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Fighting the demons: Sumner’s battle

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The worst thing that Sumner Scarborough has endured during his life was not being a teacher anymore. Not standing in front of the classroom teaching chemistry, not inspiring kids.

      Not teaching was more difficult than the opioid addiction he suffered for nearly 13 years, worse than his arrest for a felony breaking and entering, worse than the public humiliation that befell a solid member of the community and favorite of many a student in Manteo High School, worse than two months of withdrawal that made him so sick he sometimes wished he was dead.  

      Scarborough is tall, slim with neatly trimmed hair and goatee and searching deep-set eyes. Teaching was his life.

      "Chemistry is a tough subject to teach," he says. "But when you see that light suddenly come on in a student's eyes, well, it's the best feeling in the world." That could be why Scarborough taught well beyond the time he could retire: 29.5 years as he likes to say precisely.

      And he remembers the end as if it was yesterday. He remembers because he re-lives it just about every day of his life.

      But let's start from the beginning, that fateful moment in the summer of 2000. Scarborough was laying a floor in his house in Manteo. He was sawing boards on the porch when a friend dropped by to visit. An unexpected hello, a fleeting distraction, and the intense pain when he saw the blade run through his finger.

      Scarborough didn't know it then, but it would change his life forever. It also started him down the road of opioid addiction. He went to the hospital emergency room to get his finger, that was hanging by a thread, re-attached, and for his first prescription of Percocet. And then more and more and more.

      Yet, Scarborough still taught and inspired.

      "He was one of my all time best teachers," recalls Katie Lee, who took both regular and Advanced Placement chemistry from Scarborough. "He was funny, sarcastic, and boy was he smart. He made chemistry fun. You know how every kid who takes chemistry dreams of blowing things up? Well, Mr. Scarborough let us blow things up.

      "Chemistry wasn't my best subject, but Mr. Scarborough would always challenge me when he saw that I was faltering. He made sure that I never gave up on myself. He was the light of my senior year.”

      Katie Lee is now a substance abuse counselor in Raleigh.

      "I never ever came to school high," Scarborough says. "I couldn't do that to the kids. They deserved better, the best I could offer."

      Yet, Scarborough's addiction took him to darker and darker places. When the doctor he was seeing would no longer give him more refills, he doctor shopped, bouncing from one to the other in search of the next prescription. But his past caught up to him and no doctor, no matter where he went, would give him more painkillers.

      "At this point, I wasn't going after opioids to ease the pain or get high. I needed the pills to stay normal."

      Staying normal meant going to buy opioids from dealers who hawked their wares from street corners or behind the closed door and shuttered windows of a neighborhood house. He quickly learned that dealers didn't have his best interest at heart. Nor were they the most reliable.

      And still he taught.

      There were times when he didn't know if he would get any pills. "You reach a point where you'll do anything, something so illogical, so out of character from your being, to get drugs."

      That desperation came in 2013.

      "I learned from my street sources about a guy who had a house full of opioid pills. I decided I would break in and steal as many as I could take with me," he recounts.

      What Scarborough didn't count on was the man's wife being home. The police arrested him several hours later. The charge: felony breaking and entering.

      After getting out of jail, Scarborough started getting help at New Horizons, the treatment and recovery center in Nags Head. Two months of intensive outpatient treatment, what counselors there call recovery boot camp.

      "They've just been the best to me," he says.

      It also started his withdrawal. "There's no way you can imagine it. Think of the worst case of flu you've ever had and multiply that hundreds of times. You’re sick, your whole body is in pain, you vomit constantly, you can't eat, you can't sleep."

      It took him two weeks in recovery before he saw a doctor and got a prescription for Suboxone. "Suboxone didn't get me high, but it helped me be somewhat normal. But then, I had to wean myself off the Suboxone. That wasn't easy, either." 

      Scarborough has been sober for three years. "I don't miss it, I don't have any desire for pills." He still goes to New Horizons once a month for a class and to see his substance abuse counselor. He admits that it's as challenging to deal with the bitterness and emptiness of not teaching as it is to make sure he stays sober.

      Although he now earns a nice living on retirement, Social Security and thriving E-bay business, he would give it all up in an instant to still be teaching.

      On the one hand, he expresses resentment for the way his forced retirement was handled. "I considered myself a damn excellent teacher. That had to have counted for something." On the other: "I guess they didn't have much choice. I did plead guilty to a felony, there was all of the media and public attention. And I made the choices that got me there."

      In court after his arrest, Scarborough chose to plead guilty to the felony and 18 months probation, because as a first offender and, if he stayed above the law for that period, his criminal record would be erased.

      But his real sentence was far harsher: life without teaching. 

The fourth part of our series on Dare County’s battle against drug abuse focuses on people who fell prey to addiction and its ravages and who wage a daily battle to stay sober and to build—and often rebuild—their lives.  One such person is Wanchese resident Owen Saunders. Another is former Manteo teacher Sumner Scarborough. They shared their stories of despair and redemption with the Sentinel and what follows are their accounts of their long struggles with drugs and the difficult journey to getting clean.

Next week: In the final part of the series, the Sentinel takes a look at what has been accomplished thus far in the county’s fight against drug abuse and what challenges still remain.


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