Chad Sabora and Robert Riley Are Fighting 'the Perfect Storm' of Opioid Addiction in South City 

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click to enlarge Chad Sabora lost his job as a Cook County prosecutor after being arrested for heroin possession. - STL-PHOTO
  • STL-PHOTO
  • Chad Sabora lost his job as a Cook County prosecutor after being arrested for heroin possession.

I had come to the recovery center looking for answers.

For years I had watched in dismay as the opiate crisis continued to worsen. Something had gone wrong in the American Dream, and it was clear the nation's insatiable hunger for opiates was somehow connected to it. What was unclear was if it was a cause of something bigger or was itself a consequence. Or maybe it was both.

Last month, the New York Times reported that drug overdoses killed about 64,000 people in the United States in 2016 — a 22 percent jump from the year before.

America's opioid death toll is more than double the number in 2005, and nearly quadruple the number in 2000, "when accidental falls killed more Americans than opioid overdoses," according to the Times.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50, surpassing the death toll from gun violence, car accidents and even HIV at its peak in the mid-1990s. Some experts believe the true number of overdose deaths is seriously under-reported and that over the next decade upwards of one million Americans will die from drug overdoses, the vast majority opioid-related.

I also had a deeply personal interest in the crisis.

Sixteen years ago my younger brother Joe, a hospital nurse at the time, became hooked on opiate-based painkillers, mainly Vicodin and Percocet. His drug problems eventually would cost him his job and his career, and they sent him down a spiral of shame that I believe he never recovered from.

Since childhood, Joe had suffered from anxiety and depression, though those mental health problems weren't properly diagnosed until late in his life. Not long after he went into treatment for his opioid addiction, I asked him why he turned to the painkillers in spite of the risks.

We were seated at the time at a table at the Kaldi's coffeehouse in Clayton. Joe and I would meet there regularly to talk about life, our childhoods, other stuff. Occasionally, we'd talk about his recovery.

Then one day I asked him the question I had always wanted to ask him.

"So what'd you get out of it, the drugs?"

"I don't know," Joe said. "I guess it just made me stop feeling things for a while."

Joe eventually got off opiates after a two-year struggle and became extremely proud of his sobriety. But the depression and anxiety that dogged him only got worse. He took his life on February 13, 2008.

For Sabora, anxiety also played a role in his addiction.

"My whole life I felt that there was something inside me that was incomplete. I felt like an outsider even with my own friends," he says. "I had really low self-esteem, which I overcompensated for with a superiority complex. I would use my money or my intelligence to create this wall around me. I felt if people got to know the real me, they would not like that person."

When he tried drugs like heroin, it felt as if someone had pushed a switch.

"I felt complete," he says. "When I was taking opiates, pain pills, they made me feel good, like I was 'better.' They made me feel complete."

He sees that time and again with the addicts he treats. "We have no real tools to give kids when they are growing up to deal with life stressors and coping skills," Sabora says.

And America is awash in pills, especially opiate painkillers. The U.S. comprises five percent of the world's population but consumes 95 percent of the world's opiates.

The nation's all-purpose answer for any mental health problem is "just take a pill," Sabora says. "Then there's all this news media about heroin, heroin, heroin. It's making people who are apt to be experimental and rebellious try it. That's what made me try crack in the 1990s. All the news stories about crack."

Sabora grew up in the Chicago suburbs. As a teenager he dabbled in a wide range of drugs, but held it together enough to get through college and law school and then get hired as a Cook County prosecutor.

But grief caused by the sudden deaths of his mother and father led him to abuse narcotic pain pills, which in turn led him to heroin. Chicago police arrested him in February 2008 for heroin possession, costing him his job as a prosecutor. The criminal case against him was eventually dismissed, but he continued to abuse drugs until the money he inherited from his parents dried up.

After three years — and six failed stints in rehab — Sabora had lost his house, his law license and his fiancee. Finally, in June 2011, Sabora decided to get clean. He took a train to the Gateway Clinic in Caseyville, Illinois, located a few miles east of St. Louis.

"I walked in there as high as a kite," he recalls.

Gateway was a natural place for a new start. His father, a recovering heroin addict, had helped start the drug treatment center.

Sabora acknowledges that substance abuse runs in families, and that as the son and grandson of addicts, he was at the mercy of a genetic lottery. Now married with a young son and another child on the way, he thinks about the challenges he and his wife are likely to face raising their kids.

"Yeah, it scares me," he says, noting that one person in five has an addictive personality. "My dad did an amazing job of raising me. He couldn't have done anything to stop me from using. And I know the same about my son. The best thing we can do to educate our next generation is empathy, and understanding it's a mental-health issue."

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