David McCallum, seen here handling liquid nitrogen, overcame addiction that was caused in part by opioid prescriptions from a dental procedure. Now he works at a company specializing in the cryogenic equipment used to store and transport climate-sensitive materials like COVID vaccines. He aspires to become a mechanical engineer.

David McCallum, seen here handling liquid nitrogen, overcame addiction that was caused in part by opioid prescriptions from a dental procedure. Now he works at a company specializing in the cryogenic equipment used to store and transport climate-sensitive materials like COVID vaccines. He aspires to become a mechanical engineer.

Photo provided by Eric Reikowski

‘I have experienced that a life after addiction is possible’

Man overcomes drug addiction, strives to become engineer

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 8, 2021


STERLING HEIGHTS — Before COVID-19, another illness was ravaging the country, and it never left. Prescription opioid addiction, and also alcohol misuse, are all-too-common struggles in the United States. But one local man found a way past them — and now he is playing a key role helping design technologies that save lives.

David McCallum, 30, of Sterling Heights, has been sober for nearly four years, after a long-running battle with substance misuse that started in his high school years. Today, he is employed at Custom Biogenic Systems, a company that specializes in state-of-the-art cryogenic equipment. Among the company’s clientele are pharmaceutical and biotech firms that use such equipment to preserve vaccines in the battle against COVID-19.

McCallum’s job is to work with computer software to design the equipment that safely stores and transports those vaccines and other climate-sensitive materials. McCallum earned a certificate in computer-aided design from Macomb Community College, and now he is nearing completion of an associate degree in mathematics from the same school.

Next, he plans to transfer to Oakland University this summer to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, which he hopes will lead to an engineering role at his company. His sister tipped him off to OU’s Frontline Workers Scholarship, which provides $1,250 per year for two years to Michigan frontline workers who earn their associate degree from any of the state’s 28 community colleges and then transfer to Oakland University between this summer and the fall of 2024.

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, the president of Oakland University, said in a statement that the program is a way to thank those making a difference during the pandemic.

“We hope these scholarships provide vital financial support as (frontline workers) pursue their educational ambition,” Pescovitz said.

The road to recovery
McCallum said he’s hopeful that his story can help people better understand the reality of overcoming substance addiction, and what they can do to help.

“My addiction started while in high school, changing the trajectory of my life,” McCallum said in an email. “I was a ‘straight A’ student in ninth grade and was very anti-drugs. I was raised as a Jehovah’s witness, and I was educated in school to the dangers of alcohol and other substances.”

He said it was around that time that many of his close friends began drinking and smoking.

“It looked fun, and they did not appear to have any negative consequences,” he said. “Soon, I began using these substances also. I quickly lost interest in attending school or studying, and I dropped out from Stevenson High School.”

That’s when he began to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, which led him to see a doctor who prescribed narcotic medications. He was also prescribed opioid medications around the same time, after a dental procedure — his first introduction to opioids and the start of what would become a long-term dependence with many consequences.

McCallum’s recovery began shortly after he was accepted into a sobriety program at Warren’s 37th District Court, which included participation in a 12-step program, counseling and recovery coaching. He and his mother also began attending meetings of Families Against Narcotics, hearing the stories of other people with family members who were struggling with addiction.

“I understand now that addiction is a family disease, because the impact the disease has extends to the entire family,” he said. “The reality of substance abuse is that it is a treatable disease, not a moral failing. Supporting people in recovery is not helping bad people become good, but helping sick people get better. No one is immune from the effects of addiction. Unfortunately, most people will not become interested in raising awareness and supporting the treatment efforts until it has personally affected themselves or their family members.

“People in active addiction look like a lot of things: careless, belligerent, dishonest, criminal. But it is rarely identified for what it really is: suffering,” McCallum said. “It is important that we change the stigma that exists related to the disease of addiction, which we do not associate with other medical disease, because this stigma prevents many people from ever seeking help.”

He recalled the toll his own addiction took on him, and he spoke to the best way people can help.

“In my active addiction, I did not see any way out from my situation, and it took me a long time to even admit that the substances I was using were the source of most of my problems,” he said. “What I have experienced in long-term recovery has been the opposite of my expectations. I have rediscovered the gift of life, the simple things I lost touch with, like the companionship from reconnecting and cultivating lifelong friendships, the satisfaction from completing a difficult test or solving a complex problem at work, the anticipation of Friday and enjoying the weekend after a long work week. I’ve also re-experienced enjoyment from videogames, music, exercise and meditation. Overall, I have experienced that a life after addiction is possible.

“I would encourage anyone struggling with addiction to ask for help. There is no shame in seeking help. Many treatment options exist. Recovery looks different for each individual,” he said. “Addiction is a progressive disease that develops frequently over multiple years. Similarly, recovery is a long-term process. There is no quick fix or pill that is going to reverse addiction, but every attempt at recovery, successful or not, is all part of the process. There are often only brief moments of clarity for people who are in active addiction. When these moments happen, it is extremely important to seize on them before they pass, and to provide opportunities for detox and, where possible, long-term inpatient rehabilitation.”

He said that he looks forward to continuing his journey in recovery.

“I am a work in progress,” McCallum said. “I understand today how important it is to participate in things that help me remain grateful and to accept my feelings as they come — good, bad or indifferent. Becoming a productive citizen was not my goal when I came into recovery; I just wanted the consequences of my addiction to go away. But today I look forward to ways I can contribute and give back in ways like what was provided for me.”

For more information about Oakland University’s Frontline Workers Scholarship, visit online at www.oakland.edu/futurestudents/scholarships-cost-aid/front liners.