By Christopher Myers, staff writer
The National Institute for Drug Abuse estimates that there are more than 1 million opiate addicts in the United States. This is the story of one such addict.
In the parking lot of the Fort Drum rest area on the Florida Turnpike, Justin gets high. He injects five 30 mg Roxicodone and two 4mg Hydromorphone, and then snorts two more Hydromorphone, for good measure. Justin tucks his spoon and needle into his glove box, and then drives back onto the highway. The pedal touches the floor as his black Pontiac Grand Prix climbs to 115 mph. Fellow motorists come within inches of Justin’s swerving car. Gainesville is Justin’s destination, and the faster he gets there, the sooner he can do more drugs.
A cop pulls him to the side of the road in Sumpter County. Justin focuses all of his energy on looking sober and, somehow, manages to get off with just a reckless driving charge. After that, he slows down to a cool 85 mph for the rest of the way.
“I was so focused on one task, just putting more [drugs] into my system, that I didn’t care about the fact that I could have nicked one of those cars and I would have been dead, or I could have nodded out and fell off the road,” Justin recalls.
Once Justin is “on the pony” he will stay that way as long as he can. The everyday pressures of going to school at the University of Florida and the weight of his already strained relationships are enough for him to rationalize the chemical assistance. He can function like this, at least as far as he can tell. The knowledge of experience tells him that stopping the drug will just result in crushing depression, and he can’t justify that route. Withdrawal lingers in the back of his mind. He considers the options, and decides that the confidence boost of opiates is the best one.
“Mentally, you don’t really have those focuses on the daily minutia that you usually do in a sober mindset,” he explains.
When he didn’t have the pills, he became obsessed with how to get them. When he did have them, he hardly even thought about them. However, he would make sure they would get done, especially after he started shooting up. It became a responsibility almost, like making sure to get to work on time. Only it was making sure to shoot up on time.
“That would take priority over my work, my health, or anything else—my family—because I would stay up for days on end just so I could make sure that every three or four hours I was putting more Oxycontin into my veins.”
Four of Justin’s 22 years have been spent using opiates. His use gradually increased with his tolerance, starting at snorting Roxies and eventually turning to mainlining whatever opiate he could get his hands on. He started experimenting out of his curiosity with psychotropic drugs in general. He had already done opium, and had smoked marijuana, and had been prescribed painkillers even before he used them recreationally. His mother had been on Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and other opiates. There also seems to be less of a stigma around painkillers. Because they are regulated and even prescribed, people don’t tend to hold them up to the same level as heroine or crack. Not that Justin agrees with this distinction, but image is important. Justin has always been concerned with how he appears to others, which ultimately resulted in a strange combination of hiding and bragging about his drug use.
“He would flaunt his track marks,” said David, a fellow student and former roommate of Justin. At the same time, Justin would say he was just drunk or tired when his friends accused him of being on opiates.
David and Justin were friends from high school and when they decided to move in together, as David would put it, “It wasn’t that bad then.” Justin seemed to be functional at least; he went to class and got good grades.
But one night something happened that demonstrated how Justin was quickly falling into addiction. It wasn’t even related to opiates, not directly anyway. David’s opinion is that Justin was on opiates at the time, but the truth is uncertain. Regardless, Justin decided to buy a bottle of Diesel fuel and drink half of it in one night. Other than the grain alcohol, it seemed like any other night in the apartment. David was playing poker with his friends T.J. and Jason. Justin, who opted out of poker, would talk to the group, drink some Diesel Fuel, and watch T.V. in the living room with them. Periodically, he would go into his room and disappear for a while, then come back out to socialize. Eventually, Jason and T.J. went to get food. When they came back they noticed that Justin’s window screen was out, and his car gone.
“They were like, ‘Do you know where J Man is? Is he okay?’” David said. “I thought he was in there.”
Justin turned up the next morning; beat up and with a bunch of empty whip-it (nitrous oxide) canisters in his car. After that, David said “[Enough of] this.”
A few weeks later, David went home to visit his parents in Coral Springs. Justin was in Coral Springs as well, where he grew up and where his father lived. Just a few days before Justin turned 21 he gave David a call. David had recently been arrested for selling Ecstasy and was under curfew at the time, watching a movie with his parents. Justin asked if he could come over, and David consented, although he thought Justin sounded “messed up” on the phone. About five minutes after Justin arrived in the tranquil suburban household; he asked to use the restroom. He occupied it for over 20 minutes, while David sat with his parents in the next room over. When he came out, he claimed he had Wendy’s earlier and was having stomach problems.
“Meanwhile, it was obvious to me—my parents didn’t know at that point—it was obvious to me what the deal was,” David said, figuring that most likely Justin was shooting up the whole time. “That really pissed me off.”
A little over a week later, Justin was sent to rehab by his parents. They knew about his addiction problem and used the winter school break as an opportunity to confront him about it. Sitting and waiting for intake, he was already going through withdrawal. He was wondering what drugs would show up on his urine test. Methadone was administered after intake, relieving Justin of his worst withdrawal symptoms.
“Basically it feels like some poorly cut heroine,” Justin said.
Justin’s roommate in rehab was a 28-year-old, Native American alcoholic who would do little more than sit there in a stupor and throw up blood from his stomach ulcers. The rehab center was full of interesting depressed addicts that covered every aspect of social depravity. Justin met a “surprisingly brilliant man,” who played chess, always winning, and told stories of how he used to do speedballs up on the Baltimore coast. But what Justin remembers most vividly are the cigarette breaks.
Out in the cigarette pit, addicts would share all their fun drug stories. You had to provide your own smokes, although Justin recalls seeing a few packs clearly marked “Community Cigarettes.” The doctors had a two cigarette policy in place. If you misbehaved, you would be cut to one per break.
“Most of the people who were on the one cigarette program ended up getting shorts from about four or five people,” Justin said.
Justin doesn’t recall the doctors doing much during his stay. Every night they would have to attend Narcotics Anonymous. Justin liked sharing drug stories with the group, as well as hearing some of the interesting stories form other addicts. At Cocaine Anonymous the guy who led the discussion explained a 15-day crack binge he went on.
“He ended up blacking out all the windows in his house with tin foil because he was afraid the government could watch him from across the street,” Justin said.
The main thing Justin took away from rehab was the realization of how bad addiction really is. He recalls when he was alone, and going through withdrawals, thinking that it “sucked.” But seeing all these people in an institution that’s “purposely designed to punish you” for all the fun you had on drugs put his life in perspective.
“I think that’s what rehab is mostly about,” Justin said. “Not really helping you out so much as it is helping you realize what a waste of a person you’ve been.”
When Justin first arrived at rehab, he had told David that he would be in there for at least a month. A week and a half later, Justin called David again.
"He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m out.’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s ridiculous. You’ve got to stay in there.’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m good, man,’ and then he immediately came back up and started using again,” David explained.
Slipping back into the habit was the easiest thing for Justin to do, and when he was back in Gainesville, there wasn’t much stopping him. By this point his friends were starting to get fed up, and the bridges to the people who could help Justin were burning. But, despite all this, Justin just didn’t care. He thought he could cope fine enough on his own.
“The worst part is because in the early stages you are able to function somewhat when you’re on this drug, and you think that this still holds true,” Justin explains. “The thing is when you get that deep; you’re so deep in the hole that you don’t want to look up because it’s too much to consider.”
About a month after rehab, Justin crashed… literally. He wrecked his car and was forced to return to Coral Springs until his injuries healed. But instead of staying home and checking back into rehab, he shortly returned to Gainesville and his addiction.
David, despite his frustration, doesn’t think Justin’s relapses and overall addiction are entirely his fault. David said Justin’s dad should have made him stay home after his car accident, and his mom always made the situation worse.
“His mom encourages him. When he got arrested, he got the pills from his mom,” David said.
Justin doesn’t seem to question why he has such a problem with relapses, even when he has some options to get help. Even though Justin knows that opiate use is a bad scene, this realization alone isn’t enough to break his habit. He thinks that the psychological addiction is much worse than the physical addiction, which usually manifests itself in withdrawal. Whenever he is off of opiates, he constantly thinks about getting them. His drug councilor told him that she was 30 years sober, from alcohol and cocaine, and still didn’t go a day without thinking about “bustin’ out some lines or drinking some beers.”
“So if this person has been clean for such a long time, 8 years longer than I’ve been alive, and deals with psychological addiction every day, I don’t really know that there’s a light shining at the end of the tunnel in terms of psychological addiction to drugs,” Justin says.
Indeed, relapse is quite common, and missteps are almost inevitable, said Dr. Thomas W. Vickroy, expert in Neuropharmacology and Drug Abuse at the University of Florida.
“They use the phrase, a lot of times in these programs where they are dealing with addicts, ‘you’re not an Ex-addict, you’re a recovering addict,’” Vickroy said.
Addicts are used to using drugs as coping mechanisms. Whenever something upsetting happens in a recovering addict’s life, they run the risk of relapse. It might even be as simple as running into someone who the addict had formerly done drugs with, or even just having the drugs readily available, Vickroy said.
Additionally, opiates cause serious health problems. They take a huge toll on the digestive tract, especially the intestines. This shows up in withdrawal symptoms because the addict usually won’t notice the effects while they are on the drug. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramping are all symptoms of withdrawal. Like withdrawal from alcohol dependence, it can even be life threatening, Vickroy explains. This is why medical treatment centers will usually give low doses of another opioid to curb the withdrawal symptoms until the body can properly adjust to being without the drug.
Users also run the risk of taking the wrong drug. The drug game isn’t an exact science, and you don’t always get what you’re paying for. Overdose is always a huge concern, especially when shooting up. Opiates suppress the breathing centers of the brain and users will sometimes simply stop breathing.
“The drug crosses into the brain and acts so rapidly that sometimes addicts would be found dead with needles still in their arm,” Vickroy said.
One day, after he had been clean for a while, Justin got a call from his mom. She was suicidal, and he knew she had gotten her hands on some “Roxies.” So he drove down to Coral Springs with the intention of taking them off of her hands. He didn’t plan on using them, or selling them. He didn’t know what he was going to do with them, just that his mom would do something stupid if he didn’t take them from her. When he got there his mom was barely breathing and turning purple. Justin injected a shot of narcaine into her heart. She fell asleep breathing normally after that.
So Justin takes all his mom’s pills, about 80, and starts driving back up to Gainesville on the Turnpike. Unfortunately the C.V. joint in his car was broken and his car had a bad shudder. Around Martin County his car started to shake really badly, so he planned on stopping at the Fort Pierce Service Plaza. About two miles before the rest area, the shudder got worse and he had to pull over. A cop pulls up behind him and gives Justin a ticket for how he pulled over.
“He said it was like improper procedure,” Justin said.
The cop also gives Justin a ticket for illegal tinting, and although Justin thinks his tinting is legal, he decides not to push the point. Justin passes a sobriety test; he didn’t shoot up before getting on the road. Justin explains his car trouble and the cop says he feels uncomfortable allowing Justin drive the rest of the way to the service plaza. The cop offers to call a tow truck and Justin consents. Then, once the truck is en route, the cop informs Justin that, because the cop called the service truck, he must take an inventory of his car.
“Now, I would not agree to do this obviously knowing that I have a huge amount of pills in my car,” Justin said.
But by this point it was too late. More cops come, and they find the pills Justin had taken from his mom. Justin is cuffed, put in the back of the patrol car and taken “to their little cop factory.” He then spends three days, two nights, in St. Lucie County Jail before his dad posts bail.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse, Treatment Statistics: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-statistics
Drug Abuse Recognition Training, Use Statistics: http://drugrecognition.com/Use%20Statistics.htm
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