Heroin: portrait of a recovering addict

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(Host) The heroin problem. From Brattleboro to Saint Johnsbury, communities are holding meetings to address the growing concern about the drug. Vermonters are looking to town officials, social service agencies and law enforcement for explanations and solutions.

This week as VPR examines the heroin problem, we talk first with a recovering addict.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The town she lives in is small enough that she’d rather you didn’t know her name. She’s not a drop-out or a transient. She doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes of a heroin addict, which is one of her points: Vermont’s heroin users come from all kinds of backgrounds. She says she’s seen their numbers increase dramatically, and they have few places to turn for treatment and recovery help.

She’s an intelligent, attractive woman in her late twenties, a graduate of Marlboro College where she studied art and English literature. Her laugh is noticable because it’s rare.

When she was younger, she tried a long list of recreational drugs. In every case, she says had no difficulty stopping. But nothing prepared her for the day in a Montreal apartment when she first tried heroin.

(Woman) “Every person has a thing inside them that makes them doubt themselves or have an aspect of low self esteem, or you have some aspect about yourself that you can’t come to peace with. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s taken care of. It’s addressed. It’s completed. That void is filled. People have the impression that you become this drooling, glassy eyed, non-present, non-verbal individual. But the part they don’t see is that there’s a time of intense clarity and intense sharpness where everything comes together for you, and you’re at peace with yourself. That is why people take heroin.”

(Zind) Over a period of months, her heroin use gradually increased. Eventually, she began to inject the drug. Once-a-month use became weekly, then daily use. A $30 a day heroin habit turned into a $200 a day habit.

She says there were periods when she could taper off, even quit altogether, but the difficulty of withdrawal and stresses in her life pushed her back into using. In the beginning, heroin had been a choice. Now it became a necessity.

(Woman) “The feelings, physically and emotionally, in my experience are impossible to overcome on your own. No one can tell me that I didn’t have the will and the sheer devotion to sobriety that’s required. I would have given anything.”

(Zind) She was never arrested. She says she’s proud she never stole from anyone to support her habit. She spent any money she had, then she spent what she didn’t have by using her credit card’s cash advances to buy heroin. She sold her belongings.

One holiday weekend she hit bottom. By then the euphoria of the heroin high had been replaced by the constant worry about where to get money for the next fix.

(Woman) “That’s how you’re living. Everything is frantic and you’re covering and you’re lying and it’s extremely exhausting. It’s profoundly draining. That’s what affected me the most. I cannot do this for one more minute. I don’t have any more energy. So that means that I have to be willing to get sober. And in my heart that’s what I wanted, but the physical withdrawal is so terrifying and I had failed so many times before.

“I can remember, I was going to the ATM machine to get money and I was doing a cash advance off a credit card. It’s Sunday morning. People are going to Sunday brunch and walking around. At that moment in time, I felt so alone.

“That Sunday, all the right feelings came together at the pinnacle moment where I realized that I couldn’t trust myself to tell myself the truth.”

(Zind) With her mother’s help, she checked into a hospital. After just three days she was sent home. Feeling desperate, knowing she was on the verge of a relapse, she went to the emergency room at another hospital. The doctor told her he couldn’t help.

(Woman) “I said, ‘I’m a heroin addict and I’m seeking treatment.’ He said, ‘Frankly we’re not set up to help you here. We don’t have what you need. If you want to help yourself, move.'”

(Zind) Finally, she was admitted to a Vermont treatment center. Because methadone is generally not available for treatment in Vermont, she struggled to get beyond the withdrawal symptoms she’d failed to make it through in the past.

She was in treatment for two weeks, then discharged, uncertain whether she could stay clean. Two weeks, she says, is not nearly enough time for a heroin addict to begin recovery. She attended the treatment center’s outpatient group therapy sessions. She says they were more a hindrance than a help.

(Woman) “No one was required to be clean and no one was clean. It became a place where I was just becoming acquainted with more and more people who could lead me to drugs more than anything else.”

(Zind) Eventually, working with her own therapist, she enrolled in a methadone maintenance program in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She drove to Greenfield every day to get methadone and submit to drug testing. After six months, she qualified for the take home program and now goes twice a month.

She says methadone allows her to function. But she expects she’ll never feel the way she did before she became addicted to heroin. The irony, she says, is that the drug that once gave her pleasure, has now robbed her of it.

(Woman) “I… I’ve altered my brain chemistry forever. In such a way that I do not experience pleasure, happiness, orgasms, joy, pain in the same way that I used to. And I never will again. Something that would normally make me very happy: going out and shooting a roll of film the perfect time of day in fall with gorgeous light – that would blow my mind, means nothing to me. Being with people I love. I know in my mind, logically this should be fun. It’s so desperate. It’s such a desperate feeling.”

(Zind) She says she still thinks every day about using and often wakes from dreams about heroin. Despite the affects of six years of heroin use, she says she’s happier and more hopeful than she’s been in a long time. She’s been clean for over two years.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) Tuesday in VPR’s series on the heroin problem, we’ll look at a new film documentary produced in Vermont. We’ll also hear the law enforcement perspective on heroin and crime.

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