'Something to feel good about'

Strength trainer documents his recovery

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KEENE, N.H. — From the day Justin Goulet walked out of the University of New Hampshire in 2001 with his degree in exercise science to the day he got a job at the University of Vermont, the White River Junction native was on track to do great things as a strength trainer.

He got his first job at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., working his way up the ladder to assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Rhode Island from 2002 to 2003, then 16 months as the head strength and conditioning coach at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

After that, he traveled to Norwich University in Vermont, where he was the head strength and conditioning coach, and then on to the University at Albany before settling in at the University of Vermont.

For all those who interacted with Goulet, it appeared this hard-charging, take-no-prisoners strength coach was at the top of his game, but he had a secret.

In 2003, Goulet injured himself in a weightlifting competition and was prescribed an opiate as a painkiller, which he took until 2010, when his doctors cut him off. After Goulet lost his prescription for

painkillers, he turned to heroin to feed his addiction.

"I was a mess," Goulet said Monday, while watching over a trio of teenagers working out in his gym on Gilbo Avenue. "The folks at UVM gave me all sorts of chances to get my life together, but I had to resign."

By the end of 2012, Goulet was serving a 14-month sentence in federal prison for his role in a heroin and crack cocaine distribution ring in Burlington.

"I got involved with some very bad people," said Goulet.

But Goulet is not blaming the doctors or the drug dealers he got involved with to feed his habit. He places the blame squarely on his own shoulders.

"I've always tried to do things my own way," he said. "I was an extremely hard worker, an educated guy. I was stubborn, too. But my way never worked."

Even while taking drugs, Goulet said he believed he could handle them on his own.

"I thought I could think my way out of it, use will power," he said. "But I always failed."

After serving his sentence, Goulet was sent to Phoenix House in Dublin for treatment.

"They basically beat me into the ground," he said. "They said 'You are a jerk. You don't accept anybody else's point of view. You always think you're right. You're always confrontational with everybody. Just shut up and sit down and do what we tell you to do.'"

Goulet said that's what he needed to hear to get better.

"The drugs weren't the problem," he said. "I was the problem. The second I sat down, shut up and got out of my own way, my life got better. Maybe there are some people who can think their way out of it or use will power, but I never could."

Goulet said the key to his recovery has been the 12-Step Program for Alcoholism Recovery.

"It's the only thing that has worked for me," he said. "Get a sponsor and get involved in the 12 steps and AA."

Goulet admitted his recovery hasn't been spotless. He has slipped a couple of times.

"The times I relapsed ... I stopped doing what was working for me. I stopped going to meetings. I stopped going to counseling."

But now, Goulet is going on four years sober and he is the subject of a short documentary — "Face of Recovery" — produced by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont.

"As U.S. Attorney, I want every story to end like Justin's," said Christina Nolan. "My dream is to never have to prosecute another drug case."

Nolan, who's been the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont since 2017, said she hopes the documentary will make a difference and plans to screen it around the region at schools, community centers and recovery centers.

"The theme of this documentary is hope," she said. "We want to spread a message of hope through the story of one individual. In addition to hope, we need to remind others there is help available and there are stories of people overcoming addiction."

"The video was a chance for us to do something positive," said Goulet, who wrote Nolan a letter of thanks when he was released from prison. "I thanked her for holding me accountable."

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Goulet said it was also important for him to make the film to help reduce some of the stigma and stereotypes that are related to addiction.

"At my worse, I was as bad as you can ever imagine. I was a liar. I was a manipulator. I borrowed money from everyone I knew. I victimized people. I was a complete and total monster."

But, he said, despite his "abrasive" personality, as he termed it, you might not have known he was a junkie.

"People have a view of what they think a heroin addict is," says Goulet in the video. "They think it's a guy curled up behind a dumpster with a needle sticking out of his arm. Most of the time when I tell people I'm a recovering heroin addict, they don't believe me. But it doesn't matter how strong you are or how tough you are or how strong-minded you are. It can happen to anybody."

Goulet, who said he had a normal childhood that included good grades and playing football at Hartford High School, said his story is not unique, and his recovery is not remarkable.

"There are a lot of people walking around with incredible recovery stories," he said, but you don't hear about their stories because they prefer to remain anonymous. Goulet said he didn't have that choice.

"You can't go from being a collegiate strength coach to working in a rinky-dink gym and not have an answer of why," says Goulet in the video. "I don't want to have to hide things from people."

"Me being out there and wearing it on my sleeve is good for other people, to know that they're not alone," Goulet told the Reformer.

"This documentary is not just for people who are using or are in recovery," said Nolan. "This is also for people who know somebody who is using. It's really important for families, friends and communities to hear his message."

Nolan told the Reformer she rejects the cynical notion that addicts can't change. "It's a form of giving up," she said.

"I want addicts to stop using and I think it's going to be a combination of enforcement, treatment and prevention," says Nolan in the video. "When you've met people that I've met in prosecuting cases and you see that they have recovered from addiction ... don't tell me that we can't make any difference ... that people are always going to use, because it's not true."

"I also understand the other side of it," Goulet told the Reformer. "Sometimes I have resentment toward the people who keep using. I get why people are frustrated. But our frustration is not going to do any good. The key is to tell people not to give up."

Goulet said someone, watching him in rehab, might have thrown up their arms as well.

"I probably hit six or seven rehabs before I got it," he said.

"Justin can speak with authority because he has lived this," said Nolan. "He will tell you it's not easy, but you can get there."

"If you get a couple of weeks, a couple of months, a couple of years ... one day at a time," said Goulet. "But you've got to put your recovery first. You can have life."

But, said Goulet, being an addict is not something that ever goes away.

"I've accepted the fact that I gave myself a disease that I am going to have the rest of my life," he said. "I'll never defeat it but I have to manage it. That's my responsibility."

As part of his recovery, Goulet takes a monthly dose of Suboxone, which reduces his cravings and serves as a blocker if he ever does fall off the wagon again. That, coupled with regular AA meetings, keeps him on the straight and narrow, he said.

"I have to be on my guard all the time, and it's tiring," he said. "It's a curse but if I hadn't gone through everything I did with recovery, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I was a narcissist, a bully with a huge ego. I thought I had everything figure out. I was wrong. Since then, I have had time to hone my craft and learn humility."

Nolan said another message she wants to send with the video is that though she has to prosecute people for their roles in using and distributing drugs, her office is also actively involved in prevention and helping people recover from addiction.

"Our office will enforce the law," she said. "It's an important component of how to address this crisis. But we want to be part of the prevention and recovery efforts as well."

Goulet said he was glad to help get the message out.

"This is something to feel good about," Goulet told the Reformer. "It's not all doom and gloom."

To view the video, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-uPf-_sRGE&feature=youtu.be.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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