Tom Barrack isn't supposed to be alive. Three years ago he was in the hospital in such bad shape, his family members began planning his funeral. Today he's in his second semester at Onondaga Community College and, thanks to his perfect 4.0 grade point average, is a new member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. "I'm super proud of myself! I have an unshakeable sense of joy and motivation now."
Barrack is 30 years old and he's spent much of his life battling addiction. He remembers getting teeth pulled at age 14 and being on pain pills for three months due to complications. "No one told me what withdrawl was. From then on, I was just chasing it."
He graduated high school in 2008 and spent three years in the United States Navy. He was able to keep his addiction a secret from most. Five years ago his life started spiraling out of control. His car broke down beyond repair, he lost his job, and he lost his apartment. The only constants in his life were his drugs of choice, heroin and methamphetamines.
On the morning of November 1, 2017, Barrack woke up and was unable to take a deep breath. He was taken to the hospital where doctors found years of drug use had caught up with him. His lungs were full and he had an infection of the inner lining of his heart, a condition known as endocarditis. Barrack would undergo open heart surgery. He was put in a coma twice, once for over a month, and was also on dialysis.
Barrack would stay in a Tennessee hospital for more than two months. When he was discharged, his mother brought him back to New York so he could begin his recovery. "Without New York's social programs I wouldn't be here. I received Medicaid, public assistance, food stamps, and they put me through treatment. Everything worked for me."
His recovery period also provided Barrack the opportunity to reflect on the live he had lived and the life he wanted to live. "I'm a very smart person and I wasted it for a long time. I also have autism spectrum disorder. I think I turned to drugs to escape what I felt was a trap. Now I feel like I have a superpower and it's going to take me great places."
Barrack physically returned to normal late last year, and in January 2020 he enrolled at OCC. "I was so excited to meet new people, make new connections, and start my life over. I had been closed off from a lot. I wasn't thinking about the world at large. I was stuck in my little feedback loop."
As he started taking classes he also found a home on campus in the Office of Veterans Affairs on the second floor of Coulter Hall. Steve White, who runs the office, quickly became Barrack's go-to person. "Mr. White has been my anchor on campus. Anything I come to him with, he goes to bat for me and helps. When I hit a wall, I come to Steve."
Barrack is in the Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counseling degree program and plans to also pursue a science-related degree while he is here. He wants to learn how experiences impact people, then study the brain and the context of addiction. "I've seen so many people struggle. There's a stigma that causes them to be cast inside and ignored like they are lost causes. I'm proof that's not true. It's not impossible to get better. It starts with people wanting to get better. When they are ready to make that choice they need one solid support person and some responsibility and meaning in life. I want to change the stigma."