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Former heroin user talks about the tragedy that ended his cycle of addiction

Shane Hassler
Maureen McKinney/NPR Illinois
Shane Hassler

As drug and overdose deaths are on the rise, Gateway Foundation is working to get out its message that recovery is possible.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimated 106,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021. Alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. increased by 34% from 2020.

Southern Illinois native Shane Hassler once could have easily been among the statistics. He battled addiction to heroin for more than 20 years before seeking treatment at Gateway Foundation’s Springfield recovery center.

Hassler, who now lives in Chicago, has been sober since 2015. He dedicates his professional life to helping others in part by setting an example for recovery.

Hassler said he first got into drinking and using cannabis when he was 16. He drank and smoked marijuana on the weekend with a group of ‘laid-back guys’ and that helped ease his sense of isolation.

“I felt like I had become part of a community,“ he said. “I started blacking out from drinking. And, once I started, I wouldn't stop and I was able to go through school, and I was able to hold down a job. And I never really perceived it as a problem.”

“As things kind of escalated and … I was in my 30s, and I was sitting in a house by myself completely alone and isolated because of my drug use. I was like, ‘This is this is not what I signed up for.’’’

He had several attempts at recovery starting in 2009 while he dealt with a series of daunting issues: jail time, overdosing and DCFS involvement.

But Hassler is frank. It was not until after the suicide death of the woman he lived with that he able to sustain sobriety.

“I reached out to a family member and I was like, ‘If I don't get help, I'm going to die.’ I knew, because it just kept escalating,’’ he said.

Hassler added the first step to recovery is seeking help. He said there are rewards, like a relationship with his daughters.

“I'm grateful that they were both very forgiving, and were able to look past some of that stuff," said Hassler, who also has a two-year-old granddaughter.

“Because they could have been very resentful, and they could have … shut me out because I wasn't there for them when they were growing up for a good portion of it.”

“Recently, I celebrated seven years in recovery. And then my younger daughter texted me and she's like, “I love you, congratulations. You know, I don't know where I would be if you wouldn't have done this,”’ he said.

”And so, to put that in perspective, for me, that was very powerful. Because it wasn't just about me – my sobriety … but to have those sort of ripple effects for the people around me… Now the good things are having that ripple effect.”

The Gateway Foundation 24-hour hotline number is 855-925-4283.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is lead editor of Illinois Issues' feature articles, working with freelance writers, and covering the equity beat. Maureen joined the Illinois Issues in 1998 as projects editor. Previously, she worked at three Illinois daily newspapers, most recently the suburban Chicago-based Daily Herald, where she served stints as an education reporter and copy editor. She graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's in journalism. She also has a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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