GREENVILLE — On a road to restoration for nearly six years, recovering addict Justin Yost is one of the strongest voices of the community in the fight against drug use.
Having spoken at five different schools, reaching out to almost 1,000 students, Yost, 33, of Greenville, uses every opportunity to tell his story geared toward prevention.
Speaking Monday evening at the Stop the Madness event at Greenville High School, Yost led with a 20-minute speech that was honest and real. He did not shy away from the harsh truth of his past, which is full of alcohol and drug-fueled decisions that led him on a path to crime, and subsequently, jail.
But on this evening, Yost closed with his most personal story to date and left the audience with a mixture of inspiration and shock.
“I’ve been in recovery for almost six years. But I’ve had a couple struggles, I’ve fallen down a couple times,” he said.
Yost admitted that despite his efforts — the thousands of meetings he’s attended, his attendance at an addiction recovery center and his position as a director on the board for the Ionia/Montcalm Families Against Narcotics (I/M FAN) chapter — the urge to use again will never completely disappear.
Last October, he hit rock bottom — again.
“I had been using for about a month. I was at a point where I was in physical withdrawal. I was kind of enslaved again,” he said. “All I could think about in my head was, how do I get back to recovery? It felt so good when I was speaking to people and helping those in need.”
Yost ventured to Grand Rapids and, to quell the pain he was feeling, purchased “just a little bit” of heroin.
“The only reason I bought it was so I wouldn’t be physically sick. I was still trying to figure out a way to get out,” he said.
Sitting in the parking lot of a Dollar General on Plainfield Avenue, Yost shot up the heroin to ease the pain. However, he didn’t react as he had previously when consuming the drug.
“I could feel it hit me way too hard,” he said.
Yost opened the door and exited his car, only managing a few steps before he collapsed onto the pavement.
“I just wanted somebody at Dollar General to see me … to call 911,” he said.
What happened in the next few minutes, Yost can’t recall, because he had overdosed.
“Justin … Justin … Justin …,” he heard faintly as he began to wake up.
“I opened my eyes and there was a paramedic. He had my wallet out, he had an IV out, and he was just standing over me,” Yost said.
As he looked around, Yost spotted a fire truck, three police cruisers with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, and an ambulance.
“The whole parking lot was lit up with sirens, and I’m just laying there,” he said.
The paramedic leaned in closer to Yost, “Are you OK? I just had to give you Narcan (naloxone).”
It was a defining moment for Yost. Speaking at an event that featured a naloxone training session, in which free kits were distributed, he was a testament to the product’s life-saving capability.
Yost recalled being placed on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
“Do you know who Jesus Christ is? … do you really know who he is?” the paramedic asked of Yost.
“Yes, I do,” Yost responded.
“Two more minutes … two more minutes until you would have been dead,” the paramedic said.
In a state of confusion and depression, Yost didn’t know how to react. It was then that the paramedic told Yost that he himself was a recovering addict. Responding to overdoses, saving the lives of people such as Yost, that’s what continued to keep him clean — much like Yost had strived to do.
“I’ve dedicated my whole life to helping people … but somehow I’m still sitting here in this room at Butterworth Hospital, almost dead, recovering from an overdose,” Yost said.
Nearly eight months since that experience, Yost is back doing what he believes is his life’s purpose, sharing those stories with others who may be traveling down a similar path.
“I want parents to really wrap their heads around addiction today,” he said. “I want them to know it’s not just a choice. It is to a degree, but when you get into recovery and the world of addiction, that whole concept of (freedom of choice) goes out the window. You are powerless over it.”
Yost was greeted by long applause from the audience when he finished speaking, and it served as an exclamation point to an event that was dedicated to keeping a community-wide conversation about opioid addiction ongoing.
“Addiction progresses, as long as you are using, life will never get better, it will only get worse,” Yost said. “It is insidious and it is a terminal disease. It will kill you and it will take your life away.”
More than 50 people attended the event, which was hosted by Greenville Public Schools in collaboration with organizations including I/M FAN and the Montcalm Care Network.
Kate Behrenwald of the Montcalm Care Network provided a training session on administering the nasal spray version of naloxone, and free kits were distributed to those in attendance courtesy of the Greenville Area Community Foundation.
Vendors from local community groups such as North Kent Guidance, the Montcalm Prevention Collaborative, Montcalm Alano Club, OK2SAY and the Greenville Department of Public Safety were on hand to answer questions and distribute information.
Community speakers, including Michigan State Police (MSP) Lakeview Post Commander Lt. Kevin Sweeney, emergency room physician Dr. Matthew DeWys, Montcalm County Sheriff’s Deputy Clayton Thomas and Anthony Muller of Wedgwood Christian Services all delivered information relevant to addiction and substance abuse within the Montcalm County area.
According to Sweeney, one of the biggest problems in addressing the heroin and opioid issue is fear from users that if they seek help, they will be arrested.
Sweeney said police officers often find themselves arresting drug addicts as much, if not more so, than drug dealers and traffickers. But in the meantime, heroin and opioid addiction continue to become a severe public health concern in the area.
“Arresting people is not working. It’s not fixing the problem,” he said.
As a result, police have begun to administer the Angel Program.
The MSP Angel Program allows an individual struggling with drug addiction to walk into an MSP post during regular business hours and ask for assistance. If accepted into the MSP Angel Program, the individual will be guided through a professional substance abuse assessment and intake process to ensure proper treatment placement.
An “Angel” volunteer, who is a member of the community, will be present to support the individual during the process and to provide transportation to the identified treatment facility.
“One of the key things that makes this program work, if someone comes into the local state police post in Montcalm County and says ‘hey, I’m an addict, I’m having problems with heroin’ we’re not going to put handcuffs on them,” Sweeney said. “They’ve got heroin on them? They’ve got it in their system? They’re not going to jail. They’re going to be referred to the Angel program.”
Sweeney said the program has been rolled out portions of northern Michigan, with Lansing coming next, with Montcalm County hopefully to follow.
“We’re going to be one of the last areas, but we’re hoping to have it by the end of the year,” he said.