The Real Road to Recovery: My Journey from Heroin Addiction to Helping to End the War on Drugs

I was homeless, squatting in an abandoned building. I committed crimes to support my habit. I learned to scam and shoplift. I was arrested and convicted. But I was never offered treatment.
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There are many reasons why I believe that treatment is better than prison for those who use drugs. Research demonstrates that people who receive treatment are far less likely to commit crimes than people who don't receive it.

Recidivism drops and public safety is improved when individuals with substance use disorders are served by treatment rather than prison. I have learned this as a researcher from studying the "literature."

But I have also learned that treatment is effective from my own life, from my own experiences.

When I was 19, I tried heroin for the first time when I was at college in New York. It was a tough period for me. I was depressed and suicidal. Before I tried heroin, I sought help on my college campus, but no help was given to me. I was told to live with one of the deans, but I received no treatment. I attempted to get psychiatric treatment on my own at a New York Hospital. But I was turned away. Within six months of trying heroin, I left school. By the time I was 20, I was a heroin addict.

I tried many times to try to overcome my addiction. I learned that quitting heroin is physically very painful. I remember that a doctor once told me that that it was like a bad cold, but my experience was much worse than a cold. I remember the insomnia, the nausea, the vomiting, the cramping, the inability to sit still, the horrible, horrible anxiety. What was much worse than these physical symptoms was the knowledge that at any time, my withdrawal symptoms would go away if I took another dose of heroin. I tried to stop on my own and found that I couldn't do it.

My addiction escalated. At one point I was homeless, squatting in an abandoned building. I committed crimes to support my habit. I learned to scam and shoplift. I was arrested and convicted. But I was never offered treatment when I came into contact with law enforcement officers.

I believe that when I went in front of the court, to plead guilty to my crime, that I was given different treatment -- better treatment -- because I was white, a woman and because I had a lawyer.

I learned when you are a drug user, people don't see you as a person, people only see you as a problem. A problem for which the only solution is jail. And sometimes drug users believe that about themselves -- that they should be punished, that they are deserving of the worst punishment. I personally believe that most people who are addicted to drugs are already suffering; are already being punished.

There's a misconception that people use drugs because they are fun to do. I still do a good amount of field research, and nearly without exception, people who have substance use disorders will tell you how awful it is. How they would like to find a way to solve this problem but don't know how to do it. It's hard to get treatment when you don't have a phone or a place to live, when the only thing that seems real to you is the next bag of heroin or rock and where you are going to get it. Treatment seems like something far away. Something that might not be attainable. And often it is not.

Jail, however, will come and find you. Every day that you suffer from an addiction to an illegal drug is a day that you may get arrested.

I learned how to kick heroin cold in jail. In jail, they usually don't give you anything for withdrawal symptoms. That part was difficult. But what was much more difficult was the realization that simply getting clean is not the same as getting treatment. Because I went right back to using. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to be addicted, but I didn't know how to stop, or how to cope. Finally,after many calls, and tries and stops and starts, I found treatment that worked for me.

According to the literature, methadone treatment is the most effective form of treatment for heroin addiction. I could give you statistics about how individuals who are treated with methadone use less drugs, are less likely to contract blood borne pathogens, and are far less likely to commit crimes.

Methadone treatment, in and of itself, would not necessarily have been effective for me. Some treatment providers will discharge a person who relapses, even though the literature tells us that relapse is part of recovery, that relapse is part of the disease of addiction. I was lucky -- blessed -- to find a provider, the Center for Addictive Problem -- a program that practiced a harm reduction approach, and allowed me to stay in treatment even though I did use a few times.

It took some time for me to get better even with methadone. I saw a psychiatrist. Now I could cite statistics about how women have very high rates of co-occurring disorders (that is an underlying psychiatric condition), or I could tell you what I found out from my own experience.

I was diagnosed with a panic disorder by my therapist. I learned that in some ways my heroin use was partly a way of medicating myself so that I could feel better. I learned that I used a potent painkiller because I was in so much pain. That my pain was so intense in 1988, that at the height of the AIDS epidemic, I picked up a needle and began to shoot heroin. Perhaps if I had received help when I had asked for it, I might not have started using drugs.

When I think of the individuals who cycle in and out of Illinois' prisons for drug offenses, I wonder about what pain they have experienced. What lies beneath their drug use? I wonder whether they will ever be given the opportunity to get treatment or will they be destined to cycle in and out of prison for the rest of their lives? Or will these individuals be given a second chance at life, at hope, at the possibility of making a fruitful and hopeful life that might contribute to society?

Then I go back to the statistics and crunch the numbers. The largest group in our prisons is drug offenders. The majority of these people are African American.

I admit my bias for treatment over prison. But perhaps I am not so biased, because treatment is effective. As a researcher I have studied these issues and the literature tells me this is true.

Perhaps we can find another way to deal with people with drug problems. Perhaps we can give these individuals the opportunity of treatment. Perhaps these individuals will learn how to not use drugs, to get an education, to find a mate, to have a child, to find meaningful employment.

Perhaps. But only if we take our drug policies in a new direction. Maybe then individuals with substance use disorders will be allowed to make a contribution to society instead of being thrown away, locked up or left out.

Recently, the new Drug Czar called for the end to the war on drugs, acknowledging that the war on drugs has become a war on people. I think it's partly because when we talk about drug use, we see the drugs and not the people. We see the needles, HIV, the hepatitis, the corners where drugs are sold. But we don't see that the casualties of this war -- the human potential that is lost each and every day; the contributions that won't happen because we are so focused on our fears -- and not on the fact that drug users are not just "junkies" and "crackheads," but are also our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our family members. We live among you. You just don't always notice us.

You might ask yourself, why is she telling her story at this time? I ask myself this too. I wonder. Partly I am telling my story at this time because I feel as though the tide is finally turning. I hope and pray that I am right about this feeling -- that the war on drugs really might be coming to an end. That this social justice movement is gaining strength and I want to add my voice, my story, and my face to it.

Perhaps it's because when I was 30 I was diagnosed with a chronic liver condition that I was told might kill me by the time I was 40. I was the mother of a 2 year old.

I turned 40 two weeks ago. My daughter is now 12.

Perhaps when we acknowledge this reality, we can actually treat people who use drugs as people. Maybe we can move addiction back into in the realm of health, where it actually belongs.

So, I stand here before you as a "junkie", a convicted felon, a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend, a teacher, a researcher, an advocate.

And the last reason why I am doing this, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing that you fear the most."

And today, that is what I have done.

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