FORT WALTON BEACH — Rex Fitzgerald is only 33 years old, but he has been jailed about five times, or roughly the same number of times that he's been hospitalized.

He has lost three of his fingers, suffered a stroke and has battled blood clots and a series of heart infections.

Before one of his heart surgeries, doctors told Fitzgerald's mother to start looking into making funeral arrangements for her son.

Fitzgerald, who is a former boxer and a self-described people person, lost much of his freedom and nearly his life because of a 17-year addiction to painkilling drugs, which often involved injecting a needle into his arm.

"I credit my survival to my praying mother, a family that never gave up on me, and a loving God," Fitzgerald said recently at Project Hope, the Christian, faith-based non-profit organization on Hollywood Boulevard.

He now is going into his eighth month in Project Hope's free residential recovery program, which currently includes 19 other men who are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions and debilitating depression.

Fitzgerald anticipates graduating from the program in about four months. He said its foundation in the word of God is why Project Hope has, unlike court-ordered once-a-week counseling sessions or 30-day rehab stints, been effective in helping turn his life around.

"Thank God, Project Hope was here for me," Fitzgerald said. "I was so confused and lost, and that didn't change until I turned my life over to God."

Hooked at 15

Fitzgerald, who was born in Houston, said he had a lot of anger issues when he was a young boxer growing up in central Florida.

He said much of his hostility, and his descent into drug addiction, stemmed from not having a solid, loving relationship with his father.

Fitzgerald recalled how he crushed a bone in one of his wrists after he hit a punching bag in the family's garage without proper wrist support. The doctor who treated the injury sent the youngster home with Percocet.

"I got hooked on painkillers when I was 15" and later began using methamphetamine, Fitzgerald said.

To make matters worse, he said, his father was and still is a drug dealer and drug user. For Fitzgerald, that meant a steady source of oxycodone, Ocycontin and other painkillers, even after state officials shut down "pill mills" in the Tampa area and elsewhere.

Fitzgerald moved to the Fort Walton Beach area when he was 18, and as his addiction heightened, he took stronger doses of some drugs. If he became tolerant of one, he switched to something more potent.

As he continued using drugs, he became both physically and mentally dependent on them.

"I went from oral to IV use," which meant dosage amounts were far from exact, Fitzgerald said.

When he was 24, doctors told Fitzgerald he had endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart and heart valves that would hospitalize him four times.

On his first hospitalization, he received a strong antibiotic treatment to kill the infection, and then he went into a 30-day drug rehab program.

The program "gave some help" but, among other problems, it did not assist with necessary long-term aftercare, and he soon returned to feeding his drug addiction. Stints in jail for drug possession and violation of probation, and time spent in court-ordered drug treatment programs, also failed to halt his drug use.

"I thought I could stay sober on my own," Fitzgerald said.

At one point during his addiction, he lost about 100 pounds and underwent surgery to remove a silver dollar-sized infection on one of his drug-damaged heart valves.

His drug use also led to suffering a stroke, the need for surgery on his spleen, and the amputation of three of his fingers because of gangrene.

He has a mechanical valve in his heart, which today is "as strong as ever," Fitzgerald said.

'Put God in it'

Fitzgerald said that while he was using, he resorted to stealing a ring from his sister and selling it for drug money.

"My sister is my best friend," he said. "I rationalized stealing from my sister to feed my drug addiction. In my right mind, I would never hurt her. But in drug addiction, you will do anything to feed that addiction, even if it means hurting your own family."

After doctors told his mother before one surgery to begin making funeral arrangements for her son, Fitzgerald said his mom told them that "man doesn't decide" and that God had plans for her son.

Fitzgerald said he began to know God during a nine-month, drug-related stay in the Okaloosa County Jail, where he had the opportunity to participate in a discipleship program.

"I was tired of doing the same thing over and over," he said.

His relationship with God was strengthened greatly via the Project Hope recovery program, which he joined last August. The faith-based program has helped keep him sober, whereas the previous secular drug treatment programs he's been a part of had little or no effect, Fitzgerald said.

He believes all substance abuse/mental health treatment centers, including ones that serve as alternatives to jail for those who commit minor offenses, should include intensive counseling.

"And they should put God in it," Fitzgerald said.