Rick Holmes: What addicts say about getting high and getting better
We were talking about death, about the growing number of young people killed by overdoses of heroin and prescription drugs.
If anything would scare people away from drugs, I said, it would be the death of a friend.
“Are you kidding?” said Philip. “Back when I was selling, if someone I’d sold to died, I’d get 10 new customers. They figured I must have the good stuff.”
Talk to people who’ve seen the prison of addiction from the inside, and you quickly realize they don’t think like the rest of us. That’s what happens when you have a disease of the brain.
“You don’t think about the danger of overdosing when you’re using,” Leo Henry told me. Leo, 35, is from Somerville, Massachusetts, but now he shares a small cell at the Middlesex House of Correction in Billerica.
“You don’t think about anything when you’re shooting up heroin,” he said. “You’re the walking dead, basically.”
It’s no way to live, and a good way to die. Overdose deaths are going up, for lots of reasons: Heroin is cheap — $5 will buy you a bag in many neighborhoods — and it comes laced with fentanyl to increase its potency.
Addicts go through a five-day detox — they call it a “spin dry” — and then go out and shoot the amount they were using before and it knocks them cold.
They call it an opioid crisis because it started when doctors starting writing prescriptions for what is essentially synthetic heroin — Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin — with wild abandon.
Louis Rosario started using opioids at 17, when he was still a student. He kicked the habit once, he told me, but then came down with leukemia, which meant a return to prescription painkillers and addiction.
He’s 36 now, with both his diseases — the cancer in his blood and the addiction in his brain — now in remission. He’s using his time in jail to make sure it stays that way.
“I’m blessed that I got here,” he said.
He has daily classes and group meetings filled with frank, often emotional, talk about who they are, what they’ve done to themselves and their families, and how they’re going to put things back together again.
Jail isn’t the best place to receive treatment for a chronic brain disease that often comes packaged with mental illness. But sometimes it’s the only place where an addict can stay safe and sober for the few months it can take for his head to clear. Increasingly, it’s a place where the parents and spouses of addicts turn in desperation for help.
They try to find a spot in a treatment program, but there are never enough beds, the rules are too complicated or the care is too expensive. They appeal to a judge for a civil commitment so their addicted loved one can be locked up for his or her own protection.
Outside of jail, treatment comes in a variety of forms. It starts with detox, but detox alone is rarely enough. Counseling and mental health treatment has to be part of it, especially since addiction so often goes hand-in-hand with illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Drugs play a part in many addicts’ recovery: methadone for those who need the structure of a daily visit to a clinic; Suboxone helps some fend off the cravings, but it can leave you buzzed. Henry says he wants to get on Vivitrol, which prevents opiates or alcohol from getting you high.
But pharmaceuticals can’t provide the social support that is so critical to getting and staying sober. That’s why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are important — and nothing is as important as family.
Michael Fahey, 22, started doing drugs in middle school in his hometown of Hudson. By high school, he had developed an addiction to Percocet. Then the police intervened, charging him with a crime he’d rather not talk about.
“Just say I was busted for stupidity,” he told me.
That landed him in jail for three days and sentenced to house arrest for a couple of years.
“I was lucky,” he said.
His parents provided a lawyer who helped him avoid a long prison sentence, and they took Fahey back into their home, where his druggie friends weren’t welcome.
He also had a good friend — now his fiancé — to stand by him. She and an uncle in recovery got him to his first AA meeting, and he hit four or five meetings a week for the next two years, completing all 12 steps.
These days, Fahey doesn’t go to as many meetings. He pumps gas during the day and performs standup comedy at night, working some of his story into his humor. He doesn’t define himself as an addict anymore. He’s got a family — his fiancé and her two children — depending on him, and career ambitions that leave no time for getting high and dozing off.
I told him I’ve seen studies that show the single most important factor in preventing men who’ve done time in prison from getting in trouble again is a commitment made to a good women — social science again proving what people have known about for millennia: the power of women to civilize men. Fahey laughed and said, “That’s my story.”
Every addict’s story is different, and too many of them end in the grave. But there are success stories as well, more than most people know. An estimated 23 million Americans are thriving in long-term recovery, having learned to hold their diseases at bay.
With the right treatment at the right moment, and the right people to help them along, the walking dead can find new lives.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes&Co, and follow him on Twitter at @HolmesAndCo.