One summer night in July, naked, high on crystal methamphetamine and living under a boardwalk in Long Island, NY, Bruce Strazza walked into the Atlantic Ocean with the intent on swimming until he could go no further. God had taken his beloved brother, he had a drunk for a dad, his parents divorced. The drugs had Bruce stealing from people and hurting everyone he loved. And his best thinking that night, almost six years ago, was to go into the ocean and not make it back.
“My best thinking was that if I swam long enough and far enough, I would get tired enough that I couldn’t be saved,” Bruce recalled. “I used to lie about my story and say I had an epiphany out there that I wanted to live, fought my way back to the shoreline and changed my life.”
“That’s a lie. I was going under and really couldn’t catch my breath. I woke up naked on the shoreline – I don’t know how I got there.”
But Bruce does know how he got there that night on the beach.
Marijuana and alcohol by fourth grade.
PCP by seventh grade.
Quaaludes in high school.
“You’re going to end up like dad,” Bruce’s eldest sister, Laura, told him, over and over again.
Two DWIs at 18.
Ecstasy and cocaine by 19.
Then, one fateful night after Bruce returned from working in restaurants abroad, crack.
“I go to Europe and come home with a lot of money,” Bruce said. “One night we’re partying and I gave a dude $200 for an eight ball. He came back with a rock that looked like cocaine. I went to smash it into lines, and he said, ‘no, that’s crack.’ I said, ‘What is crack?’
“It consumed me from that moment on.”
What started in elementary school as smoking marijuana with his older brother, Mark, had progressed into an addiction so veracious Bruce lost all the money he’d made in Europe, left his true friends for a seedy bunch and had gotten so strung out he knew the future was death, jail or an institution. But what he didn’t know was that soon he’d lose the closest person to him.
“I was 26 years old, running a restaurant in Pasadena and got the call on a Father’s Day Sunday from my friend Karen.”
Mark was 33 and dead of a drug overdose.
A few days before that call, Bruce had found his brother outside of the Mount Royal Tavern in Baltimore City, digging through garbage for pizza to feed his dog.
Bruce turned to crack and alcohol worse than ever after Mark’s death. He lost his job, got a new one. In February of 1997 someone at work suggested treatment.
“You don’t know me,” Bruce responded. The guy at work said, ‘I know you because I was you.”
Bruce agreed to treatment, and went to Cornerstone Medical Center in New York City, a lock down facility where he met people hiding from drug dealers, dying from AIDS, learned about HIV and other hazards of drug addiction.
“It was educational,” Bruce said.
He came out, stayed sober for more than a decade. Went back to school, got Microsoft certified, opened a computer business. He also shattered his tailbone and got prescribed opioids, which he wound up selling to a neighbor.
“I’ve got about eight years clean, I’ve worked the steps, I’m sponsoring men and I started selling narcotics, and didn’t see any harm in it,” said Bruce. In hindsight, that’s when his relapse started.
Bruce moved to Charleston on a business opportunity and fell in love with a southern belle who broke his heart in March 2010. By Cinco de Mayo, he turned to Patron to ease that pain. His addiction took off.
“I went to the corners, got an eight ball of crack, a drug dealer’s phone number, went back and cooked up that cocaine like I never stopped,” Bruce said. Then he started sniffing pain pills to come down off the crack, which turned into sniffing heroin, until one day while partying with a friend, he found intravenous heroin.
“She went into the bathroom and I went in after her, saw drops of blood – I knew what that was from my brother,” he said. Bruce then watched her inject heroin, and from the look on her face, he wanted to feel that too.
“I told her I wanted to try it. She said no, so I told her the drugs and money stayed but she could leave – so she got a fresh needle and shot me up for the first time — after warning me that my life would never be the same from that point forward.”
From that first shot, Bruce progressed to injecting cocaine and then speedballs, which is cocaine and heroin mixed together. Things spiraled down from there.
Bruce wound up bouncing around several states, doctor shopping across the Mid-Atlantic, making large sums of money selling his prescription opioids on the street. One day he gets off at the wrong train stop in NYC, nods off at a bar, and has a fateful encounter with a Dominican who introduces him to crystal methamphetamine.
The crystal meth has him in psychosis, picking at imaginary bugs and hiding from shadow people. He blows up his kitchen cooking the drug, burns his face.
He winds up living on the boardwalk, in a sand dune hut where Bruce is pretty sure the shadow people can’t find him. It is from here that he walks into the ocean that summer night, ready to die.
After Bruce washes up on the beach, he calls his oldest sister, who brings him to the Eastern Shore where a second sister, Eileen lives. It’s here where Bruce meets his Mickey Mantle, Charlie R., then a peer support counselor at the Talbot County Health Department. Charlie gets Bruce into treatment.
After a 21-day stay, Bruce came to Easton and entered Fresh Start, a local men’s recovery house. He buys a guitar, finds God, goes to three 12-step meetings a day, prays with an old friend at a nearby coffee house. A local minister hears the guitar and asks Bruce to come sing for them at church.
“She sent me a song, David Crowder’s ‘Come As You Are,’ and I fell in love with it. That was my journey of spirituality.”
“So lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
So lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are”
Bruce meets Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble, who needs help fighting the opioid crisis. Bruce becomes Gamble’s go to, often arriving on-scene with Narcan before emergency responders. And not only has Bruce helped many who also suffer from substance use disorder, he regularly speaks at Gamble’s request.
This year, Bruce will speak to local middle and high school students as part of Talbot Goes Purple. Giving back, he said, is the opposite of how he was while using.
“Addiction is so self-centered and so self-seeking,” he said “I wanted to be like the people at Christ Church, who serve so selflessly and that’s attractive. I am that person now. YES, is my answer – how can I help.”