Addiction: The Illness That Talks

After more than three decades of heroin addiction, I was on my way to detox again. I had been to at least 40 or more detoxes, some of which I completed and some of which I bolted out the door before they wanted me to, or as they call it “A.M.A.— Against Medical Advice. Addiction is like that. I’m sure that my monkey mind had come up with a good excuse to ‘take it on the run baby,’ however, as one of my friends always used to say to me, “That’s probably not a good idea,” He said that to me very often. Well, I was on my way into a detox in West Boylston, MA, in March of 1994. I had two bags left, and stopped in a gas station to bang them up because I didn’t know how long it would be before they dosed me. Actually, that was just another excuse for getting higher.

When I arrived there, I was counseled and asked if I would complete a rehabilitation that they had, which meant that I would be there for two weeks after they stopped dosing me. I’d be going to relapse classes, meetings, etc. My counselor was a wonderful woman who had been my counselor previous times there. This was my 9th or 10th time at this particular detox. I was comfortable for the first couple of days and then they drastically reduced the methadone they were administering to me. Life is like that. You can’t get out of an addiction to opiates painlessly, no matter how hard you try. Finally I was reduced to nothing but my regular psych drugs for PTSD, Major Depression & Severe Panic Disorder. I don’t know what came first—the mental illness or Chasing the Dragon, as they call using the junk.

Finally I had an appointment with my counselor and she asked me, “What are you going to do different this time?” I looked into her eyes for a bit and then tears welled up in my eyes. You see, I was thinking that I was caught on this treadmill and nothing would happen upon my release but the same old thing. I was honest with her and told her I thought that I was just in for another tune-up. She smiled easily at me and said, “A tune-up! Tell me Marc, how long has it been since you blew the engine? It’s been a while, eh.” At this point I was feeling pretty hopeless. And then my counselor starting telling me my story. She asked if I remembered the motorcycle accident that took place in South Carolina while I was on a drug run at 2am in the morning? And then she told me the truth. I had told her the events of that story and how I was unable to walk after the accident. They started sending me to physical therapy and I hated it because it wasn’t easy and it was painful even though I was on a methadone clinic at the time. I told my physical therapist that I just couldn’t do it anymore. My physical therapist asked me a question. She said, “Marc, how badly do you want to walk again?” I really wanted to walk again. My P.T. said, “Marc, to be able to walk again, you’re going to have to do things you don’t want to do, over and over again. Or you can choose not to walk again.”

It was kind of a no-brainer. Of course I was going to do those things I didn’t want to do, over and over again because I really wanted to walk again without crutches and braces on my legs. So, over a period of one year, I did the work. My counselor, at the detox looked at me and asked me, “Marc, how badly do you want to stay Clean? This is the same deal as learning how to walk again. You’re going to have to do, every day, things you don’t want to do, over and over again. Like you’ll have to go to support groups or meetings every day, sometimes three times a day. You don’t have to like it at first. But I’ll tell you that, in the end, when you stay clean, you’ll begin to get gifts back in your life. Probably more than you can imagine at this time. I know, from past experience with you, that your “monkey” talks a good game. It’s not a matter of arguing with this monkey—you’ll need to overcome it with facts that it will try to deny.” At first I couldn’t see the connection with learning how to walk again and staying clean but then it hit me like a newsflash and tears ran down my cheeks. This was the beginning of my rude awakening.

I walked out of her office with a lot on my mind. Then, later, I was making aftercare plans on their telephone and the people put me on hold. I waited 30 seconds, then a minute, then my mind said, The hell with this and I went to hang up the phone. Suddenly a thought came like a bolt out of the clouds in my head. The thought asked, “If this was the dope man and he put you on hold, how long would you hang onto the phone?” I realized that, if this was the dope man and I was trying to cop, I would hang onto the phone so long that a spider could spin a complete web between the phone and my ear!

This was a total revelation and it was the beginning of fighting back against my addiction. I held onto the phone and was able to arrange for aftercare. Of course, this was just the beginning of that long road but I had become willing! This was how my Recovery began. My addiction was talking but I was talking back. And I did do things I didn’t want to do until, suddenly, I realized that my life was coming back to me. I knew that old monkey was a liar. I realized that “Addiction only remembers what it needs.”

Heroin Addiction: An Illness

A chill ran through my body as I read of the murder of Barbara Coyne of Boston, 67 years old, allegedly by a young heroin addict known as Timothy Kostka, only 27 years old. Violence always did make me ill, especially violence that was irrational and had no valid purpose.

I remembered the picture in the Boston Globe, Timothy leaning over in conference with his lawyer, and I looked closely at his face. Here was a man who was cursed with the same affliction as myself, a craving for heroin, driven by a demonic yearning that brings out the worst in a human being.

I think of my lost years, over 3 decades of chasing the drug, being imprisoned within myself, the police always on my trail because of my desperate craving just to kill the feelings of despair that ate at my soul. I thank Gods I do not understand that violence was not a part of my life.

So many opiate addicts, so many, scattered throughout the world, just chasing release from themselves. When I read of the horrid murder I felt a deep sorrow, not only for Barbara Coyne, who died needlessly, but for all the heroin addicts without any violence in their spirits, who would suffer for the terrible act of one man, prone to violence, and the knee-jerk reaction that would take place in the community.

Hunted, like vampires in a nightmare fantasy, all those heroin addicts whose only crime consists of the search for relief from their tortured realities. Why do some of us become addicts, or alcoholics, which is addiction by another name? What causes this illness, nature or nurture, or is it both?

In my younger days I saw people try the opiates and then discard them, but myself, I was gripped by a raging need for the extreme liberation of the pain of myself and only the opiates would grant that state of being. Those of us who had a tendency towards violence were few. Addiction aggravates the worst in us—if a tendency towards violence exists in our spirits, it will be brought forth in our desperate search for relief.

However, if we were not prone to violence, the need for opiates would not create it. The true horror of this situation is that the cries for the new Prohibition will be louder and more exaggerated than ever.

According to the Boston Globe, police officers will be knocking on the doors of suspected dealers warning them that they are being watched. People are demanding to know why small-time street drug offenders receive small sentences and are quickly back out on the streets.

According to the Globe, U. S. Representative Stephen Lynch “acknowledges that the scourge of drugs is behind the killing of Ms. Coyne.” A community meeting was held in South Boston to chatter about the “curse of addiction.”

A curse it is, but let us have some compassion for those stricken with the disease of addiction, 95% of them just petty criminals, either shoplifting, dealing, or begging to support their habits. Not only am I a person afflicted with the illness of heroin addiction but I am also a counselor for people like myself. I have worked in various agencies that help people who are sick with the disease of addiction—the Cambridge Needle Exchange being one of the places I worked.

At no time was I frightened by the behavior of the people I treated; on the contrary, I was filled with sadness that our civilization has not come to grips with a sickness but chooses to criminalize it. Early this April, I read an article in the Cambridge Chronicle that was entitled “Drugs—Police: Heroin Ring Infiltrated.”

The article talked about hauling in 10 suspects and making numerous arrests, with a list of all the nefarious characters—most of them homeless or couch-surfing—the biggest arrest was a 41 year-old man who was caught with 21 bags—the size of postage stamps—who was living in a boarding house run by the non-profit organization called CASCAP. Ironically, CASCAP formerly ran a small hospital for the treatment of addiction and it was closed due to budget cuts.

Not for one minute will this action make the drugs go away. Small crimes receive small sentences—paid for by tax dollars, more expensive than keeping addicts in treatment centers where they would be better served. When treating the illness of addiction, one must realize that just by keeping someone in the hospital until the physical aspects of the disease are relieved, but then releasing them back into the world with their psychological and spiritual aspects untreated, we just create a revolving door situation.

Addicts just don’t get better because they go into treatment for two weeks or less or because someone tells them they are sick. First of all, part of this powerful illness is seated in the mind of the addict and it actually tells them they are okay—despite all evidence to the contrary. Imagine—an illness that tells lies—but that is exactly what we are dealing with here.

Families torn apart by untreated addiction—youngsters who find it easier to get opiates than marijuana—opiates are now considered to be an entry-level drug. Many people start out by having one of their friends give them some oxy-contin that they took from their parents medicine chest or dresser drawer—and some go on to be hooked and some don’t succumb. Why? If we knew that answer the disease might not exist.

Treatment for the disease, however, does exist. Prison is not the answer. Modern medicine has come up with some wonder drugs for opiate addiction but they need to be made available along with continuous therapy and a complete safety net consisting of support groups—and both therapy and support groups are there.

The miracle drug is called Suboxone. When people use opiates for a lengthy period of time the pleasure receptors of the body atrophy and die. This period of time varies from person to person—but if someone has used for 1 to 5 years or more—atrophy may have already taken place in the receptors.

I was addicted to heroin and other opiates for over 30 years, making many attempts to overcome the horrors of my illness, being treated short term and then released and using, to my dismay, even against my own unguarded will. After many treatments, I found that I could stay abstinent for long periods of time—a few years sometimes—but then the impulse would come and I would pick-up the drug and once the fire was re-lit, it consumed me.

I got clean or abstinent, if you will, and started to rebuild my shattered life, and then I needed knee surgery. Immediately upon narcotics being introduced to my system, it was as if I had never stopped—but I had the knowledge that I was ill this time. Victims of this illness heal in increments and that was what was happening to me.

But there was one missing component. That component was Suboxone, a mixture of Buprenorphine and Naloxone, one drug to fool the atrophied pleasure centers into thinking that it had opiates in it, and the second, the Naloxone, a blocker that would activate if the drug was administered improperly. This drug does not get one high but it is the ingredient that makes impulse using impossible.

Picture the cell in the body that reacts with heroin as a room that bids heroin welcome. When one takes Suboxone, the room is filled to the brim leaving no room for heroin to enter the cell. So even if the addict, like myself, takes heroin—nothing will happen. This drug blocks the affect and fools the body into thinking, as it were, that all is well.

And indeed, with Suboxone, all is well. It must be taken daily, under the tongue, or as they say in medical jargon, sublingually. Of course, the psychological and mental aspects of the illness should be treated too—with the help of a knowledgeable therapist and the psycho-pharmacologist who is specially trained to prescribe the drug—and include support groups.

This is a whole lot cheaper than having a giant prison system and highly paid police chasing after the 95% of the harmless street addicts. It makes more sense too. I know, for a fact, because with all these elements my entire life has turned a complete 180.

So, if a society wants to focus on eradicating drug addiction, well, the truth is—it can’t be done. However, drug addiction can be treated—with a much better result than what our society has done with alcohol addiction. Prohibition is Prohibition. We have reached a breaking point with drugs like the one we reached with alcohol in the years of Prohibition. Our streets are flooded with drugs. Dealers fight for turf with weapons and there are casualties. Then there are the 5% of addicts, probably less, that are prone to violence.

The addict, already a violent individual even before drugs, breaks into a house and kills someone’s mother looking for something that may not have been there. It wasn’t his addiction that brought him to violence—it was his way of being. He just happens to be addicted.

If every addict was prone to violence, our streets would be crackling with gunfire throughout the day. Most addicts are not violent. Fear is a component of addiction. I know. I’ve hung out with these tortured individuals, worked with them–I am one.

There is an answer to the disease of addiction. It must be acted upon, thoughtfully implemented, and the illness will abate. Addiction will never completely go away but the effects of it can be diminished with the proper treatment.

So, as a community of people, let us focus on the ailment and treat it. We have nothing to gain but our sons and daughters—and that’s worth it, don’t you think so? After all, how many families today are affected by this illness? If answers exist, and they certainly do, isn’t it time to use them?

I should know. I’m not only a member of the treatment team—I’m also a client.