His triumph over drug addiction inspires Christie’s efforts
SYNAGOGUE: Temple Beth Sholom
FAVORITE SPORT: Hockey
FAVORITE MOVIE: “The Natural”
As a newly minted college grad, AJ Solomon landed a plum first job in the Trenton office of Governor Chris Christie, a longtime friend of his parents Dianne and Lee Solomon.
But by his own admission, he was a terrible employee. By the age of 22, AJ was a full-blown heroin addict—still functioning but consistently showing up for work strung out and often after first buying dime bags on the streets of Camden, where his father, a presiding criminal court judge, was dealing with an ever-increasing load of drug-related cases.
The idea of getting busted, and having to appear before his father, was terrifying—but not a big enough deterrent for him to stop using.
“It was miserable,” said AJ, 26. “I was working 12 hour days in withdrawal. I didn’t know how to stop; I didn’t think I could stop.”
Fortunately, he did stop, but not before hitting rock bottom. He was homeless, living on the streets in Florida, before he had a spiritual experience that brought him to his path to sobriety.
In January, AJ became the very public face of addiction in New Jersey. During Christie’s State of the State address, the governor credited AJ as his inspiration for enacting new policy and funding to stem drug abuse and to get more help for those already struggling.
For AJ, who recently marked his third year in recovery, the timing could not have been better; this week he is opening a substance abuse treatment center in South Jersey modeled on the one that helped him make the transition to drug-free living.
“I like attention but that was a little bit much,” he quipped. “I didn’t realize he was going to tell my whole story in excruciating detail. I was standing up there trying not to cry.”
The youngest of the three Solomon children, AJ would not have been easily pegged as someone who would fall prey to addiction. He has a memory; he was 10 or 11 riding with his father to a hockey game through Camden. The elder Solomon described the devastating grip drugs had on the city.
Still, all it took was that first taste of beer in high school and he was hooked. Marijuana went hand-in-hand with drinking in high school. Then, at 19, he discovered a taste for the opiate-based painkiller Percocet; it was actually his father’s prescription obtained after a bad bike accident. That led him to heroin, the cheaper alternative.
AJ managed to hide his addictions for years. He functioned well enough to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, where he dual majored in history and political science.
“At the time, I was more scared of what my mom would do if I didn’t graduate than worried about being addicted to all the substances I was doing,” he said.
AJ did not last long in the state office job. He took a medical leave of absence to try to get sober and spent time in and out of rehab centers in Florida and Arizona. In the end, he realized the cycle would not end unless he either killed himself or found a reason to live. This epiphany came to him on an airport shuttle bus outside of Prescott. He was planning to return home to say good-bye to his loved ones and commit suicide when he found out his father had frozen his credit cards. Surrounded by other travelers, AJ fell to his knees and started praying. It was the first time he felt the presence of God.
“I was like ‘let me die or let me get sober’ and, for the first time, I felt some semblance of relief. I never wanted to use again after that,” he said.
That was Feb. 28, 2014. AJ has been clean since then. He spent several months in a sober living facility in Arizona, and worked in treatment centers before eventually moving back to South Jersey with the intention of bringing what worked for him back here. The center, Victory Bay Recovery Center, is in Laurel Springs. He knows all too well the unmet need in South Jersey for this type of facility.
Some six months ago, he made an appointment that he was dreading: To meet with his former boss and make amends for blowing the job opportunity. What he thought would be a 15- minute conversation ended up being two intense hours of conversation in which Christie picked his brain about addiction and treatment.
This is what Christie had to say at the State of the Union: “You see, AJ’s story is not an uncommon story; it just has an uncommon ending. AJ can’t wait to see how the next chapters of his life unfold and neither can I—or his Mom and Dad. I love you AJ—and I am thrilled about how you have chosen to spend the rest of your life—your long and productive life.”