You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but for two years, I was a painkiller and heroin addict. I didn’t fit into your stereotypical image of a junkie. I had a job and a home. I was married and had a child. I still have those things, but what I don’t have anymore is an active addiction.
“He was depressed. He was addicted to heroin. And I think there comes a time when all the beauty in the world just isn’t enough.”
~ Antony John, Five Flavors of Dumb
Heroin took a lot of things away from me – my will, my self-respect, time with my family, money, opportunities, and most of all, the trust of the people closest to me. Addiction is a disease that thrives on lies in every form – deception, dishonesty, deflection, and denial.
In other words, I lied to everyone – my husband, my daughter, the rest of my family, my friends, my co-workers, and most especially, myself. And because I quickly became an expert in dishonesty, I was able to manipulate everyone around me. My addiction to heroin grew worse, and nobody really knew for sure.
At least, not at first.
Here is my personal story of how I hid my heroin addiction, how all of my lies finally caught up with me, and how I eventually recovered. It is my hope that my story keeps other people from making the same mistakes I did.
How An Injury Led to My Opioid Painkiller Addiction
It started out innocently and accidentally enough. I suffered an injury at work, and the doctor prescribed me painkillers to help make me more comfortable after surgery. I’ve got to admit, Vicodin really helped. I don’t know if I would have been able to function very well without relief.
But while surgery did help, everything didn’t exactly go back to normal. I still had lingering back pain that made some activities difficult. And if I overdid it on a particular day, the pain would flare up and make me uncomfortable to the point of misery.
So, my doctor prescribed me more pain pills. After all, why wouldn’t he? He knew that I had a legitimate and documented injury, and persistent pain was one of the possible symptoms. There was never any problem when I needed a refill.
But soon, it seemed as if I needed the pills to get through the day, not just to manage my chronic pain. If I forgot to take my medication, or worst of all, ran out, my pain was more than physical. I was irritable, unable to concentrate, and extremely anxious.
In fact, every time I had to wait for my prescription to be refilled, I was panicky and depressed. I knew that the only thing that could make me feel better was my medication. Looking back, that should have been a major red flag.
But I also noticed that I was running out a lot sooner than I should have. After a few months, it seemed like my pain pills just weren’t as effective as they used to be. Sometimes, instead of taking one, I’d have to take two or even three to feel normal. They didn’t last as long, either. Most days, I had to take the next dose an hour or two earlier than I was supposed to.
I guess make that two major red flags.
Opioid Tolerance and Withdrawal
I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing two major symptoms of opioid addiction:
- Tolerance – the need to constantly increase the frequency and amount of drugs taken in order to realize the same positive effects.
- Withdrawal – painful physical and psychological symptoms that occur within just a few hours of the last dose
In my specific case, my symptoms of painkiller addiction were physical pain, anxiety, and irritability. But for most people, there are several more possible symptoms:
- Lack of motivation
- Uncontrollable yawning
- Physical exhaustion
- Muscle aches
- Excessive sweating
- Runny nose
- Hot flashes
- Goose pimples
How New Prescribing Laws and Guidelines Affected Me
A few years ago, everything changed.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention passed new guidelines that recommended that doctors should only prescribe painkillers as an absolute “last resort”. Other methods of pain management were now the approved first-line treatment – diet, exercise, physical therapy, massage, medication, and non-opioid pain medicines like aspirin, Tylenol, and ibuprofen.
Only when these methods were tried and found to be ineffective were opioids to be prescribed, and then for the shortest duration and the lowest effective dose possible.
Worst of all for me, Vicodin and other pain medications were no longer approved for long-term, chronic pain.
When my doctor started following these new guidelines, that meant no more endless refills. Instead, my doctor gave me what were essentially over-the-counter medications and ordered regular physical therapy.
But here was the problem – while all of that was well and good for my back pain, it didn’t do anything for my painkiller dependence. Now that I was cut off, I was desperate for relief from the physical and mental agony that I was in.
Didn’t the doctor understand?
In my mind, I needed MY Vicodin pills for more than just helping with my lingering discomfort. No, I needed MY pills just to make it through the day. In other words, I had started out taking Vicodin to feel better. Now, I needed it to take it to keep from feeling bad.
Doctor Shopping and Deception
My first step was to look for another physician. If this doctor wasn’t going to give me what I needed, then I would just find one who would.
At first, it wasn’t that hard. I soon learned that “guidelines” aren’t legal requirements. Despite what the FDA, the Surgeon General, and other organizations were recommending, there were still doctors who had no problem prescribing whatever I said I needed. It was easy money for them and blessed relief for me.
But soon, even that wasn’t enough. Even “friendly” doctors are still under scrutiny by The Drug Enforcement Administration and the American Medical Association. Yes, I could still get SOME of what I needed, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
I learned the advantages of going to multiple doctors. A little here and a little there got me closer. As long as one hand didn’t know what the other was doing, I could usually scrounge up just enough.
But because I couldn’t tell the same story to every doctor, I had to start making up ailments and injuries. A made-up fall here and a minor injury there allowed me to obtain multiple prescriptions. I even started faking toothaches.
I was fully aware of what I was doing. Because I knew what pharmacists are supposed to watch out for, I used several different pharmacies to fill my prescriptions.
Between the doctor shopping, the faking injuries, and the driving all over town to get my prescriptions filled, it was exhausting! It seemed as if almost every day, I had to do something related to finding more painkillers.
My husband never caught on at the time. He knew that I had had an injury and that for a long time, I had been taking pain medication. I filed and filled all of my prescriptions myself, so he never had reason to question why I had medication from doctors and pharmacies way across town.
But then everything changed again, and it got much worse.
In the middle of all of this, my state implemented a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to help track controlled substances. And when physicians logged into this database, they could see every medication that I was or had been prescribed. That automatically took away most of my opportunities.
So here I was, back at square one and in need of my drugs.
Black Market Pain Pills
Once again, my job was indirectly involved with my opioid addiction.
One day, I was at work and out of pain pills. In desperation, I acted like my back was bothering me worse than it really was and asked a few of my co-workers if they had anything. One guy, who I didn’t really know that well actually had an Oxycontin. I quickly found out that I liked Oxy even more than I liked my Vicodin.
Pretty soon, it became a semi-regular thing. Whenever my supply would run out, I would hit up my work buddy. But after the first few times, he made a point of asking me if I could pay him for what he was giving me because it was leaving him short. The price wasn’t cheap, but I was willing to pay.
But as my tolerance grew, he wasn’t able to keep up, and he could see my frustration whenever he was out. Finally, he told me that he knew someone who could take care of me.
A few days later, he introduced me to the man who became my dealer. I was happy because this new guy could supply me with almost anything I wanted… for a price.
Pain pills are a lot more expensive you are buying them from a dealer… no insurance and cash only. There were times when I actually had to make the choice between paying a bill on time and having enough money to buy my painkillers.
Of special relevance, that is another red flag – ignoring other financial obligations order to buy drugs.
My Introduction to Heroin
“If pain is a fist, heroin dives into it, opens it up, and relaxes you. It feels so beautiful. It feels like a cuddle, like comfort, like being in your mother’s arms. It’s so sweet and perfect.”
~ Russell Brand
And then one day, it happened.
I tried to make an order on a day when my dealer wasn’t holding. Even worse, he wasn’t sure when he was going to be able to get some. I cursed loudly and ask him what was I supposed to do now?
He didn’t even bat an eye. He said that if I really needed to feel better, he had something that would fix me right up.
When he showed me the little packet of heroin. I wasn’t sure at first. I wasn’t some junkie, I just needed my pills. But he could see how I was acting and feeling, and he told me that just a little bit would help me get right until he could get his hands on some more pills.
I was hurting, so I said yes.
I had never used needles before, so he took care of me the first time. I was nervous, but I was also in pain because I had done without since the day before. And when he tied me off and slid the needle in, the rush was instantaneous and almost indescribable. If I thought that I liked Vicodin and Oxycontin, then I loved heroin.
When I came down, my dealer told me that he could get H a lot easier than he could pick up more pills. And then, when he told me that a dose only cost about as much as a pack of cigarettes, that’s all I needed to hear. I had paid a lot more for that for Oxys.
Much later, I found out, that I wasn’t alone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 4 out of every 5 heroin abusers started out by misusing prescription painkillers. And just like me, 95% made the switch because heroin was cheaper and easier to find.
But hiding a heroin habit isn’t the same as disguising my painkiller use. I had to come up with a whole new set of strategies.
Moving The Money
Because heroin didn’t cost as much as my painkillers, I was able to hide the money I was spending. What used to go towards office co-pays and black market Oxycontin and Vicodin was now used for heroin.
And I really needed the cushion, because although each dose of black tar was cheaper than a single pill, I used more often.
Hiding The Time
Now that I didn’t have to go to so many doctors’ appointments and so many pharmacies, I had a lot more time on my hand. And I used that time as my chance to shoot up. Most times, I got high at my dealer’s house, just after scoring. Because my husband and I didn’t share the same days off, I chased the dragon when he was working and I wasn’t.
I did have enough control to not use at work, but I did call in more often, and I quickly burned through all of my sick days. And because I missed so many days, I was always able to put in extra hours to make up for it. That gave me even more time. Because my schedule got so screwed up, my family never knew exactly when I was and wasn’t supposed to work.
Almost every time we had some family obligation, I found an excuse not to go. Whether it was my back or a non-existent headache, I was usually able to send my husband and daughter, along with my sincere apologies. Having the house to myself meant that I had hours of freedom to do whatever I wanted.
Covering Up The Track Marks
Even if my family didn’t know how to recognize the signs of my heroin addiction, they definitely would have eventually noticed the injection wounds on my arms. So like other junkies before me, I practiced a number of deceptions.
I wore long- sleeved clothing every day, even during the summer. Using my thin frame and the Denver altitude as an excuse, I always had a sweater or light jacket. I used every trick in the book to keep my family from seeing me without my arms covered.
When the strangeness of my behavior got too obvious, I simply changed where on my body I shot up – my legs, between my toes, etc. By rotating sides and sites, I was able to keep anyone from noticing.
Lying About My Behaviors
As much as I tried to hide what I was doing, there were still times that I was almost discovered, usually when my husband came home early from work or someone dropped by unexpectedly.
I learned how to blame any grogginess or sleepiness on the pain pills that I was no longer taking nearly as often. My back injury, which wasn’t really that big of an issue anymore, still provided me with a built-in excuse. It got me out of so many visits, parties, date nights, and dinners with friends that people were no longer surprised when I begged off.
My Husband Respected My Privacy
My husband has a very complacent personality. He gives me all the space that he thinks I need, so he would never dream of going through my purse or my car. All I had to do is stuff my works and my stash under my seat, where he was unlikely to ever look, and I was all set.
It’s the same way with my job. Because it’s not unusual for me to get a phone call or a text message from work, it’s easy to hide a drug call or text in plain sight. Again, my husband would never go through my phone. He would consider it rude.
Helping More Than He Meant To
Because he was so supportive in most areas, it was easy to get my husband to help me whenever I had to make some excuse to work, family, and friends. All I had to do was tell him that I wasn’t feeling well, and he would offer to call my job for me or to skip whatever was that we had scheduled.
I would always tell him but there was no reason for him to cancel his plans just because I wasn’t feeling up to it today, so I told him to go ahead without me. As long as I made it a point to attend the occasional event, he had no reason to get suspicious.
How My Family Finally Found Out
I almost died the day my husband found out about my heroin addiction.
It was a pretty normal day, by my standards. It was my day off, so while my husband was at work, I messaged my dealer and then went and picked up the day’s purchase just as I had done so many times before. It was like any other day.
I went back home and went through my usual pre-shot ritual.
I took a warm bath, changed into some comfortable clothes, sat down on my bed, got out my rig, and tore open the balloon. I put two chunks the size of Tic-Tacs on the spoon and used the syringe to add some water. As I stirred the mixture with the end of the needle, I caught the faint smell of vinegar. I drew my regular dose, tied off, slid the needle into my vein, and pushed in the plunger. Everything was the same as always.
Except for my dope.
I had just injected a “hot shot”.
Wherever my dealer I picked up this batch, something went very wrong for me. It turns out that the supplier or some other middleman had tried to stretch a low-grade batch of black tar by adding a little fentanyl.
That little went a long way.
I don’t remember much after that, so I can only describe what was told to me.
My husband had gotten sick at work, so he came home hours earlier than normal. I can’t imagine the sight he walked in on. I was passed out, completely unresponsive, with the needle still in my arm. I was barely breathing, and my lips had started to turn blue. As shocked and is horrified as he must have been, he did two things that saved my life.
First, he immediately called 911.
Second, the main pharmacy we use makes it a practice to dispense Narcan with opioid prescriptions. My husband ran to the medicine cabinet, grabbed the Narcan, and used it to reverse my overdose. I remember waking up in the throes of full-blown opioid withdrawal. It was horrible, but I was alive.
My Secret Was Out
There was no hiding it now. I spent the next few days in the hospital, but luckily, there didn’t seem to be any permanent damage. My doctor told me exactly how lucky I truly was. He told me that fentanyl was the deadliest drug in America and that the only reason I was still alive was my husband’s unexpected arrival and quick-thinking.
My husband came to visit me every day. After everything that I’ve been through physically, I was worn out and I felt more vulnerable than I had in years. I told him everything, from how it all started with a legitimate prescription and how it spiraled out of control from there.
Even though it had affected him so deeply, I tried to tell him that my heroin addiction had nothing to do with him. I never meant to hurt him or myself.
He made good use of the time that I was in the hospital. He got in touch with a local rehab program that specialized in helping women with substance abuse problems. He made all of the arrangements, and all I had to do was accept what he was offering me.
I was surprised how totally exhausted I was, not just physically, but mentally. It was if the weight of all my lies and deceptions had finally caught up with me, all at once.
I agreed to check into rehab.
Life After Heroin Addiction
That was more than a year ago. It’s been slow going, but I can honestly say that I feel better—and better about myself—than I have in a very long time. I’m not hiding anything, I’m not keeping secrets, I’m not trying to cover up one lie with another lie, and I’m not being controlled by a drug that punishes me every time I don’t take it.
How did I do it?
The rehab program really surprised me. It wasn’t what I expected at all. It was clean and bright and comfortable, not like the prison cell I had envisioned. Everyone there was kind and helpful and treated me with respect, not the judgment but I was expecting.
They taught me so much about addiction, explaining to me that I didn’t have to be ashamed because I had been sick. Addiction was a disease that had taken over my choices. They told me that recovery was how I got to take back that ability to choose.
Cravings were bad at first. Despite everything that I had done and despite what had almost happened to me, I still craved relief at the end of a needle. That’s how you could really tell that I was sick.
But surprisingly, they didn’t make me suffer cold turkey. Evidently, drug rehab isn’t like the horror stories I heard when I was younger. No, they had real, FDA-approved medicines that helped ease my cravings and make my withdrawal symptoms more tolerable.
And because I wasn’t in so much physical and mental pain, I was able to actually listen and learn from the other recovery lessons that they were trying to teach me. So far, those lessons have stuck with me. I have 16 months clean and sober.
My relationship with my husband has changed. He is just as loving and supportive as ever, but now, he understands that I deal with more than a bad back. He helps me do those things that best support my continued sobriety and recovery. He even goes to 12-Step meetings with me.
Here’s what I want to leave you with. My addiction can happen to ANYONE. I never intended to abuse my pain medications in the first place, and I never imagined that I could move from doctor-prescribed pills to potentially-deadly heroin. But it happened to me, all the same.
Learn from my story, and don’t let it happen to you.