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Personal Recovery Story: Josh Colwell

Issue 29

On Fire for Recovery

Josh Colwell’s favorite thing to talk about is recovery. He is a husband, a father, a harm reductionist, and an active recovery worker and advocate. Josh is currently employed by a treatment center in New Hampshire, and his experience includes volunteering, working with five different drug courts including the Federal Drug Court, and a recovery community center. He is also a Certified Recovery Support Worker working to make recovery as accessible as possible.

Before Josh lit up for recovery, he was drowning in his addiction.

He grew up in Rochester, New Hampshire and wished he was anyone else. Josh lived with his single mother, her new husband and siblings. Josh was bullied as a child and describes himself as “fear-driven”. His escape was gangster movies. He admired the bosses with all the power, money, and women they could ask for.

These men were strong and in charge, respected and validated and feared. Josh had his first drink at 15 and quickly discovered he would never be a casual drinker. When he was drunk, Josh felt he was finally equal to those around him. He no longer felt afraid, or insecure, or unworthy, until he was hungover and alone again.

He married at 20, was a father at 21 and celebrated by exercising his “God given American right” to get wasted. Soon, Josh learned he could bribe the bartender to stay open later with drugs, which became a routine. Instead of joining the mafia, Josh found the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he was looking for in a biker gang when he was 27. It wasn’t long before he was introduced to his “drug of no choice.” Josh’s ego outgrew him. He became hyper-focused on getting high however he could and his life was crumbling. In 2018, five federal agents knocked on his door and arrested him. He was released on probation while waiting for his court date and couldn’t imagine what his life would look like sober; he wasn’t even sure it was possible. Before his release, he called everyone he could think of, no one answered except his mother – “I was horrible to her when I was in active addiction, so I was stunned when she took my call.”

After his arrest, Josh isolated himself. He was miserable and hopeless, he says. He heard from a friend who had recently been released from jail and started going to 12-Step meetings. The friend suggested Josh give it a try. As much as Josh didn’t want to go, he knew he had to do something.

“I just went, not because I was looking for a solution, I went because I needed to get out of my house,” he says. It was a crowded meeting, and Josh had a front row seat. “I go and I sit and the guy that was speaking spoke my story…like, [he] was telling my feelings, even talking about the same substances that I had used. And he is sitting there, looking like he got his together,” Josh says, “At this point, I just don’t want to be miserable anymore.”

With the possibility of 20 years in prison hanging over his head, Josh looked toward opportunity, hoping recovery would change his life. His marriage had fallen apart, most of his friends and family didn’t want anything to do with him, and his father was dying of cancer.

“My life was a house of cards at that point,” he says. But he knew someone who was working at a local recovery community center and, through his fear and some tears, Josh checked it out for himself. It was here that a match was lit for him. “I used to say all the time, ‘They helped save my life. The executive director, [would say], ‘you saved your own life, bro.’” There, Josh maintained his sobriety and collected proof that life beyond addiction and fear was possible for him. He was set up with a recovery coach, who asked him what he wanted to accomplish and helped him set attainable goals. Eventually, Josh moved into a sober house in Dover NH, became a house manager there, and started volunteering.

“I got to see recovery firsthand,” he says, “I got to see all different angles and I got to learn all these different resources. It was amazing. I fell in love with recovery, I got fired up about recovery. Living at that sober house was also huge because I worked and lived with other men that were serious about recovery. And not only serious about recovery, but were on fire for recovery. When you’re around people that are on fire for recovery, you become on fire for recovery! These are the first people that wanted nothing out of me. They didn’t want anything that was in my pocket. They didn’t want any money from me. What they wanted was to see me get better. The only catch was once I got better, they wanted me to help the next person.”

Josh was learning selflessness over selfishness, honesty over lies, forgiveness over resentment, companionship over competition, confidence over fear. He was learning to live in a brand new way in recovery—no longer in survival mode, no longer desperate for validation.

There was a visible, honest change in Josh. After just eight months, his probation officer didn’t even recognize him.. Josh became the supervisor of a criminal justice program while he was still on pretrial, sharing his story and advocating for recovery support on a federal level. “Recovery is something like a positive forward shift.” Josh explains.

“Recovery is something like a positive forward shift.”

Following his own advice, Josh looked for more and more possible positive shifts in his life. Through the dating website Bumble, Josh was even able to fall in love again. He was honest and upfront about his recovery on date number one and he and his partner went to 12-Step meetings together for dates two, three, and four.

Josh still clearly remembers the judge’s words on the day of his sentencing: “He says, ‘I’ve dealt with hundreds, if not thousands of people, and they come into my courtroom and they tell me the same thing: ‘You’re never gonna see me again. I’m not gonna do this anymore.’ It’s got me jaded. but your actions in the last two-and-a-half years have spoken louder than any words I’ve ever heard in this courtroom. And because of that, I’m ready to impose a time-served sentence.’ I was like, what?! Just tears instantly…I remember going to a meeting the day before I went to court, and I was saying bye to all the people at the meeting. And I walked into the meeting like the following week, and everybody was like, ‘what are you doing here?’”

Since October 2018, Josh has maintained his sobriety and rooted himself deeper in his recovery community, doing his best to leave a “positive footprint” and passing along resources and knowledge.

In part, he is also diligently working to obliterate stigma around addiction and advocates for judgment-free, open conversations so that people looking for help aren’t frozen with fear or shame to go asking for it.

“Recovery is not only possible, but it’s attainable.” Josh says, “With the right resources anybody can do it. I think we have a lot of work to do as a recovery community to break down more walls, tear down more barriers. I think that we just need to have the ability to, when somebody’s like, ‘Hey, can you help me?’ to be like, ‘Yes! We can!’”

Gabrielle Gilbert
Gabrielle Gilbert
Gabrielle Gilbert is an endlessly curious freelance writer, poet, and visual artist waking up in Southern Maine.

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