How to Navigate Long Term Recovery, According to Tracey Helton Mitchell

By Zachary Siegel 04/01/16

The Fix Q&A with the author of The Big Fix—a new type of drug memoir, without the drugs.

How to Navigate Long Term Recovery: Q&A with Tracey Helton Mitchell
Photo via Amazon

As the subject of an HBO special called “Black Tar Heroin,” Tracey Helton Mitchell’s days on the streets of San Francisco have been well documented. That’s why her new book, The Big Fix, details her life as a person in long term recovery. A far cry from your average drug memoir—page after page of blood and needles—Helton Mitchell’s book focuses on the everydayness of living an alert, sober life, where she captures the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of sobriety. 

“Getting off drugs was just a small part of staying clean,” she writes in a chapter titled “Clean and Sober Sucks.” “After the chemicals left my body, I was flooded with a lifetime of memories I had tried to stuff down.” Much of the book zooms in on these memories, and how she worked toward confronting and untangling them without chemically killing the emotional pain many of them held. 

While we watch Helton Mitchell traverse through the turbulent days of early recovery, one can’t help but retain a sense of hope as she achieves milestone after milestone. She becomes financially self-sufficient, finishes college, and continues her education, all the while stumbling upon meaningful ways to give back to her community—taking others by the hand as they carve out their own path of beating an addiction. 

Below is an interview with Helton Mitchell, where we discuss her book, her recovery, and what it’s like to rebuild your life after you’ve nearly lost it. 

I want to get your take on why you chose to write your book the way you did. It's not just another drug memoir, which (we probably both agree) is the last thing the universe needs. You write about your 17 years clean. Why did you want to focus on that period of your life? 

Well I focused the book on the first 15 years of my recovery because of all the emails, messages, and questions I had received over the years. People would watch “Black Tar Heroin” then see updates on me with a keen interest in both what I did to get clean but also how I have managed to stay clean. 

It was a long process to rehabilitate my life. It was something I wanted to share because so many people experience the same things. Once the drugs leave, there are so many challenges ahead. I wanted to get away from the "war story" model where the last chapter leaves the reader with no tangible suggestions or insight into what they can do to change their circumstances.

What are some of those challenges unique to long term recovery? 

There’s so many. Rebuilding your family relationships, meaningful employment and supporting yourself financially. If you choose to try and find a significant other, how do you navigate that? How do you deal with the wreckage of your past in any kind of intimate relationship that you have—your level of disclosure. 

There are mood issues, too. A lot of people who have used drugs for an extended period of time have leftover mood problems or emotional distress. Some people say that they feel like their brain is damaged or that they have problems with regulating their moods. 

Then there are the mundane tasks, like, how do I open up a checking account when all the money I’ve had is cash in my sock for the past six years? How do I go grocery shopping when all I’ve been doing is going to the corner store eating gummy bears and Ben & Jerry’s?

It can be a lot different over time but generally, some of the themes remain the same. How do you interact with people in your relationships? The first few years, I was really trying to rebuild the relationship with my family. And then the next few years after that, they started including me in things. My father was really sick and in a nursing home and my mother started talking to me for emotional support. All these roles change and you have to adapt to them. Then, years later, dealing with the death of my parents and how that impacts me and the birth of my children. 

Change is the only thing constant in life. But we don’t always adapt to change very well. 

I think about my day to day life since I've kicked and it's gotten pretty stable, pretty uneventful. Was it hard to write about your everyday life this far into your recovery? And make it interesting. (Because it is!) 

Everyday life is interesting when you look at it through the lens of where you were. I used to spend hours trying to get a hit, now I can spend the same amount of time searching for a good face cream on a retail site. That, to me, is hilarious—the juxtaposition. And dating and sex are a complete mess no matter who you are.

You wrote, "Recovery is both a noun and a verb." What do you mean by that? 

Recovery is a concept. You have to define it for yourself, then you have to go out and live it. You have to be in some form of action with recovery or you start to atrophy.

Around page 100, your tune kind of changes when your friend dies shortly after he got off methadone at the behest of the 12-step recovery community. Can you describe how this sparked your harm reduction advocacy? 

I am afraid to admit that in early recovery, my definitions of "clean" and "recovery" were very narrow. Over time, I started to see that what I do personally in my program is not negatively impacted if other people choose to do things differently. In fact, I became enriched by adding tolerance and compassion in my way of interacting with others that are struggling.

You began your recovery with the 12 steps, meetings, that whole deal. Would you say you evolved over the years? 

My recovery started in jail. San Francisco County had what they called a “recovery pod” where you voluntarily accept to be put into a section of the jail where they had groups. 12-step meetings were brought in. The first thing I did was groups. After that, in rehab, it was an expansion of 12-step. 

The first six months to maybe two or three years of my recovery, I spent a lot of time unraveling my trauma history and issues I had with PTSD and how that was impacting my daily life. 12-step is not necessarily able to address all the different issues, so early on I was told—by one counselor in particular—to try a bunch of different things and see what works. I continued with that. One year I’d try yoga and another year I’d try meditation. Another time I worked out of the LifeRing workbook. Another year I went to women’s support groups and workshops. So it was a constant evolution of addressing the several different things I needed to address. 

12-step meetings had been part of my recovery, but adjacent to the other things I do as well. 

Do you see yourself trying to bridge the gap between 12-step abstinence and harm reduction? I see you as kind of in the middle of both worlds, as opposed to taking sides. 

Harm reduction is a continuum. Abstinence can be the goal for some people. My role is trying to help people stay alive until they get to a healthy place in their life. You can't get clean if you are dead, so having a person in your life that greets you with empathy goes a long way to make a case for recovery when the time is right.

Throughout the book, rather than letting your past life haunt you—especially when discussing the present—you turn your substance/street history into an asset that helps you navigate the world. What would you say to someone who views their history as an impediment rather than an asset? 

Tap into your resilience. You made it this far and should feel good about that. Your past is your history. Find things in it you can draw from to help you today.

What are some of the barriers women face in recovery face that men typically don’t?

I can only speak to what I’ve witnessed. One of the things I’ve seen is that women with trauma history have difficulty in 12-step meetings because, a lot of time, they are running into the same people they are trying to get away from—either the exact same people or people with a similar profile. There is also the whole concept of women and caregivers, where they have children or family members that really depend on them to get home. 

When I was in rehab there was a payphone in the hallway, and you’d see women crying on that phone because people would tell them you need to come, saying “You have to come home. I can’t take care of your kids any longer.” Or the boyfriend would call and say, “I need you to come home.” It’s not that other people don’t have those same issues, but it seemed like it was concentrated among women seeking recovery. 

What’s your take home message? Something to leave with The Fix readers. 

Recovery is a process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Something that’s constantly evolving over time. What you need one day or year or month might be different than what you need the next. You have to roll with your inner resilience, all those things that kept you alive over the years. Find the things that help people. Stay healthy. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.