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The junkie’s crusade

Chad Sabora, left, a recovering addict, talks with Mary Jo Dunlap during an anti-heroin awareness rally held in memory of Kevin Mabery, who died of an overdose, at the intersection of highways H and 21, in DeSoto, Missouri, December 8, 2012.
Chad Sabora, left, a recovering addict, talks with Mary Jo Dunlap during an anti-heroin awareness rally held in memory of Kevin Mabery, who died of an overdose, at the intersection of highways H and 21, in DeSoto, Missouri, December 8, 2012.

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Chad Sabora was wrapping up his harrowing account of heroin addiction and recovery when he left a November forum at the Northbrook Public Library with a curious final remark:

“People used to call me a junkie and I hated it,” he said. “I wear that with pride today.”

Sabora was once a Cook County, Ill., prosecutor with a fiancee, a house in the suburbs and a furious, covert habit. Narcotic pain pills led him to heroin, and after months of increasingly reckless use, Chicago police caught him with five packets of the drug in his car.

His career swiftly ended. His life almost followed. What on earth was there to be proud about?

To understand, travel down to St. Louis, where Sabora, 36, is mounting an intense campaign against the drug that nearly destroyed him. Since emerging from a Downstate rehab 17 months ago, he has spoken at rallies and schools, given numerous interviews and even conducted a cautionary YouTube tour of local dope spots.

He’s one of the few veterans of heroin abuse comfortable with publicly acknowledging his past. By doing so, he says, he hopes to follow the example set by the gay rights movements — erasing stigma by refusing to stay silent.

“The only way people are ever accepted is to put it in society’s face,” he said. “Over time people understand. We should be able to admit it.”

Sabora grew up in Skokie with parents who understood better than most the dangerous potential of narcotics. His mother was a homemaker-turned-lawyer who worked for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. His father was a drug user who got clean in the late 1960s and became a counselor and executive at Gateway, one of the largest treatment centers in Illinois.

Yet even they didn’t fully recognize their son’s teenage substance abuse. Sabora said that shortly after he graduated from Niles North High School in 1994, he and some friends began making pilgrimages to the drug bazaars on Chicago’s West Side to sample cocaine, ecstasy and heroin.

It seemed like fun back then, a way for suburban kids to get a taste of big-city danger. Sabora was once arrested for disorderly conduct and his father, who knew well the sort of thing that went down on the West Side, chewed him out. Yet once authorities dropped the charges, Sabora and his father never discussed the subject again.

Sabora left street drugs alone for a few years, focusing on his studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but he was already primed to seek deliverance in chemicals. Law school insomnia led him to abuse sleeping pills. When both his parents died from cancer the mid-2000s, the best salve for his grief came from anti-anxiety medication and narcotic painkillers.

Year after year his clandestine habit grew, even as he started his legal career working child support cases for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. But then the psychiatrist who had been writing his prescriptions cut him off, he said, and he was too embarrassed to get help.

Instead, as the excruciating symptoms of opiate withdrawal kicked in, he made a fateful decision.

“I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “I knew where to get (heroin). I went down there and I got it. Chicago and Pulaski. I pulled up and it was exactly the same thing as when I was 18. I knew how to call them over, the nod to give. That’s when it started.”

What happened next was a predictable collapse. He blew through thousands of dollars, neglected his work, lost his fiancee and ultimately his job after Chicago police arrested him for heroin possession in February 2008. (The criminal case was eventually dropped.)

Even then, he wasn’t done. When his Westchester house went into foreclosure, he took a train Downstate and did four months of rehab at a Gateway clinic in Caseyville, Ill., a few miles outside of St. Louis. He got out, took a job as a waiter in a casino steakhouse and swiftly grew cocky about his sobriety.

After-work drinks led to cocaine, which led to pain pills, which led back to heroin. He ran through every cent his parents had left him, sold every possession and shot up so relentlessly that by the end, he had to stand under a scalding hot shower and beat his arms to raise a vein.

There’s no telling when an addict will hit bottom, and for Sabora, it came in a phone call from a disgusted relative. In June 2011, he returned to Gateway for 28 days of inpatient care, followed by weeks of intensive outpatient treatment. The habits of clean living finally sank in, he said, and he settled into a life free of drugs.

Broke and friendless, cut off from his family, he cast around on Facebook for understanding, joining a forum for current and former heroin users. There, he saw notes from parents pleading for help for their children, and he offered his advice. It made him feel good to be useful.

That expanded after he met Robert Riley II, a former heroin user and gang member, at a 12-step meeting. They hit it off, Riley said, and when a Facebook friend wanted to detox at home (she was afraid of leaving her small child behind to go to a hospital), they took shifts watching over her.

“Chad’s really driven by seeing the suffering, knowing what it’s like,” he said. “He really wants to help them find a better way.”

Soon, they were conducting informal interventions, trying to convince users to enter treatment. One of them was a young man from Belleville, Ill., whose habit had grown to seven or eight “beans” — heroin packed into capsules — each day.

The man, 26, who requested that his name not be published, said Sabora’s history of drug use and with-it sense of fashion — stylish jeans, gelled faux-hawk and Bono-esque sunglasses — lent credibility to his message. He seemed more like a peer than an authority figure.

“He just gave me that little push I needed at the right time,” the man said.

Sabora, Riley and other friends went on to form STL Heroin Help, a nonprofit they’re trying to make a one-stop source of treatment referrals, public education and legislative activism. They plan to lobby for a “Good Samaritan” law in Missouri that would offer limited legal immunity to drug users who call authorities when a companion overdoses. They’ve also collected toys and clothes to bring to the children of people struggling with heroin.

The work, combined with his job as a waiter, makes for an exhausting schedule, one that concerns some of his friends. Therapists generally caution people in recovery to limit their exposure to the drug world for fear that proximity could lead to relapse. Sabora said while he is aware of that danger, his friends and 12-step sponsor make sure that his zeal doesn’t lead him astray.

“He needs a cause,” said his aunt, Susan Rubin, who lives in Skokie. “This is what gives Chad a reason to get up in the morning.”

A recent Saturday morning was an apt example. Sabora made arrangements to conduct an intervention, fine-tuned some logistics for the toy drive and worked on a rally he’s planning next year at Missouri’s Capitol. Then he drove about 45 miles south to the small town of De Soto to attend a roadside vigil for Kevin Mabery, who died of an overdose in February.

This sort of public remembrance has become a common sight in Missouri as heroin deaths have soared, going from 69 in 2007 to 244 last year. On this day, a crowd of about 50 people gathered at a busy intersection, hoisting neon-colored signs that bore the names and photos of loved ones who died from the drug.

Milling in the crowd, Sabora gave his card to a few people whose kids were dealing with addiction, then struck up a conversation with Taylor Mabery, 16. Kevin was her legal guardian, though she viewed him as a father, and she was one of the first people to find his body.

That didn’t get her much sympathy at school, she told Sabora.

“They call me a junkie,” she said. “They say, ‘You’re nothing but a junkie’s daughter.’ ”

To Sabora, that comment summed up the stigma he and other activists are trying to end. No one would mock a child whose parent died of cancer, he said, but addiction, which many experts regard as a disease in its own right, is another story.

He believes that could change if more people came forward with their stories of recovery, thereby creating a broader sense of societal compassion. That might encourage those struggling with heroin to seek help promptly, just as they would if they suffered any other medical condition.

But that day is far away, he said. Until it comes, there’s plenty of work to do.

“(Heroin) scares people,” Sabora told Taylor Mabery. “That’s what it comes down to. It has nothing to do with you. Your dad’s going to be remembered in a good way. He didn’t die in vain.”

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