EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a periodic series of articles examining the lives of people who have battled with addiction to drugs.
HUNTINGTON - Barboursville native Aaron Johnson, 29, had a special moment last Tuesday. His daughter celebrated her first birthday, but it was she who gave her dad a gift - she said "dada" for the first time. Just 90 days ago, Johnson might not have been alive to witness it.
Johnson said he has been an addict for 15 years.
When he was 14, his father died and Johnson started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol to deal with his loss.
Then he moved, and he continued using marijuana and alcohol to be cool and fit in.
"People say marijuana isn't a gateway drug, but to me, it was," he said.
Johnson said his mom saw the issue before anyone else, putting him in a treatment facility when he was a teenager. But they let him out because "it was just pot."
Johnson made his way through pills to heroin, and when the heroin stopped working he would mix it with cocaine.
"It ruined every relationship in my life," he said. "It made me steal from family and friends. I wasn't able to feel. I thought I could - I would mimic it like a sociopath. I would convince myself I could really love, but it was all just a big manipulation just to get what I want. That's the nature of that disease."
He would try to quit, but really, he said, he would just substitute one drug for another.
"I'm not going to do heroin, so I'll do suboxone," Johnson explained. "I'm not going to do suboxone, I'll drink. I'm not going to drink, I'll do cocaine. It was always something - always. With my denial, it was 'Well I'm not doing that drug anymore,' so it was OK. But it was still a problem and unmanageable as hell. It ran my life. Even pot. I would steal for money for pot. That's what separates addicts from recreational users. We can't control it."
He overdosed two times. He vividly remembers the second time.
"I had done (cocaine) and realized I did too much," Johnson said. "I ran outside so somebody would find me if I collapsed, but thought I was fine. I ran back inside to the bathroom to do more - insanely enough - and I realized I hadn't been breathing that entire time. I started blacking out. The last thing I remember is my vision was like a pin-point and all I could think was my daughter was going to know that her dad died of a cocaine overdose on a bathroom floor. That was crazy. I was about to die. The best way I can describe it is it was like someone hit in between my shoulders with the palm of their hand. It brought breath back into me. That's when I started my recovery."
Johnson joined the long-term program for men at Prestera Center. He has been sober for 90 days.
"Recovery is like being born again," he said. "I notice the beauty in life. Simple things - the leaves on the trees. I've never paid attention. I thought I did. I can look up at the clouds and appreciate a beautiful day."
He can also appreciate his daughter.
"I was always physically there for her, but mentally I was not," he said. He had a birthday party for her at Prestera. That's where he heard her say "dada" for the first time.
He said Prestera taught him how to live again. It gave him the structure he needed.
He's working on building his life back up - he didn't even have shoes when he arrived at Prestera. He eventually wants to go back to school to become a nurse.
"I found connection in drugs but I didn't get what I was looking for," he said. "All I needed was love."
He said every day gets easier and he is looking forward to telling his daughter he survived the heroin epidemic.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter @TaylorStuckHD.