On Monday afternoon, Sonny Driscoll was standing in back of a house in Salem that offered a sumptuous view of Beverly Harbor. His right forearm, which once announced he was a heroin addict, was stained with paint.

“It’s good, honest work,” he said.

Sonny Driscoll is 27 years old. He could have died, probably should have died, because once heroin has you it holds on like the locked jaw of a Rottweiler.

But there is that ineffable will to live that keeps pushing him, that gets him to rise from the park where he sleeps, to get his methadone, to show up at work, to keep the demons guessing.


The last time I saw Sonny Driscoll he was puffy, about 200 pounds, from all his meds. Now he weighs 150 pounds soaking wet.

And given that he’s been sleeping outdoors in this spring of incessant rain, he’s often soaking wet.

“That’s what sucks the most,” he said. “The cold is bad enough. But when you’re wet, and you’re cold, there’s nothing worse.”

When he was 16, Sonny found his father dead in the Charlestown projects, the needle still in his dad’s arm. You would think Sonny Driscoll would have run away from heroin, but the human mind is an inexplicable organ, and instead he ran toward it, grabbing it until it grabbed back, with its cement grip.

He stole, he robbed, he died, only to be brought back by Narcan.

An old Marine from West Lynn named Ted McDonough found him panhandling in Lynn one day and threw him a lifeline.

Five years ago, Sonny Driscoll stopped using for Ted McDonough as much as for himself, and when he picked up again, relapsing last August, he felt like he let McDonough down more than himself.

He was going to school to get his GED. A great doctor at Tufts Medical Center named Jess Kane helped him fix the teeth that had been destroyed by drugs. A dental student did more than fix his teeth; she listened to him and counseled him and encouraged him and made him want to stay sober.


But then life threw him a curveball that he didn’t know how to handle. He was told to leave his family’s home, told to find his own place, and the only thing he found was heroin.

“When you’re out on the street, it’s all around you,” he said.

In his despair, he picked up again. He was working construction, so he had the money at first. But his tolerance grew and he needed more heroin. In no time, he and a cousin were spending as much as $2,500 a week on heroin.

“We did some stupid stuff,” he says. “Some desperate stuff.”

He failed a urine test, and doctors wouldn’t give him the pills they had prescribed for depression and anxiety. Because he was not allowed to taper off those medications, things got worse in a hurry. He kept spiraling.

Part of Ted McDonough, who had done so much to keep him alive, wanted to kill him. But McDonough didn’t give up on him, and eventually Sonny Driscoll decided he didn’t want to give up, either.

McDonough got him a job as a helper to a friend who has a home improvement business. Sonny Driscoll works when there’s work and when the workday is over he sleeps in a park in Lynn. It’s no picnic in that park or on the streets. Earlier this year, a guy stabbed him in the arm with a box cutter.


Sonny Driscoll, survivor, is living proof that recovery is not a straight road but a winding one, full of dead ends, hard climbs, and steep falls. But it’s the only way to stay on the right side of the grass.

“Recovery’s hard,” he said, as pleasure boats passed by over his shoulder, in back of the house he was painting. “It’s harder when you’re homeless. What are you gonna do? I gotta keep going.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.