From the outside, Joey Pagano seemed liked the last person in the world who’d end up addicted to drugs.
He came from a good family and grew up in a nice home in Charleroi, a small town 30 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh. He was a Boy Scout and eventually made Eagle Scout — the highest rank one can achieve in scouting.
But life was far from perfect. Joey was bullied relentlessly by his classmates, and the torment took a toll on his self-esteem. “I didn’t like who I was,” he told The Recovery Village in an interview. “I wasn’t happy, didn’t fit in, didn’t want to be me.”
Then, at the age of 17, Joey discovered beer. Drinking a 40 ounce Olde English was the “cool thing to do,” he recalled. When he was drinking, he felt like he finally fit in with the other kids, and his insecurities would melt away. “I got to kind of put on a mask and be someone else.”
Soon, Joey was smoking weed, too. He liked the way marijuana numbed his emotions. It made life easier to endure — at least temporarily.
“I was just getting an Eagle Scout award. I was just in the army doing good for a second. I was just at home. What happened? Well what happened was the normal progression of addiction.” Joey Pagano
At the age of 18, Joey graduated and traded in his Boy Scout uniform for an Army uniform. The Army stationed him in Seattle, where Pagano got his first taste of freedom and enjoyed the city’s counterculture vibe.
“I’d go to these, like, hippy fests — ‘rainbow festivals,’ they’re called — and I fit in. I’m kind of like a hippy, a Dead Head, and I like stuff like that, and I felt at home. People accepted me,” Joey said.
Joey’s military career ended when he tested positive for marijuana and got kicked out of the Army, but his drug use didn’t stop there.
“There wasn’t anything that really triggered that. It was just a normal progression,” he said. “You know, one day you’re maybe doing some cocaine, and then the next day, it’s like someone brings over some heroin, and you’re like, ‘What’s that?’ And they’re like, ‘Wanna try?’ And months later you have a habit and you’re dependent and you’re starting to mainline it.”
As his addiction progressed, the wreckage of his life also grew. He couldn’t hold down a job. His relationships fell apart. And his mother was a virtual hostage in her own home — afraid to leave because Joey was selling everything they owned to support his drug habit.
He recalls hearing two conflicting voices in his head: the voice of addiction telling him to sell the VCR his parents had chained to the floor and the voice of his conscience admonishing him for what he was about to do.
Each time, the voice of the addiction would win out — and each time Joey would hate himself even more. He said the stranglehold of addiction was like a “spiritual death.” He knew what he was doing was wrong, but felt powerless to stop himself.
By 2009, though, he’d had enough and asked for help. Joey did his first stint in a rehab — and then another, and then another. But every time he completed treatment, he’d relapse.
The cycle of rehab and relapse continued until he attended his first 12-step program meeting. “I loved it. It was the first time I really felt at home,” he said. “I always wanted to be part of a club, kind of like ‘The Little Rascals.’ I wanted to be like one of the crew.”
The 12-step approach worked for a while. Then Joey was prescribed Vicodin in the hospital for an ailment, and he relapsed again. Six months later, he robbed a local gas station to get money to buy drugs.
He turned himself in to the police and did two years in the state penitentiary.
“I remember copping my last dope, and after I committed my crime, I walked myself into the police station and I said, ‘I just committed a crime, take me to jail.’ [The cop] said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah, because I know that it’s going to be worse tomorrow,’” Joey recalled. “I remember walking, and I said, ‘Please, God, help me. Just one time.’”
Behind bars, Joey finally got the break he was praying for: “I got clean. I’ve been clean ever since,” he said.
He credits his sobriety to working a 12-step program and not cheating. Everything finally clicked when he completely “surrendered to the program” and realized he couldn’t just adapt the 12 steps to suit his desires.
You can’t just go to meetings occasionally and expect to stay sober, he explained. You can’t decide to get high every other weekend, and expect to conquer your addiction. “Drive-by recovery doesn’t work,” he said.
Jodie Koget grew up not far from Joey in a town called Monongahela. Like Joey, she came from a good middle-class family. But nobody in her family ever talked about their feelings, and she was never sure how to cope with her emotions.
By the time she was 17 or 18, Jodie had learned to numb her feelings with weed. “I felt like I needed to be high to do anything,” she said.
When Jodie got married, her drug use intensified. “We were drinking together. We were doing coke,” she said, and the marriage soon fell apart.
Her drug use escalated in her next relationship, and at some point an addiction to painkillers turned into a heroin addiction. At first she snorted the drug. Then one day, a friend shot her up for the first time and, according to Jodie, “it was over.”
When her daughter was a toddler, Jodie tried to quit using heroin. She managed for a while on Suboxone, a prescription medication that is sometimes used to treat opioid addiction. The drug contains two ingredients, buprenorphine and naloxone, that are supposed to decrease withdrawal symptoms and suppress cravings.
But Jodie never felt like it worked for her.
Later, she tried to kick her opioid addiction by using methadone as a maintenance therapy, but she still struggled. “I would have periods of when I would do good, small periods, a couple of months. Then I would start doing [heroin] again.”
Her resolve to quit using drugs strengthened in 2016 when she had a serious brush with danger. She owed dealers a lot of money at the time and when she wasn’t able to pay it back, they showed up at her house and beat up her boyfriend. “They punched him and kicked him with boots on,” she said. “He looked horrible.”
They roughed her up, too — not as badly — but she was terrified about what might happen next and how easily her daughter could have also been hurt.
After that, Jodie decided to get sober once and for all and went back on methadone. She also started going to 12-step meetings. That’s where she met Joey.
The two started out as friends, but eventually it developed into more. Two days before Jodie’s one-year anniversary of becoming sober, Joey popped the question at a Dead and Company show. “She was always my best friend in recovery and we got each other,” Joey said.
Today, recovery has become a way of life for the couple.
Working as care navigators for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Service’s Center of Excellence, Jodie and Joey help others suffering from opioid addiction. They step in when people are in crisis and try to steer them toward treatment.
“I had 14 months clean when they hired me, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it. And it’s almost a year later and I love it,” Jodie said.
She still remembers the nervousness when she had to go to the hospital for the first time to try to help someone struggling with addiction. She worried about what she would say and how to say it, but once she arrived, the words just flowed. The first man she counseled is “doing amazing today,” she said.
The couple also launched a clothing business called Grateful and Clean Clothing to help spread the message of recovery, and Joey is getting ready to graduate with a degree in human services.
Helping others, they say, reinforces their own recovery, and they try to weave recovery into every part of their life.
“Everything in my life is a direct result of helping someone else — everything,” explained Joey. “How I keep clean today is a direct result [of helping others]. It’s just how it works.”
At the end of day, Joey said, it was working the program and staying faithful to it that has kept him on the sober path. And that means no cutting corners.
“I have to walk the walk. I have to not pick and choose. Every facet of my life has to be somehow based in recovery — and I have to live right. I have to give back. It’s a full-time job, but it’s a lot easier than being stuck on the streets.”