From 'Black Tar Heroin' to 'The Big Fix'

By McCarton Ackerman 04/26/16

“There's no real education on long-term recovery. I’ve had a very complicated relationship with my emotions in the past 18 years that I've been clean.” 

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Tracey Helton Mitchell

Tracey Helton Mitchell has come a long way from living as a young heroin addict in San Francisco. Now she is a certified addiction specialist with 18 years sober and a new memoir to cement her recovery. 

Mitchell, who The Fix had a chance to sit down with for an interview this month, was first introduced to the public as a young addict in Black Tar Heroin, a 1999 documentary which Newsweek said "makes Trainspotting look like an after school special." Her new memoir The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin focuses on life after heroin and her recovery journey. 

Mitchell's story is a familiar one. At age 17, she was prescribed painkillers for wisdom tooth surgery but turned to heroin once the prescription ran out. Eventually her life became a cycle of homelessness, arrests and prostitution. She thought she was going to die, she told NPR in March, so she agreed to be in Black Tar Heroin to serve as a cautionary tale. Now that she's on the other side of addiction, helping others reclaim their lives, she says the documentary is a painful reminder of her past. “It can be painful to watch, especially when I think about my life now and I contrast that,” said Mitchell. “It's a good thing in that it reminds me of where I was, but then it's also very challenging, because this documents a very unpleasant part of my life that can't be changed.”

Mitchell, who is also involved in harm reduction advocacy, wanted to emphasize in her memoir that getting sober isn't the finish line. In her experience, life after heroin meant dealing wtih post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.

"There's no real education on long-term recovery about what really happens over time," she told NPR. "I’ve had a very complicated relationship with my emotions in the past 18 years that I've been clean. I've dealt with very serious post-traumatic stress disorder, being very checked out and dissociative at various points, having to deal with the constant specter of depression, every once in a while having suicidal thoughts. And one of the things that I try to do is really normalize those feelings when people want to know what recovery is really like. It's like, some days you really feel crappy."

Check out Black Tar Heroin here:

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.