescription drug availability surged across Massachusetts. Soon after, as the habit to use Oxycontin became too expensive, he turned to heroin to keep his withdrawal symptoms in check—a sequence of abuse that’s all too familiar for those addicted to the drug. Now on the mend for half a decade, Duggan, a father, husband, college graduate, and a steady support structure for dozens of struggling addicts, runs a service called “Wicked Sober” out of Arlington alongside his dad.

After recently moving back to Arlington from Florida, Duggan decided the best way to give back to the community after he managed to escape the clutches of his own heroin addiction was to start Wicked Sober, to help close the faulty gap that lies between patient services for addicts fresh out of detox centers and the availability of a bed and other necessary resources so they can continue to stay clean, without the risk of relapse.

“I’ve seen a lot of over the last year,” Duggan says. Just days ago, he drove someone to the airport so they could fly to a detox facility out of state. Before boarding the plane, however, the client decided to try to get one last high before embarking on a journey toward sobriety. Duggan said the client walked into a Logan bathroom to shoot heroin into his neck—after he couldn’t find a usable vein in his arm—in full view of other people. This type of behavior is common in addicts and alcoholics, Duggan says, who feel that since they’re about to try to get sober, they may as well go out with a bang. “It was a long night,” Duggan says of dealing with that particular addict, just one of dozens that have contacted their support facility since he took on the project full-time in May.

Duggan and his father also host interventions with families because he says people closest to addicts often don’t understand the driving forces behind someone’s addiction. “People are ashamed when they are dealing with addiction. They like to close the circle around it and they don’t like people to know what they are going through. We have these interventions with families because we like to educate them on what’s happening. They are starting to get an education and starting to better understand that they’re not alone,” he says.

Like many doctors, local law enforcement agencies, and municipality leaders, Duggan recognizes the stranglehold the drug has on Massachusetts right now, and says finding beds and support services for addicts is just one of many hurdles that people who use heroin face as they look to get clean.

“A lot of people tend to feel very alone through this process. Addicts are calling places and they are telling them, ‘No, sorry, we can’t help you,’ and then they are giving up and using that day because they have called certain places and don’t have a bed. So they say, ‘ok, there’s my excuse to get high,’ because they have to. And then the next day comes around, and who knows if they will make that phone call again.”

Duggan says a lot of what Wicked Sober does is sit down with clients and cold call and connect them with facilities that they might otherwise not know about. “We are building a good relationship with a lot of these admission staffs. The relationship that you have with these people at these facilities can get people help immediately so they aren’t left to their own devices,” he says. “There are so many holes in the system as to where to go and how to get into a [halfway house or treatment center] after detox. Basically, there’s just some resources out there that some people are unaware exist, so [Wicked Sober] is about educating them on what types of things are available.”

Duggan says the situation is overwhelming for addicts who are withdrawing from such a powerful drug. “When they are put into a crisis situation, and they hear ‘no, we can’t help you,’ it’s unacceptable. It just shouldn’t be that way.”

The heroin problem goes much deeper than just the lack of available beds and transition services for people with serious addictions. The “epidemic” and “public health crisis”—terms used by elected leaders ranging from Governor Deval Patrick to Attorney General Eric Holder, to describe the recent wave of overdoses—is the result of multiple cracks in the system.

During the first hearing of a special state commission convened by Senate President Therese Murray last month, everyone from recovering addicts to fire chiefs and district attorneys gathered at the public library in Plymouth to talk about the challenges their South Shore communities have faced as the amount of overdoses continues to spike statewide. Between 2000 and 2012, opiate overdoses have increased by 90 percent in Massachusetts, according to state officials.

A big part of the problem is that, once patients go through detox they’re immediately picking up again. “A lot of kids dying from overdoses are just getting out of detox. They are going right back to that drug, and it’s killing them,” says District Attorney Timothy Cruz, who attended last month’s commission hearing. “There needs to be additional beds for our kids to go somewhere.”

This in-and-out style of treatment is what Duggan tells me they refer to as “revolving door” effect. “A lot of these detoxes have a high failure rate. They are releasing these kids right on the streets,” and they are using again almost instantly because they can’t find the proper resources after getting clean for a few days. “The resources as limited as far as where people can and cannot go after detox.”

That’s where Duggan hopes he can fill the gap.

“I started this because of the difficulties I had to get a bed that was available,” he says of his own experience. Duggan has now been sober for five years, but it didn’t come easy. “I gave up [looking for help] numerous times. I didn’t even know about the other resources available for me.”

He doesn’t want that to be the case for anyone else going through the same thing. “I can’t tell you—people are two days clean and the detox won’t take them anymore…because the detox can’t take them because they don’t have drugs in their system,” he says.

With limited options, they get high again so they can qualify to get into a detox, but in many cases the facilities suddenly won’t have any more available beds. “It’s awful,” he says.