LEWISTON, Maine — One day in June, Kenji Yamauchi stole $1,000 from his mother and bought just more than a gram of heroin — enough, he thought, to kill himself.
Only six months before, the 24-year-old had been clean for several months, determined and hopeful about his future as he told the Bangor Daily News of his years-long struggle with drugs.
But by February, Yamauchi had begun using again, and by June he found himself in a Portland homeless shelter, tired of the struggle and seemingly out of options.
“I just didn’t see another way out of it at the time,” he said recently. “I didn’t like where my life was going. … I just thought, ‘This is the rest of my life right here, living at the shelter, selling drugs to get by, waking up sick every morning because I don’t have drugs until a few hours after I wake up, eating at the soup kitchen every day.’ It was miserable.”
It was his third suicide attempt after years of drug use, which began with marijuana at age 13 and went on to include psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and methamphetamines. He discovered Vicodin at age 16, he said, sold Ecstasy and psychedelics, and then at 18 shot heroin for the first time.
He sank deeper and deeper into addiction and watched friends die from it.
“Because of this addiction, I’ve lost nearly everything,” he said in December. “I lost a girl I love, every single material possession I had.”
Grateful today that doctors at Maine Medical Center saved his life in June, Yamauchi is again in recovery, and has been sober now for almost 90 days. He lives in a Lewiston sober house, volunteers at a local soup kitchen and, as of Friday, has a job.
On that day, Yamauchi was hired at Lewiston Variety, about a half-block from the sober house. He started work right away.
“That’s a huge change for me,” he said. “Now I have responsibilities in my life. I have things that I have to do … and now I want to do all the things I have to do. Just my whole mindset has changed about things since I got here.”
After relapsing in February, Yamauchi said he was kicked out of the Addiction Resource Center program — where he had gotten clean. In December he said the ARC had offered him “a second chance I didn’t deserve.”
ARC director Eric Haram said in an email to the Bangor Daily News that while he could not discuss specifics, patients at the center are not discharged for relapse, but “when behavior does not indicate a person’s ability to manage [Suboxone] safely,” the center offers behavioral therapies to learn skills and lifestyle changes.
Yamauchi continued to live in Brunswick with his mother for awhile, but soon felt so guilty “about what I was putting her through” that he couldn’t bear to be near her. He moved to Portland, where heroin is more accessible, and slept at the Oxford Street shelter — occasionally going back to Brunswick to visit his mom.
But after several months, he said he got fed up with the lifestyle.
“I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing,” he said. “I attempted [suicide] three days in a row but wasn’t successful.”
Finally, that day in June, Yamauchi used the entire gram of heroin he had bought with money stolen from his mother, and swallowed several Klonopin pills, which were prescribed by a physician.
Walking in Portland in a rainstorm, Yamauchi found himself closer to Maine Medical Center than the shelter. He walked in and asked for help.
He spent the next 11 days at Spring Harbor Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in South Portland, detoxing and starting treatment with Suboxone.
Doctors suggested he try a new approach to recovery and recommended a residential program, “but I didn’t see the point of that,” Yamauchi said. “To me that would be like going to jail. You’re there for however long and you have no way to get to anything, any drugs you want, so the day you get out, obviously you’re going to go out and get high.”
Instead, he opted for the Great Falls Recovery and Counseling Center in Lewiston, where, after a couple of relapses the first week — he took more Suboxone than he was prescribed and smoked marijuana once, he said — he learned to cope without getting high.
At the center’s Lewiston sober house, Yamauchi lives with nine other people in recovery who all offer each other support. They abide by a 9 p.m. curfew and attend support group meetings three days a week and three Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week.
The program, he said, “gives me pretty much full freedom, which would allow me to either do the right thing or the wrong thing … this [program] focuses more on how to change your life, to actually not really have the desire to use anymore because you are living a fulfilling life.”
To get his methadone — a synthetic opioid that can prevent withdrawal symptoms — Yamauchi walks 2½ miles to a clinic each morning. He must be there by 11:30 a.m. — or 9 a.m. on weekends — to get the liquid, which he said prevents withdrawal symptoms including sweating, shaking and nausea.
This week, Yamauchi will be clean for 90 days. Having landed a job, he’ll graduate from Great Falls Recovery Center shortly, and staff at the center will help him get an apartment in Lewiston. He’ll still visit the methadone clinic each morning, and still attend meetings during the week.
Troy Mills, a counselor at Great Falls Recovery and Counseling Center, said the program requires participants to control their own freedom and their own sobriety.
“Our goal here is to slowly reintegrate them back into society, whether they come to us from jail, probation or an institution where they’re self-referred,” he said. “We help them find work, we help them find housing, because when they finish 90 days with us, those triggers and surroundings aren’t going to go away.”
Yamauchi said he still feels the pull of the drugs, which he described as similar to “those days that like everything’s going wrong and you just want to have a couple beers — it’s like that except probably 20 times more intense.”
And after years of using heroin to cope with anxiety and stress, he said Friday, “The physical symptoms of not using for awhile [go] past the point of using those things to get high and you’re using them just to survive.”
But he said he has learned to deal with daily stress. He talks to his roommates or a counselor and doesn’t allow himself enough free time to be bored.
His relationship with his mother has improved, in part because “she sees that I’m actually doing well this time,” he said, and his sister has been supportive. He still doesn’t talk to his brother, but he hopes to work on that.
His mother is still pressing misdemeanor charges for forgery and theft after he took $1,000 earlier this year, but Yamauchi said he understands why.
“I could have gotten an aggravated trafficking charge coming back from Massachusetts, so a misdemeanor is nothing,” he said. “And everyone I know has gone to jail or prison.”
Having begun training at the new job — “It’s great,” he said Tuesday — he expects to work 30 hours next week. He looks forward to moving into his own apartment.
“And I want to go back to school next fall,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been doing that well.”