Website helps addicts get lives back on track
Friday, September 11, 2004
by Eunice Sigler, Miami Herald
Harold Jonas remembers the day things went from bad to worse. Much worse. From the time he was 13, Jonas had been smoking pot. Matter of fact, he smoked pot every day through high school. But that wasn't so uncommon in the '60s, he recalls.
Later, he dabbled in more potent things like speed, acid and cocaine, but he never drank. Growing up in a household in what he described as ''not a happy childhood,'' where both parents drank, alcohol had always been a turn-off, he says.
But at 16, everything changed.
''When I was tripping one day, they gave me a beer and it went down like a soda,'' he said. From there, the descent into 20 years of his own personal hell was swift -- and nearly deadly. Jonas regularly got into car wrecks and got arrested for DUI and drug possession. He started injecting cocaine, which led to injecting opiates, including heroin.
But he wanted to stop.
Sometimes, in desperate fits of resolve, he'd throw his needle out the car window while driving -- only to panic and go back looking for it seconds later, on hands and knees, with cars whizzing by. But in 1987, with help from his dad, Jonas entered a recovery program and started to pull himself out of the abyss.
Today, at 49 and armed with a master's degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in addiction studies, he uses his experience to help others in the same shape he was in years ago. Besides counseling patients in a small private practice, he has created an Internet directory and search engine to make it easier for people to find recovery programs nationwide.
Jonas got the idea for the website www.sober.com after struggling to maintain constantly changing paper lists of the many places to which he could refer his clients. ''There had to be a better way,'' he said. "The Internet seemed to be the most visible medium to put a directory together for housing.''
So in 2000, he launched the website. Today, www.sober.com hosts more than 600 advertisers, some from other countries, and gets more than 6,000 different online visitors a day. ''Now, within three clicks you can get a phone number of a local person,'' he said.
The business is self-supporting through the advertising dollars the recovery houses pay to be listed in the directory. It's also Jonas's main job, giving him the income he needs to continue running his own sober houses. His companion search engine, www.sobersearch.com, is a Google-like program that can search only sober.com, or the entire Web, for addiction recovery places.
Jake Epperly, who runs two sober houses in Chicago -- the New Hope Recovery Center and Midwest Rapid Opiate Detoxification Specialists -- speaks highly of Jonas and his Web projects. First Epperly started advertising Midwest on sober.com, just to see how things went. ''It was so successful that we put New Hope on there, too,'' he said. "It's money well spent. He does a good job.'' Epperly, who has been in recovery for 25 years, says turnarounds like Jonas's are definitely possible. ''He's a real dedicated guy. Like many of us in the field, he has overcome adversity. It just goes to show that recovery works,'' he said.
Perhaps the most hi-tech of Jonas's projects is Sober Systems -- a computer-based program where clients leave a recovery clinic armed with a credit card-style ID card. The number on that card lets them log on to message boards and communicate online with their counselors and others in their support group. The system also has planning and tracking features to remind them not to skip their 12-step meetings or counseling sessions. If a client loses touch, the system automatically sends a warning message to his or her support group.
Melissa Seneway, 28, has been seeing Jonas for substance abuse and an eating disorder for two years. A few weeks ago, she got on Sober Systems. "I'm very undisciplined, and the way Sober Systems is structured, it's amazing. It helps you set goals, and it says, right on the screen, `Is your goal measurable, is your goal attainable?' '' she said. "So it's setting me up for success.''
Recovery houses pay to participate in Sober Systems, so the clients don't have to pay anything extra. It's bundled into the cost of their treatment. Epperly said it probably won't replace traditional therapy, but it's a good support system. He'll be signing up his recovery houses for the system in a few months, he said. ''I don't think it'll ever really replace face to face stuff, but for someone who absolutely can't do it because they're traveling, I think it's OK,'' he said.
Jonas said online support is key to helping people stay clean. Many of them work nighttime jobs, and often don't have anyone to talk to when they get off work and might be feeling vulnerable. The online support group, available anytime, throws them a lifeline, he said. ''Many people are told to change everything, but they're not given a clue,'' he said.
Counselors look for signs that a recovering addict might go back to substance abuse when weighing whether to put their clients on Sober Systems. ''Not everybody has the prognosis to have a card,'' he said.
These days, Jonas subsists on coffee and Marlboros and treks back and forth among his sober houses in his 1994 white Mercedes-Benz station wagon, which has seen a bit of wear and tear. Perhaps the greatest testament to how far he's come is the way he calmly talks about his dark days, in gory detail, almost as though he were talking about someone else. He has no emotional attachment to those days, he says. ''I wallowed in it long enough,'' Jonas said.
Recently, three clients overdosed, one died, and two others came out of a coma. He called that "a flat week.''
Jonas doesn't see his work as any kind of a life mission, but his wife Dawn disagrees. ''He's been on a quest to make up for lost time,'' she says. "He's trying to be where he wanted to be now.''