Black tar heroin—a dark, sticky substance that’s dirtier than the white powder version—is well-known for destroying its host. There was no symbiotic relationship between it and me. My body was ravaged by the very substance that maintained my existence. By twenty-seven years old, I was far from the wide-eyed young woman who had stepped off the bus from Ohio. I was a hardened soul with years of jails, homelessness, and a few abusive relationships under my belt. The only thing I had to be proud of was that I was able to survive in a world that killed so many. I became the things that had once made me so afraid.
I was unpredictable. I was occasionally violent. Most of all, I had a tenuous hold on sanity. I had spent time locked in a psychiatric facility for three days on an involuntary hold. I had to admit those were some of my best days in recent years—I was safe, well fed, and able to rest without fear of being assaulted.
My life as an IV drug user had hit a low point. I had run out of veins, leaving me little choice but to stick syringes in the soles of my feet. When users run out of “surface” veins, there are a few alternatives. One is using the jugular vein, the one located in your neck. This can be very dangerous since it is located so close to your brain. I knew someone who died from a blood clot a few days after choosing this path. The second choice is using the femoral, or the vein in the groin. This one cannot be seen. There is also a high risk of breaking off the needle, as I had seen happen to my former lover. A third option is called “muscling,” or shooting the drugs directly into the muscle. This has caused many a soft tissue infection, also known as an abscess. The last and certainly least attractive choice was to quit using altogether. By this time, using felt like knitting needles were tearing away at my skin. I was barely able to walk a few yards at a time, yet I continued to trek up and down the city streets for a few hours a day to sell heroin to junkies like myself before coming home to my hotel in the Tenderloin district.
The Hotel Kinney was known as a “trap house” because it was filled with junkies and small-time dealers, and people would get trapped there. Young women stepped off the Greyhound from the suburbs, as I did, and never left. I paid $35 a night to live with roaches, rodents, and a mix of immigrants who were trying to start a new life and junkies who stood a good chance of ending theirs in one of the empty rooms. But this particular night I wasn’t thinking about my neighbors as I dragged my tired ass up the stairs. I just needed to keep putting one swollen foot in front of the other.
I had gone up almost a full flight of stairs when I heard the front door open behind me. Half turning, I saw two cops coming into my building. I knew they were looking for me before I even heard them say my name to the front desk clerk.
One cop spied me on the stairs. “You there,” he called out. “Stop.” I froze, trying not to panic. Stay cool, for fuck’s sake, I told myself. I couldn’t make a run for it even if I wanted to. They asked me for directions to Tracey’s room. I told them I didn’t know who they were talking about. I later learned the police had only my name and a vague description of what I looked like from a confidential informant.
I let them pass me before turning around and, trying not to appear too freaked, went back downstairs to a small pocket underneath the stairwell. I didn’t need much room. Starved by daily drug use, I was a walking skeleton. Underneath my three T-shirts you could see all my ribs. I pushed my body into the crawlspace.
As I crouched in the enveloping dust, trying not to cough, a rat ran past me. Until then, I hadn’t realized that rats could run upstairs. I heard the scraping of its claws traversing the steps and was struck by the realization that this creature was free to roam while I was stuck in this hole. I was on a downward spiral. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a boyfriend. The latest one, despite being an addict himself, had found me to be too much work.
He left me with a cocaine habit on top of my heroin one. I would get powder cocaine as a bonus from my dealer if I produced the correct amount of money for my packages of heroin. I had no one to blame but myself. I had refused rehab two years earlier despite the urgings of my parents. They had arranged for me to be transported from San Francisco to a center near my hometown. They became particularly concerned after I’d gone to the hospital to have a procedure to drain an abscess on my arm. This was in addition to infections I already had brewing on three other limbs. When I woke up from surgery in handcuffs, for a few seconds I considered going to rehab in Ohio. Yet despite all the evidence that it was time to stop, I was just not ready. I didn’t want to waste their money.
This time, crouched under the stairs two years later, I finally felt it—it was time to stop. This time would be different. There were no more worthwhile highs, there was no more joy in drugs for me. I was not living anymore, just carving out a dull existence in my bruised flesh. I was done.
I waited until the cops left—they never found my room. I paid by the night so I moved rooms every few days. I made up my mind as I untangled my body from the hiding place, brushing dust and bits of cobwebs from my hair. I’d evaded them this time, but whenever the police found me, I decided, I would go willingly and try to get clean.
Many addicts find their way to recovery by accident. Mine was more of a planned surrender. When I got to my room, I packed a suitcase and put it in the closet, hoping I’d be able to take it with me when I was arrested. As soon as people saw you leave the hotel in handcuffs it was like an invitation to come into your space and steal your stuff. Every time I got arrested, I would come home to find nothing left. When I got out of jail this time, I didn’t want to start over with nothing.
The police came to my door just after midnight a few days later. My best friend Mike was crashed out on my bed after we had been drinking some beers. Mike was the first person I had known who had been an addict and gotten clean. Unfortunately, he did not stay that way. We used to sit up sometimes on our sleeping bags in the cold alleys of San Francisco before the sun came up as we shed a few tears over the slow deterioration of our lives. Mike did not do heroin, but as an addict he understood me. He was always the first person to defend me. No matter what happened, it seemed as if Mike was there to help me pick up the shattered pieces. Once a man who had assaulted me walked into our den to score drugs. He didn’t realize he was walking into my space, my rules. Mike jumped from the couch. “Is this the guy?” he said.
“Yes.” It was him. How could I miss the face?
“Did you jack off on this girl?” Mike demanded.
“I don’t know,” the man said.
“How the fuck do you not know?” Mike said, then turning to me, he said, “Beat the shit out of him, Tracey.” I froze. I couldn’t do it. The man seemed so harmless and small without his knife, but I was still afraid of him. Just letting him go was not an option for Mike. It went against the law of the street. Mike beat him up for me.
Mike and I would drink St. Ides, listen to Geto Boys, and talk about getting clean in between binges. He even helped me kick a few times. He would bring me water while I twitched and flopped on his couch for four days, only to see me go back again and again. As I would return to heroin over and over again, I saw his faith in me dwindle. Even among drug users, there is stigma attached to heroin use. An IV heroin user is the lowest of the low. Those who smoke or snort heroin have some superior standing, because it is believed among non-users and users alike that they are somehow not as addicted as those who inject. As a meth user, Mike was confused as to why I returned to something that caused me so much trouble, Stimulants create the illusion that there is no dependency. “I am just using this because I want to . . . I can quit when I want,” Mike told me. Apparently he “wanted” to use it all day every day for months at a time. Heroin was much less subtle. Every morning the call of the sickness would abuse me. Bitch, get up! it told me. There was no reprieve. I never had a pimp. I never needed one. Heroin was pimping me, getting me to do whatever was necessary to make money to feed my habit. This was something Mike could not understand.
When he came over that night, I gave him a big hug. He had heard I was dealing now and wanted to see the damage. To celebrate, I plied him with weed and alcohol. I knew he would be too tired to leave. He didn’t realize I had already had a celebration of my own with crack on top of heroin on top of speed. I suspect he was used to it by now. He had become accustomed to my need to be high every second of every moment to make it through the day. I was so high that I accidentally opened the door to the police right away when I heard the knock. With one turn of the knob, I turned my future.
As soon as I saw the police, I immediately put my hands up and said, “All the dope is mine,” so they would let Mike go. It only took a minute for them to find the heroin. I had picked up my normal package from my dealer, thirty balloons. I had injected three. The remainders were strewn on the bed. Normally I carried them around in a condom stuffed into my vagina. When I started using my body as a carrying case, all the romance of using was officially dead for me. I was fucked-up beyond reason on those three bags, but like the honor student I once was, I did some quick math. There was still a half ounce left. Shit.
As I felt the tightness of the cold steel handcuffs, I started to ask the cops to get the suitcase out of the closet, but then I stopped myself. Did I really want to return to this? Fuck it. I decided to leave everything, walking out with only the pajamas and the pair of shoes I was wearing. I was unsure about the future, but I knew this: I did not want to come back to the room, the Tenderloin, or the life. I told myself this would be the last time I would take this walk of shame to the police car. I gave the Hotel Kinney one last glance through the haze of my sedation. Little did I know I would be back, living around the corner, six months later. Surprisingly, I would return clean.
I did not know what awaited me in “recovery.” I had not known anyone who had gotten off drugs and stayed off. All I knew was that if I didn’t make the most of this opportunity, the next time I would get pulled out of this hotel, I would be on the way to the morgue.
Like many addicts, I started my recovery in handcuffs. After a series of questions about my medical history, I was allowed to drag a mattress onto the cold floor of what is called the “kick tank.” The cell contained no bunks and was filled with addicts in various states of sickness curled up on the floor. I had been to jail many times, but I had never been deemed enough of a junkie to be sent here. I had heard stories over the years of people dying in here. I knew pain awaited me.
My cold-turkey detox started twelve hours later, after the drugs started to leave my body, in a four-person cell. On the first day I was still feeling the effects of the drugs; they started to leave my body on the second day, along with what seemed like all my fluids. We were each given a plastic bag to hold our vomit. I had teary eyes, vomiting, and diarrhea all at the same time, while my legs twitched with involuntary muscle spasms, hence the term “kicking.” The jail provided some over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and Doan’s Pills. We had to provide evidence we had puked to get a shot of Compazine, an anti-nausea drug normally given to schizophrenics. Only alcoholics got Librium to help control their fear and anxiety. The reality was everyone needed it. We were all going out of our minds.
At the end of day two, I was shaking so hard and it was so noisy in the jail, I felt like I had boarded a rocket ship. Destination: Unknown. My body was detoxing from who knows how many substances. I was hallucinating so badly I started searching for syringes in my blanket because instinct told me drugs were the only thing that could keep me from dying.
The day you stop using is the day your recovery starts. Recovery begins with the body and slowly works on the mind. The body shakes and shivers as layers of toxic substances are cleared away to make room for something new. It is as if you are shedding your skin. The body must be cleared of the very thing it desires. The body wants to pace, wants to run away. You feel like your heart is going to beat out of your chest and then you realize you cannot get out of bed.
By the third day my mind was clear enough to question everything. Recovery is both a noun and a verb. I did not know who I was any more than I knew what to do next. I got into a fight with another inmate, about something. She lunged at me, thinking she would take advantage of my vulnerable state. At that moment, I was in need of an outlet and she was it. As she jumped on top of me, I reached for her neck, pulling her off me with all my nervous energy. As I brought my other arm back to beat the hell out of her I had a moment of clarity. I am done fighting. I am not doing this anymore. When I get out of this motherfucking kick tank, I thought, I am asking to go to a program. Fuck this life.
This was my eleventh time kicking heroin, and it would be my last.
Adapted excerpt from "The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin" by Tracey Helton Mitchell. Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.