Heroin, New England, and me.
Bodies pile high in America, as our candidates climb the stack to gain voters.
Ever since the droning laughingstock of America’s national embarrassment that is our current political race left New Hampshire, you probably haven’t heard much about the heroin epidemic in New England. The news briefly covered the tragic story, but only when the presidential candidates were clasping desperately at any foothold they could get over one another.
Here’s a little background on the issue if you need context: http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/our-families-are-dying-new-hampshire-s-heroin-crisis-n510661
Unfortunately, this heroin and prescription drug epidemic was simply used as a political ploy by the powers that want to be.
During these New Hampshire visits you’d hear politicians wax profound with detailed solutions like “Something must be done about this” and “My sister suffered from this so obviously I’m more capable than that asshole to deal with this, and believe me I have a plan” and “Yes, it’s quite tragic and something will be done”.
To catch you up on what’s happening, last year in New Hampshire alone, 400 drug overdose-related deaths occurred. That’s a shit ton, in case you didn’t have a point of reference. A sad and completely unnecessary amount of death. It’s nothing new, it just happened to be in a hot area where wanna-be presidents were handed a current crisis they could use in their talking points to try and win over heartbroken and sensitive voters in the New England area.
Recently I watched an episode of Parts Unknown, hosted and written by one of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain. In it, he took a trip to Massachusetts to eat some delicious New England food, talk with locals about the drug epidemic plaguing their small communities, and even attended NA meetings where Bourdain himself talked about his own struggles with heroin. I was deeply moved by the honesty, and horrified by the tragedy in this episode.
I became an addict in my very early twenties after becoming dependent on prescription painkillers of all shapes, colors, and strengths after a kidney operation I underwent. At the time, I was living in a small Central California community where growing up, it was easier to get what parents would call “hard core drugs” than it was to shoulder tap an adult for beer outside a supermarket. You see, we were strategically placed in a demographic that was a predominately white, middle-class farming community. That meant one thing to those who prey: young people with disposable income. Because I grew up with mostly junkies, by the time I became one myself, it wasn’t extremely difficult to find what I needed to keep feeling…nothing. The men and women who trafficked in dealing these kinds of legal yet lethal substances found a gold mine when they discovered the Central Valley, knowing the ground was fertile with people like myself. I had been given a single prescription for a pain killer called Norco, but my busy and neglectful doctor forgot to circle the “0 refills” option on the prescription form, where it gives a multiple choice to the physician: Refills: 0–5. Naturally, having already tried the drug before thanks to a friend with chronic pain, I circled the 5 for the doctor, knowing he truly would want me to be without pain or suffering as long as possible.
A few years later, I was spending upwards of $200 a day on my addiction to heroin. How did this leap happen, you might ask? Do I blame the original doctor? Partly. If I were an even more misguided youth than I already was, the 30 pills in the initial prescription were enough to kill me if I wasn’t careful and didn’t heed the advice of my more well versed junkie friends. Neglecting to circle that 0 didn’t turn me into a junkie, my desire to get fucked up turned me into a junkie. However, negligence on the part of doctors regarding prescription drugs has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in this country alone in the past decade.
By the time I was 24 years old, my tolerance for Vicodin, Norco, and other “weaker” pain killers was so high, I would have to take 20–25 Vicodin at a time to get nice and fucked up, and even then I’d have to wash them down with some whiskey or a Xanax to really shove off. This is called completely poisoning the shit out of your body, and I didn’t frankly give a fuck. I had gone through a terrible and drawn out break-up with the first real girlfriend I had as an adult (if you could call me that at the time), and I was simply looking to prolong the grieving process as long as a could. Oh yeah, and I also just really loved the feeling of being fucked up.
As the body’s tolerance grows stronger, the need for stronger drugs also grows. Vicodin and Norco lead to Percocet, which leads eventually to Oxy, which (if you survive the Oxy) leads to a much cheaper and easier to get drug than these boutique prescription pills: heroin. Keep in mind, everything you need to gain a crippling heroin dependence is available to you via your local physician and/or pharmacist.
Speaking to the physician’s negligence, the woman I would buy my Oxy from was a retired, middle-aged woman who lived in a nice gated community in a city north of Fresno but south of Sacramento. We’ll call this woman “Debbie”. Debbie had broken part of her back in a car accident about 4 years prior to me meeting and buying drugs from her, and although she was fully recovered from her accident and injuries, negligence on the part of her doctor and her pharmacy had afforded her a running prescription of 100, 80mg pills of Oxy Contin per month, even all these years later. Her and her husband watched a documentary on TV about the then Oxy/Heroin (Oxy is a contained and pill-i-fied form of heroin) epidemic, and saw that people were making a killing selling their extra or unwanted pain killers. So Debbie and her husband did what any smart American would do: they retired from their jobs early, and began selling Oxy to young junkies like myself at between $50-$100 per pill. Yes, per pill. The price varied based on supply, demand, and the general mood of Debbie’s shotgun-toting, middle-class husband.
Sometimes, if Debbie had run out of her allotted 100 pills for the month (and this happened often and often early in the month), I would have to go street-side to avoid the indescribable pain and the disgusting and dehumanizing side effects of coming down off that strong an opiate. This meant I had to degrade myself by asking people I assumed were junkies, if they were junkies. To my surprise, I found at least two co-workers (I was selling cell phones at the time for a company that won’t be named) who suffered or “enjoyed” the same affliction I did: we liked to get good and fucked up. This usually meant I had to fork out closer to $100 for an 80mg pill, of which I was taking between 1–3 a day. I would swallow them, shoot them, snort them, smoke them, whatever did the trick based on how long it had been since I’d shoved off previous.
If you think this sounds extreme, you’d be surprised at the amount of stories you can find about middle-class white people like myself who got wrapped up in this world. There are hundreds of pages of details I could get into about what life was like as a heroin addict, and how the films and TV shows that have tried to tackle this subject have barely scratched the surface or cracked a window into that dark world.
Long story short, I got clean in 2008, before moving permanently to my now home of Los Angeles. I couldn’t afford rehab (most of my friends found a way to afford it), I hated going to meetings (to quote Bourdain “There was a darkness inside me I hesitate to call a disease”), and I went to bed every night fearing I wouldn’t wake up the next morning, and some mornings I almost didn’t. What got me clean and what kept me clean was and is waking up every morning since the spring of 2008 saying “Not today”.
When I woke up this morning, I said “Not today”.
What drove me to write this on the Internet was the news coverage and the pandering I watched in New Hampshire during this election cycle. The candidates mentioned (many for the very first time) how shocked and saddened they were about this heroin epidemic, the lives it was taking, and the impact on these communities. Complete bullshit coming from people who don’t have records backing up their claims of caring “deeply” about an issue in which “something must be done”. They mentioned it at town halls, community meetings, and debates. And guess what? Once the circus left New England, hardly anyone is talking about it anymore. Are people still dying? Yes. Has the “war on drugs” the government has tried to wage prevailed in that area or any of the other impacted parts of the country? Overwhelming evidence says no.
I don’t want to make my take on this issue about race, because the communities and politicians have done that for me. You see, a problem like this in an urban community wouldn’t have made national news, because sadly these types of deaths are “expected” in neighborhoods viewed in this light. It wasn’t until it became a middle-class problem, and considerably (in contrast) well-off young people like myself started dying off by the thousands due to overdoses, that someone started paying attention. Who was the first, I wonder? A mayor’s son? A prominent pastor’s daughter? A senator’s sister?
Every single person I bought this drug from for 6 1/2 years was white. Every single person I did the drug with was white. Over the course of my long and extensive experience with narcotics, I’ve maybe come across one or two persons of color who were actively and passionately bound by the power of this drug. That isn’t to say there aren’t those who are, I’m simply pointing out you can live deep in the underworld of this epidemic (as I did) and find yourself only surrounded by others like yourself, with similar upbringings, financial situations, and demographics. Sadly, this is how it became news. Thousands have died in communities that aren’t “prominent (white)”, and thousands more will continue to die in all types of communities if we don’t do something about it. The politicians sure as hell aren’t, and if you believe the “war on drugs” is working, do some research, we are failing each other.
This story made the news because the circus happened to roll into town, and enough brave people stood up to ask the hard questions of the shape-shifting chameleons we must choose between come this November. But this is not a new problem, it is not a new epidemic, it is not a race problem, a color or economic problem, it is a human problem. One that can only be fixed with human solutions. A law never saved my life. I could have died from that first round of Norcos had I not been surrounded by career junkies who helped me take just enough to get obliterated but not enough to depart this world and cross over to the other side. So, in many ways, I have those junkies to thank. Not the Supreme Court, not the FDA, not the doctors or pharmacists who cashed checks and didn’t take the 30 seconds of time it would have taken to call my doctor and confirm he wanted me to have 5 refills of 30 Norco for a minor kidney operation that warranted maybe 1 pill per day for a week, two tops.
These are the people with whom we give our trust, our money, and often our lives. If something is to be done in white or “urban” communities, it must be done by us. Lives are being lost, and if there was ever a time for a “revolution” in this country, it’s now. The problem is, we cannot occupy, protest, shout down or drive out an epidemic at the government level, it must be done by people willing to get their hands dirty and say “I will help you heal”. As David Milch says, the very role of a doctor is (supposed to be) pastoral: I will walk with you through whatever darkness may come. The Hippocratic Oath states “I will, according to my ability and judgment, prescribe a regimen for the health of the sick; but I will utterly reject harm and mischief”. This job is not being done by our politicians or our health professionals, so the burden of love, grace, and healing falls on us. After years of talking with and helping addicts and former addicts, I can describe this process as a gift to the human heart. To help heal another is as great a reward as we’ll ever see in this life, but we can no longer leave that healing in the hands of the powers that be. I’m sorry, but they aren’t coming to your rescue. But we will.
If I sound frustrated and angry, it’s because I am. I’ve attended too many funerals, been surrounded by too much death and darkness, and held tightly to so many loved ones whose choices (helped by those appointed to heal) have ended or nearly ended their lives, and I am enraged at the idea someone would use a tragedy like this for political gain, however I am not surprised.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Bourdain himself after seeing first-hand the devastation caused by opiate and prescription drug abuse in New England:
“Let’s start by being honest with ourselves. As a nation, for decades, we were perfectly happy to write off whole neighborhoods, whole cities, whole generations of young men and women, as long as it was an inner city problem, an urban problem. Which is to say a black people problem, a brown people problem. Send them to prison, into a system from which they’ll never return.
Maybe now, now that it’s really come home to roost, now that it’s the high school quarterback, your next door neighbor, your son, your daughter, now that grandma is as likely to be a junkie as anyone else…we’ll accept that there has never really been a war on drugs. “War on drugs” implies it’s us vs. them, and all over this part of America people are learning there is no them, there is only us. And we’re gonna have to figure this out together.”
If you or someone you know is addicted to opiates (prescription or otherwise), here’s a link to some recognition and initial steps you or they can take to get help: http://www.newbeginningsdrugrehab.org/opiate-rehab/