Alema Harrington Finds Strength Helping Other Addicts

Jul 1, 2015

Many are familiar with Alema Harrington, be it through his years as a BYU football player, his being the son of a legendary Hawaiian athlete/TV actor, or his time as a KSL-TV weekend sports anchor and talk radio host. Others might even know him as the elder’s quorum president in their local LDS church congregation. But what many don’t know about him is that he spent years battling an addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.

Alema’s story begins about 30 years ago when he was a student and star player on BYU’s football team. When Alema’s brother Tau set football and school aside to serve a mission, Alema stayed in Provo and continued to play football—a decision he would later regret.

Alema received the opportunity to play as a running back came in 1986 when fellow team member Lakei Heimuli graduated from BYU. It wasn’t long, however, before Alema suffered a serious back injury that forced him to undergo surgery during Christmas break. He continued to recover over the subsequent months but could not return to full-time play until the 1988 season. It was at this time that Alema was introduced to the painkillers that would eventually take control over his life. At first, he turned to the painkillers, which were provided by the BYU athletic department medical staff, to dull back pain. But this quickly turned into recreational use. In Alema’s words, “From my perspective now as a recovering addict and from everything I’ve learned, those who become addicted are addicted the first time the chemicals hit their system.”

Alema mentions that he was also struggling with internal conflicts at the time when his addiction to painkillers began. He had been coping with feelings of self-doubt, feeling as though he should have been serving a mission and struggling with not reaching his full potential as a football player. The painkillers worked to numb the emotional and physical pain he was experiencing from the first time he took them. Soon, at the close of the 1988 season, Alema decided to quit football for good due to continuing pain from his injury. By the time he graduated in 1991, he was married and was taking 10 to 12 Vicodin or Percocet per day, going to multiple doctors to get increased amounts of the painkillers.

Soon Alema did begin to seek treatment over the next couple of years, but he was unsuccessful. His wife soon left him, but within the next few years Alema was able to reconcile with his wife, pursue treatment once again, and begin a career in broadcast journalism. By the time Alema and his family moved to Salt Lake City in 1996 for work with KSL-TV, Alema was a few years into sobriety. Then in 2000, when Alema’s back pain returned, he began to use once again, eventually turning to heroin when the narcotics got too expensive. Two years later, now jobless, separated from his wife, and in dire need of treatment, Alema left for Hawaii for six months to receive treatment an in-patient treatment facility. Alema now reports that he has been mostly drug-free since then. He now says of using painkillers, “There’s nothing today that would be enough to make me use narcotics again.”

Alema has spent his years in sobriety working to reconnect with his kids and speaking frequently about addiction. He recently returned to school to pursue studies in counseling and now works with Renaissance Ranch as a licensed drug abuse counselor, where he helps those trapped in addiction take a gospel-centered approach to overcome their addictions. Though Alema was never able to serve an LDS mission when he was young, he feels like he is serving that mission today.

You can find more about Alema’s story over at Deseret News.

HR Brown is the founder and President of Renaissance Ranch and an Advanced Substance Use Disorder Counselor. He has worked in the substance abuse field for the last 12 years as well as an additional 15 years of finance and business management experience. Through his personal experience in recovery, HR has developed a passion for helping people understand and overcome the disease of addiction.
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