Heroin and works

The story of my addiction is exactly like that of every addict, meaning it is completely different from that of every other addict. So I will tell it in order to let those still suffering know that there is hope...

I was a little hippie kid in the late ‘60’s. As such I had experimented with all the drugs typical of the era. I drank beer and liquor, smoked pot, tried uppers and downers and the full range of psychedelics. There was no lasting harm from any of them as alcohol made me stupid and I never was with that. Marijuana was actually helpful at times and still is. Amphetamines were unattractive and made me way too jittery. Barbiturates simply made me want to sleep. LSD and mushrooms helped me see the world in new ways with no regrets.

Then a friend, ironically nick-named ‘Lucky’ introduced me to heroin and everything changed. I was 17.

Within a few weeks I realized this drug was different. Using smack made me feel like a hole in my soul I never even knew existed, had been plugged. It was as close to living without a care as I had experienced. I had found a lover who would never let me down, as long as I kept her happy anyway. I didn’t start using daily right away, although the urge to was there from day one. Within a few short months I learned what it meant to be strung out.

I knew early on this was not good. I am not the kind of person who likes anyone or anything having control over me and skag had me by the balls. Before a year was up I had myself in Phoenix House an early drug rehab with headquarters then in Harlem. I spent almost two years in program and in a way this was my ‘university’ experience, at least figuratively. Problem was that within six months out, I had to go back in. Spent another nine months... Looking back on my life as an addict, I actually spent more time clean, than I did strung. I was able to get a lot accomplished during those periods and because of them was even able to mostly keep it together. But with each year the consequences grew more dire, the clean periods grew shorter and going in and out of programs became a desperate and ultimately fruitless routine. The list of things and people lost to me is a long one and the details aren't important here, except in knowing that the price is one that was unbearably high. Pun intended. 

At the time programs aimed at addicts were mostly based in forms of behavior therapy and included using encounter and marathon groups. The daily routine was Spartan and almost ‘basic training’ like in its discipline. The camaraderie was one built in trust and truth. There were lectures in phycology and many forms of learning about motivations and personality. I will always be grateful for the insight I took away from this... but there was one thing it did not take away and that was the addiction that was the cause for being there in the first place.

After I moved to California, I wound up in other types of programs like CRASH that were reliant on the AA / NA model. Although even a superficial read of the Twelve Steps makes clear that an atheist is probaly going to have issues, desperation ensured I would at least try and listen to my fellows who suggested I use a light bulb or a doorknob in place of god / higher power. I of course found that ludicrous. Then one day I was told to ‘use the group’ as my higher power and I was able to adapt. After many months I realized that the Steps and all of the surrounding beliefs were deeper entrenched in the whole god thing than simply swapping a few words could fix. I started having negative inner dialogue every time I heard someone thank their higher power for their recovery. Really resented the way every meeting ended with a group prayer and generally realized that I could not swallow what they were preaching. The other thing that made me reject this approach was the whole 'you will always be an addict' thinking.

No matter, as the result was the same... I continued to use.

heroin addiction despair

The next live-in experience was actually in a hospital, privately funded (had good insurance at the time) very nicely furnished, with good food and very courteous staff. It was my first time experiencing how the upper classes got clean. Here the treatment included alternative drugs, private therapy (I was diagnosed as depressive and told that anti-depressive medication would help) and twice weekly meetings with NA and for me, another run at the 12 Steps. 

One day a different speaker was available, from a group called Rational Recovery. While the merits of this system can be debated and my recent research shows it has evolved considerably since my introduction, my debt to the people who gave me a copy of the original book is a thing forever. The main take away for me was a complete break with the whole god bullshit and maybe more important, the idea that yes, you can be an EX-addict. I also was able to let go of the whole addiction is a moral failing crap. It isn’t.

But of course, not long after getting out of the hospital, I was using again.

And then circumstances finally conspired in my favor. I was living with a woman who not only loved me but saw through my addiction to the person underneath and had the patience to hold on. A large chunk of money became available, which we used to buy an incredible house/ranch really far out in the country, way too far to make regular runs to meet ‘Flaco’ (my generic nick-name for dealers) realistic. So I went to a methadone clinic for the first time.

Between the self-induced difficulty in being able to get to a dealer and not getting dope-sick because the ‘dose’ kept me ‘straight’ I started to feel hopeful for the first time since my friend stuck that needle in my arm back on the Lower East Side. Although many would say that methadone addiction is ‘just as bad’ and an argument can be made that physically it is actually worse, I took the idea of ‘maintenance’ to heart. Not right away mind you. Yet, in spite of my dose and the difficulty of making it in to the city, my craving for the ‘H’ did not disappear and there were many times I forced it. But gradually, doing junk just seemed stupid. The amount of Chiva needed to override the methadone was huge and very expensive, along with the amount of effort to find it combined to create a new kind of aversion therapy. After some time I realized it had been months since I even tried. Then... years.

For a long time I held on to the methadone in a “if it aint broke’ kind of way. In fact I started comparing myself to a diabetic using insulin as a drug necessary to my being able to live a ‘normal’ life. I saw no need to ever get off and in fact became real comfortable with the situation. Meanwhile my life got back on track in a real and sustainable way.

Years went by and the woman I lived with at that time and I broke up (although we are fast friends to this day) and I moved back in to the city. I had a relapse when I tried to get off the methadone, but quickly got back on before too much damage was done.

After a while I thought I could get off the methadone, but without making the mistake of doing it in just a few months like before. I came up with a plan that stretched the detox over two years, with each drop in dosage being very slight and spacing them far apart. It wasn’t that hard when the drop was from 60 milligrams to 55, but later when I was in the lower doses, the drop from 10 to 9 reminded me what the hell of detox was. Luckily by then I met the woman who wound up becoming my wife and she helped me through those last few months.

And then, I was free.

When asked how long I’ve been clean it is always difficult to answer because I didn’t clock the day I started methadone and was never one (like in AA) to reset the clock because of a short relapse, and I consider the time in that ‘insulin’ like phase as clean. I guess it comes out to somewhere like 35 years now. For the ‘purists’ among you who DO count methadone, its been almost 20 years. I sometimes look at myself in the mirror in disbelief that this is the same life and I have to remind myself what it took to get here.

So what is the moral of the story... the lesson... the take away that other addicts can learn from? Truthfully? Fuck if I know. A lot of it was just stupid luck. That I did not die from an overdose like my friend Lucky, who was gone within a few short years of that fateful night. That my arrests never stuck, so I never was sent to prison like far too many people, for something that is a medical condition and shouldn’t even be illegal. That somehow I managed to get an education and become a professional in spite of the ball & chain that is heroin. That I had the love of some very special women, who although I may have taken advantage of them on more than one occasion, stuck with me. That a wad of cash happened at the right time to help with a "geographic cure”. That methadone was there to take away the physical pain so that I could focus on the logistics of my life, which eventually meant I HAD a life to look forward to as the final stepping stone.

I know of no way to replicate any of that in a means that can be turned into a system or program. The circumstances are to happenstance and occured over an extraordinarily long period of time. What I DO know is that eventually I DID beat that ‘horse’ and am still here to talk about it. And I am not the only one. Although the odds suck and many do wind up dead or in prison, others make it out too. I saw Phoenix House graduates that had made it. AA and NA believers who had 20 -30 years clean. Even people who had gone ‘cold turkey’ and were somehow able to never look back. Each found his own path. None would ever say it was easy.

So here is what I will tell you: never give up. Never lose hope. The hell you are in can be broken. You can do it. Just keep trying everything you can get your hands on until you do. Do not let that relapse become permanent. Do not surrender to thinking you have tried and failed. No matter how bleak and black your life seems, try to remember that there is more. There is beauty, there is love. Until then, be safe, try and avoid the health traps and the crime. And get up and try again...

That light at the end of the tunnel is NOT a train coming at you.

Light end of tunnel

Jose Rosa

Jose Rosa

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