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February 8, 2016

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j. patrick coolican:

Recovering meth addict gives back through sober living program

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Leila Navidi

Jeff Iverson sits on the steps at Freedom House Sober Living apartments in Las Vegas Wednesday, June 29, 2011.

Freedom House

Jeff Iverson is shown with his wife Lisa and their 16-month-old son Caden at Freedom House Sober Living apartments in Las Vegas Wednesday, June 29, 2011. Launch slideshow »
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J. Patrick Coolican

At his darkest moment, Jeff Iverson was so enslaved to methamphetamine that he willingly took a three-week jail sentence because he thought county lockup was the only way to get clean, at least in the short term.

This was about five years ago, the ugly end of more than a decade of a slow and then fast descent into what he calls “literal hell.” He was homeless, or couch surfing anyway, having traveled from snorting to smoking to needles, hanging around small-time meth cooks before his arrest.

His story embodies both the worst and best of our community — the freedom and opportunity, the temptation and transgression, and finally, the chance for responsibility and redemption.

Born to an upper-middle-class Mormon family, Iverson began drinking, smoking pot and doing a little coke as a teenager. He got a job as an administrative assistant at a local financial firm. He showed himself to be competent and took the required tests that licensed him to sell various securities. Who needs college, right? That attitude, so widespread because the valley offered plentiful good jobs for so long, has damaged our community, Iverson fears.

Soon he discovered that with meth he could party and gamble all weekend and show up at work on Monday, no problem.

For some people, it ends there. But for Iverson, that was just the end of the beginning. “You think it’s recreational, but it’s not.” Next comes the rest of the Hubert Selby Jr. novel: Dabbling during the week, not showing up at work, losing his job, losing family and friends, and then losing himself.

“I accepted the fact that I would be dead or in prison, and neither of those sounded like a bad thing,” he says.

Those bad years at the end must have been unimaginably bad because by the time he got out of jail, no longer suffering from physical withdrawal, he was ready to work his recovery.

The rest of the story is so incredibly uplifting and great, so syrupy-Hallmark-Channel-TV movie-motivational-speaker-worthy, that I’m almost embarrassed to tell it.

He got a job driving at Presidential Limousine, which he calls “miraculous” given his criminal record. Soon he started noticing that the company could do some things to improve efficiency. He sat down with the owner, who promoted him to dispatcher after three months of driving. Six months after that, he’s general manager.

This was all great, but also dangerous for someone with a sly and seductive chemical con man always whispering in his ear. Imagine the urge to celebrate this success with a bottle of Champagne.

“I just kept focused on doing the next right thing,” he says.

Soon, he realized this meant helping others. “If I really want to change my life,” he said, “I need to get involved in an intense way.”

A year sober, he began volunteering at a treatment center and wound up on the board of the Solutions Foundation, which does substance-abuse prevention and outreach, including in the schools.

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Jeff Iverson, left, talks with Daniel Moore, an outreach coordinator at Freedom House Sober Living apartments in Las Vegas Wednesday, June 29, 2011.

In 2008, with a partner he started Sober Living Las Vegas, a housing program for people trying to get clean.

Meanwhile, he was also helping Presidential Limousine become a powerhouse. The company tripled in size, adding 80 employees during the past three recession-racked years, bringing the total to 125.

Around this time, Iverson also met his wife, Lisa, who was also in recovery.

Did they cross paths during their partying days?

“We’re not sure,” he says with a laugh.

Their son, Caden, is a big, happy 16-month-old.

In 2010, with the help of a wealthy, anonymous philanthropist, Iverson opened Freedom House, two adjacent buildings with 55 apartments for people who want to change their lives.

The rules are simple: No drugs or alcohol, attend 12-step meetings, curfew.

Each building has an interior courtyard and pool, “the Melrose Place of sobriety,” says Chuck Cashmore, sober for 2 1/2 years and on staff at Freedom House.

Cashmore had run into Iverson at the Salvation Army. “I was moving furniture for a little cash, and here I am today, part of a wonderful vision.”

You’ll find when talking to these good people that coincidences are never chalked up to mere coincidence.

Potential residents are referred to Iverson and his staff through their many contacts among case workers and the specialty courts. Iverson is a drug court graduate and a big supporter of same.

He is a highly focused small-business man, a practicing Mormon and as sober, in every sense of the word, as it gets. But guess what? He’s also a bit of a bleeding-heart liberal — a forceful advocate for a stronger safety net, including more specialty courts, more mental health facilities, more treatment beds, better schools. He’s appalled at the condition of our community and fears what’s next — “We’re going to fill our jails with the mentally ill,” he says incredulously.

From the sound of it, he likes the tough cases: “I know what it’s like to be on the fence, not knowing what it means to live differently.”

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Jeff Merwin, a resident who has been sober since January, shows off his apartment at Freedom House Sober Living apartments in Las Vegas Wednesday, June 29, 2011.

The residents I met are deeply thankful for Freedom House.

Jeff Merwin, whose azure eyes match his shirt, has been here since Jan. 27, sober six days before that. Alcohol was his thing. “I was very good at it,” he jokes.

“It’s comforting being in a community where we’re striving for the same thing,” Merwin says.

Michelle Mitchell, a night manager and free of crack and alcohol for 20 months, likens it to a big family.

Someday, with the help of more Jeff Iversons, this community will feel more like a big family. Let’s hope so anyway.

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