Radical Recovery

By virago 03/19/18
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My name is Liz and I am an advocate, a student, a waitress at a diner, and a writer. I am a someone's child, and I am someone's mother. I am an alcoholic, an addict, and a felon. I'm a survivor with a scarlet letter, but I should be a statistic. I don't know how I survived because for over 15 years when I wasn't institutionalized I was homeless, unemployed, and hiding from the law. Constantly. There was never a period for almost 20 years where I was not on probation level 3, 4, or 5. Brief reprieves of abstinence occurred when I got pregnant, but they did not last long, unless I was incarcerated or institutionalized, to protect my children from me because addiction does not take a vacation because we get pregnant...it becomes worse because of the guilt and shame and humiliation. That is the disease I have. It wants me dead, my children motherless, my parents to bury a child and it wants them to Be. Ashamed. Of. It. It does not want me revealing how ugly it is and it tells me that you will see me as ugly, not the disease so it tells me to shut up. It tells me that I am nobody and that my voice doesn’t matter and that no one wants to hear you who are you anyway?

But I was locked in a steel box on Baylor Boulevard for five years and did not have a voice. No one heard me when I was in isolation for five days detoxing begging for Vistaril because I knew what was happening and that I was going to die but they told me to. Just. Stop. No one heard me when I was walked through family court by my elbows, so I didn’t trip on my shackles to face the individuals who never met me determine I was an unfit mother, and when my lawyer squeezed my knee and told me to shut up when I said I. Never. Met. Those. People. Once. And when I finally reached work release and it was determined my rights were terminated and my child I never said goodbye to would be adopted, I drank the first chance I got because I had to stop the pain and the judge sent me back to do another two and a half years. I screamed out loud that time and that is when I stopped screaming and stopped feeling. I shut up. I took whatever medication I could get my hands on to stay numb. I did what I was told, and I did it well. I got every certification that I could, and I worked for 32 cents an hour in the kitchen at 330 every morning. I wrote bylaws for the treatment program I was in and school papers for guards, so they could get degrees. I lit fires from outlets with pencils, so my roommate could smoke crack. I learned where the good drugs were sold and how to make meth from Walmart and hardware store supplies. I hid razorblades for one roommate, so she could ease her own pain at night and I learned how to make hooch and watched young girls huff cleaning supplies. I was not allowed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because I was not permitted to mix with population because. They. Were. A. Bad. Influence. I was served bag lunches in lock down for the days when people died. One woman asked them to please not switch the medication she had been on for ten years, but they did anyway because it was cheaper, so she died while waiting for her turn to read the newspaper that morning. Her name was green eyes, and I was a trustee, so I carried her belongings out to her family through the front door of that prison and couldn’t answer their questions because I was being watched to make sure I didn’t open my mouth. They sent me out because they knew they. Were. Wrong. And. They. Killed. Her.

There are so many things I cannot remember, and there are things I will never be able to forget.

Criminalization creates criminals, stigmatizes individuals, and a conviction prevents any hope of a fresh start in life. Employers don’t want to hire, landlords do not want to rent, colleges do not want to matriculate, and governments do not want your vote. And this is a health issue?

I know that woman that I was before was very sick, and if I were to become that woman again I would do the exact same things she did. Alcohol is a lethal drug that will kill me, killing more than heroin. The only difference is that if I go back to drinking, I can purchase my drug from the corner store at a regulated price and a regulated potency. It will have a label with its ingredients and the percentage of alcohol by volume. I can have as much as I want in my possession and even put it on display in my home. Or if I would like, I could purchase it from a bartender at a restaurant and drink alongside you and you would not judge me if you saw me put that drink to my lips. I would not be arrested today. You would not shield your children's eyes and tell them to turn around and not look at me. Now picture this same situation, same person, different drug. Heroin is a lethal drug that will kill me, killing almost as many as alcohol. The difference is if I relapse and use heroin, I must buy it somewhere I would not want to be seen, at whatever price they tell me, with no idea what is in it. I do not know what it is cut with. It may be cut with fentanyl or something stronger because hell, why not, it sells? And I will not know how much to inject into my bloodstream, but I will probably dose just the same as last time I did because it is all I know. So, I inject the same amount and might die before I get the needle out of my arm because there is no way to tell what is in this product. And I can't ask the stranger who sold it to me because he is most likely just the last stop down the line of hands it has crossed to get to me-the dead end. And I will be charged for having any amount in my possession, so I must do this quickly and I must find somewhere no one can see me so I use public bathrooms, alleys, libraries, and I might do it in front of my children. If I am that sick and I just must do it in front of you, you bet your ass I will do it and I am so sorry you must watch but please just act like you don't see me and I will do the same. I have done it with a bottle of mouthwash or a pint of vodka, so you can bet I would do it with heroin if that were what I was using because the desperation to get that drug into me to give me relief is more powerful than the fear of the drug itself or the shame involved with it. That is the disease I have. Even more frightening is the fact that if I am fourteen, fifteen or so years old, my heroin dealer will not card me, ask for ID or warn me of any danger. They will take cash with no question about it. It is easier for our children to get illegal drugs than alcohol or cigarettes. If you think that making something illegal is the harshest form of regulation, you are wrong. Prohibition means there is NO regulations. No form of harm reduction, like a broken-down list of what is in it, no age requirements, no parental permission, warning labels, or no recalling of the product when it is found with an elephant tranquilizer in it. If someone drank a pint of vodka or smoked a cigarette and died before they finished drinking or smoking, every single bottle or carton made with them would be removed from shelves and confiscated. When that happens with heroin, it becomes a selling point.

I am not willing to accept that things can't be changed any longer. If there is something I can do or say to make a difference I must do it. If I don’t then I am no better than those that kept quiet during the times I was either treated unfairly, told to be quiet, that my voice did not matter, or experienced injustice myself or watched it happen. I am not in the custody of the state anymore, but speaking freely and deliberately, with a purpose, for people just like me, that have the same disease that I have, and are unable to find their voice at this moment. Or they have died from the disease that I share with them. I speak up for them, because we are one and the same. Except one drug is socially acceptable, lethal, and legal. The other is not. People are dying from both alcohol and from heroin right now. Heroin and opioid users however, are being killed.

  • Yesterday, two people overdosed in their car in traffic. Let that sink in…
  • Children are finding their parents dead and parents are finding their children dead.
  • There are loved ones who are not found until days later in abandoned places while their families don’t know where they are.
  • Librarians have had to learn how to use Narcan and a Philadelphia library was temporarily shut down to fix plumbing that was backed up with syringes.

While society debates, diagnoses, and determines how to handle this epidemic, we are dying. They are debating whether it is a health issue or a criminal issue, if we have a brain disease or we are choosing to destroy ourselves, and whether medically assisted maintenance or cold turkey total abstinence is real sobriety. I can guarantee when you are the one who receives the phone call that your loved one is at the morgue you will no longer care about these issues and you only want the child, parent, husband, wife back alive with another chance to recover.

With the country’s current administration sending us into a backwards, downward spiral like Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and Reagan’s Just Say No philosophy, we need to act now. Like Seattle, Ithaca, New York City, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts and other cities and states, we need to declare a health emergency in our state and save lives the best we can. That is all that is important right now, saving lives because dead addicts cannot recover, and the drugs are not going away. A war on drugs has been proven repeatedly to be useless and ineffective, costly, and deadly. Our state has a needle exchange program and we also have Narcan. When that needle goes out with the addict we are 100% aware of what is going to happen with that needle, and we have Narcan for when an individual is considered dead. Is there a reason why the time between the legal use of these two products we are sending people into hiding, when there is only a small window of opportunity to save their lives?

When we talk about epidemics, or addiction, we fail to mention that most users never become addicted. According to SAMHSA, only about 10% ever do. Yes, 1 in 10 is still a significant amount, but my point is this: the rate at which people become addicted to any drug pretty much stays the same, it is a constant factor. Meaning that making any drug as accessible as alcohol or cigarettes is not going to increase the number of addicts in the world. Heroin and other opiates are extremely accessible now, and easier to get because a drug dealer is not going to ask your child for an ID. They do not care if the consumer is twelve years old. Harm reduction has been in effect now for years. We no longer see ads for cigarettes, warning labels are on the product, age requirements, nicotine patches and gum are all forms of harm reduction. One hundred years ago we were fighting the very same war as we are today only alcohol was the target, we made it illegal, and heroin was in Bayer aspirin and cocaine was in soda and toothache creams. Tens of thousands of people died because of the same reason we see today. Alcohol was still produced but condensed to be smuggled and more potent. That is why we have mixed drinks, plea bargains, etc. People did not adjust to the toxicity of the alcohol and died. Harm reduction is used for alcohol, it is regulated, labeled, monitored. Laws about drinking and driving, designated drivers encouraged, and age requirements are harm reduction. And still, both tobacco and alcohol have about a ten percent rate of addiction. We cannot keep targeting a drug and attempt to eradicate it.

Decriminalizing will have a major effect on the stigma of addiction. We look at drugs and alcohol separately although alcohol kills more people. Drug addicts go to jail therefore drugs are bad, and addicts are bad. Alcohol is legal therefore it is ok. It is the same, one is just socially acceptable. I am in no way promoting drug use. I am an addict. I am an alcoholic. I do not want any other person in this world to suffer from addiction. But it is a reality. People are not just dying, they are being killed. By greed. We have the biggest drug problem in the world right now, yet we are dealing with it in the same ineffective way we have been for a hundred years, spending over a trillion dollars with nothing but death, debt, and a rich narcotics industry to show for it.

Harm Reduction in the form of safe injection sites is an evidence-based solution. Do we really want to debate the morality and ethics of saving lives by any means necessary? There are over one hundred sites around the world and not one person has died of an overdose. Many have gone on to treatment and recovered. Crime rates have gone down. Epidemics are a thing of the past. The money used for fighting against a drug has gone toward fighting for the drug user. Attacking the supply end won’t work because of the 4000% profit margin for an inelastic demand. Attacking supply or demand has proven ineffective. We need to stop who is profiting. We need to look at the problem from an economic standpoint. Any time there is a problem in this country we need to look at who is profiting from the problem, not who is suffering from the problem. Safe injection sites are not enabling or giving an addict permission to use freely. There is not one addict I know that wants to be an addict. That stigma is blocking society’s perception. Addicts want to stop using. We are acutely aware that the options are either stopping or dying. But often it is a long road to get there, it took me twenty years, 19 rehabs, mental institutions, and many years incarcerated. I would have died if alcohol was on the black market and distributed by dealers seeking a profit. If it was not regulated. I have learned from every experience I have had, and I especially learned not to judge whatever road someone takes towards freedom. Shame kills hope. I cannot judge the morality and ethics of a facility in which someone is medically assisted to inject heroin. How dare I say that is wrong when all around me individuals and businesses are ensuring addiction continue because there is money to be made. That is a bigger ethical and moral issue, but it is overshadowed by blame focused on the addict. Yet they have built a 300-billion-dollar industry that depends entirely on keeping addicts addicted to their product. Before anything else, the narcotics industry is a business. The most profitable business in the world. An illegal business, which will collapse if one thing occurs; addicts recover.

I have a sixteen-year-old daughter with two parents who have this disease. I do not want her to suffer, but she might. She is a teenager, they try things, they are curious. They give in to peer pressure. She is genetically at risk. But, if she were to become addicted to any substance, I would want her to be safe as possible. That means buying a product from a doctor rather than a dealer. To not be alone when she uses. To be given options, education, and alternatives. To not be judged or put in a steel cage if she gets caught. I would tell her I am terrified, that I don’t want to lose her and that I have been there and have found a way out. She has three parents in recovery, it is possible. I would want her alive until she finds her way.

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