Paul Tessein was a bad dude. And it’s not a fact he’s proud of.
He is, however, proud of where it’s led him, which is to a life aimed at helping people who either are or are on their way to becoming what he used to be.
See, back in the 1970s and ’80s, Tessein was an angry young man; a heavy drinker; eventually a drug abuser. He went to work drunk, spent his spare time intoxicated, and hung out with people who had pretty much the same story. His lifestyle ate away at his parents, and literally was the death of his father. By all accounts, Tessein was the type of person who should either have not made it to his early 50s, or landed in prison for a long, long time.
Today, married, clean, sober, and healthy, Paul Tessein is a compassionate man, whose empathy for people in a bad way comes from a place that can be built only by direct experience with the dark side of life and addictions. That’s important to keep in mind when you find out what Tessein does for a living—he, with the aid of his trusty canine companion, Yogi, helps locate stashed drugs. Sometimes even the ones stashed in rehab houses.
But Tessein is not a narc. He’s not a cop, nor is he a private detective. He’s actually a certified interventionist who operates a newly minted business called Drug Sweeper. And while the name and job description might sound mildly ominous, the motto of this particular enterprise is “No Cops, No Courts.” Tessein does not sniff out junkies and have them arrested. He helps families, counselors and employers locate substances that are destroying someone. And then, if asked, helps them get off the stuff and out of the life via his interventionist skills.
“Families reach out to me because their loved ones are addicted,” Tessein says. They call him specifically because he’s not the police. These families, he says, want to save their wayward loved ones, not punish them and drive them away.
‘It’s exhausting. Especially for the families. But it doesn’t phase me.’
And though Tessein has only been in business as the Drug Sweeper for a couple months, he’s been clean for 30 years. Most of that time has been spent as an interventionist, someone who counsels addicts to help get them sober. And in that time he says he’s seen it all—openly hostile reactions to an intervention; bolting from the room; going to the bathroom and climbing out the window.
“It’s exhausting,” he says. “Especially for the families. But it doesn’t phase me.” He laughs, a little knowingly. “I don’t know what it is about me that it doesn’t phase me.”
What it is, is his own story, which, starts in Hamilton in the 1960s. Tessein, now 54, grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and “found alcohol early.” He found it because he wanted to numb his pain; and that pain started with an incident involving a family friend. Tessein doesn’t like to get into exactly what that means, but he does admit the incident messed him up early. He was drinking by his teen years and started experimenting with drugs when he was 17.
Things got really bad for Tessein by age 19. Constantly intoxicated and in trouble, a fight started between Tessein and his father, a union carpenter and general supervisor in the construction industry, during a ride home. Tessein’s exasperated father “started screaming at me about my drinking,” he says. “He was saying, ‘You’re not the son I raised,’ and that I was going to be the death of him.”
The argument spilled out of the car and across the front lawn and into the house. There, his raging father paused to answer a phone call, and promptly died of a heart attack right in front of his son.
It didn’t stop his drinking.
“I became an absolute animal,” he says. “Alcohol was still my drug of choice, until I turned 21.”
At 21, he found what he considered at the time to be the great love of his life—cocaine. When he started doing coke and alcohol together, he says, “that’s when everything started crashing.”
Like his father, Tessein worked in construction. Unlike his father, he was rarely sober while doing so. His drinking led to 17 concussions from various scuffles, and to eventually Tessein assaulting two cops. At home, an increasingly distraught mother who didn’t know what to do with him sat him down and told him the following: “You either stop drinking and stop doing drugs or you can’t live here anymore.”
It didn’t stop his drinking. Or his drugs. Before Tessein moved out, his mother told him one other thing: “Just so you know, I called everybody in the family and every friend you might think of, and they’re not going to let you in.”
He left anyway, living in his car and, quite illegally, in a shed at the cemetery where his father was buried. By this point in his life, in 1987, Tessein had fathered two children, the oldest about 3 and the youngest about 9 months. They’re important to mention because they helped save Tessein’s life.
Tessein’s plan, after eking out some semblance of a life on the street, was to, simply, melodramatically, die.
“As a big F-you to everybody, I was planning to blow my brains out in my mother’s house,” he says. He broke in through the bathroom window and walked to the living room and put a gun up to his head. Then the front door, for no apparent reason, popped open.
The door got him to look in that direction. On the TV were photos of his two sons. The sight, Tessein says, caused him to break down. He made four phone calls—the first to the operator to tell her he was dying because he was addicted to alcohol and drugs; the second to the first treatment center number the operator had given him. That center didn’t have a bed for him, which made him feel as if even his attempts to get help were all for nothing.
The third call, made with the silent pact that he’d actually pull the trigger if they didn’t have a bed for him at the next treatment center, was to Carrier Clinic, which told him to come right in. The fourth call was to a high school friend, to whom he confessed needing help.
In an unusual turn, considering how far gone he was, Tessein’s first foray into drug and alcohol rehab was his only turn. He left Carrier sober and hasn’t returned to “the horror,” as he describes it, since.
‘People fall short because they’re looking at the immediate. You need to look at the long term.’
After sobering up, Tessein became a certified interventionist and started his own treatment center, Recovery Advocates of America, on Route 33. While in that business, Tessein met the actual love of his life, his wife, Bella. She had been a fashion buyer who “stumbled into” a career of helping counsel addicts and started her own sober living facility with a friend in Florida, he says.
Tessein by this point was living and working in Florida himself, where he had started a Recovery Advocates treatment center. Bella knew of RAA and wanted to meet the owner, but Tessein was always too busy and always sent his business partner to represent him.
One day, however, he decided to pop into the Dunkin Donuts in Boca Raton, where Bella and Tessein’s partner were meeting. He pretty much just wanted to get some coffee because he had little else to do at the moment. And that little pit stop led to a marriage with a woman Tessein says he’s blessed to have in his life.
Tessein eventually sold RAA, and today he and Bella operate Drug Sweeper from Florida. While she runs the company’s day-to-day doings, his part in the business involves a hefty dose of road time. Tessein drives around with Yogi in the Drug Sweeper RV, up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Maine, and back.
The idea for the dog, Tessein says, came from the fact that as an interventionist, he learned quickly that the people he was called to help, even some who were already in halfway houses or clinics, were still stashing drugs. After a while, it became second nature for him to recognize who was stashing, in fact. So he often thought to himself, “I wish I had a dog,” one that would help him locate the stashes and let the families and businesses handle the person who was either cheating or was just about to.
So he got one, and he went to school in Florida specifically to learn how to train Yogi to be a substance-detection dog. Tessein admits it was a strange feeling to be sitting in a classroom with all cops, the very people he was once so at odds with. But the officers there to train their own departments’ dogs, he says, were gracious and glad to have someone on their side trying to get to people before the criminal justice system takes over.
Tessein’s plans involve expanding the number of dogs and employees. Sadly, he says, there is plenty of area to cover in the search for drugs stashed by people trying to not need them so much—the halfway houses where people slip; the homes where young people are trying to cope with something the way he was; the opioid clusters of rural America. All 50 states have these problems, and Tessein believes his way of helping people cope with it is far better than getting cops and courts involved.
“I feel like I’ve built the perfect company,” he says. “And I want to teach an army of people to do this.”
For now, Tessein is barely three months into his business, but says it’s all working well so far. Police departments and city officials up and down the East Coast have told him he’s doing the right thing, and families are grateful to have someone help them who doesn’t have a badge. And in there somewhere is a fitting parallel between the people he serves and the future of his business.
“People fall short because they’re looking at the immediate,” he says. “You need to look at the long term.”
As for the horror story of his addiction years, Tessein has made a certain peace with himself. His two sons are grown, and he has a good relationship with them. One is a history teacher and soccer coach at Steinert High School (much like Tessein’s uncle, Paul, who was a local legend varsity soccer coach there); the other works for PSE&G. He also has an adopted daughter who works at Trenton State Prison. All have been able to live lives clear of substance abuse. But his past is, nevertheless, important to him.
“God put every painful situation in my life for a reason,” he says. They’ve given him empathy and patience, and the wisdom to know that people slip up. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
Just that they’re human people.