Hope After Heroin

Opioid overdoses kill almost as many people each day as car crashes. Overwhelmingly, women bear the burden. Here, four powerful stories of heartache and recovery.

Photos by Cedric Angeles

The Veteran’s Wife

By Melissa Wilson, Point Pleasant, WV

In 2008, my husband, Rob, was a staff sergeant in the Army deployed to Afghanistan, and I was working in a doctor’s office and taking care of our four kids (we now have five). One day I got the type of call that every military spouse fears: Rob had been injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. He had shrapnel lodged in his torso, arms and legs; severe shoulder damage; and a traumatic brain injury. At 6'2" and 250 pounds, he’s a tough guy, but when he came home, I could tell he was in pain.

Rob’s doctors looked at him with admiration, as a veteran—a hero—who served his country, then went right back to work in his community as a police officer. The doctors told me, “He deserves to be pain-free.” So they prescribed him opioid painkillers like Percocet and Lortab. Soon Rob was taking 10 pills a day. Still, his doctors would say, “If you run out, call me.” At the time, they didn’t fully realize the addiction risk. None of us did.

Before his injury, Rob was a fun and outgoing guy. He loved the military, his family and sports. But after a few years on pain pills, Rob lost interest in most things. He would take the medication and disappear into his own mind.

By 2015, I could tell something was very wrong. I noticed that he was withdrawing money from our account without telling me. One day I confronted him and he broke down crying. He told me that he’d been using heroin to supplement his pain pills because the refills weren’t coming fast enough.

He agreed to go to treatment, and eventually we got him into Warriors Heart, an addiction facility in Texas for veterans, law enforcement officers and first responders. There, Rob opened up about all that he went through in the war. It hasn’t been easy, but Rob has been sober for almost a year. I’ve gotten back the man I love. I will get to grow old with him.

Rob now answers the help line for Warriors Heart. He takes calls from service men and women who have lost their way and helps them pull back their shoulders and hold their heads high once again.

As Told To Leslie Barrie

A Mother’s Choice

By Danna Bushell, Arvada, CO

My last moment of peace ended abruptly with a call from the police on a bright spring day in 2008. They had found my son, Devon, with heroin and arrested him. Even as a nurse, I had missed all the signs of his drug use and now he was in the throes of addiction.

Rehab counselors told me that Devon’s only hope for recovery was to hit bottom. I tried to “detach with love,” as they suggested. I doubted every decision: When I considered getting him a bus pass and a cell phone, I felt guilty. Will that enable his drug use? I wondered.

In 2009, Devon relapsed again after months in rehab, and a counselor advised me to kick him out of the house and cut off my financial support. But the tough-love approach only pushed him further into addiction and isolation. My son nearly died several times from overdoses in dark stairwells and public restrooms as he cycled through rehabs, jail and the streets.

In the spring of 2013, I hadn’t heard from Devon in weeks, so I decided to scour downtown Denver with his photo. A teenager with wild hair recognized my son, but had not seen him for a while. Other young people I met that day asked if Devon carried naloxone, the medication used to reverse an opioid overdose. They told me I could find it at the syringe exchange. Maybe the staff there had seen him, they said.

When I walked into the facility, I saw the raw truth of my son’s struggle. A thin booklet in the waiting area described how to shoot up and how to safely access a vein. It also pointed out where to find the cleanest water to prepare drugs for injection, instructing that “if a toilet is the only source of water, always draw from the tank, never the bowl. Avoid scooping water from ditches and creek beds.” I was horrified to think people were so desperate that they would consider injecting sludge. By choosing tough love, this was the bottom I had left my son to hit.

All around me were human beings at their lowest. They had been written off by society and maybe by their own families. They had only this small room where they knew they’d be treated with dignity and respect.

The syringe exchange staff offered me an alternative to tough love. They gave me tools, like naloxone, and advice on ways to restore my relationship with Devon, even if he continued to do drugs. I didn’t find him for several more days, but what I did discover that day was hope.

In spring 2015, Devon came home from a yearlong stint in jail. I hoped it would be a fresh start. While he was incarcerated, I had embraced the harm-reduction approach to addiction. I visited homeless outreach centers and trained in overdose prevention.

One day not long after his return, Devon was determined to find heroin. As he left, I shoved naloxone into his backpack. I wasn’t giving him permission to get high—I was giving him a tool to stay alive. I wanted him to know that he is a valuable human being, whether or not he continues to use drugs. Within a week he asked for help on his own terms.

In May, Devon celebrated a year free from heroin. I’m finally beginning to look forward to the future. Our tough-love past is becoming a distant memory.

My Painful Past

By Tracey Helton Mitchell, San Francisco

In a lot of ways, my life is similar to that of many other moms—I worry about getting dinner on the table for my family, I juggle schedules—yet many of my choices have been so different. When I select an outfit for work, I need to make sure I cover up the track marks and scars that pepper my arms and legs from years of heroin use.

At 17, I got my first taste of opioids after a dentist extracted my wisdom teeth. Those white pills seemed like magic. All the troubles of the world slowly melted away into a pool of euphoria. Halfway through college, I moved to San Francisco. The first day there, I was offered cheap alcohol, heroin, Xanax, crystal meth and crack cocaine. It did not take long to burn through most of my money. I quickly settled into a love affair with black tar heroin—a dark, sticky substance that was more common on the West Coast than the white powder version.

Ten years later, I was a hardened soul with years of jail, homelessness and a few abusive relationships under my belt. The only thing I had to be proud of: I was still alive.

I had attempted to get clean on my own about 10 times, but by 1998, it was finally time to stop. There was no more joy in drugs. I was not living anymore, just carving out a dull existence in my bruised flesh. I was done.

One night, police officers knocked on the door of my hotel room. I opened it quickly and put my hands over my head. My cold-turkey detox started 12 hours later in a prison “kick tank” I shared with eight other addicts.

In the years that followed, I slowly made my way back to life. After jail, I spent time in rehab, and at a halfway house. Eventually I found a job as a counselor at an addiction recovery clinic. Shortly before my 30th birthday, a friend introduced me to a kind and handsome man named Christian who made me feel loved in a new way. Six years later, we were married at San Francisco City Hall surrounded by friends.

Each morning, I take a deep breath. I can’t change the things I have done, but in that moment, I know my day is full of opportunities. The gratitude I feel puts things into focus. This house, these kids, this life: It is all mine. What a gift.

Extracted from The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin by Tracey Helton Mitchell. Copyright 2016. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The Birth of Hope

by Shea Vanier, Lebanon, NH

A year before my son was born in 2015, I used heroin for the first time in a bathroom stall at a bodega. I was 25. I put a little of the white powder on my finger and tasted it. Twenty minutes later, I felt energetic and happy, like a better version of myself.

I never did drugs growing up. I was a good kid. In 2013, after I had surgery on my neck, I started taking OxyContin. I didn’t abuse the medication—I just took the number of pills directed on the bottle. After about seven months, I couldn’t afford to pay for my medication because I didn’t have insurance. At the time, I was working as a home health aide. One of my patients gave me a Percocet and I felt better. That’s when I knew I was addicted.

For about a year after that, I bought Percocet off the street. Then I started snorting heroin—it was cheaper and easier to get. One night, after injecting the drug, which I rarely did, I hit a low point. I was worried about overdosing and I felt so worthless and sad. I couldn’t stop crying.

My boyfriend, Jeffrey, took me to the hospital. I was ashamed of my addiction, so I didn’t tell the nurses. I just said I was mentally disturbed and in pain. They asked for a urine sample. Later, a nurse told me I was pregnant.

Having a baby was far from my mind, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I thought, Now I have a reason to go on living.

The next day, I told my parents about the addiction and about the pregnancy. They were shocked and angry, but Jeffrey and I knew we wanted to raise this baby.

Soon after I found out I was pregnant, I enrolled in the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Perinatal Addiction Treatment Program, where they could treat my addiction and keep tabs on the baby. The doctors started me on Subutex, a prescription drug that was used to help wean addicts off opioids. I wanted to detox completely, but the doctors said the risk of relapse and miscarriage for people with opioid addictions like me was too high. For the most part, I had a healthy pregnancy, but I was worried about my baby going through withdrawal after he was born. The doctors said there was a possibility that could happen.

By May 2015, Jeffrey had saved up enough money for us to move into a bigger apartment. Two months later, our son, Blake, was born. When I found out he didn’t have any effects from the opioids or any other issues, I was ecstatic. They even sent us home early. Child Protection Services visited us twice in the month after Blake was born, but all of my drug tests had been clean, and they could see that Jeffrey and I were serious about taking care of Blake.

Now, I volunteer at the clinic where I was treated. I also started a Facebook group called She’s at W.A.R. (women/addiction/recovery). Someone will write, “I’m having a bad day. I feel like I’m going to relapse.” We try to offer love and support.

I’ve been writing about my addiction in a journal. When Blake starts asking questions, I’m going to try my best to explain. I hope he understands how much I love him

As Told To Beth Dreher