One professional’s fight with stigma, denial and opioid painkillers

Jason Snyder’s life had two sharply conflicting trajectories.

One had the hallmarks of professional success. Money, fulfilling work, increasing responsibilities.

The other was marked with deceit, hopelessness and tragedy. After years of opiate abuse, he lost himself in a desperate knot of lies, even after watching his parents bury their two sons — his only brothers, Todd and Josh, both casualties of addiction.

Lie by lie, Jason built a house of cards. Concealing his addiction from his then-wife and from his parents. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on painkillers while deceiving himself into thinking that if he could still perform at work, he didn’t have a problem.

“In my mind, I had this self-image, this self-perception that I’m something,” said Jason, 41. “I cannot let anyone know about this problem I have because it could dismantle me.”

While a state and regional opiate crisis has forced many to realize that addiction knows no social or economic boundaries, the stigma of addiction remains. To many, drug users are seen as lesser people, undeserving of help and unable to change.

For professionals — those with seemingly successful lives: businessmen, doctors, lawyers — the fear of losing esteem at work and in the community can be a powerful deterrent to recovery.

Now head of a Pittsburgh-based healthcare nonprofit, Jason has been in recovery for three-and-a-half years. He told PublicSource his story because he wants to fight that stigma.

the Snyder brothers
At their family home in Mundys Corner, the Snyder brothers, Josh, Todd and Jason (left to right), pose with their mother, Melissa, around Christmas in 2004, a few weeks before Todd’s overdose. (Photo courtesy of Jason Snyder)

Success and denial

Jason said he comes from a stable, happy home, the oldest of three brothers, growing up with everything they needed in Mundys Corner, a tiny community outside Ebensburg in Cambria County.

The family took frequent beach trips to Ocean City. Their dad coached Little League for years, one of the many ways Jason said his parents, Dean and Melissa, were closely involved in their lives.

“We weren’t out there running reckless and abandoned, that’s for sure,” Jason said.

Even now, Jason seems like a grown-up version of the prototypical American kid. Square-jawed, with a muscular frame and a deliberate voice — at once powerful and disarming. He has nice suits, a firm handshake and an easygoing charm.

With a promising career in public relations, his parents saw their eldest son as having his life together, though his brothers were having clear problems with drugs.

“On the outside, he had the world by the tail,” Dean Snyder said.

But Jason struggled to accept himself, explaining now that drug users tend to find things lacking in so-called normal life. The inadequacies — which Jason still has trouble pinpointing — get filled with substances like alcohol and oxycodone.

Like any user, professionals take drugs to deal with stress, to feel euphoria, to make problems go away. Others get hooked on medication prescribed for pain.

“The memo that you are addicted, you don’t get until one day after it happens,” said Laurie Besden, deputy executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in Pennsylvania.

The organization provides free, confidential consultations for drug treatment and mental health services for attorneys and judges, their families, and to law students.

Other professional organizations — for instance, those representing doctors and nurses — offer similar services, as do private companies who help a range of professionals find treatment through employee assistance programs.

They all see denial and stigma as hurdles that can keep drug users from seeking help. Once in treatment, battles with insurance over the value of inpatient care are frequent, regardless of income or social standing.

Besden said she thinks the lawyers helpline should be getting about 15,000 calls a year, based on addiction rates for the general population. But the organization receives far fewer requests than that, mirroring the massive gap of people who need help and those who get it.

Besden, 40, battled what could have been a career-ending addiction to painkillers, which culminated in an 11-and-a-half month jail term in 2004 for prescription fraud and drug possession.

She now helps others get to treatment and has been reinstated as an attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

‘A hopeless time’

Jason got hooked because he liked to party.

Painkillers were an accessory to Friday and Saturday nights. Until they seemed necessary on Sunday and Monday morning, and then daily.

Alcohol and drugs were part of his life for 23 years, he said. It wasn’t until his 30s that opiates entered the picture.

He felt invigorated by them, but not mentally detached from his work.

Professional-friendly resources for help dealing with addiction

Check your benefits. Many companies pay for confidential counseling through an Employee Assistance Program. These are intended to help employees find treatment and resume their careers. Services are often available for family members.

Check professional groups. Confidential help is available in a variety of professional fields. Below are a few organizations in Pennsylvania that focus on specific industries:

  • Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers offers free help for lawyers, judges and their immediate family members, as well as law students. Reach the helpline at 1-888-999-1941.

  • Physicians’ Health Programs at the Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society provides addiction help to Pennsylvania doctors and medical students, including a clinical assessment and long-term recovery plan. Reach the emergency line at (717) 558-7817.

  • Pennsylvania Nurse Peer Assistance Program provides help for nurses and nursing students. To get help, call 877-298-7627 ext. 1.

  • S.A.R.P.H. Pharmacy Peer Assistance Program provides assessments and referrals for pharmacists and pharmacy students in need of addiction treatment. To get help, call 1-800-892-4484.

Find local treatment. Statewide information on treatment locations is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Concerned about insurance? Click here for information on the types of treatment insurers are required to provide.

Yet early on, he was warned of the destructive nature of opiate use.

In January 2005, Todd had come over to Jason’s place in Pittsburgh to grill burgers and watch the Steelers playoff game against the New England Patriots.

A disappointing game, but an otherwise normal evening.

Then Jason was awakened hours later by a frantic call from Todd’s girlfriend. His younger brother had struggled with heroin addiction for years, and Jason realized immediately that Todd, at 28, had overdosed.

Jason had to place a devastating call to his father.

“I remember saying to him, ‘Todd overdosed.’ And he said, ‘Is he alright?’

And I said, ‘No.’ And that just set off a chain reaction of wailing.”

Todd had kept his life together in the beginning. He earned an accounting degree, got a job, had a relationship and young daughter. Then he fell to heroin.

Yet Jason saw himself as different.

For one, he only took pills; he didn’t inject. And he thought he was in control.

In September 2007, Jason got an equally devastating call from his mother.

Josh had overdosed at 25. He, too, was dead.

This is only one story in the state’s drug crisis. The Office of the Attorney General has estimated that Pennsylvania has 40,000 heroin users, which doesn’t include countless others addicted to painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin.

As more and more Americans die and suffer from addiction, the image of the drug user is much harder to stereotype, and in many cases, it resembles people like Jason and his brothers.

“My boys were good boys,” Dean said. “They got themselves into something they couldn’t get themselves out of without any help.”

Jason considers 2010 and 2011 his darkest years. Yet even as he lost control, he feared that getting help would hurt the image he’d built in his relationships and career.

He had increasing responsibilities as vice president of a Pittsburgh-based public relations firm, and, he was even named to the board of directors of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, an Aliquippa-based organization that provides treatment for drug addiction.

Jason, who still holds that board position, gives a knowing nod when discussing the overlap.

Professionals are no different than other users, but for them, recovery can be especially difficult because of the concern over endangering their careers.

“It’s those folks that have a lot to lose that really do suffer from the fear of stigma,” said Jennifer Sewell, vice president of Clinical and Quality Services at Ceridian LifeWorks.

Ceridian is one of many private companies that provides employer-paid assistance to professionals. The benefits are in addition to insurance, which is used to pay for actual treatment.

In Sewell’s experience, acknowledging a problem does not mean a lost career.

But getting professionals to seek treatment can be difficult, she said, because many see themselves as functioning — or even highly successful — despite a drug or alcohol problem.

Jason felt that way for several years before realizing his life was more likely to collapse if he kept using.

“It was a desperate time,” he said. “A hopeless time.”

Stigma and recovery

In late 2011, Jason began attending 12-step meetings, mostly to show his wife, who didn’t know the extent of his problem, that he was making an effort.

He continued to use but said the meetings were revelatory.

“It’s uncanny,” he said, describing how many people told stories just like his own.

The attendees had felt the same cravings and inflicted the same sorts of damage on their lives. Many had also found sobriety.

While there, Jason said they suggested drug treatment. He was still in denial.

Inpatient rehab would require an absence from work, and to avoid that, he thought he could try outpatient treatment.

“I could pull it off and nobody would have to know,” he said.

His 12-step peers encouraged him to think that wasn’t sufficient.

Around Christmas 2011, Jason drove the 70 miles to Mundys Corner to tell his parents that he had a problem and needed help.

He describes the trip home as being like Martin Sheen traveling up the river in Apocalypse Now.

The trouble that Josh and Todd had with drugs was no secret. But they saw Jason as established in a nice, forward-moving life. He had to tell them that wasn’t true.

“I said I’d been having some problems,” Jason recalls. “My dad goes, ‘What do you mean problems? You don’t mean with drugs, do you?’”

He admitted the years of addiction.

Snyder casts his line in Pine Creek in Cheswick, Pa.
Snyder casts his line in Pine Creek in Cheswick, Pa. Much of his spare time is spent fly-fishing, a hobby he would not have been able to enjoy when addicted to painkillers. (Photo by Connor Mulvaney)

His fear of judgment rested on four people: his wife, his boss and his parents.

Once they all knew and supported treatment, much of the stigma disappeared.

He went to residential rehab run by Cove Forge in Williamsburg in rural Blair County. He shared a small room with others in recovery and lined up for lunch like he was back in high school.

Looking back, he said, he needed the humility.

But after 14 days, he faced the same problem as countless other recovering drug users.

Insurance wanted him out.

While an individual might have a job and insurance, insurers often pressure drug users to leave inpatient treatment as soon as possible. Unless a person qualifies for government assistance or can pay thousands of dollars out of pocket, the best treatment disappears.

At the same time, addiction experts argue that months of treatment can be necessary to break a years-long addiction.

“The longer that you engage someone in treatment, the better you are with their outcome,” said Dr. Jon Shapiro, medical director of the Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s Physicians’ Health Programs.

The program guides doctors to long-term treatment, often outside Pennsylvania. The program isn’t mandatory, but if insurance won’t pay — which Shapiro said is common — doctors are expected to pay.

Doctors, who often have access to drugs and carry the responsibility of safeguarding patients’ lives, are monitored for five years, a period far beyond what is available for many others in recovery.

Jason credits his success in recovery to the consistency of his outpatient treatment, which ran several nights a week in Pittsburgh for three more months.

Today, he sees recovery is a lifelong effort.

He attends 12-step meetings four or five nights a week and takes a daily inventory of the parts of his life that bother him. In essence, he’s grown better at finding resolutions to feelings that might have pushed him toward painkillers.

“I don’t fool myself by saying I could never get there,” he said.

But life is hopeful now.

He finds solace outdoors. Hunting, fly-fishing. Driving to a remote cabin to spend time by himself or with his dad.

While he’s faced consequences, including the loss of his marriage, he no longer wakes up exhausted, desperate to feed his addiction and to sort the lies he’s told.

He also still makes a nice living — now as executive director of the Consumer Health Coalition.

The organization focuses on removing barriers to health care, and he’s taken on a personal mission to fight the stigma of addiction so others don’t fear admitting their problems.

That stigma is powerful, and, even now, he worries people will see him differently when they learn about his past.

But for Jason, the choice was between a frantic, fearful life and one of productivity and relative peace.

Leaving the first did not mean sacrificing the other.

“Simply making the admission that you need help,” he said, “doesn’t mean you’re going to lose everything.”

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.