By Matthew Young, RealWV
“Now terrified, unemployable, emotionally bankrupt and spiritually void of any connection, human or divine, I had reached the limits of my sanity. I had completely hijacked my existence through the grips of an active lifestyle of chemical dependency with no understanding of how to treat the illness that lived inside me.”
Like many others who have struggled with addiction, Joel Westbrook’s story is one told through loneliness. Now, five-years removed from a quarter-century spent in the isolating grip of chemical dependency, Joel has found that a better life “comes in the form of connection, both human and divine.”
Joel’s journey of despair, self-discovery, and, finally, hope, has readied him for the task ahead. Joel, along with his dog Ginger, will soon be embarking on a 2,000 mile bike-packing trip to raise awareness for Shatterproof, an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of those battling the disease of addiction.
Joel and I were raised in the same town in upstate New York. We attended school together – from Lee Road Elementary, all the way through Cornwall Central High School. In our younger days, we played soccer on the same team. And in senior year, I sat behind him in Mrs. Pietrzak’s English class. Then we graduated, life happened, and our journeys took us in different directions.
Up until last week, Joel and I hadn’t spoken in nearly 27 years. There’s just something about reconnecting with an old friend – one who comes from the same place that you do, who has been where you’ve been, and who knows who you were before you became who you are. And there’s just something reassuring when you find out that despite the different roads your lives have taken, you both ended up in the same dark places, and you both made it out the other side.
“I had been planning this kind of trip for about two years,” Joel told me about his bike-packing trip in support of Shatterproof. “I had been going up and down the east coast a little bit here and there, and I thought that would be pretty cool.”
“I’ve been training for this trip and preparing for it,” Joel added. “The social media thing, it’s not my wheelhouse, so learning that process and learning how to use cameras to film this and to document it, that’s basically what I’m doing.”
Joel plans to leave his home in upstate New York on Wednesday, March 15, and make way for Key West, Florida. He anticipates that the trip will take around two-months.
“I’m not pushing it,” Joel said. “The dog will slow me down, which is great because I’m learning a lot about this process too. I’m not putting pressure on myself for time (to complete the trip). I have the blessing and the gift of not having to worry about how long this is going to take me.”
Joel’s ride in support of Shatterproof is being called the “10 Percent Tour,” because, as Joel explained it in the trip’s promotional video, “Recent studies are showing that 10% of Americans are struggling with some form of chemical dependency.”
“My guess is someone that you know or love is dealing with this life threatening problem as we speak, and my heart goes out to both you and to them,” Joel adds in the video.
Sadly, Joel is probably right. Many of us know someone who has struggled with chemical dependency, and many of us have fought that battle ourselves. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that more than 90,000 Americans fatally overdosed between April 2020 and April 2021 – the highest number of overdose deaths ever reported in any 12-month period. During that time, the states of New York and West Virginia – the two ends of Appalachia – accounted for nearly 10% of those deaths.
According to founder and CEO Gary Mendell, at Shatterproof, “We don’t wait for change, we create it. Together we’re working to transform our healthcare system, and our society, so we prevent and treat addiction with science and compassion – the way we do with any other chronic illness – and build a future where those touched by this disease don’t experience any shame or stigma.”
Mendell founded Shatterproof after losing his son to addiction. As he explained: “Brian’s passing was and continues to be excruciatingly painful. Perhaps just as tragic, is the undeniable reality that it was not just addiction that claimed my son’s life. It was the shame he felt every morning when he opened his eyes that led him to wake up that morning, research suicide notes, light a candle and take his own life, alone.”
The stigma, shame, and loneliness of addiction is something which Joel knows very well. But now he hopes that telling his story through the 10 Percent Tour may help those still battling the disease.
“I have hid in the shadows my whole life trying to manage my drug addiction and my alcoholism for the better part of 25 years,” Joel said. “So to cross over this plane of social media and actually expose myself, it’s part of my journey I think.”
“I’m not sure what this is, it’s the culmination of a lot of things,” Joel added. “In some ways, it’s possibly me coming clean with who I am and what I’m about so I can be free of this sort of shame and guilt that I have inside of me. I put a lot of work into my recovery, but when I crossed over that line I was terrified.”
“People actually do get well,” Joel said. “It may not be the majority, but people do get well. Maybe it is a story that people need to hear. If this can raise some awareness for people to have belief and hope that they can get well, and not look at drug addicts and alcoholics like they’re a lost cause, then that’s a cross that I’ll bear.”