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Macon man reflects on his service during Iraqi Freedom and how he overcame addiction to continue serving others

Michael Sewell, known by his friends and family as Oppey, grew up as an army brat. His dad was in the army, his brother was in the army, and growing up with a life of service in the forefront of his mind was as commonplace to him as anything else. But as much as it was in his blood to pursue a military career, addiction was also in his blood — a generic disposition that Sewell spent the majority of his life fighting to overcome. 

Serving the community today as the Lead Peer Support Specialist for No Wrong Door, Sewell utilizes his experience as a Veteran of the United States Army and having 7 years of sobriety to his credit to help others struggling with substance use disorder. 

Sewell went into the army in February 1995 when he was 19 years old. He looked at the military as a chance to be someone… to be better. 

“For most of my life, I was always littler than everyone else. I was always the little guy and would always get picked on,” said Sewell. “I looked at the army as a chance to change that. I thought I could do the army thing and be somebody.”

And be somebody is exactly what Sewell did. 

While serving in the United States Army for eight years and 9 1/2 months, Sewell worked his way to become an E5 Sergeant. He easily rose to the top ranks of the army — earning a spot as E5 at the very first opportunity he had. 

“The very last day I was at Fort Hood, Texas, there they pinned me E5,” he remembers. “From there I went to Fort Stewart. While I was in the Army I worked as an M88 Tank Commander, a maintenance chief for an engineering company in the army.” 

Sewell was deployed during Iraqi Freedom and in fact, he was in Kuwait in January 2003 and spent four months on the front lines in the early days of conflict.

“My unit was sitting on the border of Kuwait when George Bush declared war,” he said. “We were responsible for advancing forward and making the initial descent toward Baghdad, clearing the way for troops to follow behind.” 

While in the Army, Sewell’s lifelong battle with addiction deepened. He went from recreational alcohol and drug use to physically needing drugs and alcohol to silence the demons he brought home from the war. 

A Georgia native, Sewell spent most of his life between McDonough, a town just outside of Atlanta. The first time Sewell remembers using drugs wasn’t long after he started elementary school… in Kindergarten. 

“My mom and my stepdad smoked pot and drank all the time,” said Sewell. “I remember being about six years old and I would take puffs off of my mom’s cigarettes when she wasn’t paying attention. My mom was a heavy drinker and she would always have me get her a new beer from the fridge and I would take sips off the top before taking it to her in the other room.” 

At first, he would get in trouble for stealing his mom’s cigarettes. He was always at odds with his mom and his stepdad, he were losing their own battles to addiction. At 13 he was living in a home with no running water, no electricity and no telephone — for a teenager growing up in the late 80s, that was a hard environment to be in and fueled his delinquent behavior and his reliance on drugs and alcohol. 

He left Georgia when he was 13 to move in with his dad in Tennessee. Although he stopped smoking marijuana every day — only getting high when he would visit his mom in Georgia over summer break — by the time he was 15 his parents were buying cigarettes for him. 

“I would steal alcohol from the gas station before going to school,” said Sewell. “I was drinking regularly and just had no interest in school.”

A turning point for Sewell came in January 1993 when he was 17 years old. 

“I got in trouble that summer for drinking and having a girl at the house and my mom kicked me out of the house. I moved to Winter Haven Florida with my grandmother. My uncle worked at Disney World so I would skip school most days and just hang to at work with him. That is when my grandmother told me that I really didn’t have any other choice and that I needed to drop out of school, get my GED and go into the army like my dad and brother,” said Sewell. 

Sewell quickly realized the Army wasn’t the saving grace he has hoped it would be or the life changing opportunity his family had hoped for. 

“When I got into the Army, that is when I started drinking heavily. Drinking was just socially acceptable in the Army. It wasn’t something I had to hide, because it is just what we did,” said Sewell. “I met my second wife when I was stationed at Fort Stewart — I was about 25 years old and it would have been 2000 or 2001. On the weekends we would drive up to Atlanta and spend the weekend drinking and going to clubs.” 

That was the first time Sewell tried ecstasy— and he was hooked. 

“It gave me a feeling I had never had before,” he said. “It was a whole different level of pleasure and euphoria. From the first time someone offered me ecstasy at a club… there was never a question if I would do it again, the only question was when — and for me, I wanted that answer to be as often as possible” 

Sewell started doing ecstasy regularly — working days at a time on base, then spending his days off high and drunk in various bars and nightclubs. Ecstasy soon introduced Sewell to cocaine. Cocaine became the way he was able to function — drink all weekend and party hard all night — then do cocaine throughout the week on base to get through work. Cocaine become meth and just as quick and easy as Sewell took that first ecstasy, he found himself in a cycle of working on base, drinking, parking, and getting high. 

That routine came to a nearly fatal abrupt halt the moment he was deployed in 2003.  Without the usual access to marijuana and other recreational drugs Sewell had grown use to since he was six years old — he turned to heavy drinking because it was the only thing accessible to him and his unit. 

“When I first got to Kuwait I detoxed hard — that was rough. At that time, I was doing cocaine every day, then one day it just stopped. So I started to complain about little things while deployed — anything to get pain pills, but it was never enough. We weren’t supposed to, but we would buy liquor from the local people and since that was our only option, we were drinking heavily. 

After spending four months in Iraq during Iraqi Freedom, Sewell returned home and had no money, his second wife wasn’t sure about the marriage, and when he got back to Fort Stewart, he fell into the same drug-fueled cycle that consumed his life prior to being deployed. 

“When I got home, I started doing the same drugs, but it was clear to me it wasn’t for the same reasons,” said Sewell. I turned back to drugs, but this time it was to cope with the war. I had severe PTSD and I didn’t want to sleep because the nightmares were too bad. The nightmares were getting worse so I would do cocaine and meth to avoid sleeping. I would stay up for 3 or 4 days at a time before crashing.” 

Sewell was discharged from the Army on October 31, 2003. He moved back to McDonough, Georgia and got a job working for a trucking company. He would work just enough to have enough money to feed his cocaine addiction. 

“One of the guys I was working with had a family that was in the drug game, they sold cocaine so I had easy access to it, he said. “My addiction got so bad I was owing the dope man half of my paycheck every week.” 

When his job changed their policy and announced they would start doing drug tests, Sewell knew he had to do something so he took medical leave for his addiction problem and entered a VA  treatment facility in Atlanta. After 30 days he left the facility — as addicted as he was the day he entered, but he did get his first experience with what recovery might look like.

“While I was attending there, I would have to go there during the day and then NA meetings at night and that is where I was introduced to the 12 steps, that was the first time I really considered recovery, but I just wasn’t ready,” said Sewell. “I knew I wanted to go back to using cocaine as soon as I got out — didn’t want to be sober.”

Sewell got a job at a different trucking company and would stay up all night partying and then buy drugs to stay awake during the day. His coworkers got fed up with him and reported him to the boss. Not long after that he was caught sleeping at work and was fired on the spot. 

At that time he has a newborn baby and new girlfriend, so he moved to Hayesville, which is where his girlfriend was from. By 2006 he was driving from Hayesville to Franklin to work for a paving company and he tried to get sober. He was sober for about two months — until his new job introduced him to new people who pulled him back into drugs. 

“When I got to this town, I got around people who were using drugs and that is when I got into methamphetamine real bad,” said Sewell. “I had wanted to go back to school and do better for my fiancé and my kids, but I just couldn’t do it. I was at the house and had all three kids with me at home an dI nodded out sitting in the chair. My fiancé came home and the kids were out of the house running around and that was her breaking point.” 

Sewell said after she left and took the kids, he hit an all-time low — his rock bottom. He was leaving alone in a duplex that had no electricity, that was completely trashed, and would stay high on meth most days. He tried to move to Florida to get sober and while he was able to quit doing meth, he kept drinking. He ended up homeless and couch surfing, living in people’s sheds. 

A friend of his from the army, one of Sewell’s soldiers, invited him to move in with him in Macon County. Hem moved back to Macon County and continued to drink heavily, but was able to see his kids again. Sewell got DUI in 2012, couldn’t keep a job, and didn’t get to see his kids, and was at the end of his rope. 

He started in on a real bad drinking binge — drinking as much as he could until he would pass out every day for a week straight. That week he found himself in Angel Medical Center a few times, but just long enough to get patched up and sent back home. The last time he went to Angel, his entire body ached — it was shutting down. His body was cramping up and his organs were not functioning. He begged them to send him to the VA Hospital in Asheville, but he kept being told there weren’t any beds for him. 

That is when he left Angel and went home until he passed out. When he finally woke the next morning he called his son to drive him to the VA Hospital in Asheville. 

“I made him stop at the ABC Store on the way and I drank the whole way to the hospital,” he said. 

He was admitted into the ICU of the VA hospital because his body was nearly completely shut down. A doctor visited him at his bedside at the VA and invited him to participate to a new inpatient treatment program at the hospital and with nothing left to lose — and everything to gain — he decided to give it a shot. 

That 28-day inpatient treatment program saved his life. 

“I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being around other veterans, knowing I wasn’t the only one going through those things,” said Sewell. “The camaraderie there was everything for me. I needed to be with other veterans, with peers. My peers were taking me to meetings, going with me and being there alongside me. They shared their experiences, which were similar to mine and being able to hear how things were now for them — it gave me a glimmer of hope.” 

While attending NA meetings in Asheville, Sewell remembers seeing a guy walk into one of the meetings — and everyone in the room brightened up.

“They were happy to see him and respected him as a peer and someone recovering like them — that is when I thought — maybe when I get out, I will give those 12 steps a shot, and maybe I can be a person to brighten other people’s day and offer them help one day.” 

When Sewell left the 28 days of inpatient treatment — he left behind an entire lifetime of addiction. He started going to meetings every day — either an AA meeting or an NA meeting — traveling all over WNC to Cullowhee, Sylva, Cherokee — anywhere he needed to to make sure he was in a meeting every day. 

In 2017, Sewell landed a job working with at a treatment facility in Cherokee. After 60 days working a temporary position, they offered him a full-time position as a social service aid. He was working with kid and hearing their stories — going to meetings with them and helping to take them to meetings. That is when he had the opportunity to go to Peer Training and become a Certified Peer Specialist. Seeing other people in recovery, became a crucial aspect of Sewell’s own recovery and sobriety. 

When leaders in Macon County began brainstorming of a way to address the substance abuse issues in the county, Sewell was right there from the very beginning. He was offered a position as a Peer Support Specialist with No Wrong Door and has also served on their board. 

“I enjoy doing what I do — and that is so important not because it is my job, but because I need to enjoy it for my own sobriety,” said Sewell. “I love being able to work with vets and organizations like Western Carolina Veterans Purpose doing things like bringing awareness to veteran suicide to rural communities. My life couldn’t be any better. I was married in March and went from having three kids to six kids. I have a wife who is supportive and understanding and an incredible family support system.” 

Sewell said that his involvement with 828 Vets, a newly launched veterans group that just celebrated their inaugural year. 

“The guys at 828 Vets are my support system,” he said. “The camaraderie we have and the involvement of the younger generation of veterans is really important to me. The group also gives me purpose and I enjoy the work we do together helping people whether veterans or otherwise.”

Sewell, who is looking forward to celebrating 8 yeas of sobriety in January 2023, said that he wants the community to know that he, and No Wrong Door are here to help. 

“Just know that you are not alone,” he said. “There are people who are willing to help you, day or night. Without judgment and without hesitation. I cannot promise you that it won’t be hard, but I can tell you that it is worth it.” 

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