After about 1,667 miles of travel from West Palm Beach, Fla., James Matthews pulled in his recently repaired bicycle to a house in Odessa to stay with a friend for the night. He was a little more than halfway to his destination: Hollywood Boulevard.

At first glance, Matthews may come across as intimidating to some. He is covered in tattoos from his hands and arms to his forehead, with skin singed and peeled from being out in the sun for 12-hour bike rides every day for nearly a month.

But despite his gritty exterior, Matthews is on a mission to help people. He is pedaling his bike across almost 2,800 miles of the United States, making stops in cities across the country to talk to people who struggle with addiction and to help spread a message of recovery and rehabilitation in the midst of what he said is an addiction epidemic.

“There’s not one person that I’ve ran into that this disease hasn’t affected,” Matthews said. “It’s everywhere.”

A study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates about 24 million Americans over the age of 12 have used illicit drugs in the last month, and 19.6 million of those Americans have had a substance abuse disorder in the preceding year. Matthews, 40, said he himself is a recovering heroin and opioid addict, and will be celebrating three years sober on July 1.

Matthews overdosed on heroin for the first time when he was 17 years old. When he was working as a roofer, he fell off of the top of a three-story building. Doctors put him in a half-body cast for months and prescribed him several opioid drugs to deal with the pain. But those prescriptions didn’t last forever, and Matthews still felt he needed them.

“I did what every good addict does, I turned to the streets,” Matthews said.

For the next 20 years, Matthews relied on those addictions. It wasn’t until he was 37, he said, that he decided to go into treatment so he could be a father to his daughter, now 19. Since that time, he has worked as a behavioral health technician with All About Recovery, a treatment center in West Palm Beach, where he works one-on-one with clients to help them kick their addictions.

For Matthews, he is still recovering. Every day, he makes decisions so that he doesn’t go back to using drugs.

“There’s something that happens to me that doesn’t happen to somebody else,” Matthews said about using drugs. “It sets off this phenomenon of craving that does not allow me to stop. It’s a chemical imbalance that happens with one out of three people.”

In his time in treatment centers, Matthews said he has come across addicts from every path of life, including state troopers and doctors. These people, he said, turn to addiction from trauma, from events like losing childhood friends.

“We’re not dealing with it,” Matthews said about addiction. “And what happens is, we go to things that help us escape like drinking, getting high, sex, gambling, anything to escape reality.”

This is the third ride Matthews has made promoting addiction recovery. His first ride came in 2017 after losing one of his best friends to a drug overdose, and his girlfriend at the time had just lost her best friend to a heroin overdose as well. He had already been asked to be a speaker in Philadelphia, his hometown, at an event about addiction, and decided not to fly there.

“I’m gonna ride my bike from West Palm Beach to Philadelphia, and I’m gonna raise some awareness along the way,” Matthews said.

With that in mind, he loaded his bicycle up with some tuna pouches, protein bars and trail mix and made his way to Philadelphia. And after that, he made another round-trip from Norwalk, Ohio to Portland, Maine on his bicycle.

Matthews knows he can’t solve the addiction crisis in America, but he is trying to help as many people as he can. During his last trip, he gave out five scholarships to treatment centers to people he met struggling with addiction, and he has three scholarships to give away on his ride to Hollywood.

July 9 is the day Matthews expects to reach his destination. At which point, he will find someone new to recovery to give his bicycle to, which he said would be a huge help for recovering addicts as a means of transportation when they begin looking for work.

“I’m looking for harm reduction, because there’s too many people dying,” Matthews said.

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