(EDITOR'S NOTE: The News Tribune offers a look into the world of addiction though the eyes of an addict. To help the individual remain anonymous, her name has been changed to Sarah. This is her story of how she has battled addiction for years.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The News Tribune offers a look into the world of addiction though the eyes of an addict. To help the individual remain anonymous, her name has been changed to Sarah. This is her story of how she has battled addiction for years.)
By Barbara High
Tribune Staff Writer
Sarah’s story begins as many others. Never did she think that one day she would be labeled a drug addict, or that her life would revolve around her next high. She had dreams of doing great things and like so many others, somehow lost her way.
For Sarah, who is about 40, she can trace back to where her life went astray to a single day when she was 19. Dealing with an arthritis issue that ran in her family, she was given a prescription for pain killers.
“There was no warning of a possibility of addiction,” she says. According to Sarah, she wasn’t given any information or education on the new medicine she was given to take. “They just said this should help with the pain and it did, for a while,” she said.
For Sarah, the new medicine was like a miracle. She said it made her pain free and feel like what she suspected normal people felt like.
“I didn’t hurt and it even helped with my depression,” she said. “I was able to get up and move better and clean house.”
This feeling didn’t last long, however, as the pain started to return. “When the pain would come back and I would tell him, he just raised my dose,” she said.
After the dose got so high, Sarah began to notice herself nodding off during the day. She addressed this with her doctor, who decided to giver her Ritalin to help keep her awake. “I was even given muscle relaxers to help, too,” she said.
It wasn’t long again before Sarah noticed that the pain had returned. At times she would run out of pills because her pain would require her to take more. She found herself needing more then what she had been prescribed.
It was at this time that she began to “doctor shop,” as people have come to call it. For Sarah, if her doctor didn’t give her enough to keep the pain away, then she would go see another doctor and they too would prescribe her pills.
Even that didn’t prove enough to escape the pain, however.
During this time Sarah had started seeking out other people who took and even sold pain medication. She began to buy more when needed.
She never understood why she felt so bad; the pain was more than the origial arthritis pain that she began with.
It was the other people who also were taking and selling pain pills that finally explained to her that what she was experiencing was being “dope sick,” a common term which often describes the symptoms related to withdrawal from opiates, such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl or prescription opioids. Although it doesn’t mean you're going to die, it is described as feeling like you are. Sarah didn’t understand that as her tolerance from her opioid medication went up, she was starting to withdraw.
For Sarah, that was unthinkable. “It didn’t sink in; I thought I was in complete control,” she said.
The withdrawals made Sarah start buying Suboxone and Subutex - medication used for the treatment of opiate dependency - to ease her pain. This continued on for a while until one day after she had been withdrawing for two days, she went out and tried to get some Suboxone or Subutex. “They were all out, the only thing they had was heroin,” she said.
Sarah had never did heroin before, and she was scared. But she was also desperate.
They explained to her that if she got a “cap," or capsule of heroin, she could snort a little bit and would feel better. She was told it only took a little bit and she could use the rest for later.
“They said not to worry, it wasn’t raw heroin and that it was scrambled, which meant it had other things in it,” she explained.
So she got it.
For Sarah, that day would prove fateful, for once she tried it, she never went back to the pills. “One time was all it took; I began selling my pain pills to buy the heroin,” she said.
Sarah’s life would continue to spiral downward.
She said that the feeling she got from the heroin was more intense than the pills. “It was euphoric,” she says. She went down hill quickly with her new friends. After only a week, Sarah was shooting her heroin with needles. “They kept asking me why I was snorting it, when I could shoot it and it would be so much better,” she said.
They even told Sarah to add cocaine with it to intensify it and help keep her awake - a practice known as “speed balling.” Sarah said that gave here energy and kept her from nodding out.
Everything in Sarah’s life began to change, especially her relationships.”When you get in this place, your crowd changes,” she said, adding that you find people you can be codependent with and relate to. She lost her closeness with her family and friends. “They don’t want to see you like that and I didn’t want them to see me that like, so I guess we just avoided each other,” she recalls.
Sarah said even at that time, she still wanted to believe that she had it under control and didn’t have a problem - even as her weight dropped from 180 pounds to a mere 98 pounds. “I was wearing my 12 year-old daughter’s clothes.”
Sarah began to borrow money from people to get more heroin and for a while it worked, then people stopped giving her any money. “I couldn’t get any money from family, even when I needed it for an actual bill. They were done and nobody would give it,” she said.
Sarah’s grandmother was the only one who still tried to help her, and sadly that made her one of her biggest enablers.
Sarah’s grandmother would even help bring her pain pills so she would not hurt and would function okay with her kids. “She just thought I was in pain and couldn’t get up; she never wanted to see it,” she said.
Sarah lost her grandmother and her father really close together and that just pushed her further down. Her “new” friends were all she had left. “We all had a common goal with addiction; we all woke up everyday with the common goal to find heroin and figure out how we were going to get it,” she said.
The consequences of Sarah’s drug use was severe; the cost she paid was high. Sarah’s husband had her committed to a psychiatric facility, but upon release she said there was no after care or follow up. Sarah sent her children to live with some remaining family. “I was out of control and had nowhere to live and I lost both my vehicles,” she said. “I just couldn’t take care of them.”
That is where her children remained for the next two years.
Sarah was now homeless and said she would often go a week without food. “Every dollar I could come up with went to heroin.”
Sarah went to the hospital several times, telling them she was suicidal. “They would keep me 48 hours and release me and never checked up on me,” she said.
She also tried to get into a rehabilitation center but she only had a medical card. “The only places that would take it were booked; they said maybe in a few months.”
Desperate for help, Sarah used a friend’s Pennsylvania address and lied to get into a detox, but that only gave her a few days. “I begged for help, nobody had a bed, the waiting lists were too long.”
Sarah was back on the streets again feeling hopeless. “I was losing people left and right; everyone I knew was dying around me,” she said. Sarah says she didn’t even attend the funerals anymore. “They were all dying so quick.”
Not even that was enough to get Sarah to stop using, however. “I remember not caring,” she says.
Sarah got her first possession charge and that would be the beginning of her legal troubles. She continued to shoot heroin. “I was so far gone, every time I shot up I thought this could be my last time I do this and I didn’t care.” For Sarah, when she nodded out and closed her eyes, the idea of never opening them again was okay. For her, at least, it would be relief and her pain would be over.
Sarah finally hit her bottom when she had no money for heroin and was desperate. She had taken a lot of Xanax and Ativan to help with her withdrawal pain. Being homeless with no food and she hadn’t used since that morning, Sarah was desperate. Her her daily habit was 2-3 grams.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking, to be honest.” Sarah went into a store with plans to rob it- something she never accomplished. After demanding money, she walked out empty handed and went to the local hospital and had herself committed.
“That was my bottom; I didn’t care if I was arrested, I was so far gone.”
The police did come for Sarah, and charged her with conspiracy to commit armed robbery. They let her finish her stay in the hospital before taking her. “It was a relief to go to jail. I was just dying out here and I didn’t know how I was going to come out of it,” she said.
Sarah got ten months for her possession and conspiracy charge.
Sarah say sshe came out of jail a different person with a different life. “I changed a lot while I was in there,” she says.
Sarah was given Methadone so she could live a normal life without using, and today many years later she is still taking Methadone. “It’s my whole life; my life revolves around that daily dose and it’s worse to come off of than heroin.”
Sarah’s insurance covers her daily dose of Methadone, and once there was a lapse in her insurance. “I had to go through an administrative withdrawal since I was unable to pay,” she explains.
So in 21 days they took Sarah from 120 mg to nothing until her insurance came back into effect. “It’s like having a severe flu, but times that by a million,” she said. The withdrawal is described as being so bad that it causes addicts to go back to using in order to avoid the sickness.
According to one addict on the Just Believe Recovery Center website, “Dope sickness is the worst feeling in the world. It is what all addicts fear. It is what keeps us sick, in so many ways. The avoidance of the sickness and the pains of withdrawal are what really keep us sick with our addictions.”
For Sarah that proved true, as she relapsed during this time. “I didn’t stay down long; within a week of relapsing I was back on Methadone.”
Now for Sarah, everyday she has the same routine. “I get up and get dressed so I can go down to the clinic and get my daily dose of Methadone just to be able to move and function,” she says.
Sarah explains that it takes away the pain but without the high. When asked if she could ever see herself off the Methadone, her answer sadly was no.
For Sarah, this is now a way of life. To come off of Methadone now would require a year or more to get her dose down to zero, and the pain would risk a relapse. For Sarah, there is no going back to heroin.
“It’s not just the physical pain, but the mental agony as well,” she says, adding that every day she can barely get up and get dressed to go to the clinic, yet when she gets there and takes her dose, she instantly feels better mentally even though it hasn’t kicked in yet. “It’s just your mind knowing that you’re about to feel better and will be able to function for the day and take care of your family.”
For Sarah, that is everything right now since she has her children back and they have their own home again. So for now it’s Methadone and group meeting once a week, then home to take care of her kids.
Sarah said that it’s the experiences that made her who she is today - strong and determined. But when asked if she would change that to go back, her answer was “Yes, in a heartbeat. I never got to go to college or do a lot of the things I wanted to do in life.”
Sarah had given a big chunk of her life to addiction.
Regrets are something of which Sarah has many, and the pain of life has become all to familiar. “The hardest part of getting clean is the guilt,” she says. The guilt of what she did when using and how she had treated others is hard to come to terms with. “If I could keep my kids from having to go through what they did in the last ten years, I would give anything,” she says.
The guilt is something Sarah never had to face before. “When you’re high, you are numb to the pain, and you can’t feel anything. We don’t feel the pain that we’re causing our families … but they do.”
Sarah said she could tell her family was hurting, but it didn’t register with her, as she was unable to really feel the pain. “Your family is the ones who wait in fear that they will receive that phone call saying you’re dead. They spend their time believing that you love drugs more then them.”
That was especially hard for Sarah to face. “If I could take back all that I did, I would.”
Sarah says she doesn’t want anyone to go through what she went through. “Please people, don’t start using, because one time is all it takes. After you try it one time, you will want it every day; it will be all you ever think of.
“I can’t tell people enough to stay away from people who use, and if you're using, quit now because it’s never too late while your alive,” she says.
She also urges people in recovery to avoid their addict friends. “One day you will have a bad day and if your around people who use, you will fall,” she said.
Sarah spends her days now taking her Methadone and trying to stay off heroin. “I used heroin one time that first day, and look at my life ten years later,” she says. “I didn’t think I would get addicted. I thought I was being careful.”
Sarah said now so many of those she knew are now dead, and even today she can’t attend funerals. “If you start using heroin, you're going to die or go to jail,” she says.
Her final warning: “Every day in between your first use and your final destination, you will be a slave to your addiction.”