Tracey Helton Mitchell
My name is Tracey Helton Mitchell. I’m an ordinary person with an extraordinary story. My descent into addiction began as a teenager, after I had been given opiates for a wisdom teeth extraction. I never realized something as small as a pill could have such huge effects on my life.
Opiates were the solutions I had been looking for, all in one place. When I took opiates, all my problems seemed to melt away. All my troubles disappeared in that moment. I went on chasing that feeling for 10 more years, eight of which were in active addiction.
I was a promising student full of great expectations, yet I was never satisfied with how I felt in my own skin. This is a very common thread that unites many users. Finding temporary relief from depression, anxiety, or fear is a normal reaction when using drugs. Unfortunately, over time, the solution becomes a growing problem.
In the late 1990s, two years of my life as a heroin addict were chronicled in the HBO film Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street. My years of active addiction had ended in homelessness. I was finally able to stop using drugs, but not before I had spiraled into a place I never imagined possible for a person like me.
While many users never get to the places I went, the feelings are the same. There is that overwhelming feeling that there is no escape. The task of quitting seems insurmountable. The pain of daily use slowly wrings the joy out of life to a point where an all-consuming, painful habit dictates your thoughts and feelings.
Years of drug use took a toll on my body and mind. I had multiple soft tissue infections related to an unsterile injection technique, and I had become extremely thin. I had no meaningful relationships. Most of all, I was tired of living to use and using to live.
I was arrested in February of 1998, and that was the beginning of my new life. When I finally made the decision to ask for help, I never returned to active addiction.
There are many paths to recovery. The path for me involved a 12-step program and a rehabilitation facility. For others, recovery may involve using an opiate replacement therapy. When you decide to reduce or discontinue drugs, the process may be painful at first. However, after the initial discomfort, you will start to feel better.
Get support around your decision. Some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), so be prepared for good days and bad days. The important thing to remember is that you can get your life back. Within less than a week, your whole life can start to turn for the better.
I am living proof that recovery is possible.
After a family member I was very close to told me they had been using heroin, I was stunned. I was upset, concerned, and scared, but most of all I was confused. How could I not have known that someone I loved was doing heroin?
At first, I blamed myself. I must have missed some obvious signs. I am a recovering alcoholic myself, and surely I could have picked up on their behavior had I been paying attention. But in all reality, I couldn’t have.
Heroin use — like most drug abuse — is a very secretive affair. Often, the people closest to an addict have no idea a person using.
Once I was able to get through the initial shock of the situation, I began scouring the Internet for any information. How I could get help for my loved one? Where should I start?
Basic searches led to hardly anything in the way of support or accessible resources. Detox programs and rehabilitation services seemed to either be very expensive or too detailed and complex for me to know if my loved one could utilize them. I just needed someone to talk to and help me make a plan of action, but I didn’t know where to turn.
I had a friend who had been through a similar situation, so I reached out to her. She directed me to the Harm Reduction Action Clinic in Denver, Colorado, where I live. It was a lifesaver: I was able to talk to someone in person without fear or judgment. There, I was able to find out about free or low-cost counseling for me and my loved one, various detox programs in the area, and how we could go about using them. Most important, the clinic was a place where we could feel safe talking about heroin.
The “harm reduction” method of treatment is based around strategies and support that take the shame out of addiction. Shame can often push addicts further into hiding and farther away from loved ones.
Instead, harm reduction looks to help those in the grips of addiction by offering practical support and education while minimizing the negative consequences connected to drug use. Before I was faced with this situation, I had never heard of harm reduction.
If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin addiction and aren’t sure where to look for help or guidance, consider harm reduction. Non-profits all over the country are implementing this type of treatment. Taking the shame and stigma out of heroin use and replacing it with support and education can make a world of difference to someone with an addiction and those wanting to help their loved one and themselves.
The heroin users that come through our doors usually fall into one of two general categories: they started and progressed through illicit drug use, or they progressed from prescribed opioid pain analgesics to heroin.
My job comes with three major roles:
- Break down their use history.
- Stabilize them medically or refer them to a higher level of care.
- Present a clear, objective assessment in stormy seas where heroin has punched a hole in their lifeboat.
Every day we see abscesses, track marks, hepatitis, denial, and psychosis. Hearing dead family members’ voices is common. Our facility recently treated an older woman who was an intravenous user with bad, rolling veins. She could no longer inject the dope correctly, so she had improvised by “skin popping:” shooting heroin into the skin and muscle, creating massive abscessed, ulcerated, pockmarked effects on both forearms. Her days of getting high were long over. She had been doing heroin for so long that she was merely taking it to avoid withdrawals.
Withdrawals make the muscles in your lower back ache, cramp your stomach, make you throw up, and give you hot and cold flashes. Essentially, you hurt. When going through withdrawal, your eyes tear up, you yawn frequently, and tremors can be uncontrollable. I once saw a man reduced to not being able to tie his shoes. I helped him and put him on the “bus” (referred him to a higher level of care).
We use Suboxone to ease the withdrawal process. The drug consists of buprenorphine and naloxone, which occupy the same receptor sites in the brain as heroin, easing and smoothing out the shakes without snowing a person under, like the dope would do.
We have a taper program that starts at a medium-high dosage and lowers a person to zero after about six weeks. People with an addiction prefer it because it can provide a little abstinence in an otherwise denial-based heroin cloud where the person isn’t functioning well. It helps physically, but it’s not popular among some staff because it does nothing for the mental aspect of addiction. That comes from the willingness to change, and there are no shortcuts for that.
Getting clean isn’t the starting point for most people dependent on heroin. Starting begins by admitting the problem is uncontrollable, can no longer be ignored, and will eventually kill them.
For most, the novelty of abstinence can be thought of like a drug, and when the novelty wears off, they relapse back into use. This cycle must be broken for the user to come to grips with the hard road of recovery.