Life After Heroin: How My Tomorrow Became My Today

By Morgan Gliedman 04/12/16

I was given a second chance based on privileges of race, class and gender. But most other addicts will never be given such an opportunity to recover.

Photo by Mia Gliedman-Gardner

There are some things that, even in the throes of active addiction, I knew would happen when my love affair with heroin finally ended—for, in my characteristic delusional optimism, I had utter faith that my run would end eventually. The only disagreement between me and everybody else was when tomorrow would mean today.

I knew that I would go through a period of materialism—so foreign to the outsider grunge identity I’d cultivated since adolescence—when suddenly buying a pink blender could make me feel better, when I would carry around a fake designer purse instead of my usual coffee-stained tote bag. I knew that it would take time to discover who I really am, if I am really not the girl getting high anymore; that, for a while, I would not know who I am, that I would try on different selves, that it would be a journey.

My recovery, at least in the beginning, was motivated in equal parts by fear of the legal system and love for my daughter. I didn't choose to stop; I was stopped, and then taught the tools to stay stopped. 

I knew that my heart would stop the first time I saw heroin. For years, while I was strung out, I never found so much as a crumb. And then, a mere month into sobriety, I discovered a dime bag full of my preferred poison on the floor of a taxicab. And yes, it did make my heart stop; and no, I did not reach for it. And, thankfully, the heart attack has, with time, mellowed to a mild palpitation. It’s been over three years now since I last used heroin. A bent spoon on a park bench no longer makes me sweat, the sight triggering a sadness now instead of a longing.

I also knew that I would slow down when I pass addicts panhandling on the street, that I’d read their cardboard signs, offer whatever food I have on me, look closely at their faces, do I know you? I figured—but could not yet fully comprehend the force of the feeling until it happened—that I would spend the rest of the day grateful that I'm no longer out there sick and sallow and sneezing, squinting through the sun, hustling for a hit.

So my brief stint as a woman with designer knockoffs and manicured fingernails—the way I stare down flecks of white powder on the pavement, slowing my stride as I walk by people most people walk over—all this was to be expected. 

Something I did not expect, however, was that I'd now get into raging debates about presidential primaries with coworkers, that I'd become that person around the water cooler other people are scared to talk politics in front of unless they are looking for a knockdown, drag-out sparring match. My staying up all night for the results of caucuses in western states instead of staying up all night partying, my giving money to a political campaign instead of a drug dealer—these are aspects of my new life that have surprised even me. 

I was a tenacious, low-bottom addict, and I didn't want to get clean until after I already was clean. 

For the past several months I’ve had a part-time job in an office, doing secretary work I’m not particularly good at for pay that doesn’t really cut it. But between my criminal record, creative writing degree, and the heroin-sized hole in my résumé, this dead-end job is a job I’m lucky to have. As a temp on the lowest rung of the office food chain, I should not be raising a ruckus with anyone, but then again, if self control were my strong suit I might not be in this position to begin with.

There are some people at work who know my history. My downfall was dramatic, and even the most cursory of Google searches will deliver a multitude of salacious headlines, many of which have a tenuous relationship to the truth. There are other coworkers who don’t know about my past, don’t know that my presentation as a thirty-year-old single mom to an adorable pig-tailed toddler, my fondness for black sweaters, Shonda Rhimes shows and soy lattes, are only a sliver of who I am.

I am the only member of my immediate family who can currently vote, and it’s a privilege I take seriously. My daughter can’t vote, because she is three. Her father can’t vote because he is in prison, halfway through a seven-year sentence that began with our arrest shortly before her birth. The fact that I can vote is due to New York State being one of the few to allow convicted criminals on felony probation, such as myself, to cast their ballot. Florida and Iowa permanently disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction while many other places, including Texas, the Carolinas, and Washington state, allow probationers to vote only upon completion of their sentence. In this regard, at least, I am fortunate to live in New York. Whereas before, I voted impulsively if at all, now I feel that candidates’ stances on issues such as criminal justice reform and universal healthcare truly do impact my life.

“I don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to junkies,” a mild-mannered coworker in his fifties said the other day. We’d been talking presidential primaries, and, in general, he seemed to share many of my liberal views, except on this. “People shouldn’t be able to collect public assistance while they’re using drugs. The government should not use my money to enable people’s addictions.”

To be fair, he had no idea that he was speaking to a former junkie when he said this, and I do acknowledge that his sentiment is not only pervasive but understandable. I countered with what I felt to be the most dispassionate, objective rebuttal as my disposal: that a dozen states do require welfare recipients to be drug-tested, and it has been an epic failure, both wildly expensive as well as completely ineffective.

This is something I know about, as someone who was a junkie receiving food stamps: having the ability to purchase food in no way caused me to keep using drugs. Regardless of anything else, I always found a way to get my fix. When I had no more money, I stole money from other people. When I had no more people to steal from, I used sex as currency. The fact that I didn't end up with an STD is a miracle, and the free works from the needle exchange were often the only thing keeping me from using dirty needles. Without food stamps I wouldn't have stopped getting high—I just would have never eaten or I would have stolen food, as I regularly did after I became too dysfunctional even to renew the benefits I’d been receiving. 

“But if those people don't care about helping themselves,” my coworker continued, “why should I have my hard-earned money wasted on them? If someone wants to change their life they will, and if they don't want to they’ll end up in jail. Why should this be my problem?”

It is his problem, though. It’s everyone’s problem. At least 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol or drugs, with millions more affected by their loved ones’ addictions. Prisons are full of addicts who might not be incarcerated if they’d had access to treatment. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million Americans in jails and prisons, 65% of whom suffer from substance use disorders. The financial cost of this is staggering—in New York City, home to the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, the price of keeping one inmate for one year is $168,000. The human cost of this is devastating.

Ironically, drug possession, the crime that spurred all my others, is one of the few crimes not on my record. Prior to my heroin addiction, I'd never gotten so much as a parking ticket. Then, I was arrested five times in less than three years, for crimes of escalating seriousness and increasing oddity, the final one resulting in my pleading guilty to two nonviolent felonies. I'm one of the lucky ones. The judge, sympathetic to my recent maternity, ordered me to inpatient rehab followed by an intensive outpatient program, instead of sending me to Rikers. In short, the legal system forced me to do what I needed to do anyway, and offered me a palpable alternative to incarceration instead of locking me up and throwing away the key. 

Incarceration should be a last resort, not a first. I'm not saying that addiction should be an automatic free pass to avoid incarceration—there are some crimes that, committed by someone suffering from a disease or not, are so dangerous, so stupid, that they must be met with jail time. But for those who end up in prison, the opportunities for substance abuse treatment are limited, often with years-long wait lists, and many programs are only able to serve those inmates nearing their release dates. Meanwhile, dangerous drugs, such as K2, are rampant; the drugs behind bars being far more easily accessed than recovery services. From what I have experienced of our correctional facilities, they aren't designed to correct anything. My daughter knows that Daddy’s timeout will be done when she is in first grade, and it is my greatest hope that he will come out better, not worse, my greatest fear that he will not.

Today my life is a life to be grateful for: the gift of waking up and not having my first thoughts be do I have a bag, do I have any money to get a bag, how am I gonna get through today is a gift never to be taken for granted, and I try to live my life in such a way that is worthy of that gift. But I also have much to feel guilty about, and the knowledge that my second chance was afforded me based on privileges of race, class, and gender, while most other addicts will never be given the opportunity to recover, is unavoidable.

To say that some addicts want to change and are deserving of the help necessary to recover, while other addicts don't and should languish on the streets or in prison, and to place me in the former category, would be factually incorrect. I was a tenacious, low-bottom addict, and I didn't want to get clean until after I already was clean. My recovery, at least in the beginning, was motivated in equal parts by fear of the legal system and love for my daughter. I didn't choose to stop; I was stopped, and then taught the tools to stay stopped. My child is no more deserving of growing up with a healthy mother than any other addict’s child is; this addict is no more deserving of seeing her child grow up than is any other mother.

The fact that I am here pushing my child on the swings instead of visiting my child in foster care, the fact that I am strategizing how to get her a spot in the free pre-k instead of strategizing how to get my next hit, that I am not in a jail or an institution, that I am not dead, is a testament to the services I was given access to. Most, I know, are not so lucky. But access to recovery should not be about luck. There needs to be access to detoxes and rehabs and IOPs and housing and food and parenting classes and therapy to reach for when somebody is ready to reach, and even, perhaps most especially, when they are not. You never know when someone's tomorrow can become their today.

Morgan Gliedman lives with her daughter in New York City and is currently writing a memoir. 

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Morgan Gliedman lives with her daughter in Maryland, and is a Regional Director at the Addiction Policy Forum in Washington, DC. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post and Vox. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.