Stephen Sutler struggled for years with drug addiction.

He said the addiction cost him relationships with family and friends and even his freedom. On at least two occasions it almost cost him his life.

But now, after numerous treatment programs, Sutler, 34, of Arnold is on a path of clean living.

He married his wife, LeeAnne Sutler, in June 2018, and is a father figure for her two children – Myles, 16, and Selena, 10. The couple is expecting a child together in November.

Stephen Sutler, who works as a carpenter, wants to use his experiences to help others overcome or avoid drug addiction.

“I don’t want to work construction the rest of my life. My passion and desire is to work in the recovery field,” he said. “In December, I started going through peer support certification training. I completed my peer support training, and I am certified as a peer support specialist. Now that I have that certification, I can be hired by an organization to do this work.”

He was a panel member for a program about opioid addiction the FBI St. Louis Citizens Academy Alumni Association held March 24 at the Festus 8 Cinema (See related story above).

While Sutler is in a good place now, it was a long, rough road to get there.

Becoming an addict

Sutler moved to the Arnold area from Florida when he was 13.

His parents had just divorced, and he was in a new place where he didn’t know anyone. He had a lot of issues he didn’t know how to deal with.

“I really created a perfect storm within myself,” Sutler said. “When there became opportunities for me to experiment with drugs and alcohol in middle school, I started experimenting with those.”

When he was a student at Seckman Middle School, he started using marijuana and drinking, and when he was a student at Seckman High School, he started using acid, ecstasy and cocaine.

As Sutler began using more drugs, his friends, who were focused on graduating, going to college and preparing for a future, started to drift away.

Sutler dropped out of high school, got his GED and moved to Las Vegas at 16.

In Las Vegas, he used methamphetamine for the first time, and when he returned to Arnold, he learned how to manufacture meth.

He said he was using meth intravenously and was homeless, drifting from one friend’s couch to another or living in his car.

In 2010, Sutler said he was on his way to meet someone to pick up 3,000 cold pills, which are used to make meth, and the St. Louis County multi-jurisdictional drug task force arrested him for having a meth lab in the trunk of his car.

On Oct. 21, 2010, he was charged with conspiracy to possess Sudafed with intent to manufacture meth, but before he started serving a 42-month prison sentence, he nearly died.

On Feb. 27, 2011, Stephen Sutler shot heroin into his arm and was driving at least 70 mph near the St. Louis Arch when he crashed. He had overdosed on heroin and was found unresponsive behind the wheel, but he was revived. Shortly after that, he started the prison term.

“The overdose behind the wheel was a pretty big eye-opener,” he said. “When I got to prison, I was faced with the decision to continue living life the way I had, and I was going to die that way and nothing was going to get better, or I was going to have to figure out how I got to this point, what other people used to successfully overcome these things and what would work in my situation to overcome the struggles and live a happy and successful life.”

Starting recovery

Sutler cleaned up in prison. He entered a 16-month Bureau of Prison drug abuse program.

His relationship with LeeAnne, who he met in 2010 when he was sober, began to blossom, and he started to find ways to live drug free.

“I started seeing more of his light,” said LeeAnne, 42. “He worked hard on himself. I saw the strides. He communicated everything he had gone through in his life and the steps he was taking to have a better life for himself. I fell in love with that.”

Sutler served 33 1/2 months of his 42-month sentence and then entered a halfway house. He enrolled in the Building Union Diversity program – he is considered a minority because of his felony conviction – to pursue work in construction.

He also began working in restaurants, first as a busboy and then a server. He was stretching himself thin, and unfortunately, he found himself falling back into old patterns.

Sutler said he started drinking after work with his fellow employees, and after a while, that led him back to drug use.

“I slowly gave myself permission because everyone else was doing it,” Sutler said. “I’m working hard, making money and providing for my family. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and I started telling myself I deserve to have a drink. That led to my downfall.”

In 2016, he was drinking after work and decided to drive to a former associate’s house to use heroin. He overdosed for a second time, and first responders thought he was dead after he didn’t respond to numerous doses of Narcan.

“I came to on the way to the hospital,” Sutler said.

Eventually, Sutler found his way to the First Baptist Church of Arnold and the Celebrate Recovery program.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know how to live; can anybody help me? Apparently, I’m not doing this right,’” he said. “A friend of mine, who is my sponsor, he was like come on in, here is this program. It is a biblically-based, 12-step program. If you believe God is real and accept Christ as your lord and savior, he can restore your life and help you overcome these things.”

Turned around

Sutler is still working in construction, but he also volunteers time with the Jefferson County Drug Prevention Coalition and tells his story to help other people.

He has presented his story at Fox and Seckman high schools and Seckman Middle School.

“I can’t say enough good things about his passion for recovery and for helping others,” said Kim Schumacher, Fox C-6 director of nursing, who contacted Sutler through his mother, Cathy, who drives a bus for the school district.

“One of our goals in the (school district’s) health department was to start talking about the uncomfortable things with our staff, parents and students a lot more. It is such an epidemic. When I met Stephen, I thought this is the guy I’ve been looking for. He is young enough to be relatable to the kids.”

In 2017, there were 89 opiate-related deaths and 36 methamphetamine-related deaths in Jefferson County, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Jillian Bissell, a prevention specialist with the Jefferson County Drug Prevention Coalition, said more accurate numbers are not expected until the summer, but in 2018, there were 70 fentanyl deaths, 50 deaths attributed to meth use and 32 deaths related to heroin, opiates or morphine use in the county.

Bissell said it’s imperative to change those statistics and hearing stories like Sutler’s can help.

“He has taken his not-so-great past and turned it into a positive,” Bissell said. “He has made it his mission to make a difference in Jefferson County. It means the world to us to have committee members like him step up and get involved.”

Sutler said he feels obligated to try to help others deal with the struggles he has faced.

“I would like to be a service to Jefferson County,” he said. “This is where I grew up. These are the schools I went to, stores I shop at and community I have lived in. It is a community that for years, I didn’t help support and tore down. It would be my honor to work within the community to build it up.”