Nine colored keychains are spread out on an table on Main Street. The far left keychain, colored white, represents two weeks of sobriety from a narcotics addiction. The far right, colored black, represents two years or more.

Patrick Renfree stands behind the table greeting people who’ve lost family and friends to drug overdoses. Having previously suffered from addiction himself, Renfree spent the first official Overdose Awareness Day in Tippecanoe County on Sunday spreading information on Narcotics Anonymous, the 12-step drug abuse recovery program he works for.

He doesn’t provide a title or job description for himself.

“Nobody’s superior to each other,” a man next to him says about NA. “No titles.”

One of the pamphlets he’s handing out is titled “Am I an Addict?” Renfree says if you answer “yes” to a majority of the 29 questions — which include things like “Do you regularly use a drug when you wake up or go to bed?” and “Have you ever lied about how much you use?” — then you should consider treatment.

“Sometimes people don’t know they have a problem with drugs,” he said. “It’s just something they like to do.”

Renfree’s addiction began with recreational use of prescription painkillers, he said. It quickly evolved from there.

“It became a magnet,” he said. “It drew me to it, and I couldn’t leave. Instead of being a part of me, I became a part of it.

“It pulled me in, and I let it.”

The biggest problem standing in the way of recovery, Renfree said, is admitting a problem exists. One of the main themes of Overdose Awareness Day was destigmatizing addiction and the language used around it so people feel more comfortable admitting they have a problem.

Randy Davis, a retired pastor and founder of a local drug addiction treatment center, A Better Life – Brianna’s Hope, urged people to stop categorizing others with labels like “addict” and just call people by their names. Grace Paton, the harm reduction program director at Gateway for Hope Syringe Service, said the program uses “people-first” language, like “person with an addiction” rather than “addict.”

The man next to Renfree at the table, who preferred to remain anonymous and will be referred to as “C,” spent more than 10 years in the NA program before getting clean and eventually becoming an employee.

His addiction began before he was ever introduced to drugs, he said, when he was 9 years old sniffing magic markers in class.

“I didn’t even know that I was using,” he said. “I thought I was trying to be cool.

“It became more serious much before I recognized that it was.”

A slow addiction

C isn’t the only one to have started abusing drugs without realizing it.

Kristina Lesley, director of the Tippecanoe Drug Free Coalition, said addiction doesn’t always start with intent, which further complicates the issue.

“What about the guy who goes in for back surgery and is prescribed a painkiller, and it no longer works so they get another painkiller, then the doctor cuts him off?

“But I’m already addicted to painkillers, (so) what do I do?” Lesley asked rhetorically. “I’m gonna use heroin because I’m addicted, and you just took away my source.”

C quickly graduated from magic markers to harder substances, eventually developing addictions to crack cocaine and heroin.

“I was raised where you don’t surrender,” he said. “You keep fighting. It was difficult to accept the powerlessness over addiction.”

At one point, C was taken to the hospital and had to call the Department of Child Services to ask them to get his children from his house.

“It’s a family disease, and it affects everyone,” he said. “A lot of parents and a lot of children don’t get to see their family members again.

“I hated me. I felt so much shame that I did everything I could to stay away from my family.”

That didn’t last forever, though, because for two of the seven years he was homeless, his children were living on the street with him.

“That was the most demoralizing part,” he said.

Not having a place to sleep each night made it even harder for C to kick his addiction.

“A lot of the individuals are going to bed thinking about how they’re gonna get more (drugs) tomorrow,” he said.

Paton said those at Gateway to Hope recognize that homeless people can be more likely to abuse drugs.

“The right to having your basic needs met shouldn’t go away just because you use drugs and have mental health concerns,” she said. “There’s not nearly enough support and connection for people that still use drugs and are open about that fact.”

She said connecting with people and allowing them to open up about their drug use is the best way to ensure they’re safe and they can get the help they need.

“The CDC says people that use a syringe program (like Gateway to Hope, which provides clean needles to those suffering addictions) are three times more likely to stop injecting altogether,” she said. “Giving dignity, compassion and respect to people shows them that they can have happy stable lives even if they still use drugs.”

Finding the resolve

NA meetings were a safety of their own for C, providing him with an escape from the elements and a warm cup of coffee, he said. He joined NA in 1995 when he was only 26 years old. But after 10 years in the program, he still hadn’t been sober for longer than a week.

“What do they have that I don’t?” he asked himself after watching other members get their black key chains for staying clean for multiple years.

He decided the answer was that they just took the program more seriously than he did. And the more rigorously he followed it, the better he became.

“What I found in NA is that we welcome everybody,” C said. “And we make people feel human.”

He will be 15-years sober in October.

The 12-step program worked for Renfree as well. He’s now 4.5 months sober and speaks at places like the Tippecanoe County Jail, Sycamore Springs mental health facility and the LTHC Homeless Services to inspire people to work at turning their lives around.

“Tell them that they can never give up on themselves,” he recalled C telling him.

No matter how long he’s sober, Renfree said drugs will always be in the back of his head.

“That thought ceases real quickly,” he said, “because I already know the end result.

“Some people relapse after 25 years. Your addiction is still alive. It doesn’t go away. You don’t have a second chance to say, ‘I’m not gonna be an addict this time.’”

Now that he’s clean, Renfree said he appreciates giving back in any way he can.

“It makes me so grateful that I took the time to sit down and listen to someone who told me how to get clean,” he said. “To see people’s lives change is one of the things that keeps me coming back.”

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