My Experience As An Opiate Addict
I’m a 21 year old black woman and I’m an opiate addict in recovery. Addiction doesn’t always start with peer pressure, sometimes it’s plain old teenage curiosity. I smoked weed for the first time when I was 13 during the summer before my freshman year of high school. At age 13 weed was synonymous with being carefree, exciting, and new. Weed was something to sneak around with my best friends, a secret that we had with each other.
Smoking weed wasn’t something that I did very often or alone, it was just a casual thing with my friends. I got caught smoking because I sold to a friend at my high school; the teachers found out and I got expelled. I was more annoyed that I was getting kicked out of school than ashamed that my family knew. When my family found out they told me that “weed is a gateway drug” and I remember thinking that that was bullshit because it just didn’t make sense to me. How could one drug lead me into another drug? However, now when I look back on their words I have a different perspective on the propensity to become addicted to drugs. I don’t necessarily think that anybody who smokes marijuana will end up addicted to harder stuff; I think that if somebody who is at a higher risk of addiction smokes weed then it can be a gateway to more serious things. For me, once I started smoking weed, I had a more open mind about trying other things. I saw my friends trying other drugs and I saw that they didn’t keel over and die immediately after experimentation. As a kid that’s all the proof I needed to confirm that I’d be okay if I were try it out for myself.
I want people to understand is that there are many factors that can put someone at a higher risk of addiction. Addiction isn’t a matter of willpower or morals: it’s about your brain chemistry. That’s why some people can casually smoke cigarettes to relax and others rely on them daily just to get by. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, half of your risk of addiction to alcohol, nicotine or other drugs is based on genetics. Other factors include your environment, mental health issues and the age that you begin using. For example, my father is a recovering alcoholic which put me at a higher risk for addiction. I never took that into account when I started using and that’s something that I think young people don’t think about, but definitely should. We don’t like to think that we’re going to turn out like our parents.
At age 14 I lived with my mother and my grandparents. Living with my grandparents was nice during high school because I had my own space there and I get along with them pretty well. My grandparents are typical hippies: long haired psychologists that seem to think they know everything. But most importantly, they were always open to answering any questions that I had about drugs. I noticed that my grandfather had a prescription for OxyContin and I had seen commercials for rehabs that discussed the abuse of OxyContin so I asked him what it was used for.
He explained to me that it was used for serious pain management but that people liked to take it to get high because it made them feel euphoric and invincible. The word “invincible” peaked my curiosity, so one random day I snuck into his bathroom medicine cabinet and stole a single Oxy pill.
See, there was no cliche group of teenage friends next to me whispering “Everybody’s doing it, c’mon try it.” My addiction began with just me and my fascination with a pill that could almost instantly change the way I felt. I took it, it made me feel good and then I threw up. I told myself the overwhelming nausea would stop me from ever trying Oxy again but soon I started taking it at school to combat my social anxiety. I felt like I could talk to anybody in a non-awkward, relaxed way when I was high.
I really didn’t see any issue with what I was doing because I wasn’t seeing any bad side effects yet. The thing about opiates is when I tried them for the first time I thought to myself : “This is amazing nobody can tell when I’m high, there’s no brain fog like when I smoke weed, it’s just a clear high that makes me feel euphoric, confident and like I can do anything. Why is this considered a ‘hard drug?’” But that’s just it: I feel that the reason it’s considered a hard drug is because when you use opiates they feel effortless until you try to stop using.
After 6 months of using nearly everyday, my high school boyfriend and best friend started showing concern for me, so I made my first attempt to stop using. It was then that I learned the true meaning of the words “hard drugs.” I didn’t have any knowledge about addiction or withdrawal; nobody taught me about cold sweats, intense muscle pains, vomiting and diarrhea. Mentally, I felt intense anxiety and depression. At first I just thought I was sick but with a little Googling I realized I was withdrawing. So I went back to what I knew would stop the pain and didn’t stop for another 3 years.
During my senior year of high school my mother gave me an ultimatum: pass a drug test or go to rehab. I couldn’t stay sober off of opiates long enough to pass a drug test, so off to rehab in Minnesota I went. However, rehab was intense compared to my at home life. There were rules about every single little thing (which I now know was to teach me accountability). Accountability was not a trait I exemplified during my addiction; these rules truly shaped my recovery.
While I was there for the first 4 days they gave me a medication called Suboxone. Suboxone is a medication comprised of buprenorphine & naloxone. Naloxone blocks opiate cravings and it stops one from getting high off opiates if they attempt to use. Buprenorphine is a mock opiate that coincidentally helps with depression and anxiety and doesn’t cause any sort of high.
In rehab they only had me on Suboxone for 4 days and then tapered me off of it, which made me feel physically uncomfortable; many rehabilitation centers believe that opiate addicts can enter recovery cold turkey but opiate addicts have the highest percentage of relapse compared to all other addicts. This is why I feel Suboxone can be such a huge help: a crutch is okay, but sometimes you need something to lean on while recovering.
Some people see Suboxone as trading one drug for another but opiate addiction doesn’t just have one route to recovery. According to the NAABT, with successful buprenorphine treatment, the compulsive behavior, the loss of control of drug use, the constant cravings, and all of the other hallmarks of addiction vanish with this kind of treatment. When all signs and symptoms of the disease of addiction vanish, which is called remission, this is not an example of switching addictions.
I stayed in rehab for 3 months and when I got out I relapsed on heroin on my 18th birthday. Rehab was like a safe bubble but when I got home I didn’t have that safety net around me; I wasn’t prepared for the triggers and the cravings. A trigger can be a song, a place, or a person. It can be anything that reminds you of what you felt like when using. It can be anything that reminds you of what you used to be.
After I relapsed I told my mother and we researched Suboxone therapy together. We decided that this would be the best option of treatment for me, and honestly I think it’s the best treatment for most people but not enough people know about it. Suboxone along with therapy has helped my recovery immensely and I’ve been sober for 3 years because of this combination.
With the recent deaths of the rappers Mac Miller and Lil Peep, and not to mention all the references to Percys and Oxys in hip hop, it’s apparent that opiates are trendy right now. I feel that instead of saying “Don’t do drugs” we need to be teaching young people how to be safe when using. Unfortunately, the numbers show that young adults are going to experiment with drugs whether we tell them to or not. Saying “don’t do drugs” is about as effective as abstinence only sex Ed programs because people are curious.
If you use opiates you should educate yourself on Narcan, which has naloxone in it. Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose; it is available over the counter from a pharmacy without a prescription in most states. If everyone who uses opiates carried Narcan with them when using, I feel we would have a lot less opiate related deaths.
Another safety precaution a user can take is telling a trusted friend about your addiction and keep that friend around you while you use. This method can be particularly effective because if you overdose there is somebody there with you to administer the Narcan. I’m not encouraging opiate use but I know that addicts and curious people alike are going to use regardless, and they might as well use safely.
Lastly, needle safety is a huge part of safely using. Most cities have needle exchanges where addicts can safely dispose of their dirty needles and get clean ones in exchange.
For family and friends of addicts I know the first reaction you may have when you find out your loved one is using is to condemn them, but trying to force them to stop may not work. I completely understand not wanting to enable a user but you should know that an addict isn’t going to stop using until they do so on their own.
Let them know you’re there for them and try to establish trust. If they don’t already know about it then help educate them on different routes of recovery like Suboxone, rehab, therapy, AA and NA. Make their recovery something that you work on together. If you’re a partner or just a close friend of an addict, it can be extremely stressful so don’t be afraid to get help for yourself too! Al Anon is a community of loved ones of addicts and they have meetings everyday in every city, which can be found on their website. At Al Anon you can learn how to be supportive without enabling your loved one. There’s a difference between enabling and supporting, for instance: your addict son asks to borrow your car and money to go get food, you love him and don’t mind lending him the cash but you’re not sure if he’s really going spend it on food or drugs. An enabler would give their son the car without voicing their concerns, while a supportive parent would offer to drive their son to get his food. When you take that extra step you’re ensuring that your loved one is safe.
Before I talk about addiction stigma, something I feel like I need to mention is that the stigma towards opiate addicts is nowhere near as harmful as the stigma that black people had to face during the crack epidemic. Right now, white people are the largest race demographic affected by the opiate epidemic. Because white people are the primary race affected, the government is now invested in drug treatment and less harsh sentencing for opiate related drug charges. During the crack epidemic of the late 80’s, black people were stopped and frisked and known as “super predators.” They were essentially dehumanized. Now, white opiate addicts are seen as humans who just strayed from the beaten path. This bias is something to think about when considering how drug addiction in the United States is framed.
People have this assumption that addicts are weak strangers overdosing in an alley. That’s not the case though: me and pretty much everyone I know who’s in recovery are average young adults that look like any person you’d see walking down the street. Addiction doesn’t have a “look” and I feel like the opioid epidemic is just going to get worse if we don’t get that harmful false narrative out of our heads. Part of stopping the stigma around addiction starts with educating ourselves! So talk to your friends and family. Pay attention to what’s going on around you and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you assume somebody close to you is using. Once people start opening their minds to the idea that addicts aren’t one size fits all, I believe society will have a much more accepting view of addiction.