First in a series

Like the inside of a darkened movie theater, light flickers on a projection screen flashing numbers over and over.

Chris Harvey pictures this in his mind as he struggles to keep himself from walking away from a treatment center in Atlas.

Instead of starting at 10 and working down, he starts at the bottom - one, two, three and on until he reaches 10. That's 10 more seconds he stayed put.

He starts over. One, two, three and on and on and on. Another 10 seconds.

Chris, 33, is a recovering addict. He started with alcohol and pot and moved on to cocaine and acid. He popped pills, snorted bath salts, injected heroin.

He's been to county jail and state prison. A downtown Shamokin burglary got the ball rolling on that. For years he continued to violate probation from that single incident. For even longer he was abusing drugs, 16 years or so.

He's clean now. Been that way since Oct. 7, 2011. That's the new number he tracks.

It grows with each passing second. Phone in hand, he opens an app and ticks off the time that he's been sober: 2 years, 7 months, 19 hours, 8 minutes.

His phone rings. It's a friend who's son relapsed. Chris excuses himself from telling his own tale of addiction to hear a portion of another's.

Opening up

Opening up doesn't come easy for Chris. He's careful with his words, seemingly weighing the consequences of his answers. Being honest with himself has been a big step in his recovery.

He's told parts of his story at Narcotics Anonymous meetings in church basements and treatment centers. There's an inherent trust that the details stay in those rooms.

But he's taken steps to share publicly where trust cannot be assumed. He's spoken about drug abuse at a citizen crime watch meeting in Shamokin. That audience was a fraction of those who listened to him speak at a town hall on drug abuse last month at the Danville Area Middle School auditorium.

Patricia Harvey, or Pat as she's known, looked on that night along with other relatives, including Chris' children. In her mind she believed her son had finally grasped what it meant to be a recovering addict.

"I couldn't have been prouder of him than if he was inaugurated president of the United States," she says. "He gets it. He really knows what he needs to do. He knows it's one day at a time."

Chris will speak again at 5 p.m. Thursday at Shamokin Area Middle/High School when state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-27) hosts the latest in the series of public events meant to raise awareness of drug abuse.

From beer to cocaine

Like mothers often do, Chris's says he was an angel as a child - perfect, easy to raise, followed the rules.

He had gentlemanly qualities, a kindness and eagerness to help. These character traits coupled with wit, charm and good looks attracted his fiancee, Rachael Wade. They've been together four years and have a young daughter, Addy.

But it's not as if he was averse to finding trouble. He and his friends spent a lot of time in the woods of the Paxinos area doing what boys do: building forts, fighting each other, goofing off.

Chris went to a few high school parties as a freshman. At some point he had a beer. He didn't like it. At some other point he decided that he did. It wasn't long before he started smoking pot.

His mother says his behavior quickly changed. School was of no importance. He'd rebel when disciplined by she or his father, Doug; he got mean and stole money. His mother, a longtime teacher at Shamokin Area Elementary, pulled him from the district and sent him up the hill to the private Catholic school, Lourdes Regional. The change in scenery did nothing to change his attitude.

"Everything got a little bit worse," Chris said.

Still in high school, he began dropping acid and developed a cocaine habit. He'd get high before school, sometimes during school. Chris moved out of his parents' home when he turned 18. He slept in cars or at the homes of friends and showered when their parents were at work. His mother drove around town looking for people he knew, asking about him. She didn't want him to move home, but she wanted to get him help. He had no interest in it.

20-plus ODs

Chris was snorting pain killers when he was 19 years old. It's effect was weakening. Someone suggested he inject it and stuck the needle in his arm for him that first time.

"I loved it," Chris says.

His was a fickle love. If he couldn't get pills, he'd buy heroin. If there was no heroin, he'd get pills like Oxycontin and Dilaudid. Be it the street drug or a pharmaceutical, either was sufficient to get high. He stole from his parents to feed his habit, or used the affections of girls.

There were four trips to a hospital for overdose. One came after he injected heroin inside a gas station bathroom in Coal Township where he worked. Chris figures there were some 20-odd other times where he OD'd and didn't seek help. No one else sought it for him, either.

But there were times when he'd get clean, or at least cleaner. Although he used drugs 16 years, it was to varying degrees. Sometimes he was a full-blown addict, sometimes he was just dabbling, sometimes he only drank.

Chris has four children: a son, two daughters and a stepson from a previous marriage. His daughter, Kayla, now 10, was about 1 year old when he straightened out for a bit. To that point, his eldest, Jake, never knew a father that was clean and focused. He once skipped out of town on his son's birthday, for which he still carries guilt. He was 24 years old and didn't want that for Kayla. By getting clean he'd be sober for Jake, too.

It didn't last. The lesson he'd learn much later was that despite his good intentions, he couldn't get clean solely for anyone else. He had to get clean for himself.

Jail? 'This ain't bad'

There's one thing Chris wants to make clear in talking about his addiction: Jail didn't help. Not really. Not how some people may believe it could.

He was 18 years old when he broke into a coffee shop on Independence Street in downtown Shamokin. He was high on pain pills, a precursor to his heroin addiction. The would-be burglar did himself no favors by leaving his ID at the scene of the crime. He pleaded guilty.

His mother was shamed. All those kids she taught over the years, all their parents, she couldn't look any of them in the eye. She called her boss, tried to resign. For one month she stayed in her bedroom. It took that long to work up the courage to return to work.

Chris's thoughts were on jail. It scared him, at least until he got there. When he arrived at Northumberland County Prison, he knew a lot of people inside, inmates and guards. He says he was able to get drugs inside the prison's walls, and remembers thinking to himself, "This ain't bad."

It was his first of many trips to jail.

"Every time it got a little bit more normal for me, a little easier. It turned into it was more of a relief of going to jail than anything bad," he says.

He guesses he spent at least four years of his life inside one jail or another. He was in and out of the county lockup, largely for probation violations stemming from that first arrest. He spent about a year in state prison and another year jailed in Volusia County, Fla., on a battery conviction.

Pat helped put him in jail more than once. In jail, she thought he was safe. Chris had gotten into a fight more than once in rehab, earning himself an early exit. They don't throw people out of jail for getting in a fight.

"My goal was, if I keep him alive, he might change his life around. If he's dead, he can't," she says.

Family's pain realized

When Chris began using heroin and bath salts in 2010, Rachael helped his mom in attempting to have him arrested. She couldn't handle his irrational behavior, the thefts, the lies. He was practicing her signature to forge checks, emptied her bank account twice. He withdrew from his family, from his children.

Kayla saw the change in her father. They were so close. They baked together, made crafts, drew pictures and hiked. They had a bedtime song.

He didn't know it, but the addiction was beginning to force him to neglect her. After spending so much energy on the kids, he hardly wanted to leave the couch except to leave the house.

His last arrest came Memorial Day Weekend 2011 after he'd been binging on bath salts. His family called the cops.

Later that summer, Kayla was searching through the house. She brought what she believed to be candy to her grandmother, Pat, and asked if she could have it. It was bath salts. Rachael told him over the phone. Her words were harsh.

"It was the first time that I actually saw it from the other side, the people who I was hurting," Chris says.

Coming full circle

Chris was clean when he left jail on Oct. 7, 2011. His mother convinced Rick Catino to take him on at his facility, RCAA Health Services in Atlas. It took more convincing for Chris to actually go himself.

The first month or so was the hardest. It was the blackout period. No telephones. No vehicles. Limited contact with anyone outside the drug treatment facility where he stayed with four other addicts, all male. He hardly slept. He attended meetings three times daily, on site and off site. He spent a lot of time with Rick, a certified recovery specialist, undergoing one-on-one counseling.

So close to Shamokin and with connections in Mount Carmel, Chris battled an urge to get high. All he had to do was leave. He didn't.

Rick lands odd jobs for program participants to work at together. They cut grass, do light construction. His favorite jobs are the ones furthest away. Car rides to Harrisburg can be useful; it gets the guys to open up. Opening up - that's where Chris's story comes full circle.

Chris needed prodding to talk about his addiction. Each day for three months, he passed when handed a book to read aloud, like "One Day at a Time." Rick let it go again and again. And then he put his foot down.

"I said, 'Chris, you ain't passing that book no more. You read it.' When he embraced the program verbally, he took off. He just didn't want to let it loose," Rick says.

From then on, Chris began to become more engaged. He let down his defenses. At one point he began to chair a meeting. Not that it was easy. He struggled with temptation every day. He had so much anxiety there were times he could hardly breathe.

At six months, Chris wasn't ready to leave. Asked to stay longer, Rick obliged. The group meetings continued; so did the one-on-one sessions and the odd jobs. At nine months, Chris was ready. He left treatment.

'Fun dad' is back

Chris has steady work in masonry. He, Rachael, Kayla and Addy live together in Shamokin.

Rachael says he's now a different dad. Kayla's thrilled to have him back. He always was the "fun dad," always loved his children. "But now he's all the way there," she says.

Chris goes to meetings monthly, or more often when he feels the need. His mother still goes each week to a meeting for families.

"I'm so proud of what he's done. In the beginning, I didn't know how hard it was to stop," Pat says.

Chris is talking now, retelling his story. Pat and Rachael lived it, too. They can finish most of his sentences. Not all of them. There are some new details Chris has shared that they never knew about. Surely there's more to the story that he'll share over time.

He went to a meeting later that night in Shamokin. That friend who called on the phone asking for help? Chris found his son a few hours after the meeting, spoke with him, mostly small talk. He isn't ready for treatment, Chris says. Not yet.