The day after Peter Hamilton overdosed on opiates, life seemed normal.
“I almost died, and the next day it was like nothing happened,” he said.
But something — someone — was different, and that saved his life, he says. For the next month, his friend Paul became his watchdog. He would show up at his house every morning, sometimes accompanying him to work.
“That’s who I want to be. That guy,” said Hamilton, 43, sitting in his Miami Beach office two years later, describing how the routines kept him sober. “The ability to realize that you’re not crazy and not alone and that other people are going through things with you. … There’s a lot of camaraderie in recovery.”
That experience led Hamilton, the owner of a payment processing company, to found Freedom From Addiction, a website launched in early January to create an online community for addicts who suffer from substance abuse and drug addiction. The website includes a help line that connects addicts to treatment centers and people can email a doctor questions.
Users can sign up to receive encouraging text messages throughout the day, as well as upload videos and write blogs to share personal stories. A “virtual sponsorship” program will allow recovered addicts to mentor struggling ones. The website, which Hamilton is funding himself, has had more than 11,200 visitors so far.
“I think stigma is what stops people from getting help,” Hamilton said. “Freedom From Addiction is a place where there’s a community of people that can come and support each other. If [addicts] can learn from people in recovery, what better way for them to learn?”
Death by drug overdose has been climbing sharply in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014 saw almost half a million drug overdose deaths — more than double the number in 2001. And Florida had the fourth-highest number of deaths in 2014, with approximately 2,600. The increase stems mostly from from prescription pain pills and heroin.
Rachel Needle, clinical director of the Seacrest Recovery Center in Boynton Beach and advisor to the start-up, says addiction is a brain disease and recovery involves more than just willpower.
“It’s important to understand this isn’t just something people can stop,” she said. “There is a clear difference in the brain chemistry for the people who become heavy substance abusers and those that don’t.”
An online meeting place may appeal to addicts who can’t or won’t attend a meeting in person, she added.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to show up to meetings for different reasons,” she said. “This gives them another opportunity to connect with the sober community.”
Keeping his drug and alcohol addiction a secret tormented Hamilton from his teens to his early 20s as he went back and forth between staying clean and relapsing. He was known as a “non-drinker” at his wedding, where there was a bottle of Scotch at every table, because he did not want to tell people he suffered from alcohol abuse.
Following 15 years of sobriety — during which he earned a college degree, got married and had two boys — he relapsed after having what he thought would be a harmless drink with his in-laws. This time, his addiction nearly became fatal.
“In about two years, I caused a lot of damage not just to myself but to my family,” Hamilton said. “My life nearly fell apart.
“Part of being an addict is that you forget,” he said. “You go to treatment, they take away the drugs, they take away the alcohol. But then why is it that you go back out and do that again to yourself? Recovery is telling myself every single day that I have a disease and, no matter what, not to drink.”
The alternative is often jail or death. When Hamilton visited a treatment center in Miami at age 23, an addict named Shelly Zilbert encouraged him to return to the program. Three years ago, Hamilton checked into a detoxification program where plaques bearing the pictures of addicts who had died covered the walls. On the door of his room was a photo of Shelly.
“I’ve buried many people,” he said, adding later, “We can’t treat them like bad people.”
The site’s video testimonials and virtual sponsorships are trying to stop the losses. “You may get the guy in Spain that’s sponsoring a guy in Venezuela, and they are helping each other,” Hamilton said. “How beautiful would that be?”