I have to tell my story.
He was calling from his home in Stuart, Florida, the sailfish capital of the world. This Atlantic Coast city once had a house used as a haven for shipwrecked sailors called The House of Refuge. It might not be an accident that Richie Lapinski Jr. lives in Stuart.
Lapinski is fighting a summer cold, but still wants to talk. I have to tell my story. Almost everyone has heard someone’s version of it: a tight-knit family, involved in sports. Mom and dad sacrifice, the kids thrive. Then comes the injury. Then comes the painkillers. Then for some, the downfall comes. Not everyone makes it to the redemption part. The restoration part.
This is Lapinski’s story. He grew up with his brother, sister and parents in Bayonne, New Jersey. His father was deputy chief of the Jersey City Fire Department, and coached football and baseball. His mother was a stay-at-home mom and ran the youth cheerleading squad.
“She made sure I never went without and all my needs were met. I went to CCD, played sports every season, had many friends. I loved growing up in Bayonne. I pretty much had a perfect childhood,” Lapinski said.
His family moved from Bayonne to Manasquan, which had an excellent secondary school sports program. Lapinski’s older brother played, but his grades didn’t attract the big-name schools. Lapinski learned from that, and made sure his grades and game were top notch.
He was an all-state football star and all-county baseball player with 12 varsity letters and four state championships. He was vice president of his high school class, a member of several prestigious high school clubs as well as a member of the National Honor Society. Even with an ACL injury his last football game senior year, Harvard, Princeton, Bucknell and other schools courted him. He won a football scholarship to Lehigh University.
“Up until this point in my life most things came easy to me. I was a happy and successful person,” Lapinski said.
But he partied. When he wasn’t in sports, Lapinski indulged in alcohol and pills. But he always cleaned up for sports. When he tore his ACL again his sophomore year at Lehigh, his college sports career was over. Now there was no reason not to party. He remembered the numbness he got from the painkillers he took for his ACL injury. Now he needed to numb life.
It’s not that Lapinski had NFL dreams. But sports filled his time while he wondered what career path he should take. Should he be a firefighter like his dad? What about a teacher and coach, all things that had such a positive impact on his own young life?
Lapinski easily slid from pain killers to heroin. It’s cheap, readily available, and provides the brain a dopamine rush that provides a sense of pleasure and well-being. For a little while. He supported his own habit by selling drugs and stealing from his family.
And it eventually all caught up with him. At 22, Lapinski was arrested, convicted, and spent three years in state prison.
“Now I can never be a teacher, a coach, a firefighter. I sold drugs, I stole from my family, I would take money from parents’ bank accounts. That’s why I ended up in prison. I glorified the things in life that I know aren’t important now,” Lapinski said.
Most addiction recovery programs agree that if a user wants to change, they can’t go back. To anything. But that’s exactly where Lapinski ended up – back – when he was released from prison. He went back to selling drugs and hanging around the same people he did before. He wanted quick money, and got it, and lost it all.
His life shipwrecked before he was even 30, Lapinski finally realized he needed to find shore.
“I was finally tired. I was tired of being burden to my family. I was tired of feeling like a loser. I didn’t want to live. I truly didn’t want to live. I was so tired of being in so much pain,” Lapinski said. “After 10 years, I was willing to take suggestions from people who got sober.”
Lapinski ended up in Florida. He went through a “safe detox” – a medically supervised detoxification from drugs – and entered treatment. He not only had to dump drugs, but “friends, places and things” that were part of his drug-drenched past. He joined AA, got a sponsor, and still attends 4-5 meeting each week.
“I started my life completely over,” Lapinski said. He traded his get-rich-quick-by-selling-drugs ambitions and instead moved furniture all day, and then took an overnight tech job at a rehab center. “I had no car, no license, no cell phone, and just one bag of clothes. I worked 90 hours a week, got my license, got a car, got a phone.” He progressed at the treatment center, and is now the outreach coordinator for Foundations Wellness Center. He’s at the Port St. Lucie location.
“I truly believe in our program and the people that work there. Our staff goes above and beyond to make sure clients are given the tools to get sober and live a happy and successful life. Our staff is like a family,” Lapinski said.
He’s 34 now. He’s walked his 12 steps over and over, making amends with those he’s hurt over the years. He goes to work. He supports himself. He still thinks his childhood was the greatest. He had the greatest mom and dad. But at his young age, he’s lost so many friends to addiction.
He knows what it’s like to rely on drugs. Escaping feels better than dealing with the pain and problems, until it doesn’t, and that escape is now the cause of pain and problems. Lapinski lives his life with willingness, patience, and labor. With those three things, anyone can get their life back.
“Today I spend my life telling my story and spreading the message that there is a solution to this terrible problem that is affecting so many families and especially young people. I am able to help people get the help they need. I have a purpose today and I wake up excited and motivated to help my fellow addict and alcoholic that is still suffering. I am living proof that recovery is possible,” Lapinski said.