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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

The Argument Against Abstinence

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A Junkie's Journey: Tony O'Neill Did It His Way

By Tony O'Neill

03/21/11

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In my 30 days in treatment, I never admitted that I was powerless over my addiction: to me that seemed like surrendering to a lifetime of living in fear of relapse. Instead of teaching me how to be powerless, I argued, couldn’t someone teach me how to have the power over my destructive impulses. Couldn’t I learn to use drugs and alcohol normally—in moderation—again? The answer was always no: You suffer from the disease of addiction, so you can never use any drug at all normally again.

I left treatment and relapsed within 24 hours. What followed were years of further destructive drug use, homelessness, and overdoses. I bounced between Los Angeles and London, living a double life as an AA attendee and a heroin addict (I found the meetings a lot more tolerable on smack) and eventually washing ashore at a methadone maintenance program in East London. Away from the daily grind of the needle and having to procure a fix, my health started slowly improving.

Getting clean for me was less about hitting a rock bottom than about yo-yoing in and out of the depths. And looking around during one of those brief moments of being “up,” I decided that my life didn’t have to inevitably spiral down again.

I met a woman and fell in love. My relationship with Vanessa was the first relationship I’d had with a nonjunkie in many years. Suddenly I found myself in her world: the thriving 2002 East London music scene, where the prevalent drugs, ecstasy and cocaine, made my own gloomy routine of methadone clinics and intravenous drugs seem constrained and depressing. The combination of falling in love and rediscovering the joys of music and MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) were huge factors in my eventual decision to quit opiates altogether. Another reason—probably the biggest of all—was my impending fatherhood.

I quit heroin and methadone in the summer of 2003. It wasn’t easy. I almost relapsed more times than I can count, but the fear of giving my daughter an absentee heroin addict for a father kept me going. Our daughter was born October 23, and when the midwife came around with her little cart full of painkillers like Demerol that day, it took all of my self-control not to leap across the room and make off with a handful of ampules. But when Nico Estrella O’Neill finally made her appearance, and I was able to hold her and see her face for the first time, I knew that things had changed forever. It was no longer a matter of whether or not I could stay clean; it was a matter of whether or not I could be a father to this baby. The battle had been won.

Of course it wasn’t as easy as simply walking away from heroin. The path I chose required constant vigilance on my part. Recognizing my demons and taking precautionary steps to avoid danger were essential. We moved to New York in 2004. In a new city, with no drug connections or using buddies, I remained willfully ignorant about the city’s dope spots. Easing back into recreational drinking was done cautiously and with great care. Painkillers, when a doctor prescribed them, were treated with a lot more respect and caution than they would have been by a civilian. 

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