Thursday, May 24, 2018
Human Interest

Catching up, one year later: A recovering heroin addict finds hope and grace

The day before he almost died, he had seen his older sister overdosing in a recliner. He had watched his neighbor, a nurse, give her a shot of Narcan, the drug that lifts addicts from the brink of death. He had seen the paramedics cart her away.

Michael Dingman knew people who had died from overdoses. He liked to boast that it couldn't happen to him, that he knew the limits of his addiction. It was a lie.

With little thought, he went to the same dealer, bought the same drugs. He shot up behind their trailer.

In seconds, he could tell something was wrong. He felt his heartbeat slowing, his eyes rolling shut. He didn't know until later that the drugs were laced with carfentanil, the super version of fentanyl, a major painkiller responsible for scores of overdose deaths in Manatee County.

When he awoke, Dingman was in the back of an ambulance. His neck stung from four IV punctures; his arms were too tattered from needles to get a line. A collection of familiar faces — the ones who had treated his sister — gazed down at him.

What are you thinking? the paramedics said.

He had long known he needed help. He knew if he didn't get it, he would just keep buying, keep using.

Days later, he walked into the hospital complaining of a sore finger. He demanded they send him to detox. They said they couldn't help him.

In the hallway, he phoned his mom. He said he was tired of living this way. As he spoke, someone else listened.

A woman he had never seen tapped him on the shoulder. She said she knew the way to a rehab center. He asked her how to get there.

"Come with me," she said. "I'll take you."

• • •

I first saw Michael Dingman late one night in November 2015 as he sat shirtless on the steps outside a Bradenton apartment. I was riding with paramedics for research on a story about Manatee County's alarming surge in heroin overdoses. In the midst of it, we came upon the thin man with tired eyes and cuts in the crooks of his arms.

The wounds, which had been stitched up, had since become infected, a result of his continued daily injections. He never denied he was a heroin addict, but he lied when the medics asked if he had used that day.

I watched as they loaded him into an ambulance. Later, I sent him a message through Facebook. I explained that I was a reporter working on a story, examining the heroin problem in Manatee County. I wanted to know more about his experiences and any insights he could offer.

He was hesitant at first but eventually agreed to be interviewed. He met me and a photographer at a McDonald's in Bradenton. He opened up about his struggles with addiction, his desire to get clean and the lack of affordable treatment options.

Later, he took us to his home. We saw the track marks on his arms, his injection kit and a collection of needles.

What he gave us was a vivid illustration of the horrors that afflict addicts all across the country every day. He told us he wanted people to know the human side of addiction. He hoped the story might help others. He hoped it might help him.

Last April, Dingman's story was featured in Floridian. He told me a few people who had seen it had reached out to offer help.

But it wouldn't be easy.

As I kept in touch with Dingman through Facebook, I saw from afar his continued struggle to beat his demons. I saw when he twice got arrested for domestic violence and sat in jail for weeks as a kind of self-imposed detox.

When he got out, he always started using again, he later told me. Then, early last summer, he disappeared.


• • •


He doesn't know who she was. He never got the woman's name. But thinking back on it, he figures she was a recovering addict herself.

On the ride to the detox center, she began to tell him things about himself. That he was powerless over his addiction and that his life had become unmanageable (Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 1).

That there was a power greater than him that could restore him to sanity (Step 2).

That he needed to decide to turn his life over to God (Step 3).

He spent five days in detox. They gave him medicine, and he slept through most of it. At the end, he still felt weak, sluggish.

I can use just once, he recalls thinking.

Time was up, they told him. He had to leave.

He couldn't, he said. If he did, he would go right back to using.

They put him on the phone with the Salvation Army in Sarasota.

"Can you be here tomorrow?" a man asked.

"Is there any way I can come in today?"

It was July 2.


• • •


Heavy steel doors and thick glass keep the residents inside.

In the mornings, they gather in the cafeteria for breakfast and morning devotion. Someone reads from Twenty-Four Hours A Day, the text that is a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous. After a brief discussion, they disperse.

For those in entry beds, the day is all about meetings.

There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and anger management meetings. There are meetings geared toward applying the 12 steps to one's daily life. There are meetings devoted to nothing but listening.

New arrivals do a lot of listening. They're told to find hope in the stories of others. After some time, they share their hopes.

It's like that all day, each day, for 10 weeks. The focus the entire time is recovery, which, they learn, is a process.

"There's a process in everything," said Capt. Andy Bailey, a Corps officer with the Salvation Army in Sarasota, "whether you're cooking a pizza or getting well."

Twice a week, there is church. The praise and worship sessions, Michael Dingman said, were his moment of clarity.

"I can't tell you how many times I broke down crying in there," he said. "I realized I could do this."


• • •


He slipped a few times.

He got caught with a cellphone. He got caught talking to a girl. At the end of August, goofing off in a dorm room, he leapt from a top bunk and cracked his kneecap on the floor.

He spent two days in the hospital. He came back with a knee brace and crutches.

"There was something about Mike," Andy Bailey said. "We knew there was something in there, that he was a fighter and he'd make it. And you know what? He came around one day and he was just basically just a model resident after that."

On a Friday night in November, Dingman stood in a black button-down shirt before hundreds of residents, staff members and their families.

Gone was the haggard, sweat-soaked look he carried when he was using. Gone was the hoarse, nasal voice that seeped from his throat when he craved drugs.

He thanked a lot of people — his family, friends he met in recovery.

"I see my purpose," he said. "I see respect, dignity, honor, grace. … I see a lot of stuff that I like about myself now."

He and four others received commencement certificates, marking their completion of the program. The crowd applauded. His younger sister wept.

For a month after he graduated, he worked on Salvation Army street teams, groups that perform various volunteer services in Sarasota. He helped with landscaping outside public buildings and handed out water at city parades.

"I like it," he said, "because I enjoy giving back to the community that I destroyed for so many years."

He knows there is always the danger that he could relapse, go back to using.

What could make it happen?

"Being in the same environment, around the same people I knew when I was using."

He had a job for a while, at a restaurant in Bradenton, less than a mile from the trailer where he overdosed. A few of the waiters and fellow cooks liked to drink or smoke marijuana. He tried to keep a distance — heading straight into work after stepping off the bus and back on the bus after clocking out. He thought of 1 Corinthians 15:33: Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character.

A few weeks later, he got a new job in Sarasota. He moved out of his "exit bed" and into a transitional house.

He leads recovery meetings now. He tries to help one recovering addict each day. He likes to talk about Jesus.

He doesn't want to put anything in front of his recovery. But he has goals — getting an apartment, getting a driver's license, education, careers. He might like to become a cook, he says. Or a paramedic.

It would take him a long time to get there. But he has hope now.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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