He was hooked on heroin. Now he uses running to help others quit.

Justin Garrity recently started a running group in Raleigh for recovering drug addicts.
Justin Garrity recently started a running group in Raleigh for recovering drug addicts. Courtesy of Justin Garrity

Justin Garrity’s descent into heroin addiction began with a craving for acceptance.

A skinny, freckle-faced kid with red hair, Garrity struggled with low self-esteem and depression. When he was 12, he started smoking marijuana to impress an older boy who lived near his parents’ home in Apex.

Over time, he graduated from weed to cocaine, cocaine to pain pills and finally pills to heroin.

Garrity, 29, learned to juggle two separate lives. By day he was a high school student-athlete with good grades, and by night he was the life of the party who always had the best drugs.

He thought all the time about stopping his drug use – when he was living out of his car because he spent his rent money on drugs, when he spent 24 hours in a jail cell after police broke into his hotel room, when UNC-Wilmington suggested he leave campus one semester before his college graduation because of drug and alcohol issues.

But addiction was a “mental prison,” and Garrity couldn’t break free.

“It’s cyclical,” he said of addiction, which he considers a disease. “You want to get out, but you can’t. The worst part was knowing I put myself here and thinking that was all I am.”

Garrity’s wake-up call came when he arrived at his mother’s house and she refused to let him take a shower. Instead, she drove him to Healing Transitions, a nonprofit addiction recovery center in Raleigh.

Through treatment, Garrity returned to a hobby he enjoyed before he got hooked on heroin: running. He logged miles to cope with the ups and downs of treatment and build up his strength. His daily runs became a stabilizing force and an opportunity for reflection.

Garrity recently celebrated three years of sobriety and now works as an alumni and volunteer coordinator at Healing Transitions. In April, he started a running group, the Oak City Recovery Run Club, for recovering drug addicts in Raleigh, where he lives.

In recent years, Garrity has seen an uptick in clients much like himself coming to the center – young white males from middle- and upper-class families.

North Carolina, along with much of the nation, is battling an opioid crisis. The number of people who died of heroin and other opioid drug overdoses in North Carolina rose by 640 percent between 1999 and 2015, according to the state’s Division of Public Health.

Wake County had the second-highest number of heroin deaths – 1,656 – among the state’s 100 counties in 2015.

What keeps so many addicts dying is not talking about it, keeping it in the dark.

Justin Garrity

Helping people in the throes of opioid addiction should start with “keeping people alive,” Garrity said. Some drug users don’t want to stop, or they don’t have access or money to go to treatment centers.

North Carolina’s approach to drug abuse has slowly shifted. Politicians and some law enforcement agencies have come to see addiction as a public health issue and not merely a crime. But it’s been an uphill battle for advocates of programs such as needle exchanges.

Last year, former Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill that allows drug users in North Carolina to exchange used syringes for sterile ones, protecting people from infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. In the past four years, acute hepatitis C cases in the state have more than doubled, while the costs of treating Medicaid patients with the disease rose from about $8 million in 2013 to more than $50 million in 2014, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

There are now more than a dozen syringe exchange programs throughout the state that also help clients access health screenings, methadone programs and other treatment options.

Combating the stigma surrounding drug use is also crucial in trying to help people, Garrity said.

“What keeps so many addicts dying is not talking about it, keeping it in the dark,” he said. “When people look away from you, they reinforce the self-loathing. You keep beating yourself up because you think you deserve it.”

It took nearly two years of treatment at Healing Transitions for Garrity to quit. He used to wake up shaking, mind racing, thinking about his next fix as soon as he opened his eyes. Now he thinks about the long road to recovery.

Self-loathing, shame and loneliness kept him trapped in the clutches of addiction, Garrity said. He wants others to know what it took more than a decade for him to realize: There’s hope.

“I thought I was going to die a hopeless drug addict. We die, that’s what happens,” Garrity said. “I thought I was worthless. But there’s hope and a solution to this stuff. You are not alone.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler

Find out more

Oak City Recovery Run Club meets at 6 p.m. every Tuesday at Healing Transitions in downtown Raleigh. Go online to the group’s Facebook page or email oakcityrrc@gmail.com.