Austin Rice’s Story

Austin Rice knew better. Watching people overdose while in high school in Colchester, he saw how seductive and addicting opioids can be. Studying chemistry in college, he learned how they can ravage the mind and body.

In the end, he knew, but he didn’t care.

Rice was 21 when a car accident left him with broken ribs and a dislocated knee and shoulder. The doctors gave him Oxycontin and Percocet, both opioids, for the pain. When they started weaning him off the prescriptions, he couldn’t handle the persistent pain, especially when he returned to work at a Colchester net factory. He decided to see if heroin might help.

“I sniffed it and found it was a cheaper and faster high,” he said. “I did more, and then started injecting it.”

Less than a year later, Rice experienced the first of many overdoses, although he remembers little of it. It’s the overdose a few months later that he recalls, detailing the situation in a calm, almost disembodied voice while sitting in the common room of Stonehaven, Rushford’s extended residential treatment program in Portland.

“I was laying on a comforter at my mother’s house after doing a mix of cocaine and heroin,” he said. “It felt like the comforter was coming in around me, swallowing me. Then, it felt like I was screaming but there was no sound coming out of me.”

Rice, 32, later learned that his mother had to break down his bedroom door to help him. He woke up after three days at Backus Hospital feeling “frail and awful.” The overdose of cocaine and heroin caused brain damage so severe that he couldn’t make new memories.

“They were repeating things to me over and over, but I couldn’t remember them,” he said. “It took two months, and a stay in a Pennsylvania hospital for brain injuries, before I started remembering bits of what happened the day before.”

The long-term memories, he says, trickled back in “bits and pieces” and his math skills, key for a chemistry student, are still affected.

Within two weeks of his return from the hospital after the overdose, though, Rice was getting high again. It’s a cycle he’d repeat in different locations for almost a decade. He’d think a little wouldn’t harm him, or convince himself he could go through the withdrawals on his own, instead of in a medically-supervised setting. It never worked for long.

He took heroin and cocaine. He discovered — and enjoyed — the calming effect of benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium that numb the nervous system. He’d contemplate sobriety and then party to rid his house of all the stashes of drugs beforehand, finding himself in worse shape. Even when on methadone, a legal opioid substitute used to wean addicts off heroin, it never felt clean.

“It didn’t give me the feeling of sobriety. I wanted to get off of everything,” said Rice, who has the chemical structure of LSD tattooed on the back of his right calf.

That proved problematic when coming off the benzos, which caused small and grand mal seizures. Often, he’d wake up confused as doctors or firefighters peered down at him. There were periods of homelessness and jail time stemming from drunk driving charges and subsequent probation violations.

  • “It felt like I was screaming but there was no sound coming out of me.”

    - Austin Rice

There were equally extended periods, however, in which he’d go to work, often laying tile in Florida with his father, and make good money. He bought a house and helped both his mother and grandmother when they were sick. The drugs, however, always lingered on life’s periphery.

“One time, I detoxed on my own from methadone and told myself I’d never get physically addicted to anything again,” Rice said, the fingers of his left hand drumming a staccato beat on the arm of his chair. He looks up, a black beard crinkling as he smiles broadly. “Yeah.”

After spending most of 2016 clean, he recalls thinking about his “old chemistry days” and found himself on the internet, researching fentanyl and other substances that could get him high legally and be delivered right to his door. He placed order after order, testing each delivery in case sellers laced the drugs with more dangerous chemicals.

His use “started off being manageable,” but Rice admits he was soon cooking methamphetamine and then overdosed on a batch of fentanyl from China. “The state troopers thought it was a suicide attempt,” he says quietly, running a hand through his short black hair, “so they had me held on a three day psychiatric hold. I wanted to get clean but I knew I had 10 more grams at home waiting for me.”

Perhaps more upsetting than his history of overdoses and seizures, however, was watching his younger brother overdose. Rice stopped using, but, like most experiences in his dizzying cycle of drug use, it was only temporary. Benzos, he says, are seductive and made him feel like he could do anything.

Driving under the influence of benzos in Connecticut in late April, he got into a car accident. He spent two weeks in the Institute of Living, then went to McAuliffe Center. From there, he was accepted at Stonehaven, where he finally felt “cautiously optimistic” about achieving long-term sobriety.