Perspective | As an ex-heroin addict, I know getting off opioids is near impossible – The Washington Post

I’m told I don’t look like a heroin addict.
I am a married, middle-aged woman, a taxpaying homeowner. As privilege goes, I have it. Because I’m White, I get treated better in medical settings such as hospitals and rehabs. I have health insurance. I have access to credit. My spouse could not be more supportive.
But every day for a couple of years I left my house with a river view and drove downtown in South Yonkers to meet my dealer. I know a letter carrier who once worked that neighborhood. He told me there was a time when you could buy an Uzi on his route.
I knew the first time I bought heroin at age 48 that doing so probably meant the end of my life. But compared to withdrawal, that was fine by me.
Looks and bias may deceive, but numbers don’t lie. The United States hit a record of overdose deaths last year. And the great, gaping hole of the response to the opioid epidemic is that withdrawal is the most important aspect, and it’s barely given lip service.
U.S. overdose deaths set a new record
I often wonder how many suicides are a result of people unable to bear it. There is no net. The window of time between putting down the drug and even a whiff of hope is too long. The only place to land is hell.
The medical community and lawmakers have never appreciated what withdrawal — or getting dopesick — does to a human being. Current policies and protocols can only manufacture heroin addicts.
And I was a degenerate one.
One day I noticed the inspection sticker on my car had expired. But it cost $37 to get an inspection, and that was almost four bags of heroin. I could not afford it. Every dollar went toward my growing habit.
Habit is what is referred to when your body needs a certain amount of an opioid to avoid getting ill. But habit is a misnomer. A better word is demand. There is no choice.
Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic
Shortly after, with three bundles (a bundle is 10 glassine bags, all stamped with a brand name; once I bought brand Trump) in my car, I turned a corner and saw several Con Ed trucks right before a stoplight. A police officer was directing traffic and close enough to see my expired sticker.
This was a very long light. It was long enough that he could pull me over and take one look at my eyes with pupils tight as pins. I had $300 of a Schedule 1 narcotic in my car. This was not a good situation.
The light was still red.
I caught the officer’s eye and gave my friendliest “I support the police!” smile. I waved. He waved back and grinned. Finally, the light changed, and I drove away.
It was another four months before I got the car inspected. Like I said, I couldn’t afford it.
The “war on drugs” has people languishing in prison for lesser reasons than I would have given that officer. My White privilege and economic status are the reason I am alive today.
The shameful way race affects treatment of pain and drug addiction
When New York state implemented an electronic prescription registry, doctors could no longer write multiple prescriptions. I had an enormous 8-year-long habit from prescription opioids. It was impossible for me to stop without becoming dangerously ill. My only choice was heroin.
When using an opioid over a long period of time, a tolerance develops and more of the opioid is needed to feel high. The first few years I was taking a reasonable dose. As time passed, an amount lethal to a normal person was needed simply for me to be functional.
For those of you observing an addict, the consensus may be that we let down our families, friends and selves when relapsing because we want to be high. For someone coming off a big habit, it’s rarely the case.
It’s not that we choose drugs over you. It’s that we can’t survive kicking them.
I got off heroin in summer 2015.
I did not want to stop.
My husband sent me to rehab because I’d blown through one of his retirement accounts and took out a home-equity loan to support my habit. I tried to conceal what I was using, but there’s no hiding a problem that costs $2,000 a week.
I don’t understand how he stood it. He says he stayed with me through the horror because he knew I was worth saving.
Agencies target ‘illegal, unapproved’ products that claim to treat opioid addiction
It took a month to detox. Then I thought about killing myself every day for 58 straight days. For two months after rehab, I seriously considered suicide as a practical alternative to what I was experiencing.
My question then is the same I have today. With all the privilege and support I have, I barely survived the process. If it was this hard for me, how hard is it for everyone else?
More than once, I’ve read this phrase describing opioid withdrawal: The patient will experience flu-like symptoms.
That must be the most inaccurate statement in medicine. A friend says doctors always leave out the part about “psychic death.”
Two or three days into my withdrawal in rehab, the nurses took away my ice chips. They were the last source of fluid they could give me. I was vomiting so convulsively they removed them to get the spasms to stop.
It didn’t work. The uncontrollable retching continued. I begged for just one ice chip to no avail. My mouth, throat and entire digestive track felt scalded. After a couple of hours, a doctor came in and said they were transferring me to a medical hospital.
I was in arguably the best rehab in the world.
That’s when my rage kicked in. The absolute ineptitude of the entire medical community to treat opioid withdrawal was never in sharper relief to me than at that moment.
I refused to go. They brought in an IV with a saline drip and hooked me up to it.
Federal government allows program to pay substance abusers for staying clean
Sometimes I think I lived through it. Sometimes I think I died in that room, that my body and mind went through an experience so brutal I was transformed into someone else.
There was a point when I began to hallucinate. I saw my long-dead father sitting next to me in a gladiator costume, complete with Roman sandals.
He was an observer, a witness. He said nothing, just watched me go through the agony.
My counselor later equated my withdrawal to that of end-stage labor with her first child. But it lasted over a week, not a couple of hours. That time in rehab is very hard to sort, but I think it was over a week before I walked out of that detox room and joined the general population.
There is no flu that feels like being trapped in a burning room with no way to get out. The flu doesn’t leave you with psychic death. It’s the most brutal experience I’ve survived. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from withdrawing, not using.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the opioid epidemic into three waves. The third started in 2013. Nine years later, I am stunned by how little professionals know about the process.
All opioids, whether synthetic or natural, prescribed or not, pill, liquid, powder, swallowed, shot, snorted or smoked, work the same way. One major difference is their strength. Fentanyl is often lethally strong, and causes most overdoses.
Fatal opioid overdoses are up by the hundreds, devastating families and worrying officials
But if a batch of heroin laced with fentanyl were killing people, I’d only want to know where to buy it. You cannot scare an addict. There is no consequence worse than being dopesick.
Heroin is a clinical narcissist. Within a matter of hours after giving it the boot, it pours gasoline over your head and strikes a match, saying, “It doesn’t have to be like this. Come back to me, fool.”
Heroin smiles, looks at its watch and goes out to get a cup of coffee. As it walks out the door, you hear, “It’s only going to get worse.”
Heroin is right. It only gets worse.
The prescription crackdown made it harder for patients in chronic pain and did nothing but move addicts from doctor’s offices to unlicensed drug dealers. Both the addict and the patient with a valid need for narcotic medication were left stranded.
Our lawmakers in Washington have made it worse for everyone, including doctors. In turn, physicians treat anyone in pain as suspect.
Buying heroin is so much easier to navigate than our medical system. The dealer has a better grasp of withdrawal than a physician. They don’t look at our addiction as a moral issue. They know it’s a medical one.
Many nations have developed comprehensive support systems that work, including medications that increase survival rates dramatically and harm reduction programs. A wide range of options is critical. Some people find 12-step programs work, but they may need help until they can walk in the door. Others will never get off heroin. They need safe injection sites.
If we truly want to lower drug usage and reduce the number of overdose deaths, we could look to Portugal, which decriminalized drug use entirely over 20 years ago. They’ve had excellent results.
But do we want good results?
Decades into this crisis, it’s difficult for me to believe that our lives are worth much to either physicians or lawmakers. I am only an expert on how difficult it is to stop. It seems those in positions of power would have implemented better solutions by now if our lives were a priority.
I’m told I was worth saving. So is everyone else.


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