Substance Abuse Destroys Lives: But There is Hope with Treatment
Substance abuse and addiction destroy lives indiscriminately. For Wendell Price, it all started at the tender age of thirteen. His uncle offered him an opportunity to escape the house and go cruising in his canary yellow 1972 Datsun 240Z. He remembers taking his first sip of Budweiser beer, not realizing his life would never be the same.
“I was going on rides with my uncle and just cruising around the parks and going off to the beaches, and it all started sociably drinking with my uncle,” Wendell says. “I was so grateful to get out of the house.” For him, it was an escape from his six brothers and sisters at home. He was the oldest in a house filled with more laughter and drama than the Good Times television show.
Wendell grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of 185,000 people today, just 45 minutes west of Boston. The product of a broken home, he grew up with his mother and siblings in a four-bedroom house with white vinyl siding and black window shutters at 9 Shirley Street, one block away from Clark University. At that time, it was a middle-class neighborhood with mowed lawns and well-maintained homes.
At a young age, Wendell stood out. With his thick bifocal eyeglasses (kids called them Coke bottle eyeglasses), a string-bean frame, and a big cheeky grin, he was a human target for words that consistently hurt like darts hitting a bullseye. It crushed his self-esteem and his personal identity.
I gravitated toward the crowd that drank, and I seemed to fit in more with that crowd.
His “chemical use” began in junior high, starting at the bus stop in the early morning hours before school. “I gravitated toward the crowd that drank, and I seemed to fit in more with that crowd,” he says. This became his crowd—a type of family away from home.
Alcohol and drug abuse are common. Twenty million people in the U.S. in 2019 had “a substance use disorder,” based on a report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, according to AddictionResource.net, a free referral resource for information about addiction treatment practitioners and facilities.
Substance abuse is “harmful to health and well-being.” The abuse can be in the form of legal or illicit drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines and prescription pain killers such as opioids.
While alcohol is legal, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that over 10,000 people die in drunk-driving crashes each year. Roughly 29 people are killed every day in motor vehicle crashes “involving an alcohol-impaired driver.” The CDC reports that 95,000 people die annually in the U.S. related to “excessive alcohol use.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “more than 760,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. Two out of three drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid.”
“Fentanyl is similar to the pain reliever morphine, but it’s 50 to 100 times more potent,” according to AddictionResource.net. More Americans have died from opioid overdoses since 1999 than during the Civil War—America’s bloodiest war.
From Addiction to Incarceration
Wendell grew like a weed in high school, sprouting up to 6’-8”. Basketball would become an outlet to express himself. But the “crowd” was never far behind. Alcohol and drugs would drag Wendell down. “I wasn’t able to balance my responsibilities at all, and it showed in my poor grades,” he says. “I had difficulties at home, and because of it, my performance on the basketball court was nowhere near [where] it should have been.”
In his senior year, his first year of varsity basketball, he showed glimpses of basketball prowess. In one particular game, he had 11 points, 15 rebounds, and 13 blocked shots. He and his teammate, Sheldon McCorn, were named Stars of the Week in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Worcester’s newspaper. His high-school coach, Bobby Szklarz, suggested that he could help a junior college or small college next season. Wendell would take a much different road.
After graduating from Worcester Vocational Technical High School in 1983 with a diploma in cabinetmaking, he got his first full-time job and moved on his own. His demons would follow him. “My drinking and drug use continued, and I experienced difficulty to the extent that I no longer could work,” he says.
“When I left home, I did not have the social skills to maintain [employment]." Things would get worse. Wendell says, “Shortly after that, I lost my job because of my alcohol and drug use. I became homeless and ended up on the streets.” On the streets, he gravitated toward the crowd that drank and used drugs.
He had runs-in with the local law enforcement. “I ended up heading in the direction of other chemicals and other drugs that led me to breaking laws,” Wendell says. His alcohol and drug use would lead him to jail and state prison in the mid-1980s. In a strange twist, when he found himself locked up behind bars, Wendell says, “I found relief. I found rest.”
I ended up heading in the direction of other chemicals and other drugs that led me to breaking laws.
The Way Out
Addiction is a disease, but society has chosen to seek punishment over treatment, especially regarding Black and brown people. AddictionResource.net reports that “Addiction is a chronic but treatable disorder characterized by a compulsive need to use drugs or drink alcohol despite negative consequences. This can be physical and psychological.”
While serving a state prison sentence in Walpole, “I decided to get help for my drug addiction,” Wendell says. “I ended up in a group where twenty or so men were sitting in a circle and sharing their experience with addiction, criminality, and being incarcerated. I had an ‘awakening’ where I saw myself in them. And I said to myself, I can live much better than how I’ve been living.”
He moved forward with help from an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in prison. Just as important, he says, “I also made a decision to not be with ‘the crowd’ that was incarcerated and using chemicals.” Wendell began to focus on playing basketball inside the prison and played against other players throughout the state “who had the same issues and difficulties.” Basketball was an outlet.
Wendell was paroled in early 1990. “I still had not made the connection with getting help from on the outside,” he says. He went back to hanging with the wrong crowd and became homeless again. Drinking became a part of his life again, which led to interactions with law enforcement. He violated his parole and was sent back to the state prison system.
During this time, he managed to put closure on his old life. Wendell says, “I found a relationship with God, and at that point, things started to get better for me. After completing his sentence and being released, he sought out a friend who gave him a place to stay. “I sought self-help groups and made a conscious decision not to associate with the negative individuals who were in my life, and to change. Things got better for me.”
Another Chance at Life
Addiction is the enemy. Wendell is clear when he says, “I’m a firm believer that the disease of addiction, or the disease of alcoholism, has to beat an individual into submission. And only then will an individual seek another way.”
“What I would say about my personal journey of pain and suffering, homelessness, alienation from loved ones is that it took me to a place where I did not want to continue. Basically, what I did was surrender to win, Wendell says. He arrived at a place where he wanted to “live differently.” With grave seriousness, he says, “It was my reality that if I did not move forward and live differently, death was in the picture for me.“
Death is not a stranger to Wendell. He has lost friends to addiction. “It’s been difficult to lose individuals who, in a sense, at times, became my family, and so, it’s something that I live with,“ he says. Finishing on an upbeat note, he says, “I use it today as a positive to assist me in not returning to that old way of living.”
Wendell’s sobriety date is May 9, 1991. In 2000, to pay it forward, he opened Torry’s Sober Community, a brown three-deck wood-frame house with fading yellow accents that he shares with his wife, Patricia Price. They live on the first floor and have been married since 2000.
Wendell says, “A sober house is a place where men and women can be safe and have an atmosphere free of alcohol and drugs.” Wendell used what worked for him in recovery to create a structured program to help others become sober. He provides access to self-help groups such as AA, businesses, and agencies “to help the men and women to move forward with their recovery.”
To counter the negative notion about sober houses, Wendell says, “We’ve had firefighters, police officers, postal workers, business owners, and homeless people right off the street." He’s quick to defend sober housing and provide his personal experience. “Very few families have not experienced a loved one having difficulties with alcohol or drugs.”
From Wendell’s experience, a well-run sober house is good for the community. “Now, these individuals are in a safe and structured environment. They’re not out in the community using drugs; they’re not dealing with criminality, and so on.” He has operated his 9-bed sober house in Worcester since 2005.
To validate his experience, he says, “We’ve probably had an ambulance here a few times, and the police here maybe once. If a sober house is truly a sober house and managed properly, it’s an asset to the community.”
It's saved my life.
Kevin, 57, had hit bottom. He says, “ I had no idea what, or anything about sober houses. I contacted Wendell, and that's where my journey began. He lived at Torry’s Sober Community from July 2015 to December 2019. He remembers Wendell telling him two things: 1) “Go slow with your recovery. 2) And when it's time for you to leave, you will know.”
“Wendell’s house is not a five-star hotel,” states Kevin. But you’re not there to live in a five-star hotel. You’re there to get better. If it was a five-star hotel, people would get too comfortable, like in some of these other sober facilities. And that’s a big problem.”
Kevin followed the criteria to live in the house and says, “It's saved my life.” His daughter got involved in AA, and he gave her her five-year coin last November, celebrating her fifth year of sobriety. “So it's great how sobriety can bring families together as well,” he says. In June 2022, it will be seven years that he has been drug- and alcohol-free. He lives in Worcester, minutes away from Wendell.
Chuck was a former resident of Torry’s Sober Community. “Wendell is a kind-hearted and unbelievable gentleman, he says.” He adds, “The structured environment of weekly drug testing and daily meetings provided me just enough structure and calmness to get back on track.” And that's basically how it worked out for me.”
He has been to Torry’s Sober Community on three different occasions in 2012, 2014 and 2021. “I found out the pieces of my puzzle, which were going to meetings every day at Wendell's, finding a sponsor, and doing the 12 steps with the sponsor,” Chuck says. He continues, “That gave me the structure that I needed.”
“I can't speak for anyone else, but for my particular time, I needed a structured environment to move forward; left to my own devices, I wasn’t prepared to deal as a sober man.”
Chuck, 70, continues a constant battle with addiction. Today, he’s been sober for over 90 days after suffering a relapse on January 1st. He remembers what Wendell told him, “You don’t start over; you start again.”
There is Hope
Wendell is at a good place in his life. He’s a father to Torri, husband, brother, uncle, and deacon at Second Baptist Church in Worcester for over 20 years. He is living proof you can rebuild your life. Wendell credits his faith and the late Reverend Thurman Hargrove for where he is today. As if to end on a bang, he raises his voice and says, “I have to make mention of my beautiful wife Patricia Price, her patience, and her support.”
He is reluctant to give advice but says, “I would suggest that if someone is at a place where they know they have a problem with alcohol and or drugs, I encourage them to ask for help and seek out self-help groups—therapist, psychiatrist or whatever one needs to break from active addiction.”
Author’s Note: Wendell Price is my brother. I couldn’t be prouder of him than if he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Alcohol and drug addiction robbed him of many years of his life—from junior high to his mid-twenties. During those years, he missed so much. I’m happy he made it back. He turned his life around when I had given up hope after many years of heartbreak. I am glad he is in the world today to help others see that they, too, can turn their lives around.
Reggie Price is a former captain at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, where Wendell was incarcerated several times. He introduced Wendell to his future wife, Tricia. Reggie says, “I thought they would be great for each other. And it worked out really well. Our brother Wendell has come a long way. I’ve never told him this, but I’m very proud of him for pulling himself out from where he was. The proudest moments were watching him get married, start a sober house, and change his life around.”
Anthony Price is the publisher of Mini Books.