My Journey Through Darkness; How Being Lost in Hell Lead Me to Find Heaven-

Greg Chiofalo

As I sat in class, my note books filled with scribbles, notes about suicide and drug use, all I could think about was my next chance to get high. I hated being in school, and I would always judge myself based off the people who surrounded me. It was not uncommon for me to fall into deep states of depression, but at sixteen years old I did not know what I was experiencing or why I felt so horrible about myself. Most of my life I believed that my happiness rested in the hands of others. I never felt comfortable in my own skin and I always wanted to feel included, but even when I was with my friends the discomfort would persist. I did not know what was wrong with me, or why I could never feel happy. The only thing that made me feel better was getting high. My problem was not with drugs, my problem was with myself, and the way that I felt. I did not like myself, and as hard as I tried, I never believed that anyone could like me either.

School was not easy for me and the discomfort and absent mindedness I would experience led me to attend class as little as possible. My problem was not that I was stupid, I was able to pass most of my exams without attending class. My problem was that when I was in class I could not stay focused on what was going on around me. The discomfort was too strong and the anxiety that I might have to speak led me to bury my feelings under hundreds of milligrams of codeine. My teachers never seemed to notice anything was wrong with me. My fear of attention allowed me to put up a good front, leading people to believe that I was doing okay, but inside, I was not okay. Inside I was scared, scared that I would lose my friends, scared that no one would like me, scared that I would never grow to be successful or even comfortable in my own skin. Throughout much of my school career I struggled with depression and anxiety and drugs became my way to cope with those feelings.

My problem with drugs continued to grow worse as the years went on and it began to seem like there was nothing that could take this pain away from me. Doing gram lines of cocaine or sniffing 160mg of oxycontin off the toilet paper dispenser, I would walk around school in a daze, if I had even attended school that day. I believed that once I was out of school and I was working I would feel okay, that having a job and money would solve my problems. I could graduate high school having reached my limit of days absent but I would soon learn that the real world was much more difficult than attending class. However, as bad as my pain was, as many drugs as I used, I did try to fight back. My method was to go on a cycle of steroids, go to the gym every day and string together a few weeks of abstinence, only to go right back to my old ways.

It seemed like each time I went back to the drugs the problem grew worse and when I was seventeen I experienced my first overdose. I was on a strong mixture of oxycontin, ecstasy, Xanax and cocaine as I began to seize on my grandmother’s couch during a party I was having. I remember waking up the next day in my bed. I was covered in sweat, with a deep brown outline of my body staining the sheets as if I had died and left a chalk outline of myself as my soul left my body. I did not remember anything, not the party, not the overdose, not my friends frantically waking my brother up, not the steaming hot rag thrown on my face that would take me out of my seizure. When I called my friend the next day I was told what had happened, and I could not believe that no one called an ambulance to take me to the hospital. The scariest part of the whole thing was that at the time I was proud. I was proud to have lived through such a thing, like I had earned a badge of addiction honor. I was not afraid of death, at that point in my life, I was welcoming it.

My path of addiction and self-medication continued to grow worse as time went on. Not only was I getting high, my older brother who I had always looked up to, was also using and it was not long before we began using together. We had always known about each other’s drug use and would sometimes help each other find drugs when we needed, but it was not until things grew bad that we would start to use together. That same year there was a shortage of pills in our town and no one knew how to get anything. By this time, we had all been using oxycontin and fentanyl so things like Vicodin or Percocet would barely take the pain away from the withdrawal. We could not afford to pay the unreasonable prices of the pills, but we could not suffer through the withdrawal. That was when we found out about heroin. We were told that heroin would have the same effect as the pills would, but at a much cheaper cost.

There was only one person from our town that we knew of that was doing heroin, so we made a phone call and within a few hours we were going to meet her and her boyfriend, who sold heroin, at the gas station. Once we picked up we rushed back to my friend’s house and we began to frantically rip open these small, wax paper bags, all working in unison trying to figure out how to get this viscous brown powder out. Trying to gauge how much we should do, we all emptied two of these bags and sniffed this powder that tasted like wet of dog food. Within just a few minutes that familiar sense of warmth and peace overcame my body that was so much like the oxys. Heroin was cheap, I still had several bags left and yet I spent the same amount of money as I did on one oxy; I knew there was no going back. I was officially a heroin addict.

Sadly, that girl who got us our dope would end up passing away from an overdose just a few months later while at a party. Her death was the first real sign that there was a problem in our small Massapequa town and it raised a tremendous amount of awareness of this growing epidemic. As my addiction grew worse so did my depression. The scary thing was that I was beginning to feel comfortable in this life. The adrenalin of going into desolate neighborhoods in Brooklyn, hiding my use around others who did not know, the shady things we would have to do to get money. I began to get hooked on the lifestyle, I had finally felt like I had a sense of self. I was okay with being a monster. I had my friends, my brother and my drugs. Nothing else mattered. The problem with drugs is that a story like this very rarely has a fairytale ending, and this once great feeling of comfort was soon replaced with a feeling of isolation, and deep depression.

For a small window of time my friends and I split apart. Some of us continuing to use heroin, while one of my friends and I tried to get away from it. We could not stop without going through withdrawal, so we grabbed as many painkillers as we could, went back on steroids and learned how to detox ourselves while we went back to the gym. I once again was off the drugs and back in shape, but like every time before it was short lived. While hanging out at my house one summer night Tony, Mike and I received a phone call. it was from my friend Brian who had been sent away to rehab. Brian began shooting heroin with his girlfriend while the rest of us were on our detox and he had been sent away by his parents. Brian had asked us to drive upstate and break him out of rehab. And although we never said it, we knew the reason we were really going to get him. We wanted heroin and he knew where to find it.

After driving five hours upstate we had finally made it to the rehab where Brian was staying. It was 1am and all we had to do was wait for him to call. He was calling from his roommate’s phone, one that he had snuck into the facility. There was three of us in a hatchback mercury cougar with just enough room for my friend Brain. But, as Brian was running out of the building toward us, we noticed something strange. He was with another person. It was his roommate whose phone Brian had been using. They both reached the car with their bags in hand and the five of us had to cram into the car, bags and all. As we were driving, Brains roommate told us that he had been court mandated to that rehab. We were now harboring a fugitive. We dropped Brian’s roommate off about an hour away from the facility and we drove straight home. By the time we arrived home it was already 6am and the sun was coming up. We decided to get some sleep, we were going to Brooklyn in the morning to meet our new dealer.

When we got back to my house no one could sleep, we were too excited for what was going to come. We called Brian’s dealer at 7am and to our surprise we got an answer. We were doing it, we driving to Williamsburg to go to pick up, like so many times before. We drove to Brooklyn and then straight home. Brian, leaving rehab with nowhere to stay ended up living with me. I stayed in an apartment by myself while my Dad lived with his girlfriend, so I had the easiest place for him to stay. We were all sniffing heroin at the time, except for Brian who had learned how to shoot up with his girlfriend. I had always sworn that I would never shoot up because I knew that there was no turning back, but much like every drug before, curiosity got the best of me. After two days of living with me I had Brain give me my first shot of heroin. I watched in amazement as I stuck my arm out. He wrapped a tourniquet around my arm, inserted the needle into my vein and pulled back the plunger. I saw my blood erupt into the water and heroin mixture inside the chamber as he began to push the plunger back in, releasing it all directly into my body. The moment he pulled that needle out I could feel the warm rush spread throughout my body. It started from my feet and flowed up my spine with a strong rush right into my brain. In those ten seconds, I knew there was no turning back.

It was not long before more of us joined the cult of the spike. My brother was soon to go after me. Once I started to inject, I would shoot anything I could eventually leading me to shoot cocaine. That was when I discover shooting a heroin, cocaine mixture called a speedball and this became my drug of choice. I wish I could understand what was going through my mind at this point in my life. I had grown so accustomed to this lifestyle that it was all I knew. I felt that there was no way I could ever change, I felt comfortable in the chaos, I felt I was where I belonged and I had my brother right there with me. As the time went on the group split apart. No one wanted to look out for each other and no one wanted to share whatever drugs we could get. Things became so bad that when the apartment upstairs from me became available, I moved my dealer in and began to sell heroin and crack for him while he stayed in his building in Brooklyn. He would come to Long Island once or twice a week to do a drop off and I would sell it.

My day would start with a shot of cocaine, and after a few more shots I would shoot heroin so that I could even out and begin my day of dealing. I even began to make money while supporting my habit but like most, my dealer ended up getting arrested after a few months and my days of dealing ended abruptly. Once again, my brother and I were left scrambling for a new dealer. We were back to lying, stealing and scamming anyone we could get money or drugs from and for the rest of the year this is how things would go. My brother living with his girlfriend at the time had his own place while I was staying at my Dad’s. That is, until my father decided he was going to fully move in with his girlfriend and the apartment was no longer going to be there. With no money, and a heroin addiction, I had nowhere to go, I ended up moving into my uncle’s basement with the agreement that I would give him a few hundred dollars every month. His basement was not an apartment, it was just an open room with my bed, a couch and TV. I had set sheets up to block my side off from the laundry room to have some space. By this point my addiction had reached its climax. I was stealing and using every day, sometimes using up to forty bags of heroin a day. I was not able to keep my arrangement with uncle in terms of payment, I was not even spending money on food any more. Every dollar I had was going to heroin, and I knew it was a matter of time before I was homeless again.

I’m not sure if it was the idea of being homeless again, or the thought of someone finding me dead in my uncle’s basement, but by this point in my life I began to recognize the direction in which my life was heading. I no longer had contact with any of my friends, I never saw my Mom or Dad, and I now weighed only 140 lbs. My skin had been pale, my hair became an overgrown mess and my entire life was falling apart. That was until the day came that I knew, it was time to give up, either I was going to kill myself, or I was going to get help.

I can trace back to the moment that this realization hit me. My brother and I had just stolen jewelry from our Mother. As he went inside the house I waited outside in my red SUV and I could already feel the guilt building up inside of me, something that I had not felt in a long time. We drove to the jewelry store and I waited outside as my brother pawned what we had stolen. As I waited I flipped my visor down to block the sun and in that moment, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. If you have heard any addiction stories before you may have heard of having a “mirror moment”, and I believed that was exactly what I experienced. Until that point, I would not dare look at the mess I had become, I did not even like to think about myself, but in that instance, something changed. I can remember thinking about my life, my friends, my family. I can remember thinking about my brother, who was four years older than me, and I wondered if this life is what I wanted my life to be like in four years. It all suddenly made sense to me; it was time to get help.

When my brother got in the car I looked at him and said that I was done, that I needed to get help and that I was going to go home, and tell my Mother that it was time. My mother did not know just how bad I was at this point. The few times I would see her I would clean myself up as best as I could and put on my act. My brother always made it easy for me to get away with things because his stealing and behavior had stolen the show. He was so obviously in need of help that I became eclipsed in his destruction. When I knocked on my Moms door I knew I was about to break her heart. I looked my Mother in the eyes and said “Mom, I need help, I have a problem and I need to go to rehab.” Her first reaction was confusion, wondering how I had been so bad without anyone knowing. That confusion soon turned to anger, wondering how I could do that to myself after watching the path my brother had taken. Little did she know that I was using the entire time. However, after she calmed down she was just happy that I came home, and that I was ready to get help.

A few days later I moved in with my Mom and for weeks we searched for help. My first attempt was at NUMC; a hospital near my home. I no longer had insurance so I had to get Medicaid while I was at the hospital and I was only covered for six days of detox. The detox was on the top floor of this 19-story building and it overlooked Brooklyn. I would sit each night and stare out of the window to the place that had become my second home. The place I could find the one thing that I knew would make me feel better. By my fourth day in detox I could not take it, I was sick and knew that I was going home sick just two days later. I found two people who had money, and we left together to head out to Brooklyn to pick up. We met my dealer and found a place to pull over. After I took that shot, I was so disappointed in myself I could not take it. I thought to myself that this was it, I was going to be a junkie forever. When I came home I could tell that my Mom knew what had happened, and surprisingly she was not angry. She knew, as I did, that if I were to get help I would need much more than six days. We both agreed that I needed to get away from home, and I needed something much longer.

With no insurance and almost no money we made hundreds of phone calls to every facility we could find online. Each rehab costing more than the next, we were not sure how I would ever find help. It became disheartening; as if the only people who could get help were those with money. Just as I was getting ready to give up and accept my fate as a drug addict, the phone rang. The place was a treatment center in Michigan. It was strange because neither I or my Mom had called this place, and we had no idea how they got our number. They first gave us a price of $30,000 for a program that ran three to six months long. Of course, we did not have that kind of money and we hung up the phone on them. They called back later that evening lowering the price, continuing to call repeatedly, until eventually we were met with a price we could afford. We borrowed whatever money we could, and just a few days later I was on a plane to Michigan.

The day I left for the airport I woke up and took what would end up being the last shot of heroin I ever took again. I can remember being on the plane, paralyzed by intoxicating effects of heroin, and the deep fear of leaving home to go to treatment. I was not sure what to expect or what I was really walking into. The pictures on the website where of this large beautiful building, filled with smiling, healthy looking faces, brand new gym equipment and a large game room filled with everything you could ever want. When the plane landed, I was met at the doors by nice old man and we left to drive to the center.

I had finally arrived, and there was no turning back now. I was at the facility in the middle of Michigan with not a single person I knew for hundreds of miles. I was escorted into the first segment of my treatment; detox. What I was not aware of when I signed up was that it would be a non-medical detox in a small wing of what used to be a hospital. There were no TV’s, no radios, no outside magazines or newspapers. I was in a closed off section with myself, my thoughts and a few other people who were also detoxing. I went through withdrawal completely cold turkey.

Within a few hours of being at the facility I could feel my high fading away as the feelings of discomfort began to set in. My hands became clammy, my muscles began to tense and I knew things were about to get much worse. As the hours passed pain began to worsen. My muscles began to tense up, legs becoming restless with the feeling as though I had just run a marathon. I was taking layers of clothing off just to immediately throw them back on. This was just the beginning. Days went by, I could not eat, I could not sleep. If I tried to sleep the person on the top bunk would be kicking so hard from withdrawal the bed would shake. My stomach in knots, the constant diarrhea and vomiting. This was a pain I had never experienced before. I had been through withdrawal, however, I always found a way to get my drugs by this point, I was not ready for what I was feeling and I was scared for my life. The only thing I could do to pass the time was go in and out of the hot shower, and while that helped a little with the physical discomfort it was no match for the mental torment I was experiencing. I was faced with extreme depression, thoughts about my life and everything that I had done to myself rushing around my head. The idea of dying was welcomed, I wanted anything to make this pain go away, but after twelve days of this hell I was finally ready to move on to the treatment side of the program.

I ended up staying in rehab for a total of 5 months and although the program was not what I was expecting, I made the best of it. The brand-new gym displayed on the website was really a step down from an old high school weight room, but I could make it work. The game room was just a table for cards, a lopsided pool table and decent ping pong table. The treatment was unlike anything I had experienced, or even heard of before, but I was there for one thing; that was to live a life free of heroin and addiction. Those five months went by so fast I could not believe it when it was time to come home. Each day felt like an eternity, but each week felt like a blink of an eye. I said goodbye to the amazing friends I met during my stay and a few short hours later I was back in New York.

I remember getting to the airport to see both my Mom and my Dad waiting for me and for the first time in my life I felt like everything was going to be ok. Treatment could give me the clean time I needed, the skills I could use in tricky situations, and the courage to face a new life, but this was just the beginning and my journey through life had just begun. It has now been over seven years since I took my trip to Michigan, and by no means has my recovery been perfect. However, I can now say that I would not change a single thing I have ever been through. I have made mistakes, I have lost friends, I have struggled financially but no matter what has happened to me I have always remembered to be grateful to be free from that hell. I have some of the best friends in the world, I have a loving and caring family that has helped me through thick and thin and I have skills that I could have never developed without going through such a journey. I have learned who I am, I have learned how to experiment in a healthy way, finding not just what I am interested in but also what I am good at. I now help others who were in my situation to overcome their fears and start a life of their own. Today, I go to the gym six days a week, I meditate, I read a book a week, I write, and I share my story with the world. The beginning of recovery you feel as though you have given something up, as though you have lost a part of yourself, but with time and practice you begin to find who you really are. You begin to explore long lost interests, you try new things and you learn how to truly live. I can say that being a heroin addict was the best thing to ever happen to me, because of how much I have learned in recovery. I can now share my message, and help people to avoid making the same mistake I have made. I now live a life on my terms and I do not have to apologize for a thing, because I know who I am, I know what I stand for and I live free from addiction.

Today I am truly happy, I am fulfilled and I am grateful. Although my brothers journey took him to some dark places I am proud to say that he is now doing incredibly well and he has joined me in helping others by sharing his story. I have my own place, my own car, a career I love and friends I would die for. My father would remarry having two little kids of his own, my now five-year-old brother and two-year-old sister who are my entire world. I have my dog Buddy who has been with me throughout most of my recovery. I could not buy the lesson I have learned over these years, but I can share them. That is what I hope to do with this story. I wish to spread a message of hope and strength for anyone who is going through the struggle, because if I can come this far in my life from where I started, anyone can. I do not believe that my problem was with substances, although they had become a problem. My problem was that I could not face life, I did not how to cope with my emotions and I could not connect with people. My anxiety and depression had got the best of me and I began to self-medicate. Today I am armed with the lifestyle and the tools to live a life on my terms, and I now can handle anything that comes my way. Suffering is a skill to be mastered, not a feeling to avoid.

People who struggle with substance abuse disorder are just that; people. Although it started out as a choice for me at 12 years old, I never intended to lose control the way I did, and the reason I was able to overcome was because of the love and support I received from my family and friends. We all deserve that, we all deserve that same love and support. Everybody is going through something, it’s time we stop dividing ourselves and instead love one another. At the end of the day we all want the same thing, and that is to just be happy. I envision a world where we no longer judge one another by the type of suffering we are experiencing and instead learn to show love and compassion. We can all play our part, but it starts with ourselves. We must focus on our own behaviors first, we must live authentic and fulfilling lives, because when we are at our most authentic, there is no desire to judge others.

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