As a former heroin addict, I know that getting off opioids is nearly impossible


As a former heroin addict, I know that getting off opioids is nearly impossible

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I’ve been told I don’t look like a heroin addict.

I am a married, middle-aged woman, a tax-paying homeowner. When it comes to privilege, I have it. Because I’m white, I get better treatment in medical facilities like hospitals and rehab clinics. I have health insurance. I have access to credit. My spouse could not be more supportive.

But for a few years, every day I left my house overlooking the river and drove to downtown South Yonkers to meet my dealer. I know a postman who used to work in this area. He told me there was a time when you could buy an Uzi on his route.

When I first bought heroin at 48, I knew it would probably mean the end of my life. But compared to rehab, that was fine with me.

Appearance and bias may be deceiving, but numbers don’t lie. The United States hit a record overdose death rate last year. And the big, gaping hole of the response to the opioid epidemic is that withdrawal is the most important aspect and is hardly lip service.

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I often wonder how many suicides are because people can’t take it. There is no network. The window between stopping the drug and even having a glimpse of hope is too long. The only place you can land is hell.

The medical community and lawmakers have never appreciated what withdrawal — or being drugged — does to a person. Current policies and protocols can only make heroin addicts.

And I was a degenerate.

One day I noticed that the inspection sticker on my car had expired. But it cost $37 to get an inspection, and that was nearly four bags of heroin. I couldn’t afford it. Every dollar went towards my growing habit.

A habit is when your body needs a certain amount of an opioid to keep from getting sick. But habit is a misnomer. A better word is demand. There is no choice.

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Shortly thereafter, with three bundles (a bundle is 10 glassine bags, each stamped with a brand name; one time I bought the Trump brand) in my car, I turned a corner and saw several Con Ed trucks right in front of a stoplight. A police officer was directing traffic and was close enough to see my expired sticker.

This was a very long light. It was long enough for him to pull me over and get a look at my eyes, the pupils of which were as tight as pins. I had $300 worth of Schedule 1 narcotics in my car. It wasn’t a good situation.

I caught the officer’s eye and gave my kindest “I support the police!” smile. I waved. He waved back and grinned. Finally the traffic light changed and I drove off.

It was another four months before I got the car inspected. Like I said, I couldn’t afford it.

The “War on Drugs” has people languishing in prison for fewer reasons than I would have given this officer. My white privilege and economic status are the reason I am alive today.

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When New York State introduced an electronic prescription registry, physicians could no longer write multiple prescriptions. I had a tremendous 8 year habit of prescription opioids. It was impossible for me to stop without becoming dangerously ill. My only choice was heroin.

When an opioid is used over a long period of time, tolerance develops and more opioid is needed to feel high. I took a reasonable dose for the first few years. Over time, it took an amount fatal to a normal human just for me to be functional.

For those of you watching an addict, the consensus may be that when we relapse because we want to be high, we abandon our families, friends, and ourselves. For someone breaking a great habit, this is seldom the case.

It’s not like we prefer drugs over you. We cannot survive kicking them.

I got off heroin in the summer of 2015.

My husband sent me to rehab because I used up one of his retirement accounts and took out a home equity loan to fund my habit. I’ve tried to hide what I’m using, but there’s no hiding a problem that costs $2,000 a week.

I don’t understand how he endured it. He says he stayed with me through the horror because he knew I was worth saving.

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The detox lasted a month. Then I thought about killing myself every day for 58 days. Two months into rehab, I seriously considered suicide as a practical alternative to what I was experiencing.

My question then is the same as today. With all the privilege and support I have, I barely survived the process. If it was so hard for me, how hard is it for everyone else?

More than once I have read this sentence describing opioid withdrawal: The patient will experience flu-like symptoms.

That has to be the most inaccurate statement in medicine. A friend says doctors always skip the “psychic death” part.

Two or three days after my withdrawal from rehab, the nurses took away my ice chips. They were the last source of liquid they could give me. I had to vomit so convulsively that they removed them to stop the cramps.

It did not work. The uncontrollable retching continued. I asked for just an ice chip to no avail. My mouth, throat and entire digestive tract felt scalded. After a few hours a doctor came in and said they would transfer me to a medical hospital.

I was in probably the best rehab in the world.

That’s when my anger set in. The absolute inability of the entire medical community to treat opioid withdrawal has never been clearer to me than it is at this moment.

I refused to go. They brought in a saline IV and hooked me up to it.

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Sometimes I think I survived. Sometimes I think that I died in that room, that my body and mind went through such a brutal experience that I was transformed into someone else.

At some point I started hallucinating. I saw my long-dead father sitting next to me in a gladiator costume with gladiator sandals.

He was an observer, a witness. He said nothing, just watched me go through the agony.

My counselor later equated my withdrawal to that of end-stage labor with her first child. But it lasted over a week, not a few hours. This time in rehab is very difficult to sort through, but I believe it took me over a week to leave this detox room and join the general population.

There’s no such thing as the flu that feels like you’re trapped in a burning room that you can’t get out of. The flu does not leave a psychological death. It’s the most brutal experience I’ve survived. I have PTSD from withdrawing, not using.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the opioid epidemic into three waves. The third started in 2013. Nine years later, I’m amazed at how little professionals know about the process.

All opioids, whether synthetic or natural, prescribed or not, pill, liquid, powder, swallowed, injected, snorted or smoked, work the same way. A major difference is their strength. Fentanyl is often fatally potent and causes most overdoses.

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But if a load of heroin with fentanyl was going to kill people, all I would want to know is where to buy it. You can’t scare an addict. There is no worse consequence than being drunk.

Heroin is a clinical narcissist. Within hours of giving him the boot, he pours gasoline over your head, lights a match, and says, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Come back to me, fool.”

Heroin smiles, checks his watch, and goes out to get a cup of coffee. As it walks out the door, you hear, “It’s only going to get worse.”

Heroin is right. It’s only going to get worse.

The crackdown on prescription drugs made it difficult for patients with chronic pain and did nothing more than move addicts out of doctor’s offices and into unlicensed drug dealers. Both the addict and the patient with a legitimate need for narcotics were left behind.

Our lawmakers in Washington have made it worse for everyone, including doctors. In turn, doctors treat anyone in pain as suspicious.

Buying heroin is so much easier to navigate than our medical system. The dealer has a better understanding of withdrawal than a doctor. They don’t see our addiction as a moral issue. You know it’s a medical one.

Many nations have developed comprehensive support systems that work, including drugs that dramatically increase survival rates and harm reduction programs. A wide range of options is crucial. Some people find that 12-step programs work, but they may need help getting through the door. Others will never get off heroin. You need safe injection sites.

If we really want to reduce drug use and reduce overdose deaths, we could look to Portugal, which fully decriminalized drug use over 20 years ago. You have achieved excellent results.

But do we want good results?

After decades of this crisis, I find it hard to believe that our lives mean much to doctors or legislators. I’m just an expert on how difficult it is to quit. It seems that if our lives were a priority, those in power would have implemented better solutions by now.

I was told I was worth saving. Everyone else too.

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