To The Heroin Addict I saw In The Newspaper- I'm Sorry.
John and I grew up a few blocks away from each other, but I can't say I remember him. And by the way, his real name isn't John, but for this story, we'll call him that. I didn't know John until last month when we met under some pretty bizarre circumstances. John and I grew up in Newark. No, not New Jersey. In fact, this Newark is probably the furthest thing from a bustling New York City suburb imaginable. This Newark is located in Upstate New York. A small village situated outside Rochester, conveniently located somewhere between the Finger Lakes region and the shore of Lake Ontario. A place where every face is familiar, every street holds a memory, and all gossip is broadcasted. So it's not all that surprising that the first time I saw John was in the local newspaper after being arrested. His poignant mugshot was sprawled out in the infamous law & order section of our hometown newspaper. This was a few years ago, so I couldn't remember exactly what he was arrested for, but I do distinctly remember reading the arrest report and coming to the conclusion that John was probably addicted to drugs. Unfortunately, I was right.
Fast forward to just a few months ago. I was looking to write a story about the heroin epidemic, and how obtrusively prominent it was in the small town I called home. After a few days of some light research, my story was coming up short and I placed it on the backburner. Until later that night, when I was scrolling through the multitude of trivial facebook posts that, for some reason, we all enjoy reading so much. That's when I found John. Somewhere in the mess of mutual friends, likes, and comments, one of John's facebook posts appeared on my timeline. He shared a post that was circulating around Facebook, in which he was sharply replying too. The post was riddled with F-words and bad grammar and angrily declared that we should hate heroin addicts. That they're all junkies. That they deserve their fate and don't deserve our sympathy. I was struck by this post, not just because of how vulgar it was, but because of how agreed-upon this opinion is. After all, this was a post that was shared over 81 thousand times. It's a strange phenomenon- People hate heroin addicts. More than alcoholics, even more than drug addicts who are addicted to substances other than heroin. So, what is it about heroin that makes people lose all sympathy? I was out to investigate, so I sent John an unsolicited facebook message introducing myself, and expressing my interest in writing a piece about the heroin epidemic.
Within a few days, John and I had several interesting conversations. He spoke about his long, convoluted journey to sobriety and the neverending shame and guilt that comes with being a recovering heroin addict. But most of all, John shared with me his story. For someone who is so vigorously dehumanized by society, I've yet to meet someone more unapologetically human than John.
John was raised in a charming house, in a cordial neighborhood, brimming with well-kempt shrubbery and white picket fences. Something right out of the set of Gilmore Girls or 7th Heaven. John was fortunate enough to be raised by a loving Mother, and had the misfortune of growing up with an abusive father. His parents would later divorce, and his father was ultimately removed from his life when he received a lengthy prison sentence when John was 15. But the damage was done. A childhood of covering up bruises and constant belittlement left John with a crippled self-esteem, and the effects are seemingly permanent. John's mother soon remarried, and John was blessed with a step-father who made the remainder of his adolescence enjoyable.
Friends describe John as a gentle-giant type character, always sporting a contagious smile that complimented his markedly likable personality. He was the kid you were envious of in ninth grade, who never seemed to spend time studying but always landed straight A's. He was a member of his high school tennis team, and particularly enjoyed drama club. After graduation, John flew the coop, moving to a Syracuse to attend college, and that's when things got complicated.
The overwhelming majority of heroin addicts start with prescription painkillers, in John's case, it was Opana, an opioid pain medication that he found floating around the college party scene. It was a recreational drug that temporarily silenced the effects of John's broken home life, and slowly developed into an addiction. The effects of John's addiction to prescription pain medication were not necessarily instantaneous, and because he was able to hide his addiction from the people around him, he was able to convince himself that he didn't have one. John now worked a steady job, managing a retail warehouse, where he was routinely commended for his good work. He settled into a cozy apartment with his new girlfriend, and despite the moderate addiction, life was good. But the addiction became increasingly onerous to mask, and the dependence on the drugs strengthened. Simultaneously, the pills that were satiating that dependence were becoming scarce on the street, and extremely expensive. Even as the addiction worsened, John never saw himself resorting to heroin. But there he was, left with a powerful chemical dependance on a drug that was no longer attainable, and the streets provided only one substitute to satisfy the inescapable craving. Heroin was readily available, significantly cheaper, and disastrously more potent. At the first hit, John was hooked. Almost immediately, he was living his life solely to pacify his addiction, giving no attention to anything else.
In an opioid-induced blur, he had lost everything. The good job, the pretty girlfriend, the nice apartment- everything. John was now living in a cramped room in a dingy apartment, with nothing but the next hit on his mind. He got a job working at a highway gas station overnight, which allowed him to discreetly "use" throughout his shift. John fell into a daily routine of leaving work at 7AM, driving thirty minutes to a heroin dealer, and purchasing 20 bags of heroin- totaling about $200 a day. Every paycheck was drained immediately, and he depleted his savings without hesitation. In the mirror was an unfamiliar reflection, a face battered with agony. John would go several days without eating or sleeping, and his appearance verified that. Every hit was a tango with death, and John, in some wicked way, was content with that.
John wasn't necessarily struggling alone. His best friend, who we'll call Andrew, was on the same path, and acted as somewhat of a support-system to John. John had a hard time expressing his gratitude for Andrew. He explained that Andrew possessed this altruistic genuineness that he'd never found in anyone else. Andrew and John "used" together, on what I perceived was on a "one last time" basis. On the surface, Andrew really had his life together. He worked for his family's business, and was engaged to be married. He somehow managed to hide his addiction, even when the dependance grew unendurable. One fall morning, Andrew accompanied John on one of his routine runs to score drugs. Unlike John, Andrew never plummeted into heroin, but stuck with opioid pain medication, which is arguably just as bad. That morning, Andrew wasn't chasing a high, but rather avoiding withdrawal symptoms to continue the facade of not having an addiction. John refers to the withdrawal symptoms as "dope sickness", which I've gathered is similar to having some ungodly version of the flu that can kill you. Certainly something you don't want to happen while working at your family's business when you're trying to hide your addiction. As Andrew and John approached the dealer, Andrew realized he'd forgotten his wallet, and John, understanding the circumstances, spotted him the cash to purchase his daily fix. They scampered away from the drug house, and went their separate ways after making plans to watch a basketball game the following day. Andrew didn't make it. He overdosed later that afternoon. John felt responsible for his death, a haunting rumination that no human should ever live with. Between the drugs and the sheer devastation, John had a difficult time recounting Andrew's service, but was just cognizant enough to notice the absence of a good friend who should've been there. We'll call him Josh. Josh was a member of John and Andrew's friend group, who was fighting his own battle with heroin addiction. John assumed he got too high to show up, and after the service, furiously drove to his house to chide him. Upon entering, they found Josh, cold, blue and unresponsive. Sometime before Andrew's service, he overdosed too.
The deaths of two good friends didn't serve as a wake-up call to John, in fact, quite the opposite. It worsened his addiction and the dejection that came with it. Death was seeming more and more like an inevitable outcome. John lost track of how many friends and acquaintances he'd lost to heroin. Even the optimistic faces he met in support groups were disappearing one by one, and the heroin epidemic that those of us on the outside discuss over dinner, was an abhorrent, tangible tragedy. Throughout our interview, John kept reiterating that heroin, for some unknown reason, had a knack for taking the best people. The sweet-natured, the intelligent, those who-prior to heroin- secured a future. We also spoke about how society perceives the epidemic. How race factored in. How the epidemic wasn't widely-discussed until it was seeping into white, well-off neighborhoods, which is horribly unfortunate.
John eventually resorted to crime to support his addiction. Heroin is a drug that possess you. It makes your every action uncharacteristic. It drives you to do horrible things that you never thought you were capable of. John escaped death by the skin of his teeth on numerous occasions, but it took a long, long time for him to hit what he considered rock bottom. John's rock bottom was being found inside a neighbor's house, stealing jewelry. Someone in the neighborhood saw John entering the home and alerted police. He was apprehended, and the jewelry was recovered from his car. I now know, That's why I saw John in the newspaper. That's when the vicious judgments came rolling in around town. The odd thing is, the judgment wasn't based off of the inexcusable, unjustifiable act of stealing, but what he was stealing for- his addiction.
John served a month in jail and entered rehab afterward. John's recovery was a long fought battle, riddled with horrific bouts of depression. John overheard the whispers in public. "Junkie", "scumbag", he even heard comments suggesting he "should've died". Every log-in to social media meant running into hateful, insensitive rhetoric towards addicts. Maybe it's because when people think of addicts, that think of just that- an addict. Not a human.
When I opened up the newspaper and saw John's mugshot some years back, I judged him. And I woefully regret that. I saw a mugshot, not a human. I didn't see a son, or brother, or a good friend. I saw a mugshot, and a crime, without even a sliver of a backstory. I didn't see the years of abuse that John endured. I didn't see the horrific addiction that he was battling, and I certainly didn't see another human, but an addict. Getting to know John, and hearing his astonishing story made me question humility. Not just John's, but my own. We have so many opinions about how to fight the heroin epidemic, but before we can discuss ending the war on drugs, let us be compassionate enough to end the war on drug addicts. No legislation is going to do as much good as simply understanding. Let us be reminded that addiction, in every sense of the word, is a disease. A scientific fact accepted in the medical community. A disease that lurks before even using drugs, as certain individuals are likely to use drugs more than others. The heroin epidemic is difficult to grasp in terms of statistics, let us remember that these statistics are representing human-beings, deserving of humanness.
I dedicate this article to my new friend John, who has now been clean for 3 and a half years. He is currently working on opening his own business, and dedicates much of his time to helping recovering heroin addicts, who struggle inconceivably, just like he did.