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The long road to redemption

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Zeb Williams speaks at Taboo Talks; Let's Talk About Drugs (Robert Lewis / The Signpost)

Zeb Williams shared his struggle to overcome addiction as part of the Diversity and Inclusive Programs’ Taboo Talks on Oct. 22. Williams emotionally detailed his initial experimentation with narcotics, his use of stronger drugs and the steps he took to overcome his dependence on drugs. His story offered guidance for others on how to come to terms with their own or a friend or family member’s addiction.

“All of us are touched by addiction in some way,” Williams said. “There may be a loved one or someone in our lives who is dealing with addiction.”

Williams said he was not born into hard circumstances. He was the youngest child in a typical upper-middle-class, white, LDS-observant family. However, Williams felt he was a little bit different and that he struggled to fit in with his peers.

“I am not sure if it was social anxiety or me being a sensitive, self-conscious little kid,” Williams said. “But I remember always feeling that struggle to fit in. I was always on the outside.”

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People gather to hear Zeb Williams speak at Taboo Talks; Let's Talk About Drugs (Robert Lewis / The Signpost)

It was the feeling of social isolation, and a desire to change that pushed Williams to do anything he could to try and fit in. He dove into a variety of extracurricular activities and sports, gaining friends along the way. He could not, however, shake the feeling that he was different.

“I got bored. I got sick of trying to compete with my friends,” Williams said. “I wanted to just be me. So, I started partying with a bunch of other ‘outcasts.'”

Williams was 15 when he first started binge drinking.

“The first time I had alcohol, I was like ‘Ah, there is my solution,'” Williams said. “All of a sudden, I was not nervous. I felt like I fit in. I felt confident with the girls. It seemed to solve all of my problems.”

The initial “liberation” was not enough for him, just as it is never enough for other addicts. He continued to party and drink on the weekends. A few months later, he had the opportunity to try a new substance, Oxycontin. Williams became hooked almost immediately; for him, the buzz the substance offered surpassed that of alcohol.

Soon, Williams said he went from using the drug on weekends to using every day. He and a friend eventually dedicated weekends to driving around northern Utah to buy as much of the drug as possible.

When law enforcement made purchasing opioid medications too difficult, Williams turned to heroin, as it was cheaper than Oxycontin.

“I never thought of myself as somebody who would do heroin,” Williams said. “I justified it in my mind.”

Compounding his struggle, Williams said he realized he was gay when he was 16, and he was afraid of coming out to his deeply religious family. To cope with the anxiety and religious guilt, he dove deeper into drug use. In retrospect, Williams recognizes this time of his life as a turning point for the worse.

“I felt hopeless. By this time, the delusion had also set in,” Williams said. “I did not recognize I had a problem. Addicts live in true delusion, even if they admit to using.”

Williams’ first run-in with the law came when he and his mother mistakenly took the other’s phone. When his mother received a text on William’s phone from his drug dealer, his parents immediately notified authorities. The police handcuffed Williams in the parking lot of Ogden High.

The incident scared Williams. Shortly after, he decided to return to his religious faith for stability, and he stayed sober. However, he downplayed his substance abuse to his parents and suffered through the withdrawals alone. His denial was still present. During this time of religious revival in his life, Williams planned on going serving on an LDS mission.

“But I had my first gay experience shortly before leaving,” Williams said. “That complicated things.”

He decided to forgo the mission and came out to his parents instead, to which they poorly responded.

“My father said, ‘You can stay here and let me beat the fag out of you, or you can go to counseling,'” Williams said.

Williams went to an LDS conversion therapist for eight months. Therapy drove Williams into depression as it portrayed homosexuality as something broken and requiring repair. Williams eventually moved out of his parents’ house, stopped his conversion therapy and got a job.

He took advantage of his new independence to grow his social life — this included the bar and club scene.

“It is not just the gay culture,” Williams said. “Anyone who is 21 is going to go out and be a part of the bar scene in their social life. The problem is, I was soon having up to eight drinks, and I was doing cocaine.”

Williams also began to abuse the Adderall his psychiatrist has prescribed for him. To counteract the effects of the Adderall, William’s received prescriptions for Valium and Ambien. He continued to drink in excess and use cocaine and opiates whenever they were available.

His drug usage eventually led to him losing his employment. Williams once again fell into hopelessness. A devastating break-up with a boyfriend drove him back into heroin use. He also turned to meth.

“That’s when the psychosis set in,” Williams said. “I lost my housing. I lost any type of invitation or relationship from my family. They had come to accept I was gay, but they could not bear to see me destroying myself with drugs.”

Broken, alone and depressed, Williams resigned himself to being a lost cause.

However, a friend — who had suspected from Facebook that Williams was going through a difficult time — decided to help. This friend would often drive from Salt Lake to Ogden to find Williams and take him to dinner. Williams rarely had money for food.

“He kept me alive during a time where I would have killed myself,” Williams said. “He helped me to start believing in myself again.”

Williams found new employment. However, his new boss offered him an ultimatum: get help or be fired. As Williams mulled over his decision, his parents offered to let him back into the house on the condition he attend substance abuse counseling.

Williams’ older brother — with whom he had never really had a close relationship — took Williams out to breakfast, offered more words of encouragement and personally took him to check in for treatment.

Williams found another source of support in his local LDS bishop, who helped pay for the cost of his treatment.

“He knew of the choices I had made,” Williams said. “But he still loved me enough to pay for my treatment.”

After checking in for treatment, Williams left the facility and went on a two-week drug binge, coming dangerously close to an overdose death. His brother reached out and encouraged him to try treatment again.

Group therapy was a revelation for Williams. He was able to see fellow addicts who were overcoming their addictions as well as those who were mirror images of himself.

“You are confronted face-to-face with what you look like,” Williams said. “It was sad but also encouraging. You get to see people who get their spark for life back.”

Williams cannot adequately describe the pain and sickness of drug withdrawal but likens it to a horrible case of the flu. He had to battle insomnia and mood swings. Throughout the whole process, his therapy group and family encouraged him to keep at it. Even during treatment, Williams found himself driving halfway to his dealer’s house, only to catch himself and turn around.

Williams will always remember Nov. 7, 2016 — it was the last day he used. Something was different this time. Instead of getting the expected high, Williams felt some of the peace and wholesomeness he had gained through treatment leaving his body. He felt terrible. It was then that he resolved never to use again. That night, he deleted all his drug dealer contacts from his phone.

He has been sober since. Williams credits the people in his life and the recovery process for his success.

He hopes others will understand that overcoming addiction requires daily goals, a review of one’s shortcomings and — most importantly — an outlook of what one has to offer. He also hopes people will love, support and never give up on their friends and family members who may be addicts.

“It becomes a spiritual solution to a physical problem,” Williams said. “You cannot just stop addictive behavior. You have to replace it with something else.”

Now, Williams works to redeem others from their addiction. He is also grateful to be able to spend time with his boyfriend, his family and his nieces and nephews.

He no longer drinks or does drugs.

He has never been happier.

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