For the past six years, James M. was in and out of jail, courtrooms, detox, and halfway houses.
"I started using marijuana when I was 11 years old," James says.
When he was 18, James started trying other drugs, including cocaine and the prescription opioid oxycodone, which is used to treat moderate to severe pain. Both drugs can be highly addictive.
James said he was often desperate and would try any opioid he could get.
"I tried to stop," he says, "but my body would be achy, and I'd feel sick. So, I just kept doing more."
Now, 25-year-old James has been drug free for more than a year.
He has been working and taking classes to get his high school equivalency certificate, thanks in part to his involvement with UTEC, Inc. This nonprofit program in Lowell, Massachusetts, works specifically with young adults who have proven risk factors.
Working with UTEC
UTEC's mission is to trade violence and poverty for social and economic success. They nurture and train young people who have been in prison or struggled with violence and gang involvement. Many of these young adults (ages 17-25) have histories of or current issues with drug use, including opioids.
UTEC gives these young people a chance to stay out of trouble and to work, earn a high school equivalency certificate, and learn skills such as woodworking or cooking. Most of all, UTEC helps teach how to be responsible, stay clean, and show up for work every day.
"I first talked to UTEC when I was 19," James says. "They came to my jail, and asked me if I wanted to be involved. I tried the program, but I couldn't stick with it."
James would find himself back in jail, then in mandatory detox centers and therapy, but eventually he'd turn back to drugs.
Ready for responsibility
James ultimately grew tired of going to halfway houses, detox centers, and jail.
"I was sick of it all," he says.
When UTEC approached him in jail again in the summer of 2018, James was ready. He understood that UTEC could help him stay away from drugs while learning job skills.
James has been coming to UTEC regularly for more than five months. He is getting paid for the work he does at UTEC, including cooking and helping others.
A rough road
James admits that the UTEC program wasn't easy. If James didn't show up for work, a UTEC member would come to his house and make sure he was OK.
"Sometimes I wouldn't even open the door. I didn't want to talk to them. A lot of people in this program are addicts or gang members. UTEC will do a lot to get you to come back," he says. "They're really supportive."
At first, James didn't attend the optional extra class at the end of the day.
"I would just walk home or have my girlfriend pick me up," he says, "but then I realized it kept me busy, and the better attendance I had, the better jobs I'd get." He has enjoyed programs such as UTEC's outdoor leadership hiking program.
Sobriety and support
James is determined to stay drug free and keep up his attendance at UTEC.
"Drugs are always on the back of my mind, but I keep busy and I have good support," James says.
Currently, James, his girlfriend, and their baby boy live in his mother's house. His goal is to find a good job so his family can live on their own.
James is motivated by more than just his own experience.
His cousin died from cocaine laced with fentanyl (a deadly synthetic opioid) while James was in jail, and James' father overdosed when James was 2 years old.
"That made me see it all. I don't want to do that to my son," he says.
For people who know an addict, James offers this advice: "Don't attack or accuse them—it only makes it harder for them. If you can't help an addict, don't hurt one."