Like other working moms, I have so many things to cram into a single day. Eating breakfast at my desk, I have twenty minutes or so to stuff my face with yogurt and tea. Supposedly hydration is the key to balance. I find this amusing, since the only hydration I practiced before my thirties involved a syringe and cotton for a filter. Now, here I am drinking tea by the fistful, waiting for the staff to start trickling in. Since today was a miracle day with ten whole extra minutes, I have time to look at a new message.
I saw the movie Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street in high school. The film had a huge impact on me. It only briefly stopped me from trying opiates at 20 years old. My boyfriend got me started with OxyContin and switched to heroin when Oxy became too expensive. There is no harm reduction here, no treatment I can afford. After years in and out of jails and rehab, I have 32 days clean. I saw some of your videos. You are such an inspiration to me.
The writer pleads with me to explain to her what I did to stay clean. I push myself back into my chair. I need to take a moment. When I read these kinds of messages, I try to knock all of the elements of my rational mind down a notch and let my emotions flood in. It would be really easy to provide a long list of clinical advice. First you need to do this, then that, and good luck to you. But that is not what this person is seeking. When people me, they want a connection. They saw me on the screen. They feel as if they know me. This person wants to connect with me, the addict. She wants to know what I did to put myself in that place again when I was struggling to keep the needle out of my neck. She doesn't want some rote catchphrases devised in rehab. She wants me to reflect and respond.
Her words make my heart ache. I know this pain. While thirty-two days is enough time to physically feel much better, the road to real restoration is a much longer path. When I look at her face in the compressed photo next to her name, I see myself at twenty-seven. She has that overly made-up face, a mask to deflect from her emotions. I remember standing at the mirror putting on eyeliner like it was somehow a ring that would hold back my tears. I caked foundation on my scars, applied lipstick to draw away from my chipped front tooth.
She sees me as a heroine.
To a generation of young people struggling with addiction, I am known as the heroine of heroin. The documentary this woman is referring to——featured me when I was a junkie in my mid-twenties. It was aired on HBO in 1998 and still has a cult following around the world. Articles have been written about me since then extolling the fact that I have done what seemed completely impossible: I have been clean since February 27, 1998. That makes an impression on anyone who knows anything about this drug. When I agreed to do the film, I thought I would soon be dead from an overdose or homicide and that my story would be no more than a cautionary tale that would live on long after I was gone. My story is now one of transformation. I have escaped what has killed so many others.
I was using heroin during the era of AIDS. When a friend first pushed a needle into my arm, it was a used one. We would use the same needle—hoping it wouldn't break off in our arm—until the numbers on the side of the syringe wore off. Needle exchange programs and other services to assist users were nonexistent where I grew up in the Midwest. If you went to the hospital for an overdose or an infection, you could easily be taken to jail. People who had overdosed were dumped on the street, in hallways, or, if they were lucky, outside the hospital. A heroin user was considered to be the lowest of the low in society. We were told AIDS was cosmic retribution for our sins. The world would be a better place if we all just died off.
Heroin was expensive back then. The first time I tried it, I paid $30 for a bag that I split with another person. The bag started out at one-tenth of a gram. I have little doubt one of my friends dipped into the bag before I did. This was probably for the best. Recently one of our friends had overdosed and had to be revived, so everyone agreed I should only do half of that bag. "You can always do more," my friends said. "You can never do less." It was a "stamp" bag from New York City. It was engraved with 666. This should have been an omen. To me, it was a dream come true. After a year of planning it, I was finally going to try heroin.
The world in which this young woman lives now is entirely different from the one I left seventeen years ago. Now heroin is readily available across most of the U.S. From the cities to the suburbs, heroin has penetrated most communities. If you have the funds, it can even be ordered off "dark market" sites on the Internet and shipped directly to your front door. Mexican cartels have been creating routes straight through the border to towns in the Midwest, where deaths from prescription drugs used to be king. As the government cracks down on legal opiates, users are turning to heroin as a less expensive substitute. This includes places like Cincinnati, near where I grew up. I went there recently for a benefit for their controversial new syringe exchange program. Users there reported to me that the streets are so flooded with heroin, dealers are known to hand out free samples to get new customers. Free samples! I am not sure I would have survived this current era.
It takes a lot of courage to reach out to a stranger. As I think about what to say to this woman, I wonder what I could possibly say that might make a difference. I want to honor her confession. I have moved through the same dark tunnel out to the other side. To an observer, my life might seem removed from that place. It can now be quite ordinary. I have loads of laundry that need to be folded. I need to take the dog to get her shots. We just got another parking ticket for not moving the minivan on street-sweeping day. I have a pile of work on my desk. My to-do list is constantly overflowing, like my toilet when my child stuffed it with a bunch of wet wipes.
What did I do to get my life back? I cannot sum it up in 140 characters on Twitter. I can't explain my process in just a few words. For people trying to hold on for their lives, the entirety of my story provides some answers. There is no quick fix when your drug of choice is heroin. I have searched for them. I would read elongated war stories about addiction. I would be curled up in a ball while I nibbled on a pint of ice cream. When I read these stories, I was still deep in the beating heart of drug addiction. I had the blood on my arms to prove it. As if by magic, the writer would get clean in the last chapter: "And now I have a fabulous life." The End. Or maybe the person died. This wasn't helping me. It was the literary equivalent of a long sex session where your partner finishes, rolls over, and falls asleep. I lay there wanting more. I craved more. I needed more. I was looking for something I never really found. So I decided to create it.
I type out a couple sentences.
"Thanks so much for ing me. Congrats on getting clean!" I stop. It feels as if the weight of the world is on my shoulders. Until the day I hit rehab, I never knew anyone who had gotten off drugs. I knew people who had died. Then there were some who went to prison. There were some who just disappeared one day. Clean was a rumor. Clean was a fairy tale. Clean was an island in the never-ending stream of depression and self-hatred. How could I get to that place? I wondered. Clean was so elusive, I was afraid to go there. It was impossible. They had to drag me into recovery in handcuffs. I was not sure I could ever change. That last time, I was willing to give it my best effort. Because I knew if I failed, the end result would be death. This woman says she's thirty-two days off heroin. I admire her determination. Any day without a needle in your neck is a good day.
"The road in recovery is an uphill struggle, but well worth the energy," I tell her. "I am finally in a place in my life where I am willing to accept my imperfections. I don't need anyone or anything to fix me. I am okay in my own skin. It may take time to get there. Don't give up. You may not be able to replicate my process. Find what works for you."
I make a difference when I am willing to share my story.
I know this to be true.
I turn my attention back to my work for the day. My kids smile at me from my screen saver. Sixteen years ago I was dying on the streets of San Francisco. Now, I am the treasurer of the PTA. I take a breath to let it soak in. I take a moment to remember I am loved. Back to my keyboard.
Tracey Helton Mitchell is the author of the new memoir . After surviving nearly a decade of heroin abuse and hard living on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin District, she decided to get clean for good. She has since dedicated her life to the care and treatment of heroin users, working as a certified addiction specialist. Tracey lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children.