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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Belinda Morse hugs a friend during the Rally for Recovery to celebrate people in recovery from addiction and mental illness at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Seven years ago, Brian Bench, who taught at Fortis College, became caught up in a tragedy when one of his students committed a horrendous act.

On the day that the student fatally shot his girlfriend, Bench was the last person to see the student's girlfriend alive. And he experienced a trauma that would cost him everything.

"I kind of found out that they had a toxic relationship, tried to get her help, tried to get her out of it. Couldn't do enough, fast enough. I took it hard, took it like I could've done more to help her. Took all that blame and shame and guilt," Bench said.

He testified in the student's trial, and though he didn't see the shooting itself, Bench says he was close enough to the situation that he suffered PTSD and turned to drugs to help with the pain.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Participants walk during the Rally for Recovery to celebrate people in recovery from addiction and mental illness at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

"That's the funny thing about addiction, is the reasons why you start using. Then it turns into an addiction, the lifestyle of dependency. It takes everything away. Lost my home, lost relationships, lost touch with my family," Bench told the Deseret News as he and hundreds of others walked around the state Capitol building Wednesday evening to remember those who have lost their lives to mental illness or addiction.

The attendees gathered for the 11th annual Rally for Recovery, hosted by Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, meant as a celebration for those who are overcoming their addictions.

Mary Jo McMillen, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, promised Wednesday, "I know they fight for recovery, for their own recovery, for other's recovery, and we're not gonna forget them. We won't forget them."

"This is an illness that so many people face. We have no more stigma left in us. We're gonna love these people, whether they're fighting for their life or their long-term recovery," McMillen said.

Nathan Sorenson's addiction to heroin started at age 16.

"It just kinda took over. I was just chasing that for four years, and because of that, I was homeless, couldn't hold down a job, so I couldn't keep a roof over my head or food in my belly. And then, I also have children, and so I wasn't able to be there for them," said Sorenson, 21.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Participants walk during the Rally for Recovery to celebrate people in recovery from addiction and mental illness at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

Like Bench, he is now in a residential treatment program and looking ahead with hope for the future. "And so I'm kind of just beginning my story, really," Sorenson said.

He said he wants people to understand that addiction doesn't only affect addicts but those close to them as well.

"It's extremely sad. I've been through a lot because of it, and I've put a lot of people through a lot because of it. … And now my job is just to do better, but also to make right what I've wronged," Sorenson explained.

Of addiction, Bench said he wants people to understand "just not to give up on people who are struggling with this, and to try to change their perception about the stigma of it all. It's huge," he said.

"But there are some really … brilliant people. They're talented people. And for some reason or another, just for a coping mechanism, they chose to go to drugs." But those who are ready to overcome it, "we just want our lives back," Bench said.

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During the rally, advocates, recovering addicts and legislators offered their support for those going through similar difficulties. Many speakers also celebrated the partialMedicaid expansion in Utah that will go into effect in April.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said, "This plan that we've made for Medicaid … this is the moment that we change in Utah from thinking about this and saying, 'Well, do you fit in a category that we think deserves to have coverage or not? … And now we have a plan for everyone to have coverage. It may still not be perfect, but the way we think about it from here on out will be different."