Blending in and giving back,ex-addict looks to support others in recovery

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 13 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Steve Brunken, right, sits on the couch with his 3-year-old daughter, Macy, and socializes with the rest of the family in Holladay.

Courtney Sargent, Deseret News

At 47, Steve Brunken has it good.

He's retiring in the next few months from a successful insurance business, playing new dad to a baby girl born Jan. 5 and doting on his three young daughters and beautiful wife, Cathy.

What a casual observer won't see, however, is the decades of drug use, criminal records and the daily battle against addiction.

It seems hard to believe, glancing over his exquisitely decorated Holladay home, with its vaulted ceilings and plush carpets.

He's been blessed, he insists. And now it's his turn to give back.

"There are a lot of things that occur in life when you're a drug addict that are hurtful and painful," he said, choking up. "It's a great gift not to be in that turmoil. I'm grateful for the freedom I have today, but for me, that comes with great personal obligations."

He wipes away the tears rolling down his face. He's finally come to grips with his tender heart and loving nature. Now, instead of trying to hide it through drug use, he will harness it and serve people.

Serving and sharing

Brunken wants to devote his life to spreading the message of sobriety, starting by volunteering at The Ark of Little Cottonwood, where he found healing, and speaking to anyone he can about addiction.

He wants people to know how easy it is to become a victim and how hard it is to get out.

"The fact of the matter is, we all work with somebody in recovery, or we work with somebody who's actively using," said Dr. H. Westley Clark, the director of the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. "The key issue for America is, if we don't de-stigmatize the recovery process, then we keep it in the closet."

But Brunken was initially worried about telling his story to teenagers. Would it send a mixed message? Yes, he had a rough few years, but pulling up to his gated cul-de-sac, visitors can tell he's done well. Would teens think drugs aren't that bad, that it will all work out in the end?

No, they won't think that, others told him. Your story is too important. Talk about your journey, your mistakes and your triumphs. Tell them they don't ever have to start.

But if they have, tell them they are not alone.

In Utah, more than 95,000 people need substance abuse treatment, according to the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health 2007 annual report. However, only 17 percent actually get help.

These addicts are our neighbors, our brothers, our moms, our co-workers. They are in our communities, our churches and our families. And they need our help, Brunken said.

"Substance abuse is a part of every Utah neighborhood," said Casey Hill, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. "The difference is, people who are in (treatment) facilities are ... actually trying to find recovery (while) your next-door neighbors are still struggling."

Recovery next door

Many Utahns quickly agree that substance abuse treatment is necessary.

But not in my community, they say. Put the programs and those who need them somewhere else.

"It's a very tender subject," said Joi Pearson, an Orem resident who lives near a female sober-living home, which recently became licensed as a residential transitional care facility. "Even for people who realize the need for these places, having them live next door to you is a different question."

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