Matt Driscoll

He was addicted and living on the streets. Now he’s throwing out the first pitch at a Mariners game

A heroin addict’s tale: ‘Noah… I told you were going to die’

Noah Van Houten liked the way heroin eased his pain. He liked it so much he was willing to lose everything he had, including his family’s trust, to get more. He roamed Tacoma streets homeless searching for his next fix — often stealing to do it.
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Noah Van Houten liked the way heroin eased his pain. He liked it so much he was willing to lose everything he had, including his family’s trust, to get more. He roamed Tacoma streets homeless searching for his next fix — often stealing to do it.

Following Noah Van Houten from afar — using the tools people so often use to follow people these days, namely social media — things appear to be going well. Really well.

In early 2018, I profiled Van Houten, now 35.

He grew up in Tacoma’s South End before moving to Puyallup in junior high school. He’s a brother, a son, and a father. This summer, he’s spent much of his time coaching softball. Soon, his team will compete for a championship.

Van Houten, like so many in our community, has also battled addiction. In the past, heroin and methamphetamine have been his drugs of choice. He’s spent nights on the street, and nights in jail. In 2014, on Halloween, he lost his older brother. Speaking with The News Tribune, Van Houten’s mother, Catherine Perrin, described the death as “addiction related.”

Today, like millions of Americans, Noah is in recovery.

So even though Van Houten and I have been “friends” online since I first wrote about him more than a year ago, the realities of addiction and recovery — and particularly my family’s experiences with both — meant I also knew, deep down, that there was likely more to his ongoing journey than the photos and smiles that show up on my phone.

“I’ve had my setbacks. Recovery is not linear, and people need to understand that. It ebbs and flows. It goes up and down. It goes forward and backwards,” Van Houten told me this week, honesty remaining one his most endearing and human qualities.

“I suffer from a disease that is constantly trying to get me to feed my addiction,” Van Houten continued. “It’s something that we have to deal with every day. All of us in recovery are just one decision away from, you know, throwing it all away.”

Life has been good, Van Houten assured me. He feels blessed. He’s trying his best to be a decent person, a devoted son and and a dependable father. All of it takes work.

But he’s also realistic about addiction, recovery and his ongoing quest for sobriety — acknowledging that there are no shortcuts, and that his battle will last a lifetime.

“I have continued to move forward,” Van Houten said. “I am still actively involved, and I’m still doing my best to change the way we are treated, to change the way this is viewed, and to unite and mobilize our area to make a difference.”

This forward trajectory, even in the face of daily challenges — more than anything — is what Van Houten wanted to talk about when we reconnected this week.

Over the past year, he’s made strides — personal and political, and he’s proud of both.

Van Houten is spending more time with his daughter, he said, and hopes that trend will continue. He’s got a new house in a part of town he loves. His 11-member softball team — which plays in the Clean and Sober Softball Association under the name Can’t Go Back, which is also the name of the growing online recovery community he created — finished first in its division.

Over the last year, he’s also been asked to testify at the state capitol in Olympia, twice, in support of addiction-related legislation. Working alongside the Washington Recovery Alliance and the Pierce County Recovery Coalition, he’s met Governor Jay Inslee, and even walked away with one of the governor’s souvenir signing pens after one of those bills became law.

“It’s obvious that my higher power … had more plans for my recovery journey than I ever thought possible,” Van Houten said.

This weekend brings two more recovery related events that will provide Van Houten with a public platform for his message.

On Saturday, the Washington Recovery Alliance, the Pierce County Recovery Coalition and Not One More, a national recovery advocacy group with an active chapter in the Pacific Northwest, will hold the Hands Across the Bridge for Recovery event at McKinley Park and the McKinley Way overpass.

The event, according to Van Houten, will be a resource fair and an opportunity — through the literal linking of hands across the bridge — to “symbolize the solidarity of sobriety.”

Then, on Sunday, the Seattle Mariners will hold Washington State Recovery Day at T-Mobile Park. With a portion of ticket proceeds benefiting the Washington Recovery Alliance, a Mariners team spokesperson confirmed that roughly 1,300 tickets have already been sold through the promotion.

It’s shaping up to be a big day for the recovery community Van Houten has worked to cultivate. So perhaps it’s only fitting that, shortly before the game begins, Van Houten will throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

The moment isn’t lost on him.

“To say I was going to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game, I mean, that’s crazy to me,” Van Houten acknowledged of his life’s struggles and the work he’s done to overcome them. “I never thought that would be possible, for someone like myself would have an opportunity like that.”

At the same time, Van Houten also knows work remains.

He’s not done, he promised. Far from it.

Personally, he said he will continue to strive — knowing he’s not perfect, and that every morning brings a chance for redemption or relapse, and it’s up to him to choose.

Publicly, he’ll also continue to push for more understanding of addiction as a disease. That means erasing the stigma, increasing resources and support, and recognizing that “recovery is different for everyone, but success is possible for everyone,” he said.

In short, Van Houten wants to “make recovery the epidemic,” he told me.

Knowing what Van Houten has already accomplished, it’s not hard to envision him succeeding, even when he acknowledged — in another moment of honesty— that there’s “a lot of pressure” in being public about his journey.

“I feel like it’s my duty and my responsibility to take advantage of these opportunities,” Van Houten said. “I want people to know that recovery isn’t linear, and that anyone in the world who suffers from substance use disorder can do all of these things.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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