At Bonfire house, men seek a future that’s drug and alcohol free

Last modified: 7/6/2015 7:35:30 PM
A wave of relief washed over Tyler Counter as he sat handcuffed in the back of a Concord cruiser outside Steeplegate Mall last August.

After two months on the run from drug charges, Counter realized his arrest meant he no longer had to hide. His only choice was to get clean.

The 29-year-old Concord man has been clean for almost a year. After an 8-month stint in jail for dealing heroin, he went first to rehab and then to live at Bonfire Recovery Services House, an all-male sober transitional living house in Dover. He got a job, attended 12-step meetings regularly, and found a large group of new friends, the men that he lived with at Bonfire.

But on June 23, Counter was sentenced to five years in the New Hampshire State Prison for the charge he caught last August: possessing and selling heroin.

His new life would have to wait.

A life of addiction

Counter was addicted to opiates for more than 10 years, ever since his doctor prescribed them after a car accident when he was 16. He was prescribed four, 40 milligram OxyContin pills per day.

“I didn’t think of it because I didn’t know about addiction,” he said.

He took the drug for a year, and when his doctors wanted to take him off, he was surprised to find he couldn’t live without it.

So began his new life of using and dealing prescription drugs and eventually, heroin. It’s a period Counter describes as a “storm of resentment and fear.”

At Bonfire, Counter was making strides in his recovery. He considered his new job a huge accomplishment, given his record.

“This place has saved my life,” Counter said when he was interviewed in May. “The perspective I have on my life now is just so amazing. Before, all my choices and my decisions were based out of fear.”

The other men sitting in the room with him, Ted Thanas, Jack O’Connor and Nolan Hellen, nodded in agreement when Counter said the program saved his life.

“I owe them my life,” Hellen chimed in. “I’m so blessed to be here today.”

Bonfire Recovery

Men arrive to Bonfire having already detoxed from drugs and alcohol, and stay for varying lengths of time. Staff members ask them to commit to four months minimum, and stays can last up to a year. They get a bed, transportation to work if they need it, access to 12-step meetings in the house and case management from the staff. The men pay $1,200 per month for the cost of their beds and the additional services provided.

The men in the program may come and go as they please until the 11:30 p.m. curfew. There are other rules: if twice-weekly urine screens test positive for substances, it means removal from the program. The men are also required to get a job or be looking for one. Laying around all day is not tolerated in the house, say Bonfire co-founder John Eldredge and Case Manager Dean LeMire.

“The biggest hurdle to recovery is inaction,” LeMire said. “We’re not the type of people who can stagnate. If we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward.”

Staff members are always at the house, but it’s clear many of the men at Bonfire consider them more like friends or family than supervisors.

Recovery is personal for both Eldredge and LeMire. They and other staff members at Bonfire are also in long-term recovery, which they say is key to establishing trust and understanding between them and the men they are trying to help.

Where others see someone who has relapsed multiple times as a lost case, LeMire and Eldredge say those are the people they want to work with the most.

“The more beaten up somebody is, the better they’re going to get,” Eldredge said.

Peer support

The men at Bonfire say this peer-support system works well for them.

“It’s awesome; it’s like a sober frat house,” said Hellen, who is 24 years old and from Portland, Maine. Boisterous, with a loud, easy laugh, Hellen is at Bonfire because “my brain was overheated from too much cocaine, I couldn’t even talk.”

Even though he tried heroin, Hellen said he would always just fall asleep when he did it. “I never really got it,” he said. “I’m that up kind of guy.”

Jack O’Connor and Ted Thanas sat next to each other in the room with Hellen and Counter. O’Connor is at the house for alcohol and opiates. Thanas used drugs including crack cocaine, OxyContin and heroin.

They occasionally broke into fits of laughter at inside jokes, or whenever Thanas poked fun at himself.

At one point, he passed around his iPhone. On the screen is a selfie Thanas took when he was using. His face is skeletal, his cheeks sunken.

“That guy is killing it!” he said as the rest of the guys burst into laughter. Now, Thanas has filled out and looks healthy, a different person from the man in the picture.

Staying clean isn’t easy, but it’s simple, O’Connor says. A lot of the guys at Bonfire came thinking they needed some sort of fancy cure to get clean, but really what it takes is re-learning how to live your life, he adds.

It starts in the morning with making your bed. The rest of the day follows from there: cooking breakfast, going to work, meeting with your sponsor, going to 12-step meetings, meditating, praying, doing yoga, socializing. Many of the men at Bonfire vape sweet-smelling tobacco, the favorite pastime of the whole house.

The 12-step program is one that is based in spirituality. While some newcomers are uncomfortable with the concept, the founders and participants at Bonfire are firm that their program is not religious and is not trying to impose any one brand of spirituality.

“We need to humble ourselves,” Thanas said. “You take that will and hand it over to your higher power.” That higher power could be God, it could be meditation, it could be the friends that surround you.

Living with other guys who all have the same story helps them stay accountable, the men say. It’s also formed some deep friendships.

“We keep each other in check, but we have fun about it. We’re actually living life again,” Hellen says.

Most of the guys have hopes for the future, but for now, they take it day by day.

“I would just like to be stable before I leave here,” O’Connor said. “Things have a way of working themselves out when you do the right thing.”

Prison time

Counter said his goodbyes to his friends on June 22, his last night at Bonfire house.

As he stood outside the courthouse the next day, smoking his last cigarette as a free man, Counter seemed to have come to terms with his incarceration, and said he was hopeful he could enroll in 12-step and other recovery programs while he did his time.

“I’m putting it in the hands of God,” Counter said, adding that the skills he’s learned at Bonfire will help him stay sober in prison, which he knows is not a clean environment. At a recent public forum on addiction, Dr. Jeffrey Fetter, the chief medical director for the state Department of Corrections said New Hampshire’s prisons are “awash” in smuggled drugs, including the maintenance drug Suboxone. Suboxone, which comes in a tiny dissolvable film, is easily concealed.

Counter had hoped he would get the minimum prison sentence of three years, but in court, he was handed five, in part because he had sold drugs rather than just possessing them.

As the judge finished reading his verdict, Counter put his hands behind his back, letting the bailiffs handcuff him and lead him out of the courtroom.

He has dreams for the future. In May, when asked what he wants to do, Counter said he plans to go to back to school someday and build a life for himself.

“I want to start my family,” he said. “I want the American dream, as long as it’s drug and alcohol free.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen)

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