The face of addiction: One Shore resident discusses his history of use

EASTON — Bruce Strazza says he never aspired to be an addict. He sits with his coffee and watches his cell phone for text messages, just like everyone else at Rise Up Coffee on a Thursday afternoon. He’s slim, fit, hip-looking, with bright, aware eyes, and he exudes a sense of humor only strained by a tense irony that comes from knowing too well what he’s talking about.

Bruce has a problem with substances. In his short 47 years, he’s been a heroin addict, a cocaine addict, an alcoholic and a connoisseur of pills you and I might only take under dire circumstances. Bruce suffered through a young life with an abusive, alcoholic father, an older brother who died from a heroin habit, and a powerful case of self-loathing born of being the youngest in a family that had no room for him.

He hit bottom once in his early life, kicked the drugs and alcohol and stayed straight for over a decade, enough time to become a successful businessman and financially secure. Then, things went wrong and Bruce was way off the wagon, until he found himself living on the streets in New York City with a needle in his arm.

He pulled it all back, though. He tells a story of being “Saved by the Shore,” and now he counsels other addicts, speaks of the dangers of drug abuse to students and community groups, and spends his waking hours trying to help anyone with addiction problems. He’s at a good place now, but it was a long, ugly road getting there.

How does all this happen to people? Unfortunately, Bruce has a lot of company in his misery — and he expresses no doubt that it’s a miserable existence. But how is it that some of us live normal workaday lives, and others wind up diving down a rabbit hole of substance abuse? We got together with Bruce on a warm afternoon this past fall for a cup of coffee and maybe a little insight into a life plagued by addiction.

“The reality is,” Bruce admitted, “I’m a product of the ‘70s. Growing up where I did, it was Tuinal, Seconal, Quaaludes, black beauties. Every girl I knew who was a cheerleader was chain-smoking and eating yellow jackets, which was speed — speed was big. I mean everybody. On the weekend, it was ‘save your lunch money, drink on the weekend.’”

As a youngster, Bruce took to the lifestyle with gusto. He admits he wanted to escape his home life, and partying with his friends was his way out the door. Only he got started at a terribly young age.

Bruce grew up in suburban Maryland, between Annapolis and Glen Burnie, in a middle class neighborhood. He played lacrosse and admits that he was popular, and talented at what he did. Of drinking and drug abuse, he says, “I wasn’t personally involved at first, but then at 10, 11, 12 years old — who knows when exactly it happened.”

“At 13 years old I knew with absolution that I was different,” he told us. “They (his friends) wanted to go home, and there was nothing going on at my house that I wanted to be a part of. Dad was drunk, mom had to work two jobs, I had a brother who was in his active addiction, two sisters — sports, cheerleading and everything — and then here’s the baby, me, eight years behind everybody.”
Bruce didn’t want to go home, he just wanted to keep partying.

“There was a certain level of acceptance that came with being the kid in high school who could drink the most, who could hold his liquor,” he says.

In seventh grade, Bruce discovered cocaine. “I fell in love with it. It gave me this personality that I just did not know existed. High school was weed, acid, hallucinogens, all that stuff, a lot of drinking. It was always in the spirit of partying, but I always knew — because of my father, because of my brother — that I had whatever it was that they had. Looking back at my life, and examining my life, any time I was in trouble, or when my behavior was questionable, drugs and alcohol were involved. You cheated on your girlfriend, why? Because you were drunk. Didn’t come home, got in trouble with your parents, why? Because you were partying.

“Then in college, it had me by the ****. Cocaine. It had me. I knew it had me. I was incapable of drinking a beer without a line of cocaine. I didn’t want to be the guy who was falling down drunk, I couldn’t handle that. But with the coke you could party all night. You’d start with one group at the bar, and you’d find the ones that were like you by the end of the night, the ones with the drugs.”

Bruce partied with drugs until the drugs started partying with him. Soon he learned that the only way to feel good was to use — the only way to keep the self-loathing at bay.

“So this is my synopsis on addiction, how it gets started,” he tells us. “I would screw up my days so bad. You spend your rent, you spend your bill money. You’ve stolen from somebody, done something so bad partying and doing drugs that when Tuesday comes, you’re feeling so crappy about yourself that you have to — something inside says, ‘let’s get numb and forget about Monday.’ Now Monday and Tuesday are one day, and here comes Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday were so bad you say, ‘I have to forget about that’ … and the pattern keeps going.

“I believe the disease of addiction is an environmental disease. It’s monkey see, monkey do. I saw it in my home as I grew up. We see it on TV. We read about the horrors of it in the paper. I swore to myself at a young age that I would never, ever be like my father. Your father’s wrecking every car he owns, passed out on the floor. Now you can’t see your brother any more because he’s left the home because your father and him can’t get along, so now you resent him. And then you’re partying with this rage, and this anger, and that’s the trap.”

Bruce’s brother died with a needle in his arm. Bruce knew it was coming when his brother’s behavior became more erratic, when he called and asked Bruce to take care of his dogs. Bruce found him that day downtown, feeding pizza crust to his dogs out of a trash can.

“I knew it when he said goodbye to his dogs. Two days before he died he called me, and he was out of his mind. He kept telling me to ‘take care of the women,’ to take care of the family­ — the macho Italian family image we were trying to portray. That Sunday I was working, and I got a phone call. I knew what it was when they said it was for me. I knew it. And I put the mask on. I didn’t cry. And I held the family together. I was Tony Toughguy, and I didn’t grieve — I went for coke. I was smoking cocaine like I was smoking cigarettes.”

His brother’s death was a slap in the face, a wake-up call. Bruce got into a recovery program and found the will to kick the drugs.

“February seventh of that year I found recovery,” he says. “I’ve been involved with recovery since February 7th, 1997. I had a long stretch of recovery — over 11 years.”

Recovery is the catch-all term that covers “kicking” or getting off the drug, and then finding the emotional support to stay off of it. Oftentimes recovery follows an arrest, or hospitalization, and only successfully occurs when the drug user’s will to quit can override the physical addiction to the substance causing the trouble.

“I was clean for a long time, I got a lot of things back,” Bruce told us. “I was involved in businesses, I was partners with some people, had a home in Baltimore and a home in Charleston, S.C.; five cars, lotta money in the bank, credit score was 820. I was a partner in restaurants. I owned a computer business.”

Things weren’t completely rosy, though. “In my eighth year of recovery — and this I’m not proud of — I was a drug dealer. I started selling my narcotics from my back surgery. Percocet 30mg.”

When asked why he would deal, he just shrugs and claims it was easy money — and he wasn’t about to take the pills. “I wasn’t an opiate user at all,” he tells us, at the time. “In 1994 I did a line of heroin with my brother, threw up, I hated it.”

Even with a little illegal dealing on the side — painkillers made good money — everything was still good. Bruce was clean and sober, his businesses were doing well.

“And in March 2010, she left,” Bruce says. “My southern belle I met in Charleston. And it hurt. And I hadn’t been attending recovery meetings for the previous two years — I’d go now and then to hear my name called for my anniversary.”

The pain of the separation led Bruce to the bottle, but that wasn’t where it ended.

“Two hours later I was smoking cocaine in my bathroom. I left Charleston because she was there, and came back to Baltimore.”
And instead of selling the Percocets, now he started taking them. “And they gave me this crazy energy. And I wasn’t hurting over her any more.

“I found opiates late,” Bruce says. “Percocet led to an entry into a new underworld. As you’re selling, you’re meeting seedy people, you’re into an underworld, although you’re wearing a suit and tie to work.”

His new contacts taught him how to snort prescription medicines rather than swallow them.

“Without hurting anyone’s feelings, doctors were my biggest drug dealers. Make no mistake about it. I had 49 pieces of titanium in my back from back surgery, and a doctor doesn’t say no to a guy like me.

“And one day I stayed home from work. I had symptoms, thought I had the flu. A friend of mine came over and asked ‘Why’d you stay home from work, man?’ He saw I had pills and asked how long I’d been taking them. ‘I don’t know, a couple weeks, a month,’ I told him. He said ‘Just take a half of one and see if the symptoms go away.’

“So I took one, and the diarrhea and runny nose went away. I said, ‘Oh man, am I a dope addict?’ And it wasn’t a big deal. I was a dealer, I always had them. Crack and crystal meth came into the picture, and I had my cocktail. I didn’t want to be too high, didn’t want to be too low, I wanted to be just right, so I had multiple addictions going on, and then I found the needle. I found heroin.”

Heroin changed the picture drastically. Easy to find in the city, relatively cheap, and way too tempting when he had a seemingly endless supply. But his source turned out to be not so bottomless.

“Because a monkey can’t sell bananas, you know,” Bruce says. “He’s gonna eat them all. All those years I sold drugs, I wasn’t using them. Now I was an active drug addict who liked opiates, I was selling opiates, and I was eating all my own supply.”

Bruce knew he was headed down a dead-end street. “That wasn’t the goal. I didn’t set out saying hey, this is what I was going to become. I knew there was a better way of life, but I couldn’t kick it.”

He tried to go cold-turkey, just leave it and walk away, but couldn’t handle the withdrawal.

“I tried. I tried to kick it on my own but I couldn’t, because the pain of the opiate withdrawal was so much. I tried the Suboxone and the methadone; I was the first one at the clinic at 5:30 in the morning to get my dose, and then I learned that with methadone, there’s no blocker; no opiate block. That’s what the Suboxone is (it blocks the effects of opioids). So you can eat opiates (when on Suboxone), but the receptors cannot absorb it.

“So now I was abusing the Suboxone doctors. They would give me 90 of those little strips, or pills, and 75 of them were sold before I even got there. So now I had $750 on the street. I’d keep 15 just in case I got dope-sick, and it’s a vicious cycle. It doesn’t end.”

Bruce moved to New York in an attempt to get away from his addiction, “but my addiction followed me, because I am my addiction. There’s eight and a half million people living in New York. Three million of them need treatment. You don’t walk into a health department in New York and say, ‘Hey, I need rehab.’ It doesn’t work like that. It takes four hours to get to a person and say, ‘Hey, I need treatment,’ and by that time you’re shaking and you’re dope-sick, and you’re out the door.”

When he bottomed out, he knew it. Bruce admits to having a work-ethic driven nature, and knew that if he worked at something hard enough he could master it. Living on the streets in New York City, knowing he’d never get to the front of the line for treatment there, he made his way back to the Eastern Shore and sought shelter with his sister. “Charlie Roe, from your local health department,” Bruce told us, “the day after I got here, started working on my case. He called my sister every day for 13 days. He was working on a bed in a recovery facility for me. He called every day telling her he was working on getting a bed for me, and does he still want to go.

“I said ‘yeah, damn right I want to go.’ Then I got the call that there was a bed available for me. The Eastern Shore saved me. You can’t get treatment that fast in New York — too many people. Here I just walked in.”

After a stint in rehab, Bruce was clean again. But this time he decided not to stop there. He got a job so he could pay his bills, and all the rest of his time he devotes to counseling other addicts on the 12-step fellowship. He uses himself as a perfect example.

“This wasn’t the goal, you know,” he says, “to wind up with tracks all over my arms. That’s the story we take to the streets.

“So now I speak at rehab centers, I tell my story. I speak at Warwick Manor, I do all the rehabs; and I go in there and I lay it down. I tell the craziest stuff in my stories, and I’m loud, and I’m in their face, ‘cause I need to wake you up off the meds they have you on. That’s the first thing — shake them up, get them going. The people engage with me because I can identify. That’s why recovery works, it’s the first time in our lives when people laugh about all the horrors of our life. And we get better through it. You have to laugh, and you have to stop living in Victimville.

“We made all these choices ourselves. We’re aware of all this. I can’t change that, but I can reach my hand out and try to help the next person. And I do it with passion, and I do it with zeal, because I know what it’s like to live in a place where there’s no hope and there’s no life.”

We asked Bruce what the answer would be for someone with a drug or alcohol problem, someone who wants to get off of it for good.

“The first thing to do is reach out to your local health department, and get an assessment,” he tells us. “Now there lies a problem. If someone is being forced to go there, they’re going to lie. But if they want help (and want some measure of anonymity) we have 800 numbers for 12-step fellowships. A real live addict answers the phone and says hey, where do you live, what zip code, and we tell them where to go. And if they want to kill themselves we make them call the suicide hotline. They’re all resources. But they’re kind of hidden.”
Daily vigilance is necessary, Bruce says. “And here’s the problem with that: I am the prosecutor, the parole officer, and I’m the judge! I can release me at any time. There is daily vigilance, but we start with the health department, and then there are plenty of options. All we have to do is plant the seed.”

Bruce is a strong advocate of the 12-step program to keep an addict off drugs, but he’s quick to point out that getting off the drugs is up to the individual.

“We are a program of complete abstinence,” he says about the 12-step program. “We don’t help people kick drugs — at some point you have to find a way. At some point your desire to stay clean has to have the willingness to do whatever it takes. But, if we can get these people into inpatient treatment, they can use Suboxone and methadone in a regulated fashion, and do a little five-day taper. The thing to do is get into a system, and then the most important thing you’ll do from the rehab is immediately find a 12-step fellowship. Get in there and have the courage to raise your hand, and say ‘I’m brand new, and I need help.’

“The 12-step fellowship offers a way out, and a better way to do it. Because we discover who we are, we’re a like-minded people, and we can help each other out. It’s a journey of self-love. That’s what we do. We share our deepest, darkest stuff with somebody else. We get the junk out of the trunk, and we learn trust.”

Will it work? Will rehab and a good 12-step program turn an addict away from the drugs and back into an upright life?
“Relapse doesn’t have to be part of your story if you get clean,” Bruce says. “My girlfriend? One and done, and she’s been done with it ever since. I was done too, at one point, but then it stopped, it came back.”

Bruce is holding onto it the second time, though — stayed clean and dove in to helping other people. He credits Christ Church of Easton for giving him his faith, and his mission to help others. Nowadays he’s a busy guy, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Man, if I ever had a gift given to me, it would be to stay here the rest of my life and help people,” Bruce says. “No drug has ever given me the high of watching one of these men next door, and seeing the light come back on. And watching them repair relationships with their parents, with their loved ones, with their kids.

“But it’s like a ripple effect in a pond, with one clean addict. You throw that in there, and this one clean addict is changing the stigma of his past, the attitudes of his parents, of his loved ones. And it’s not by what we say, it’s by how we live. And this is why 12-step works.”
With that, we parted company. Bruce had to keep an appointment with a group of guys in a halfway house in Easton, guys who were working just as hard as him to stay clean, to stay on their feet. I wished him luck with himself, and with the good work he was doing with his people.

His eyes sparkled when he smiled, and said, “It’s always about one, Paul; one person at a time.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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