Generation Addicted: Relapse, Then Renewed Hope for Michael

Michael Miller talks with his mom, Angel, on the back deck of their home in Philadelphia in March. NBC10 | Morgan Zalot

This Wednesday, Aug. 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day. NBC10 this week is revisiting the stories of people you first met earlier this year in Generation Addicted, our in-depth special report on the heroin and opioid epidemic in our region and beyond. Watch Generation Addicted again this Wednesday at 7 p.m., only on NBC10.

DAYS BEFORE her son's 23rd birthday, Angel Miller came face-to-face with exactly what she feared might happen: She found her son, Michael, in their Philadelphia home with a needle in his arm.

"He was relapsing," Angel Miller said on Monday, tears shining in her eyes. "He was hiding it pretty well, but I kept finding stuff pawned."

Michael Miller, whose story was featured in NBC10's in-depth special report, Generation Addicted, battled opioid and heroin addiction for the past two years after a friend encouraged him to try prescription painkillers. He got hooked, and soon, he was injecting heroin.

For Michael, recovery proved to be like holding sand. Just as he'd get a grip on it, it would slip away -- a slow trickle at first, as he'd take liberties using his Suboxone prescription to achieve a small high. Then in a crushing wave, when he'd find himself back in Kensington copping heroin on a corner to mainline into the crook of his arm.

So when her son seemed to achieve a stint of sobriety earlier this year, Angel, a psychiatrist assistant who helps people get into drug rehabs, was wary. She had a feeling Michael's battle may not have been over then, and her intuition was on: She started to suspect Michael was using again in the spring, and in April, she opened the bathroom door in the family's Wissinoming apartment to find Michael shooting heroin.

"I said, 'You gotta go.' I'm not doing this," Angel told NBC10 on Monday. "I'm not gonna open the bathroom door and you're dead on the floor."

In the heart of Philadelphia's open drug market, there's an artery carrying drug addicted people to their high. (Published Friday, April 8, 2016)

And Michael went. On May 3, four days before he turned 23, he headed to the Malvern Institute, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Willow Grove.

Malvern marked Michael's second stint in rehab, after he went to a treatment center in Florida last year, and then relapsed, as addiction experts the majority of people trying to escape heroin addiction do.

But this time, Angel said, Michael seemed to have a new resolve to leave behind the drug that stole his dream of graduating Drexel University with an engineering degree and nearly killed him several times.

"This time, he wanted to go. That's the difference," Angel said. "He was ready. He was packing his bags, and he was ready to go."

Michael thrived in his new rehab program, Angel said, and spent a little more than a month there, then won a scholarship to move into a $175-a-week sober-living house in Levittown. Now, Michael has logged four and a half months sober -- his longest stretch of sobriety in a long time, his mom said.

- International Overdose Awareness Day Sparks Local Events

He got a job working for a company that prepares houses for people to move in, and goes to support group meetings every day with friends from his recovery house. Angel said the other young men in the house provide a solid network that Michael didn't have back home in Philadelphia, where many of his longtime friends are themselves battling addiction.

Michael plans to eventually become a counselor to help other people out of addiction, both he and his mother said.

- WATCH Michael Tell His Story:

Michael Miller tried taking prescription painkillers when he was younger. Over time, his use grew stronger. Now, he's addicted to heroin and desperately trying to get his life back on track. NBC10 spent time with Michael to understand how addiction controls his life. (Published Monday, March 21, 2016)

Angel motioned toward Michael's dark bedroom door, set beyond a wall plastered full of photos of him in his younger years, smiling back into the apartment. "I miss him," the mother said through tears, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders. "I look at that door and that empty room sometimes, and I say, 'He did it for now.'"

But, as lonely as her home may be without Michael, she still visits him every weekend. She feels safer now than she has in months knowing that Michael is somewhere stable where he can continue to put distance between himself, the heroin and Philadelphia's badlands.

- After Generation Addicted: Michael Miller

Michael's on Vivitrol now, a medication that helps to stop cravings, and he looks better -- more like himself -- than he has in a couple years, Angel said. And though she knows recovery can be a tenuous state, she believes fiercely in her son and said that despite his past relapses, this time, she has a feeling he will make it.

"I couldn't be prouder of Michael," Angel said. "I would do anything for him. There isn't a day go by that I don't talk to God and ask him to watch over me and my kid."