John Koch's recovery journey can serve as a prototype for why no one's cause should ever be abandoned. It demonstrates why there is little value in a scorecard mentality that counts the number of times an overdose victim has been rescued or a patient has returned to treatment, and then passes judgment on that person.
Koch, 29, has encountered many helpers on his path to recovery, from the parole officer who gave him his initial avenue to medication treatment at age 21 to the residential program that agreed to extend his stay after his insurer had moved to discharge him. “I firmly believe in the harm reduction model,” Koch now says.
Koch has been serving as peer support program manager at Community Medical Services' medication-assisted treatment operations in Arizona, but is transitioning to more of an advocacy and community engagement role in the organization. He had his first taste of advocacy in 2016 when asked to speak before a state Senate panel considering a Good Samaritan bill to allow bystanders to administer naloxone. Reading a letter at that hearing from his father, who offered impassioned support for the intervention that saved his son's life, Koch helped break through legislator resistance over the bill.
“I want to change the way the world looks at people who are struggling,” he says.
Early justice encounters
There was no moral dilemma in Koch's early years that had led him to substance use. “I come from a great family,” he says. “I noticed I needed attention a lot, and when I found drugs and alcohol, I didn't need attention anymore.”
By the time he was in the 8th grade, he was serving time in local detention centers. In his teen years he and a friend were stealing scripts for opioids from the friend's physician father. By 16, Koch was selling drugs, and at 17 he was arrested and charged as an adult in Illinois, he says.
He recalls being willing to do whatever it took to quiet the noise in his head, even when facing an ultimatum from the justice system or his family. The first time he was rescued from an overdose, he was in the basement of his parents' home and the call was placed by a friend who was with him. A second rescue would happen just two weeks later, and there would be a third.
Receiving methadone treatment at 21 represented the first step in Koch's turnaround. “Methadone and Suboxone kept me alive,” he says.
Another crucial moment occurred when a police officer who had pulled him over, learning that he had gone out to buy drugs, did not arrest him and instead jotted down the name of a treatment center and handed it to him.
Koch says he broke the record for longest stay at the Share program in Hoffman Estates, Ill., partly because he wanted to make sure that a safe and recovery-affirming sober home would be available to him upon discharge. Koch moved to Maricopa County, Ariz., in 2014.
Reunited with family
“My parents are my best friends now,” Koch says. His support network has helped him meet challenges such as dealing with the aftermath of spinal surgery. He's getting married in January.
He is proud of the comprehensive services offered at the facility where he works, where all three medications for opioid dependence are available and alliances with other community leaders have been built. “I would not work for a company in the field if I didn't feel they were doing everything they could,” Koch says.
Koch will be speaking at a Native American convention in New Mexico this summer and has sights on becoming an international speaker. He simply advises the professionals he addresses not to give up on their clients.
“No single person wants to wake up every day and hurt themselves and their family,” he says.