By William K. Alcorn
Sitting in a Franklin County Jail cell, Michael R. Senchak was despondent.
So deep into his addictions to prescription drugs and heroin, he decided he had only one way out: killing himself.
Something his strict Catholic grandmother told him, however, most likely saved his life.
“She said anyone who committed suicide would go to hell,” he said. “That stopped me.”
The irony of his son’s situation was not lost on his father, Michael S. Senchak, who is executive director of the Mahoning County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.
After a “tough-love” session with his parents, treatment began at area drug-services agencies.
Today, the most important date in the younger Senchak’s life is not his birth date or even his upcoming wedding date; it is Nov. 21, 2007, what he calls his “sobriety day.”
When he and his father were interviewed together recently, the younger Senchak could tick off the specific duration of his sobriety down to the exact years, months and even days.
At 32, Michael is now a clean-cut, 175-pound Youngstown State University business administration major planning to marry his fianc e, Kelley Geiser, also a YSU student, next May, right after both of them graduate.
But before he finally went into treatment, he weighed 127 pounds and had seriously considered tying a jail sheet around his neck.
His trek down the road to addiction began innocently enough at 14 by having a few beers with a group of friends. That escalated into experimentation with marijuana and, then, hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“For adolescents, it’s fun and games and peer pressure and fitting in. That’s what happened to me. I never found my niche in school. I wasn’t a jock or a 4.0 student,” he said. “Then, without realizing it, you have crossed the line from abusing drugs to addiction.”
Michael began experimenting with prescription drugs such as Vicodin and Percocet, both painkillers, while still a student at Boardman High School. He would have graduated in 1997, but dropped out during his senior year to get his GED (General Educational Development) degree.
“I got the pills from friends. Once teens figure out what drugs can do for them, they find them in the homes of their friends, parents or grandparents or wherever,” he said.
“We became pretty good manipulators. I’d snort whole bottles of Ritalin [a stimulant]. The doctors had no clue,” he said.
“You can also fool yourself. You think you are better than the guy who was snorting in school. But pretty soon you are all huddled in a bathroom someplace,” he said.
“I was just out of high school, 19 or 20, when the OxyContin explosion hit. The pills weren’t prescribed for us, but we’d find people who had them,” he said.
At about 26, he morphed into heroin.
“Heroin became cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs,” Michael said.
The wake-up call began for Michael when he watched addicted friends being hauled away in body bags.
“It makes you think for a moment. I think realization of consequences of addiction is a process that happens over time ... legal trouble, lost marriages, jobs, homes, cars, money, family relationships, and friends dying,” he said.
Those consequences were made starkly real to him by his father and his mom, Jeanne Senchak of Canfield.
“On Nov. 20, 2007, my dad fired me from my job, kicked me out of the house, made my car disappear and drained my bank account.”
“I was 28. I had nothing. I had no other choice,” he said.
Michael went to Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic in Youngstown for two weeks as an in-patient, which he said played a crucial role in his detox and recovery; and then to Meridian Services’ Donofrio Men’s Center for 90 days.
“I was in treatment for 104 days, and I needed every one of them,” he said.
He said family members are hurt by the user’s addiction. They believe an addict must not care about them.
“For an addict, drug use is not a choice. It doesn’t matter who you step on along the way. You rob friends and family. You target the easiest people first,” he said.
“It’s a disease that affects the individual and the entire family,” said his dad, no stranger to drug addiction’s impact on families.
He has spent nearly nine years at the Mahoning County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board, where he has spent the past six months as its executive director.
“My son, he did the worst of the worst. He has worked really hard to get where he is now. We’re very proud of him,” he said.
The younger Senchak said he is living proof that treatment and tough love work.
“The tough love shows you the consequences of addiction, and treatment shows you a way out. It’s not easy. I was in treatment seven times ... what they call a ‘retread,’” he said. “I never want to sleep on another plastic mattress.”
He said hearing the crinkling of the plastic mattress cover takes him back to the misery of withdrawal.
Michael said his solution for staying sober is taking one day at a time and prioritizing what is important to him: God, Alcoholics Anonymous, family and service to community.
“Without the first two, I can’t have the last two, he said.