Heroin addiction didn't kill Bruce Ricketts. It made him stronger.

A glance at the cover of Bruce Ricketts’ book would display an athletic guy with a charming smile.

But when you thumb through the pages of his life, you’ll learn Ricketts smiles because he’s been given a second chance on life, after 14 months clean from opioid addiction.

Ricketts smoked cannabis for the first time as a teen. And when he did, he underestimated the effect it’d have on him as an adult, he said.

“I came down here to Rehoboth Beach with some friends. It was a very idyllic setting and it seemed like it was very harmless at the time, with friends on the beach listening to Bob Marley,” the 39-year-old said

Ricketts, a native of Seaford, started smoking as a social activity, not because of peer pressure, he said.

He had his first drink as a sophomore at Seaford High School. By his junior year, cannabis began to take a hold on him. As a senior, he began smoking every day.

“Initially it didn’t look like addiction to me. It just looked like fun,” Ricketts said. “But once I got to college, the drugs and scene changed. My mentality and the people changed. My willingness to try different things changed.”

Ricketts received a full scholarship to the University of Delaware as a biology major.

Unlike in his hometown of Seaford, at UD is when he was introduced to harder drugs.

“I was doing cocaine, mushrooms and LSD. I was open to a lot more,” Ricketts said.

Being raised by a strict single mom, Ricketts said college was the first time where he felt free to do whatever he wanted.

‘A lot of coke’

After his freshman year, Ricketts’ excessive drug use and drinking caused him to lose his full scholarship.

“I ended up taking out loans,” he said. “I was barely going to class. I was so unfocused. My main objective was to drink and party and not get my degree anymore.”

He dropped out of college after his junior year. Ricketts said he moved into Wilmington and took up a few jobs.

“Things were good at first. Then I got opened up to even more drugs,” he said. “I was doing a lot of coke.”

Ricketts said he chalked it up to being young and wanting to have fun.

While in Wilmington, a guy introduced him to crack.

“That took me on a downward spiral quicker than anything I’d ever done,” Ricketts said. “It took me to a place where I wasn’t able to pay my bills anymore. I ended up losing my apartment and I moved back home to Seaford to my mom’s home.”

Trouble with the law

Jobless and chasing a high from crack at about age 24, he began stealing merchandise to support his habit. That landed him in trouble with the law.

Ricketts said he kept doing short stints in and out of jail until he stood before a judge who’d had enough.

He said the judge told him, “You’re a really good person. But you can’t stop using, even enough to be accountable and responsible for these legal issues. So I’m going to help you.”

The judge helped Ricketts by sentencing him to roughly half a year at the Central Violation of Probation Center in Smyrna, he said.

Being at CVOP was a sobering experience.

“I saw people who were 50, 60 years old who had just been subject to a of life coming back and forth to jail,” he said. “They were not able to stop using and their life was pretty much over. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to become that.’”

When Ricketts was released, he moved into an apartment in Wilmington.

After a few months, Ricketts said he found himself right back at square one: using drugs, homeless and jobless.

In 2008, he entered into an intensive outpatient program through Brandywine Counseling & Community Services for six months, four days per week.

Ricketts began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and his life started changing for the better, he said.

A new ‘monster’ 

With six months clean, he went back to school. This time it was at Delaware Technical Community College where he became a registered nurse.

As a nurse, he was making $40 an hour and was able to travel, something that’s always been a passion of his.

After becoming a nurse, Ricketts said he was finally comfortable in his life, so he stopped going to NA meetings.

In 2013, Ricketts relapsed. The next year his addiction got so bad that he quit his nursing job so he could get high as often as possible, he said.

Now with even lower inhibitions, Ricketts said he tried heroin for the first time around 2014 or 2015. But he wasn’t prepared for the physical cravings that came along with it.

“It was unlike the beast I had dealt with before with crack cocaine. Heroin is a different monster,” he said.

After another stint of homelessness, Ricketts found himself couch surfing from home to home.

In 2016, he ran into trouble with the law and served a month at Sussex County Correctional Institution.

The comeback

After getting released, Ricketts got in touch with his Narcotics Anonymous friend Anthony Lewis for a chance to become a resident at an Oxford House in Lewes.

Lewis is the outreach coordinator at the Oxford House, a nonprofit that offers statewide shelter for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

“Bruce is very compassionate, eager and a highly motivated individual,” Lewis said. “Bruce was my sponsor when I first got clean six years ago.”

Ricketts has made a 180-degree turn at the Oxford House. He’s now employed cleaning houses.

Ricketts lives with 10 other men in the Lewes home and each person pays $500 rent. He said he’s in no rush to leave the Oxford House, which doesn’t have a deadline for its residents.

Lewis said he understands not having a deadline for residents could put more pressure on the waiting list. And having to wait on that list can be the difference between an individual using again.

To combat that, Lewis said, they’re hyper-vigilant with trying to accommodate people, even if it means putting somebody on a couch for a couple days until a bed opens up at another house.

With 14 months clean, Ricketts wants others to know the path to recovery is possible. But it’s not overnight.

“Restoration takes time, he said. “I know a lot of people give up on recovery because the things you lost don’t come back in a week or a month.

“We didn’t create the destruction of the chaos in our lives overnight. So it does takes time,” he said. “People need to sit still and keep doing what’s required. I promise, things will get better. They’ve gotten better for me.”