In September 2002, Mike Bennett, superintendent of Iron County public schools and a bishop in the LDS Church, got a phone call that changed his life. It was the county attorney, telling him he was being investigated for prescription fraud.
“In that moment, everything collapsed, it was like the bottom fell out from under my world,” Bennett remembers.
On several occasions between 1984 and 2001, Bennett’s doctor prescribed him Lortab and Percocet to treat the pain of kidney stones, knee surgery and a chronically inflamed elbow.
The medication freed Bennett from the physical pain that vexed him. He noticed that it gave psychological relief as well. He liked the relaxed feeling the pills gave him, and refilled his prescription as many times as his doctor would allow.
“It was kind of a magic potion,” he recalls, a way to lighten the burden of stress that accompanied his high-pressure position in the community.
Looking back, Bennett says his reaction to prescription opioids put him at risk for opioid addiction. But because he went for long periods without using drugs, “my mind and heart clung to the notion that I did not have a substance abuse problem.”
Then, in 2001, during the last 14 months of his service as superintendent, he was prescribed opioids after an elbow surgery.
As is often the case with prolonged opioid use, his body developed what addiction specialists call “tolerance.” He needed ever-larger amounts of opioids to produce the same pain relief as his original prescription.
By 2002, he had crossed the threshold of addiction. Missing his medication even for a day produced unbearable withdrawal symptoms. Driven to obtain more and more pills, he presented his pain symptoms simultaneously to different doctors as though no one else had prescribed opioids for him.
“I didn’t know that there was a law against doctor shopping, but I felt like what I was doing was wrong on several levels,” says Bennett.
His feelings of guilt made him anxious, and to quiet his mounting anxiety he reached for more pain pills. This vicious cycle continued until that fateful call from the county attorney.
In November 2002, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of attempted prescription fraud, and submitted his resignation to the Iron County School District. He was immediately released from his church calling in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“All of a sudden I went from being at the top of the social and professional totem pole to the bottom,” Bennett recalls. “I felt like I had completely betrayed my profession and my God.”
Bennett sought treatment at Highland Ridge Inpatient Psychiatric Hospital and Mental Health Treatment Center in Midvale, Utah. After three weeks, and an out-of-pocket cost of $13,000, he emerged from the private in-patient program drug free and on a lifetime path of addiction recovery.
But tough as it was to admit that he had a drug problem, it was even harder to counter the stigma that surrounded it.
Friends and community members who had once completely trusted Bennett as their teacher and spiritual leader now looked at him differently. Though people were always polite at church and in stores, Bennett perceived their glances to be judgmental, which intensified his feelings of shame and isolation.
“The Scarlet Letter applies to addiction just like it does to adultery,” he said.
But while some turned away from Bennett, others embraced him.
“My wife, bishop and stake president couldn’t have been more incredible,” he remembers. “They helped me feel forgiven and whole, like I had received a cleansing from heaven.”
Bennett says the Iron County School Board showed him particular kindness. When he resigned from his position as superintendent, he was only three years away from being eligible for a 30-year pension. But the board decided to give it to him anyway and to provide him with medical insurance coverage for the three-year period following his resignation. What Bennett calls this “merciful gesture” cost the board close to $150,000.
The charges against Bennett had cost him his teaching license. Nevertheless, after three years of sobriety, the school board gave him his license back in the fall of 2005. The following spring, Roy Elementary School hired him as its principal.
“When leaders in the education system opened their arms to me once again, it gave me such a feeling of redemption,” he says.
Two years later, he became the principal of North Star Elementary School. When he finally decided to retire in 2009, an assembly was held in his honor.
Bennett, now 69, says it was a “great miracle” that he was able to finish out the career he loved on a positive note. But many recovering addicts, especially those with criminal records, are not so fortunate.
Bennett insists that our society’s perception of addicts needs to change.
“I hope our society will someday see people suffering from drug addiction for who they truly are — not criminals, but human beings struggling to conquer an extremely strong foe,” says Bennett. “To win that fight, they need our empathy, understanding and support.”