Homeless heroin user now tux-clad guest of honor

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Tyler Trowbridge could not have predicted what a few minutes in a fast food restaurant bathroom would trigger.

“This isn’t the life. This is terrible,” a disheveled Trowbridge said as he hurriedly smoked crack and shot up Suboxone in the bathroom of a sandwich shop in Grand Rapids.

It was Feb. 8, 2018, and Trowbridge, then 33 and homeless, had allowed Target 8 to document his life hooked on heroin and crack.

Back then, no one could have imagined the Grant native’s pending transformation from homeless panhandler to tuxedo-clad guest of honor at a gala celebration.  

But back then, we didn’t know Stacy Peck.

HELP FROM AN OLD CLASSMATE

Trowbridge hardly knew Peck, either, until she tracked him down after seeing Target 8’s report.

“I was like, ‘This is Tyler?'” Peck remembered thinking when she saw the initial story. “It was like, ‘He can’t go down like this. He’s going to die if he keeps doing this.'”

Trowbridge, on heroin for 15 years, had overdosed nearly two dozen times and in seven cases had to be revived with the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Peck recognized Trowbridge because the two had graduated in the same class at Grant High School in 2003, though they were only acquaintances then.

Peck, now a mom in Forest Hills, started a GoFundMe account, found Trowbridge, then got him into a hotel, off heroin and back on methadone, a maintenance drug that helps stabilize brain chemistry.

Medication assisted treatment like methadone helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings so people can focus on getting their lives back.

Trowbridge still takes methadone daily and is routinely drug tested at the Grand Rapids clinic where he’s a client.

Now 34, he has been clean from heroin, despite one slipup early on, since Feb. 26, 2018.

It’s a milestone his nonprofit celebrated with an anniversary fundraising gala Tuesday night. Nearly 300 people attended the Building Bridges Gala at Watermark Country Club on Cascade Road SE in Grand Rapids.

Trowbridge spoke at the event, thanking the many people who stepped forward to spend time with him early in his recovery. He also used the opportunity to try to break down stigma surrounding medication assisted treatment.

“I don’t like to admit it sometimes but I am still in M.A.T., medicated assisted treatment,” Trowbridge told the crowd. “I am on methadone. I am someone that’s in long-term recovery but I also take advantage of the programs that are out there. Sometimes, I don’t want to tell people, but I don’t want to be ashamed about what I had to do to be clean and be successful. I want to be open about that.”

Trowbridge’s comments were met with loud applause from the audience.

The gala raised funds for Dirt City Sanctuary, the nonprofit Trowbridge co-founded with Peck and Peck’s friend, Wendy Botts.

Botts lost her son, 21-year-old Jordan Blaauw, to an opioid overdose in April 2017.

The organization the trio founded allows Botts to continue Jordan’s legacy of compassion toward our city’s most vulnerable members.

It also gives Trowbridge a way to give back by paying it forward, helping others find their paths to recovery despite daunting obstacles.

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

“When Stacy came and found me, I didn’t think I was going to get clean,” Trowbridge recalled in a recent interview. “I was kind of just going through the motions to see what I could get out of it.”

When Trowbridge slipped up early on and used heroin, he was hit by a car while walking, though he wasn’t injured.

“I was like, ‘I have no sympathy for you,'” Peck recalled.

But she wasn’t about to give up on Trowbridge.

“Relapse happens. It’s part of recovery and you just keep going,” Peck said. “You figure out what happened and you take steps so it doesn’t happen again hopefully and you keep going.”

After that, Trowbridge said, something changed.

“Something just clicked and my whole way of thinking changed,” he said. “I started waking up and thinking about how I could better myself and waking up every morning and asking myself how I could give back and help others.”

Trowbridge has been proving skeptics wrong ever since.

“I did not expect Tyler to get clean,” Wendy Botts admitted.

“I’m ashamed to admit that because I thought I was a pretty compassionate person,” she continued. “To be honest, I thought Stacy was crazy (at first). I think everyone did.”

Botts said working with Peck and Trowbridge has given her new insight into addiction. It also prompted her to reconnect with her brother, who has long struggled with alcoholism.

“It’s helped me with my brother and that has been a huge blessing,” Botts explained, her voice breaking. “(Tyler and Stacy) have helped me because they’ve taught me that a person is more than their addictions. And Jordan taught me that people are more than their homelessness. People are more than their circumstances.”

DIRT CITY SANCTUARY

The nonprofit founded by Peck, Trowbridge and Botts is Dirt City Sanctuary, named for a group of friends from Trowbridge’s hometown of Grant.

DCS does outreach in the homeless community, providing supplies like tents and toiletries through its Purple Backpack Project. The nonprofit also helps people seeking recovery from substance abuse disorders.

Dirt City is also working toward build unique recovery housing in Grand Rapids that calls on the surrounding community, engaging volunteers to help residents build new networks of support.

According to the organization’s website, the recovery campus would provide “loving, honest and individualized care and support for those facing substance use disorder and homelessness.”

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