Opioid series: A story of survival

Austin Wade’s life spiraled out of control when he finished his prescription painkillers

Opioid series logo displaying syringe, pill, capsule

The opioid epidemic is rampant in the United States. Nearly 5 million people are addicted to prescription painkillers, heroin or synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Every day, 115 people die from overdoses.

The UAW and Ford Motor Company stand united to bring attention to this critical issue. In this periodic series, we’ll share stories of Ford employees, who like millions of people, are dealing with the impact of opioid-related addiction.

Austin Wade started shooting heroin into his veins when he was 16. By age 20, he hit rock bottom.

“I was living in an abandoned apartment above a pizza shop. It was cold, and nobody wanted me around because I would steal from them to buy heroin,” he said. “But my grandma let me stay at her house one night. I was high, and for some reason I just started bawling. I was like an empty shell. I had no feelings.”

That was the night Wade decided to get his grandfather’s .357 Magnum revolver and kill himself.

“Nothing really scared me because I was using heroin,” Wade said. “There were plenty of times when I just fell over and didn’t care if I died or not. But there was something about that time. I don’t know if it was a God moment or what, but my grandmother came and asked me if I was all right,” he said. “I told her I needed to get some help. The next day they flew me down to a rehab center in Florida.”

Austin Wade sits in a chair with his dog, Dio, sitting in front of him in his living room.
Austin Wade, 24 and a line worker at the Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake, with his dog Dio. Photo by Dustin Franz

Like many people who suffer from opioid addiction, Wade went through multiple rehabilitation programs before he finally quit using heroin. He has been sober since March 7, 2014.

“I’m very open about my past and how I am now,” he said. “There is a solution. A lot of people think you start doing heroin and you just get lost in it and die. I am proof that (quitting) can be done.”

When Wade, 24, started working as a line worker at the Ohio Assembly Plant, he was instrumental in forming a support group for others struggling with addiction. He also advises anyone who works at Ford to reach out to their plant’s Employee Support Services Program (ESSP) office for help.

“It’s a life or death situation,” he said. “I tell people … that your job, your family — none of that matters because, if you keep getting high, you’re going to die. You have to worry about what’s going on with yourself first. Handle your situation, and then you can worry about everything else that comes into play. You need to get yourself some help.”

Wade’s issues with substance abuse began at a young age. His parents divorced when he was 8. His dad was an alcoholic and his mother had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“It was kind of us boys that ran the house,” said Wade, referring to himself and his three brothers. “We started drinking and smoking pot early on. We did what we wanted as we got older because no one was around to push us in the right direction.”

Wade was 11 when he started smoking pot and 12 when he started drinking. Things got worse when he snapped his elbow in half in his freshman year of high school and had to have surgery.

“The doctor gave me a prescription for Percocet, and the whole thing started to get bad when that happened,” he said. “I liked the way they made me feel. Once the pills were gone, the doctor wouldn’t prescribe any more. So, I started getting more pills from other people.”

The most recent CDC statistics show Wade’s story is not unique. In 2014, nearly two million Americans either abused or were dependent on prescription opioid pain relievers.

Once addicted, it can be hard to stop. And buying prescription drugs on the street becomes expensive very quickly.

“They were about $100 a pill, so I couldn’t get them anymore,” said Wade. “I was going through withdrawals from not having the pills in my system.”

One day, Wade was with a buddy who used heroin. “I was so sick at the time that I just wanted to feel better.” That’s when he started using heroin, too.

“First time I used heroin I injected it, and that was the only way I would do it after that,” he said.

Wade, who is now married with a 2-year-old daughter, said staying sober is an ongoing effort.

Austin Wade, with his two-year-old daughter Alana, at his home in Oberlin last fall. Wade is a former heroin addict and now runs a support group for fellow employees struggling with any kind of addiction. Photo by Dustin Franz

“It’s an illness that I’m never going to get rid of. Even being sober, I still have thoughts that I run by my sponsor, especially if I have a big decision to make,” Wade said. “You still go to your meetings. Some people go to church. Some people do a 12-step program.”

When asked what advice he would give others, Wade said: “There are certain situations where the human body can’t handle certain types of pain. My thing is just being educated about what the doctor is giving you. We have the internet today. All it takes is for you to type in what the pill is. Know what the risks are and be responsible about it.”

Wade shares his personal experience — his struggle with heroin abuse and his success with sobriety — with others hoping he might prevent someone else from going down the same dark path he did.

“This is life or death,” he said. “I can’t even count on my two hands how many friends have died from something similar — just getting a prescription from a doctor and what it ends up leading to.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug misuse or abuse, please reach out for help. If you’re not a Ford employee, call the free, confidential treatment referral service, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) any time, day or night. Parents looking for information about talking to their children about drug abuse can call Partnership for Drug-Free Kids at 1-855-378-4373.


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