By David Wenner | [email protected]
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on October 20, 2014 at 7:30 AM, updated October 20, 2014 at 10:06 AM
Aly, who grew up in Dauphin County, is a recovering heroin addict who once hated needles. Her addiction began with a 5-milligram Percocet pill given to her by a friend when she was 15. It took more and more pills, and finally heroin, to satisfy the craving, which eventually left her broke and needing 20-30 bags of heroin per day. She eventually spent 30 days in in-patient rehab and has been clean for about nine months. Joe Hermitt, PennLive (JOE HERMITT)
Addiction crisis in Pennsylvania
The lucky thing about Aly’s heroin overdose was that it happened at a doctor’s house. The big, Hershey-area home had a circular brick driveway, a vast foyer and big windows looking out at expanses of green. Aly, who plays the piano, noticed the Baby Grand in the living room. The doctor was the mother of Aly’s friend, also addicted to heroin. The doctor knew about her daughter’s addiction, but couldn’t stop it. So she kept a supply of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose.
Three people were filling syringes with heroin and injecting themselves in a bedroom. Aly, who was 19, sagged against a wall and heard someone ask if she was OK. She woke up to see a naloxone syringe stuck in her and the others staring at her wide-eyed. As Aly grasped what happened, her overriding emotion was anger over the interruption of her high. Now she was sick with withdrawal. But the other two lost interest in her and went back to getting high. Aly wanted to join them, but with naloxone in her body, she was afraid. So she watched and sulked, her only comfort coming from knowing that, after some rest, she would resume her daily pursuit of heroin. Not even a brush with death could interrupt the addiction that took all her money, turned her away from family and caused her to ignore her medical and dental needs. It all began when she was 15 and took one of the pain pills kids often brought to school.
Recovering heroin addict, Aly, describes her first experience with prescription painkillers Recovering heroin addict, Aly, describes her first experience with prescription painkillers. NOTE: Sound has been altered to protect subject’s identity.
A pill seemingly melts her troubles
Aly, who didn’t want her full name published, grew up in Dauphin County. At school, she won prizes for her art work and played in the marching and jazz bands during middle school. As a high school freshman, she broke up with a boy because he smoked pot. But her parents were split up and she got into a troubled relationship with another boy. During the summer before her sophomore year, she began partying. Plenty of kids had prescription painkillers, which often came from leftover supplies of parents who had surgery or a car accident.
Aly took a 5-milligram Percocet pill. It made her feel slightly ill. But it also gave a burst of euphoria she began to crave. “My brain knew,” she said. Soon, the pills no longer made her sick, and left her feeling light and happy, smiling at everyone and everything, with her troubles suddenly absent from her mind. Before long, a 5-milligram pill did nothing. She took 30-milligram pills, which she crushed and inhaled to intensify the effect. After about three years, she was up to four or five 30-milligram pills per day.
They cost $20 to $30 per pill on the street. Without them she felt sick. By her late teens, she was working as a restaurant server. Each day centered on getting pills. “I would wake up and couldn’t even get out of bed. I was miserable. I wasn’t getting high anymore. I needed it just to function,” she said.
Somehow, she didn’t think she was addicted. She lived with a boyfriend who paid the bills. As a server, her pay was mainly tips. With no pay stub, it was easy to forget about what she spent on pills. Or she would tell herself she would make it up with an extra shift the next day. She told herself such lies constantly. Sometimes she borrowed money from family or friends, lying about why she needed it. For a while, she kept up appearances, making plans with family members while high, then failing to show up because she was dope sick and ignoring the phone.
Needles scared her
Aly swore she would never use heroin — that was for hardcore druggies. A friend who also was addicted to opioids managed a tanning salon. One day Aly was helping her close. In a back room she saw a line of brown powder on a counter top. Aly assumed it was some sort of crushed pill. She had long ago reached the point where she “would snort anything in front of me.” Later, her friend told her it was heroin, explaining it was “faster, cheaper, better” than the pain pills that were costing Aly about $120 per day. Aly realized she could get a better high from a $10 bag of heroin.
“To an addict those are the golden words … So I just kind of dropped how I felt about heroin,” she said. She swore she would never shoot up. Needles scared her — she had to look away when getting a shot from a doctor. At first, she couldn’t finish one bag of heroin without passing out. But soon one bag had no effect. After six months she was snorting six or seven bags per day. And now, snorting all that heroin only kept her from getting sick but didn’t make her high. Aly had a friend who shot up. She told her that she just wanted to be able to get high again. Aly looked away as the friend tied a band around her arm, then injected her.
“That feeling topped anything I had ever done in my life and I just fell in love with that feeling,” she said.
She was back to needing only one bag per day. For a while. Eventually, she was shooting up 20 or more bags per day. She lost the ability to hold a steady job. She knew a business owner who would pay her under the table. She would work until she earned enough to buy some heroin, then say she had to go to a job interview or she would come up with some other excuse to leave. Each day she awoke “dope sick” and her main priority was to find a fix. Some days she would lay in bed and cry, sometimes for four or five hours, until her boyfriend finally threw money on the bed.
Controlled by craving
Strangely, as soon as she had money and contacted her dealer, much of the dope sickness lifted, and she bopped to music as she drove to get her fix. She almost felt good. Likewise, various steps in preparing a heroin injection caused her to tingle with anticipation, making her feel happy and high even before heroin entered her body. After mixing heroin and water in the cap of the syringe, she would pull off a piece of cigarette filter, roll it into a ball and place it in the solution. She poked the needle into the filter before drawing back on the plunger to fill the syringe with heroin. This was to strain out dangerous cutting agents often present in heroin. The filter made a squishing sound as the last of the heroin was sucked up. The sound made Aly’s heart flutter with excitement.
Another wave of pleasure came when, to verify she had hit a vein, she withdrew the plunger slightly, pulling some of her blood into the syringe. The former marching band and jazz drummer, once afraid of needles, now loved seeing her blood appear in the bottom of a syringe barrel. After shooting up, she often passed out or drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes she sat 45 minutes still holding the syringe. She and a friend liked to celebrate their high by listening to “Summit” by Ellie Goulding. The friend insisted she handled heroin better than Aly, and therefore she should do the driving. As they argued, the friend would lose consciousness, wake up, and resume arguing, unaware she had passed out.
Getting high also meant problems and panic. They would take Route 422 to get heroin in Lebanon, stopping at a gas station for bottled water to mix with the heroin, and for the cigarettes that they chain-smoked. Going into the pharmacy to buy needles made Aly nervous. She knew they didn’t believe she was diabetic. Needles come in an array of sizes. Aly dreaded it when they were out of her regular size and she had to figure out what to ask for. She would stumble through the transaction, desperate to get out of there with anything that would enable her to shoot up. She injected her arms, legs, hands, feet and neck. She often struggled to hit a vein. Sometimes she missed, resulting in pain, an eventual rash and — worst of all — wasted heroin and no high.
During her years of shooting heroin, she saw people overdose. Someone would slap their face to revive them. But if that didn’t produce quick results, the other addicts turned angry, blaming the person who overdosed for being “stupid” and ruining everyone’s high. They just wanted to get away, to avoid problems with the police and anything that would interfere with getting high. The best a dying addict can reasonably expect, Aly said, is to be dumped at the emergency room. Her closest heroin-shooting friend – the one who insisted on driving – is dead. She died from a car crash the day before she planned to enter rehab. Aly said she believes she wanted to get high one last time — a common occurrence among heroin addicts. All told, about six of her drug-using friends are dead. She attended none of their funerals.
The allure of Heroin:
These days, about a year after she last did heroin, “Summit” by Ellie Goulding makes Aly queasy. Her old boyfriend did drugs, including occasional pain pills, but wasn’t addicted to them. He didn’t use heroin, and told Aly to keep heroin users out of their apartment. Aly somehow hid her heroin use from him. When he found syringes and empty packets in the bathroom, she said someone else left them. “I would make up anything to save my ass,” she said.
Eventually, she told her boyfriend she was addicted to pain pills. She had been in a car accident and given Percocet, and blamed it for triggering a relapse. Finally, she told him she occasionally used heroin, but only snorted it. Her boyfriend believed avoiding addiction was a matter of willpower.
Aly, after years of convincing even herself she didn’t have a problem, knew she needed help. She tried to wean herself off heroin. She would buy a bundle and promise herself it would last a week, but it wouldn’t. Suboxone is a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction. Aly bought it on the street and took it in place of heroin. She would make it through about a week, then decide it was OK to do some heroin. It took her a few months to realize it wouldn’t work. But she didn’t know what else to do. Then her boyfriend kicked her out. Part of her knew she had hit bottom. She no longer had anyone who believed her lies and therefore no way to get money for heroin. She turned to her brother, who left work to pick her up.
For a long time, her brother had known something was wrong. But he didn’t know the reason she cancelled plans with family and, especially during the past year, seemed to isolate herself from family. That night, she admitted the full scope of her addiction. But then Aly’s boyfriend called and she went back to him. Part of her knew she needed to break free of heroin. But she said that she didn’t believe she needed rehab, and thought she could somehow get clean while hanging onto some of her old lifestyle. Meanwhile, family members, including her brother, sister-in-law and father, began attending support meetings for relatives of addicts.
They tried to persuade Aly to enter treatment, but she wouldn’t agree to a rehab stay of more than two weeks. So her father told her a white lie, saying she had to stay 30 days for his insurance to cover it. Unknown to Aly, a relative had offered to pay the difference. Aly’s brother had never imagined heroin would touch their lives. But attending support group meetings, he realized how many families thought the same thing and learned they were wrong. “There are people from all walks of life there,” he said. “You can see how many people are affected … You can see how many people were just as surprised as we were.”
Clean, but on guard
The dream came several times per week. Aly is watching herself shoot up, in slow motion — setting up the syringe, finding a vein, pushing the plunger. She wakes up sweating, her heart racing. At first she’s disappointed she’s not high. Then comes relief it was only a dream. She still fights “triggers” of temptation. For a while she was on probation, and the probation office was near where she used to buy heroin. Upon leaving, she would catch herself thinking that she could buy heroin and be clean before her next drug test. So she got her brother to drive her, and closed her eyes or focused on her cell phone at they passed the places where she would buy the bottled water and needles and cigarettes, and the diner or alley where they would park and shoot up. She doesn’t trust herself to work a job that pays in cash, worrying the temptation would be too great.
She knows she can’t go near her old drug-using friends and ignores many calls to her cell phone. When temptation tugs especially hard, she goes to a meeting or connects with someone else who has experienced the same hell. She expects to attend meetings for the rest of her life. A person she met during her recovery was clean for 20 years yet died because of one relapse and overdose. “There is not one addict in the world who gets clean and never thinks about it again,” she said.