24-year-old recovering addict details navigating sobriety during transformative teenage years

February 17, 2014 is a special day for Owen Leahy. As a teenager, he went through several detoxes and was in and out of programs, hospitals and psych wards, but on that day, he got — and stayed — sober.

“I remember, to this day, the look in [my mother’s] eyes — I’m not sure if it was fear or disgust or what it was, but she ran upstairs and I knew that that was it this time,” Leahy, who identifies as a recovering addict, recalled to In The Know. At his girlfriend’s behest, Leahy had shown his mom his eyeglasses case full of paraphernalia — “I kept my needles, all this stuff that I needed inside of [it], inconspicuous enough that no one would think anything of it,” he explained — and once again, he found himself in treatment.

“Every time I got out of treatment, I truly believed that I wasn’t gonna do this anymore. And every single time I found myself messed up again, I wondered, ‘How did this happen?’” he said. “I really believed it.”

This time was different, though. When Leahy was going through patient intake at the hospital, he told the doctors what he had taken — the remnants of a bottle of liquid Percocet along with some other drugs — and he was rushed to the ICU.

“They asked what I took and I told them, and they told me that I was going to die,” Leahy said. “I had accidentally taken 8 grams of Tylenol at once [from the Percocet].”

“They told me that I was going to die.”

Thankfully, Leahy survived the Percocet overdose, but his three-day stint in the ICU was just the beginning of what is now a lifelong journey.

After getting discharged from the hospital, Leahy was sent to a treatment center where a staff member suggested he try something different. 

“I took that pretty seriously,” he said. “I had really thought about it and everything I had tried up to that point clearly hadn’t worked ‘cause I found myself in the same situation again and again.”

That staff member’s suggestion was for Leahy to wait a month until he turned 18 years old and then give an adult program a try. And that’s exactly what he did: After riding out his final year of adolescence in detox, he did four months in an adult program, then spent another four months in a more regimented program where he attended AA meetings and worked with a sponsor until he was deemed capable of handling himself in his old environment.

After graduating early from that final program, Leahy returned home and surrounded himself with like-minded sober people.

“Within a year, there was a huge group of us,” Leahy explained. “We’d all pile into cars and go to meetings and we’d hang out before, after, and then we’d go out and play pool or do something or sit at cafes and diners until two in the morning and talk. That was what my life was at 18, 19, 20.”

Over the years, Leahy’s large group has slowly dwindled to just two people. “Everyone else has relapsed or died or is just no longer around,” he explained. Sadly, death is something of a constant in Leahy’s life: Out of the 25 or so people he graduated from his sober high school with, he estimates that “probably half are dead now.”

“I’ve been to more funerals in the past six-and-a-half years than I thought I’d ever go to in my life.”

“An old-timer once said when I first started going to meetings that I should buy a suit,” Leahy said. “I didn’t really get it at that point, but I’ve been to more funerals in the past six-and-a-half years than I thought I’d ever go to in my life. It’s one after another. It’s not slowing down.”

Though Leahy has maintained his sobriety for more than six years now, he is acutely aware of the fact that he has to work hard to avoid suffering the same fate as many of his friends. He doesn’t take that for granted.

“Tomorrow is never guaranteed. I have right now and that’s what I can count on. If I make it to midnight, that’s another day,” Leahy said. “I never like to say that I’m good or that I’ll be sober forever, ‘cause that’s not something that I know.”

Through trial and error, Leahy has created a reliable routine for himself to the point that he “rarely thinks about” being sober — and when things start to get tough, he doesn’t shy away from sharing his feelings.

“My network has definitely been the most important thing,” he explained. “When I’m not feeling great, I pick up the phone.”

Going to AA meetings is also a big part of Leahy’s life. For the 24-year-old, the purpose of going to the meetings is twofold: It gives him a chance to help other people new to recovery, and it serves as a stark reminder of the part of his life he wants to leave in the past for good.

“I always have to remember what I felt walking back through that door the last time and all those other times,” he said. “I have to keep it fresh. I go to a meeting and I see a kid all banged up, afraid and desperate, and that reminds me that I don’t ever wanna be back out there again.”

On social media, Leahy has made a point of celebrating his sober anniversary every year. Though he sees this as more of a formality than anything, it’s helped him connect with people with substance use disorders and provide them with support and encouragement.

“If I am as open as possible, it will make people more comfortable with their own things,” he explained. “It’s a lot easier to be vulnerable through social media.”

Last year, Leahy’s tweet celebrating his five-year anniversary blew up with more than 130,000 likes and several thousands of retweets. Of course, the last thing he expected was for such a personal tweet to go viral, but he used that as an opportunity to offer his support.

“I woke up in the morning to hundreds and hundreds of DMs and I answered every single one of them,” Leahy recalled. “It took me days to get through them all. It was exhausting for sure, but it was kind of nice. It seemed like a lot of people found it much easier to reach out to someone that they didn’t know.”

Whether he’s attending a meeting or tweeting about his own sobriety journey, Leahy’s ultimate goal is to help people understand that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“It doesn’t have to end in death. You don’t have to be stuck like this,” he said. “Today, I’m 24, I’m a union carpenter, I have a great relationship with my family. I’m a functioning member of society today. I would hope to show people that it doesn’t have to define you.”

 If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, consider the following resources and organizations:

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