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Second Chances

Columbine Survivor Overcomes PTSD, Jail and Heroin Addiction to Turn Life Around

Nineteen years ago, Nicholas Antonio faced the worst day of his life -- the Columbine massacre. A straight-A student with dreams of graduating from the United States Air Force Academy, everything changed in an instant on April 20, 1999.

“I was in the cafeteria when it started; eating pizza with my girlfriend,” recalled Antonio. A teacher ran through the cafeteria and told everyone to get down. “I initially thought it was one of the best senior pranks ever! Boy, was I wrong.”

Trapped in a bathroom, the 15-year-old waited for death or discovery. “I’ve been haunted ever since. I couldn’t go back to Columbine. I was so afraid to be there,” said Antonio.

Post-Columbine, he experienced severe delusions, fear, lack of sleep and depression. “It was impossible to focus on school work.” Because his grades deteriorated he lost his position on the football team, where his father was the coach. “It was my outlet and the only thing I excelled in. Then all the things I once loved to do, I didn’t enjoy anymore. I was up all night and couldn’t sleep.” Friends started committing suicide. Antonio attended 17 funerals in a 2-year period.

“I was severely depressed and diagnosed with PTSD, bipolar and severe anxiety triggered by the school shooting,” said Antonio. His psychological issues affected his entire family. His mother and father divorced within 1 ½ years of the shooting and his younger sister didn’t get the attention she deserved. Antonio transferred to Chatfield High School, was tutored to finish his freshman year, then he dropped out and earned his GED the beginning of his sophomore year.

Painful Memories

“I tried to go back to Columbine, but I couldn’t be around a lot of people. I felt I couldn’t save my classmates. I didn’t want to get close to anyone because I thought they’d just pass away,” he recalled.

His parents got him a therapist and even sent him to Centennial Peaks for an inpatient mental health assessment. His therapist was a believer in “facing one’s fears.” So, Antonio went back to Columbine, which was a disaster. Unfortunately, someone set off a fire alarm, which for Antonio triggered more than just a panic attack, and that was it for him. He refused therapy after that and turned to drugs instead.

“I started using cocaine. It made me feel everything was okay. I felt sociable and more normal. As destructive as it was, it helped,” said Antonio.

After cocaine, he turned to methamphetamines and heroin. “I never wanted to be like that. But I wanted to escape and something to make me feel okay. I did meth every day for 10 years and nothing ever got better.”

Then, one morning he blinked and “I was 32. Where’d my 20s go?” asked Antonio.

A Wake-up Call

The turning point was jail. “It allowed me to face my feelings and emotions head-on regardless if I wanted to or not. I got clean,” said Antonio.

As soon as he went through withdrawal he realized that he self-medicated to escape. “It was difficult to deal with all the stuff that had piled up. I had to feel what I was feeling,” explained Antonio. “Self-medicating is like putting a Band-Aid on the pain and reapplying it over and over again… never removing it and letting the wound heal.”

While in jail, another inmate told him about a few options that might be appropriate for him. Options that inmates must request and initiate. “You have to ask for help,” said Antonio.

The two options were Drug Court or Wellness Court, which are both types of probation, but different. Wellness Court includes random drug testing, one-on-one therapy sessions, group sessions every week and weekly court dates. “If successful, you’re done. If you fail, you get whatever sentence you were originally given,” said Antonio.

Looking at 20 years in jail for motor vehicle and identity theft in Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Douglas counties, Antonio was interested in getting help and potentially reducing his sentence. He applied for Drug Court but was declined. “That was a real low point,” said Antonio. But a few days later he found out that he was accepted into Wellness Court.

Second and Third Chances

“I was fortunate. After they discovered my mental health issues, they gave me a second chance,” Antonio recalled.

Unfortunately for Antonio, he relapsed and used heroin again. “Facing my demons was really stressful and all the constant activities that the court had me doing was just overwhelming.”

He went back to Wellness Court and admitted his lapse. “They didn’t throw away the key,” said Antonio. Instead, they realized he needed something to help him with his cravings.

For Antonio, quitting while not easy was easier than staying sober. “It was time to buckle down and get the help I knew I needed to face the trauma of Columbine.”

Getting Help

Wellness Court required Antonio go to University of Colorado College of Nursing’s Sheridan Health Services and receive medication-assisted treatment from the clinic where they provide an FDA-approved medication, Suboxone, to treat opiate addiction. “Suboxone helps to relieve withdrawal symptoms and to decrease cravings and is unique because its potential to be abused is reduced. It helps curb the cravings and makes it easier to detoxify,” said Mary Kay Meintzer, Licensed Addiction Counselor and Behavioral Health director at CU Sheridan Health Services. “But Suboxone can’t work on its own. The patient really needs a variety of other supports, including concurrent behavioral health therapy, to grow the tools needed for recovery.”

Suboxone combines two medications – Buprenorphine and Naloxone. The first drug is an opioid, the second drug Naloxone blocks the effects of opioid medication, including pain relief or feelings of well-being that can lead to opioid abuse.

“It puts opiates in your system, faking it out. Making your body think you’re consuming heroin. But I don’t get high on it,” said Antonio. According to Meintzer, “Some patients start tapering off of Suboxone, but everyone’s different.”

Antonio said, “I don’t want to be on it for the rest of my life, but I know I need more therapy and have to have enough tools to be able to overcome the PTSD.”

In the meantime, he’s working on his addiction and himself. He recognizes that certain triggers make him relive and remember that day at Columbine. Triggers that he tries to avoid. CU Nursing’s Sheridan Health Services helps him maintain his sobriety by providing Suboxone, support and other necessary health services including dental procedures.

“A small portion of what our clinic does is help individuals with substance use disorders work toward recovery,” said Meintzer. But that’s not all the clinic does.

In addition to behavioral health services, the clinic provides traditional health services for the community, including pediatrics and primary care services, and even has a full-service pharmacy and dental clinic. “It’s a one-stop shop. The idea is that if those services are available in someone's primary care home, they're much more likely to utilize them. Also, when it comes to substance use disorders, it decreases the stigma of seeking that type of care because they're really just going to their primary care provider's office. They're not going to a specialty clinic where everyone will know what type of treatment that they're getting,” said Meintzer.

“I understand how big a chance the system gave me. I’m thankful I spent time in jail and understand how selfish I’ve been. I’m so grateful to Sheridan Health Services,” said Antonio.

Advice Antonio has for others who are dealing with trauma or are at the peak of addiction, “It’s okay. You feel you will never get over it. It won’t be like that forever. Take it from me, pain and sadness go away a lot quicker so long as you stay away from mood-altering chemicals. While drugs take away the pain and sadness they also take away the joy.”