In the fifth grade, Donald McDonald began experimenting with tobacco, and by the time he was in middle school, he began having the occasional drink and smoking pot.
Those typical pre-teen actions led to a daily ritual of smoking and drinking by high school graduation.
McDonald has been in recovery for nearly 14 years. He will share his story with hundreds who attend the SCOPE 4 Hope Opioid Summit Sept. 12 and sponsored by the Sampson County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Raised in Asheville, McDonald says he joined the service after high school and moved to Raleigh with plans of becoming an actor and moving to New York or Los Angeles. Fate led him to love, he started a family and never left Raleigh. Today, he and his wife have four children and one grandchild.
During his high school days, McDonald says he began showing symptoms of Bipolar Disorder and medicated himself with drugs and alcohol.
“I didn’t understand then that I was smoking to feel normal,” McDonald said about his escalating use.
During the 1980s, while serving in the United States Navy, McDonald said he easily fit in with society’s strong drinking culture, and was highly respected by his peers for having such a high tolerance for the booze.
“However, daily binge drinking is not sustainable, so I ended up asking for help,” he shared. “Over the course of my career, the Navy sent me to three levels of treatment. I served honorably and thrived in recovery, but fell into an extreme depressive state at my last duty station after divorcing my first wife compounded with the stress of my mission at the time. The Navy asked me to leave, but gave me an honorable discharge on the way out the door.”
Over the course of the next 12 years, McDonald said he continued going through the same cycle of wellness and recovery, followed by illness and alcohol and drug use.
“During that time, I married, went to school to become a teacher, fathered four children,” he added. “When I was well, I was amazing. When I was unwell, I was heart breaking.”
In October of 2004, McDonald said he hit another roadblock.
“My wife had had enough and I couldn’t look myself in the mirror,” he said. “I tried one more treatment event. Fortunately, I had an employer who gave me a month off and insurance that paid and a treatment setting that recognized my co-occurring mental disorder. This was the game-changer, I think.”
Once he began receiving psychiatric care, McDonald says he felt he was on level playing field, now able to manage his mood disorder, and begin embracing the recovery lifestyle long enough to begin changing inside.
“I found my people through peer recovery mutual aid meetings, and I found my purpose through work and education, and I found myself through time,” McDonald added. “There are many pathways of recovery and all are cause for celebration. But, I believe that effective recovery pathways contain three common core elements: community, purpose, autonomy”
His advice — first, find people, a group of fellows to share the recovery journey; second, discover your gifts, strengths, and figure out what your mission in life is; and finally, find yourselves.
Six years into recovery, McDonald says he knew he wanted to help others find freedom and wellness for living just as he found. He got a job as a security guard at an opioid treatment program and began studying addiction counseling at community college. He then had an internship at The Healing Place of Wake County that led to him working there as a case manager for five years. Today, he holds a master of social work from the UNC School of Social Work.
“We are experiencing the most current manifestation of the alcohol and drug problem human kind has lived with for millennia,” McDonald said. “The opioid epidemic is the most deadly public health crisis in American history, measured by a staggering body count.”
Before today, McDonald says America saw decades of the crack and meth epidemic, which ultimately caused an overflow in the prisons, decimated communities and shattered families — much of what is being seen through today’s epidemic.
As for someone personally facing addiction, McDonald has advice.
“It’s not your fault,” he shared. “You are not alone. There is a way out. We get well. We get better than well. You deserve to be happy.”
Those who are family members of someone facing addiction, McDonald says they aren’t alone.
“One in seven of us will experience substance use disorder in our lifetime and our families come along for the roller-coaster ride,” he shared. “You do not have to go through this alone. There is help for you too.”
Today, McDonald serves as the executive director for Addiction Professionals of North Carolina. He brings a great deal of experience in outreach, communications, collaboration, education, advocacy, and policy to the table. He has held previous roles of teacher, case manager, counselor, and social worker. Most recently, he worked across North Carolina educating communities about substance use disorders and recovery oriented systems of care as director of advocacy and education at Recovery Communities of North Carolina.
“Together, we eliminate the stigma surrounding substance use disorder,” McDonald added. “Together, we demand what we deserve. Together, we are stronger.”
Reach Kristy D. Carter at 910-592-8137, ext. 2588. Follow us on Twitter at @SamsponInd. Like us on Facebook.