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Shaun Collins: Clean for 17 months, 20 years wasted

Shaun Collins, a former heroin drug addict, punched

Shaun Collins, a former heroin drug addict, punched a 91-year-old woman and robbed her, police said. (July 24 2008) Photo Credit: Newsday File / Viorel Florescu

A deadly form of heroin continues to destroy lives across Long Island, trampling across age groups and economic lines.

Shaun Collins, a former military medic, looks back on the 20 years he's given to the drug life.

For the parents of 17-year-old Michelle "Misha" Nardone, the lessons have come too late.

They are three faces of heroin addiction on Long Island, right now. One could not tell her story. Two others are now clean, and fighting to stay that way.

In his life as a drug addict, Shaun Collins has played many roles: a son trying to go straight, a thief, a respected military medic, a dope-sick prisoner alone in a cell.

"I was so many different things to so many different people. I wanted to be a good husband and a good friend to the people who were straight, but to the people who were using I was just a drug addict," Shaun said. "I felt like I wore a different mask for everyone I talked to."

Sitting in familiar surroundings in a Suffolk drug-counseling center, Shaun runs both hands across his shaven head as he recounts the years he gave to heroin. Today, against all odds, he is alive, out of jail, and 17 months clean.

The oldest of three brothers, Shaun grew up with a strict father in a middle-class Brentwood home. He discovered alcohol and marijuana at an early age. By the time he was junior at Brentwood High, Shaun says he was a cocaine addict, supporting his habit with shoplifting and dealing to friends.

"It's dangerous, it's risky, you're taking chances," he said, describing the allure for him of the drug life. "You feel like a big shot. You like having money. You feel important because you have something people want," he said.

Under pressure from his father, who served in the Air Force, Shaun finished high school and cleaned up to pass a military physical, training to be a combat medic and nurse with the National Guard. Shaun married his high school girlfriend while on leave from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

After his discharge in 1997, Shaun quickly rediscovered his former temptations. Hanging out with old friends whose own drug use had escalated, Shaun resumed snorting cocaine, and occasionally powdered heroin.

He and his wife split the next year, largely due to his drug use, he said. High and drunk at the wheel one night in Islip, he fled from a police officer trying to pull him over. The arrest prompted his first trip to rehab, a 28-day stay at a West Brentwood facility.

Afterward, a housemate at a sober house gave Shaun a potent shot of heroin.

"It just made you so numb and so comfortable and so euphoric that it took every problem I was thinking about away, or in my mind it did," he said. "I thought, 'That was going to be my thing from now on,' and it was."

Over the next several years, as Shaun's heroin addiction progressed, the crimes he committed to feed a $200-$300 daily habit grew more serious. He stole cars, ran petty scams. He'd often get clean, typically after a trip to jail or detox, get a nursing job, but then relapse.

The fear of the heroin withdrawal - chills, vomiting, diarrhea, aching joints - would drive him to keep using. Worse still was the psychological pain.

"You have to think about all the things you've done ... the people you've hurt, the crime you've done. ... Everything is just waiting for you."

Shaun counts the days of his current sobriety back to Feb. 9, 2007. Four months after his last release from jail, he was arrested after stealing a truck. The judge who'd cut him a break last time with county jail time gave him 1 1/2-to-3 year sentence in state prison.

Sitting on his bunk in Downstate Correctional Facility, Shaun says he hit his last bottom. Shaun finished a prison drug program and was released in May into a 30-day rehab.

In what he hopes is the beginning of a new chapter as a recovering addict, Shaun's days typically include an early wake-up at a Medford sober house; a four-mile run; group therapy; a one-on-one with a counselor, more self help groups; maybe a workout or a surfing trip to Smith Point.

Shaun's mother, Joanne, says she can forgive the lies, the broken promises, but she's circumspect about his chances. "I'm prepared for the possibility that Shaun may relapse. Remember, we've been going through this for 20 years," she said.

Shaun thinks of the wasted years, and dreams of a move to California, for the waves. When he gets the OK from his counselors, he's going to look for construction work, away from the temptations of hospitals and medications. He wants to mend the bridges he burned with his family, especially his father.

"He's cautious. He wants to see some really long-term sobriety. How many times have I told him this was the last time? How many times have I lied to his face?"

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