Circle of Hope speaker recounts ‘sheer madness’ of his addiction and recovery

Andrew McKenna still vividly remembers the day when he hit his rock bottom.

It was a cool, fall, sunny morning, a weekday. McKenna was driving in upstate New York, on his way to his hometown of Schenectady to buy heroin. He had just robbed his sixth bank. It was anything but a leisurely drive. The FBI, state police, even a helicopter, were in hot pursuit.

How McKenna arrived at this point makes for an incredible story, one he shared as keynote speaker of Fairbanks’ 2016 Circle of Hope Dinner.

McKenna attributes the start of his substance abuse issues to not learning coping skills in his youth.

“I never developed the idea that what I was thinking or feeling isn’t necessarily real,” he told the assembly of nearly 600.

Even though he went to college and performed well, McKenna didn’t feel like a success. He had no plan after graduating, so his brother, an attorney, encouraged him to enroll in law school. McKenna was accepted and once again excelled, despite abusing drugs the whole time. Even after earning a law degree he still didn’t like the idea of having a desk job, so he joined the Marines.

“By all accounts my life was pretty decent,” McKenna said. “I had life by the tail, so to speak.”

Then he seriously hurt his back falling off a cliff during training. Having two years left in his tour, McKenna kept the pain to himself, lest he be discharged. He dealt with it using heating pads, ice packs and lots of Motrin. After the Marines, McKenna returned to the law as a prosecutor for the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

With his esteemed new credentials, this person with addiction tendencies could finally get prescription painkillers without raising any red flags, unlike during his time in the Marines. McKenna was sure to let his doctor know of his Justice Department role. After all, a drug prosecutor wouldn’t abuse drugs.

“But unfortunately, as a great man once told me, ‘Heroin doesn’t read resumes,’ and he’s absolutely right,” McKenna said.

He got a prescription for 120 pills. That should last a normal person a couple weeks. McKenna got through his prescription in six days. But he had a doctor who trusted him and would fill any prescription he requested.

By this time McKenna’s married with two young sons. But constantly being on the road and abusing drugs, his marriage was falling apart. Eventually McKenna lost his job with the Justice Department. He was caught taking evidence while helping to prosecute a large drug sweep in Houston. He was quietly sent packing, however, so as not to jeopardize the investigation. With some of his nine lives still intact, McKenna moved back to New York to take a job with a law firm in Albany.

His main problem, in his mind, was that he could not find a doctor willing to prescribe medication. So McKenna called an old friend he knew liked to party and told him he needed something for his back pain. His friend said he could get him OxyContin, something McKenna had never tried. Pretty soon he was taking four or five pills a day. After his friend’s dealer got arrested – and McKenna started withdrawing from the OxyContin – he resorted to heroin for the first time. Within a week he was taking six to seven hits daily.

McKenna finally entered rehab after losing his law firm job. While there his wife left with the kids.

“I couldn’t get my mind around that that had happened,” McKenna said of losing his immediate family. “It took me a long time to realize my anger in all this wasn’t directed at her, but myself because I was responsible.”

He lost custody of his children because of his drug issues. He checked himself into a mental health facility for two weeks, followed by a month-long rehabilitation stay. But McKenna was too broken to maintain sobriety.

Instead of going to a family court appointment one day, he took the next interstate exit and robbed the first bank he found. By the time the law caught up with him on that fall day, McKenna was so far gone he unbuckled his seatbelt and sped up so he could commit suicide by driving into a median. Something in his head told him not to, though, and ultimately he surrendered peacefully.

McKenna spent the next six months in county jail. It took him eight days there before he stopped vomiting from all the drugs. He was free for a year – during which time he entered intensive rehab – before serving a five-year sentence in federal prison. McKenna credits a specific counselor for saving his life.

“She was so good at confronting people and reading minds,” he said. “She said this wasn’t about me (robbing banks) to get money for heroin. This was all about anger – anger at myself.”

As McKenna continued his sobriety and began regaining strength, he noticed people started looking at him differently.

“They had a little bit more trust,” he said. “They weren’t handing me their bank cards – and they should not have at any point – but it was enough to help me start to get my self-esteem back.”

His therapy also finally taught him that what goes on in his head isn’t always true.

“All that negative self-talk we go through, I started to challenge it with help,” McKenna said. “I got to the point where I could challenge it completely on my own.”

He calls his 65 months in prison the best and worst experience of his life. Worst because prison is a filthy, violent place. Best because it afforded him ample time to think. McKenna used that time to keep journals.

“I got what was up here (points to his head) on paper, and I was relieved,” he said.

Those journals became McKenna’s memoir, Sheer Madness: From Federal Prosecutor to Federal Prisoner.

“That has given me a platform to speak to different groups,” McKenna said. “It’s gratifying to speak to high schools, colleges and professional organizations. We see coalitions popping up everywhere now with the opioid epidemic. I know we have so much more to do, but we are making progress and it’s organizations like Fairbanks that are making treatment and recovery possible.

“We’re making a difference. We’re moving the ball in the direction it needs to go. Yes there’s still going to be despair. But we’re going to save lives, and we’re going to do it together.”