tim rabolt

Tim Rabolt remembers the exact moment he knew he needed help.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in 2011. He was sitting in a chair with girls on his lap, drunk and high.

"Life felt like it had no meaning and purpose, and the drugs and alcohol just weren't doing it anymore," he said. "I just froze, and you felt like the only one in the room, but you had everyone you were friends with...I just never felt so alone."

The then-teenager knew if he didn't change the path of his life, there wouldn't be a life.

"I knew I was going to die," he said. "I was going to die from an overdose, or suicide, or like getting killed with the people I was hanging out with."

The Westover Hills teen had been abusing prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin throughout almost all of his high school years while attending the prestigious Tatnall School. His first taste of the medication--and the addictive euphoria that resulted--came through a doctor's prescription after he had his wisdom teeth removed freshman year.

"They prescribed a ton of them for afterwards, and I just kind took 'em like candy with friends, who said it'd be fun, and it was fun, and they ran out, and another friend got his wisdom teeth out."

It snowballed from there to a point where Rabolt would purchase the prescription drugs.

"I started selling and hanging out with the wrong crowd...it kind of just escalated to a point where it was a lot more than just recreational use, it was like full on dependence everyday, do whatever it takes to get more," he said.

And Rabolt's not alone, many opioid addictions are born by a doctor's prescription; some people need opioids to ease their pain; many others don't. Attorney General Matt Denn said the state is taking steps to ensure doctors are taking proper precautions and pursuing opioid alternatives when warranted.

"The origins of this epidemic aren't really in dispute...the massive increase in heroin overdose deaths tracks pretty closely with the dramatic increase in the prescription rates of opioid medications, and that increase was driven in large part by messaging to medical professionals and training of medical professionals that was subsidized and organized by pharmaceutical manufacturers," said Denn.

But for Rabolt, those controls came too late. Before he even realized it, he was in the throes of addiction. For him, the idea of recovery as a teen was a scary process.

"It was tough, because when I realized I wanted to get help, I just wanted to get off the pills, I didn't want to stop drinking and smoking; I didn't understand why that was related so it was just a whole new way of thinking because recovery, that concept of getting sober and having that new way of life, that's not really a common theme that you're taught about in school or you talk about with your family," said Rabolt. "So it was completely new and terrifying. Having to go to detox and treatment, it was scary for an 18-year-old kid to go through and do that while everyone else is going on spring break and partying."

An estimated 11,000 Delawareans are addicted to drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers, and Denn has said the state isn't spending enough to control the situation. The state has a total of just 200 beds in its treatment facilities.

"We'll get them into a detox facility for a week or so; if they're lucky, they can get into another facility for another couple of weeks, but that's it. Unless they have a family that is wealthy enough to send them to another state outside of Delaware with a longer term program and pay for it out of pocket and be able to logistically leave the state for an extended period of time, they're back on their own, in most cases," said Denn. "In almost every instance, they're on their own."

In his Fiscal Year 2019 budget presentation to the General Assembly's Joint Finance Committee, Denn requested that $4 million in economic development funds be used to incentivize new addiction treatment facilities in the state. With a surplus in revenues, he said even more could be spent towards combating the opioid epidemic.

Denn said Delaware's current treatment plan, which is often, a week-long detoxification program and medication like Suboxone, isn't enough.

"Opioid addiction is not fixed in seven days; it's not usually fixed in 30 days, and that many people with addictions need more intensive help to get well," Denn said. "They need to be in a sober living facility, or they need to be in a longer-term residential treatment facility."

Years into the opioid epidemic, this type of treatment still isn't available in Delaware.

Rabolt, who's now 25, believes, had a recovery high school existed in Delaware, he might've been able to stave off his addiction a lot sooner.

"I probably would've benefited from a recovery high school because they get it," Rabolt said. "They understand pieces about recovery that other schools can't possibly understand, and they have the right processes and protocols in place to focus on a student's recovery more so than anything else."

Since he was 18, Rabolt was able to stay in state and attended the MeadowWood psychiatric and addiction treatment facility near New Castle; he also received addiction counseling at Pace, along Kirkwood Highway. Delaware has no residential treatment centers for youth, intensifying the need for a recovery high school.

"I was kind of on the fast-track with treatment...because I needed to finish school and go to college," he said. "I had a couple days, I would use...and that was it...I didn't go through treatment and use again afterwards," said Rabolt.

But that was in large part due to the family supports he had in place.

"I don't think it even would've been possible [without my family]; there's no way," he said.

The last time he used was prom night. He graduated and has been clean and sober six-and-a-half years--with the exception of some Nyquil here and there when he's really sick.

"It's kind of surreal. In the beginning it was so meaningful--and it still really is. At this point, it's kind of progressed past the point where it's about me; I'm really grateful that I am in recovery, but it's more so about helping other people get the same thing, because I realize looking back how lucky I am."

He now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and works for the nonprofit, Association of Recovery in Higher Education, which helps college students recover from alcohol and drug abuse.

"Delaware really needs the recovery high school, and even just overall, to step up the level of recovery support services for individuals throughout the state," he said.  "Not only is it the right thing to do, but individuals who get into recovery have such a higher trajectory of personal and career success, it's win win for everybody, if you get people into recovery.  It avoids death, gets them healthy, gets their families healthy, helps the economy, helps society."  

Some of his friends from high school have been lucky enough to recovered too. Others are still abusing, and some even died from overdoses. He knows that could've been his own outcome, if he hadn't gotten clean. 

"I don't think there's be a life, and if there was, it would be more about survival than thriving and trying to do good."

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.