Recovering addict recalls day he overdosed

Antrim man looking to life after rehab, helping others overcome addiction

Paul Koutroubas says the hardest thing he ever had to do was to call his teenage daughters and tell them he was a coke addict.

“I had been living a lie for so many years,” Koutroubas says, recalling the day he woke up in a rehab room at the Elliot Hospital in Manchester, where he’d been taken by ambulance after overdosing on drugs. “I had been doing drugs for 14 years, and I kept it a real secret. I was trying to live a facade.”

Koutroubas, 55, now lives with his brother in Antrim. But on March 6, 2013, he was on the job in his hometown of Manchester, working for the city, when chest pains hit. Koutroubas knew the cause; he was high on cocaine and crystal meth. Somehow he got to a doctor, although he doesn’t really recall how he did it. He was immediately sent by ambulance to a hospital, and he says his heart stopped on the way. Koutroubas considers himself lucky to be alive, and he counts that day as the start of his ongoing recovery.

“I had to resign my job,” he says. “I had all kinds of medical issues from the drug use. You put all these poisons in your body and you don’t think of the long-term consequences.”

Koutroubas can’t really say why he started using drugs about 15 years ago.

“I just went out seeking a high,” he says. “I went looking and it wasn’t hard to find.”

He started smoking marijuana, then snorting cocaine and eventually found himself intravenously injecting cocaine and crystal meth.

“I tried heroin a few times, but I didn’t like it and it was expensive then,” he says.

Koutroubas worked two jobs to get the money he needed for drugs, but he still often came up short.

“I played poor to my family,” he says. “They’d give me money and I’d use it to buy drugs.”

He started making dangerous choices as well, driving to seedy neighborhoods in the Boston area and, if he didn’t get mugged, getting high down there and driving back to New Hampshire with drugs in his car.

“When you’re an addict, your whole mindset is just to get your fix,” he says. “I’ve never been arrested but I came very close. I was lucky.”

After Koutroubas was released from the hospital, he needed to find help. He’d been evicted from his apartment, was estranged from his family, had lost his job and insurance, and his short-term disability coverage had quickly run out.

“I knew I couldn’t go back out on the street,” he says. “By that time, my family knew. I had to find a place to get into rehab and there’s a real shortage. A lot of us in early recovery don’t have a lot of time to wait.”

Koutroubas eventually found a slot in a short-term treatment program at Phoenix House in Keene, where he stayed about 40 days before moving to a three-month transitional living program at Phoenix House in Dublin. While he was in Keene, he reconnected with his religious heritage, attending services at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

“Without God, I knew I wasn’t going to make it,” Koutroubas says.

He also got into a 12-step program for alcoholics and drug abusers, which he credits with keeping him on track during his recovery.

“I believe [Narcotics Anonymous] and [Alcoholics Anonymous] have saved my life quite a few times,” he says. “I’m going to meetings in Keene and Bennington four times a week. I’d go more if I weren’t so far from Keene.”

Koutroubas says he’s been denied Social Security coverage, is on several medications and isn’t able to go back to work. He’s living one day at a time, and he’s grateful to be able to do that.

“I’d be homeless right now if my brother hadn’t taken me in,” he says. “I had to cash in my 401(k); that money’s gone. The bank owns my car. I’m out here in the middle of nowhere, which is kind of OK for me.”

He says he has two goals now: to continue his recovery, which will be an ongoing project for the rest of his life, and to become an advocate for those with addiction and mental health issues.

“I’d like to see more facilities for drug treatment, and more education,” he says. “You have little kids now, 14- or 15-years-old, using heroin. It’s what they’ve seen with their parents. You have to educate them.”

Koutroubas has spoken to state legislators in Concord about ways to expand treatment programs and access to insurance coverage. He appreciated the recent N.H. Senate vote in favor of expanding Medicaid coverage for poor adults — a vote that took place on the first anniversary of the overdose that served as his wake-up call.

“They voted the right way to help people,” he says about the Senate vote. “I think we’re seeing a new message here: Live Free and Live.”

Koutroubas says he greatly appreciates all the help he received, and he’s hoping other drug addicts can get similar support, whether it’s from social service agencies, friends and family, or 12-step programs.

“We’re not criminals,” he says. “Many of us don’t belong in jail. We need help. It’s about getting us back on track, to become productive citizens.”

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