2. "Nine days & counting" from heroin & homeless to happy & healthy

One day at a time

By Jim Holt, Signal Senior Staff Writer

Nine days without drugs, heroin addict James Fusca is conducting a tour of the rehab center when he stops just outside the door to his room and points to the hallway wall.

With bright eyes and a smile, he says: “In 1910, this used to be a hotel. Lots of rooms. Cool, huh?”

He smiles again and turns away from the black-and-white framed photo of the century-old two-story building now home to the Action Family Counseling rehab center in Piru, a starting point for do-overs in life.

James tour includes running into Action Family Director Cary Quashen and we’re now halfway through the tour, having been shown the warming trays of food in the kitchen - “This is where we eat” - and the TV room - “This is where we watch TV.”

Now, James shows us his room at the end of the hall. Inside, there’s a bunk bed and a single bed.

“I sleep up there,” he says and climbs onto the top bunk, lies down.

This is the 19-year-old Saugus man’s home for the next little while.

The suburban Santa Clarita Valley home where he grew up could no longer tolerate his heroin-fueled behavior of lies, deception and recklessness. His father, mother and sister finally decided there was no room for a heroin-addicted member of their family.

They called Quashen. He arrived at their home Friday, May 5 and left with James.

James hugs Cary Quashen as they greet each other exactly one week after James entered Quashen's rehab facility in Piru. James is nine days sober. The tattoo on his wrist reads "222," which James says is the "angel number." Katharine Lotze/The Signal

James laughs as he reads a comment left by one of his friends on the Signal's Facebook post of his story that ran on May 9. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

James listens as Cary Quashen reads aloud comments on the Signal's Facebook post of his story that ran on Tuesday, May 9. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Nine Days Clean

After a week without heroin, with fresh face and combed hair, a much healthier-looking James reads The Signal newspaper account of his intervention.

As he lays on the top bunk of his bed, chuckling at the notion the bunk beds are like summer camp, he scans the newspaper photos of himself, shot two days into his withdrawal.

“Oh wow. I look like s--t,” he says.

At Quashen’s request, James reads the story out loud, including the part that said he ambled down the stairs.

Once read, James climbs down from the bunk.

“Here I am, ambling,” he says, revealing a rare moment - humor.

James, nine days clean, sits on his roommate’s bed. His roommate is 24 days clean.

James is smiling, laughing, talking, joking as the magic spills out of him.

That’s Quashen’s term for it. Magic.

“Right now, he’s filled with magical thinking,” Quashen says, noting he’s witnessed this phase hundreds of times in his 30 years helping addicts.

“It’s magical thinking,” he says, referring to the sudden sober realization they express about the possibilities that stand before them.

Quashen puts his hands up as if to stop the magic. “One day at a time,” he says.

Top: James stretches and yawns as he talks with Cary Quashen. As he begins to recover from his addiction, his counselors and doctors have him taking a combination of medications to lessen physical effects of withdrawal symptoms. One side effect of the recovery medication is drowsiness. Bottom left: James reflects on his first week in rehab during an informal session with Cary Quashen. James has nine days sober. The key chains on his sweatshirt drawstrings represent his first days in rehab. Bottom right: James rests his hands in his lap as he listens to Cary Quashen as Quashen checks in with James after his first week in rehab. The key chain on his sweater reads "Just for today," reminding him to take recovery one day at a time. Photos by Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Worth It

But, not for James. In this moment of expressed hope and promise, Quashen makes the most of it.

“Tell them what you told me this morning,” he tells James.

James smiles. “My name is James and I’m worth it.”

Louder.

“My name is James and I’m worth it.”

When was the last time you smiled? James has no answer.

“I’ve never laughed so much in my life,” he says, finally. “Laughing is one of the things we do all the time. Lots of jokes. I love it.”

It’s the best therapy, Quashen tells him. “Straight up,” James says, slapping the bed.

James and his fellow addicts - 22 at the rehab at any given time, a full house, year round - get up at 6 a.m. every day, shower and get ready for “group” at 8 a.m. They have different topics on different days.

He missed Friday’s session and that day’s question: What do you want to do?

Again, the magical talking stars to bubble out of him. The floor is all his.

“I’m going to get my (high school) diploma, stay sober. No more heroin. No drugs. I want to be an architect like my father.” His plan includes Golden Oak Adult School, he says.

James’s father, Kenneth, had visited him the day before, bringing with him, the family dog, Dallas - a fluffy black-and-white maltipoo - a Maltese and toy poodle mix.

Do you think the dog knew in the past when you were high? James’ smile drops for a second, then he says: “They definitely pick up on that s--t.”

James lifts up his shirt to show he's wearing two shirts. He talked a lot about his desire to get his GED, and then a job, so that he can buy new clothes. Most of his clothes were stolen when he was living out of truck while doing heroin. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Old Friends

Reflecting on his dad, his family, his sister about whom he says “I love more than anything” James thinks of old friends. He has two, he says.

The smile fades.

He and his oldest and closest friend (kept confidential by The Signal), attended pre-school together, then real school. They reconnected, James says, when they each discovered the other was addicted to heroin.

Tears well up in James' eyes as Quashen makes a promise to him that once he has made it through the program, Quashen will take in James' childhood friend to get him clean. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

What if your friend wanted to get high? “He wouldn’t let me,” James says.

“Even if a needle was hanging out of his arm, he wouldn’t let me,” he says, tearing up, eyes red.

“I love that kid more than anything,” he says, teary. “If I ever have a lot of money, I’m going help my buddy get sober and hang out with him sober.”

James is going to do what Quashen does with people, he says, “and bring him here.”

But, that’s “magical talking.” One day at a time.

James reads the Signal's story from Friday, May 5, the day he entered rehab, as he lies on his bunk bed Action Family Counseling's rehabilitation facility in Piru on Friday, May 12, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

James sits on his roommate's bed as he talks with Quashen and the Signal on Friday, May 12, 2017. James sleeps on the top bunk. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

James smiles quietly as Cary Quashen talks about recovery, and James' current "magical thinking." James wants to sign up for school to complete his GED, and get a job. Quashen warned him to slow down a bit. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

New Friends

James picks up the tour and leads us outside this time, to the back of the house, into the sunshine and across the backyard to a classroom or sorts which has a whiteboard where James and others write and read pledges of affirmation to stay clean.

A couple of steps back toward the house waits a patio table and chairs in the sun-dappled shade, where other addicts - his new friends - are gathering.

James’s roommate sums up what each of the three women and one older guy are confessing. “It’s easy here. It’s not so easy out there.”

Each addict around the table is proud: 33 days clean, 22 days clean, 19 days clean.

Quashen listens and offers advice sparingly but consistently, waiting the right moment.

“If you want to stay clean and sober you’ve just got to change everything - your toys, your playground, especially your friends,” he tells the addicts at the impromptu group session.

“If you’re hanging around with old friends, you’re not changing,” he tells them. “I believe we set ourselves up. If we’re around it, we’re going to get high.”

James smokes a cigarette as Cary Quashen holds an informal group session outside of Action Family Counseling's rehabilitation facility in Piru on Friday, May 12, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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