Life Connected: Addicts Help Each Other in The Tweakers Project

Addicts find support through each other online

Jimmy Palmieri lost someone he loved to addiction, and it broke his heart -- in part because he couldn’t help that person get clean.

The experience made him determined to try and help someone, somehow, begin to deal with – and heal from – their addiction. The nonprofit, volunteer-driven Tweakers Project realized that need.

"We will drive them to a hospital. Drive them to a rehab. Get them a bed. Beg for a bed. I have no pride when it comes to someone that is ready," Palmieri said.

The Tweakers Project is a support group for people struggling with meth addiction, and for family members and friends who are struggling because someone they love is an addict.

The group provides information and encouragement and members believe strongly that a sometimes a supportive word can help an addict get through the day.

The organization began several years ago, and Palmieri says it has helped thousands of people, including Robert Gamboa.

Gamboa’s addiction took him by surprise and seemed to hijack his life.

"I never thought I would be that kind of a person," Gamboa said. 

He came from a "great family" and graduated from "a really great school," he said.

But Gamboa struggled with his being gay, which shamed him. He began to use drugs, including crystal meth, to "escape" that shame and his fear of coming out of the closet. He said his behavior was dangerous. 

"At one point I’m sitting in downtown LA County jail, HIV positive, a felon. How did I get to be this person?" Gamboa recalls.

He said he spent years "chasing the dragon," trying to recreate the thrill of his first hit of crystal meth.

That chase nearly cost him his life.

"When I hit bottom, my doctor told me I had six months to live if I kept going the way i was going," Gamboa said. "I made the decision I wanted to live."

Now three years sober and employed by the city of West Hollywood, Gamboa said, he can now make amends to his family.

"My mom calls me almost every day and tells me how grateful she is that I made it through alive," Gamboa told NBC4

He made choices and changes that allowed him to get clean. In the early stages of his sobriety, he discovered The Tweakers Project.

A non-profit organization, the Tweakers Project has no office. There are no paid employees. There are only volunteers -- most of them recovering addicts.

Palmieri said he is proud of what they have accomplished: placing 38 people in rehab facilities over the last 3 1/2 years.

While Palmieri is committed to getting people off meth, The Tweakers Project does not endorse any single method of recovery.

"We support everything. If 12 steps work for you – take it. If church works for you – go. If bobbing for apples in the morning is what you need, do it," Palmieri said.

Palmieri's "Recovery Rocks" campaign is open to anyone but is focused on the gay community. The pamphlets, which are distributed in gay neighborhoods and at pride events, feature shirtless handsome men.

The tone of the campaign is positive and a bit campy, with slogans such as "Captain Lucky says Kick Meth to the Curb" and "Sober is Sexy."

Still, the easiest way for people to connect with others who know the struggle is online. Palmieri says The Tweakers Project Facebook page is like a 24-7 recovery meeting. He says it is about "lifting each other up without being in the room with each other."

On Monday, a young man from Maryland announced it’s "day one" for him. He gets encouragement from another member who responds "hang in there - you can do this."

A few days earlier, someone from Hawaii wrote, "I am stumbling but getting back up." A man from Georgia responded: "It’s amazing how much better life gets."

These exchanges mattered to Wolffgang Scott when he stopped using. 

"I think the most important way it helps is it’s not a secret anymore," Scott said. 

He says it is critical to really feel like you are not alone, and it helps to hear from people who know from their own experience what drug addiction is like.

"Every situation that you could have been through, there’s probably a person on The Tweakers Project that’s been through something similar," Scott said.

Gamboa and Scott both now volunteer for The Tweakers Project and understands why it can help.

"In those moments, when you’re feeling triggers, you’re feeling cravings or even if you have used, it’s great to reach out. People will be there to help." 

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