On a hot, humid summer afternoon, I find myself in another filthy Minneapolis gas station bathroom. Near tears, I’m frantically trying to find a vein through all the scar tissue I’ve built up on my arm. Each time I stick myself, some of my precious heroin leaks from the syringe—heroin I spent my last 40 bucks to buy.

I’m sweating profusely, yet have chills. My skin is crawling and I’m cramping all over. My entire body is weak and I feel like I’m going to vomit. My heart is racing and with every beat, my body begs for relief. I’m out of money. Out of a job. Out of school. Out of second chances. Finally, I get the flash (blood flowing into the syringe — the sign that I’m in the vein). Before I finish the injection, I feel the sweet relief, flowing through my body. My pain goes away. I stop sweating. My heart rate drops. All is well. At least for now.

I wish I could say that was my last day as an addict, but it would be another year before I finally got clean.

Wake up, find money, get high, repeat

I always had a fascination with drugs, even before I started using them. The science of pharmacology was always super interesting to me. In high school, experimentation with other substances led me to buy some Vicodin to try. Later, as a college student at the University of St. Thomas, I went from popping painkillers, to snorting OxyContin, morphine and Dilaudid. Eventually, I graduated to injecting heroin multiple times a day. I wish I could isolate a point in time when I knew I was addicted, but addiction is subtler than that. Drugs go from merely being a part of your life to becoming your life.

It was wonderful in the beginning. Opioids have the ability to induce a powerful feeling of well-being not attainable naturally or even with other drugs. There’s reduced anxiety, euphoria, pain relief, and a host of other good feelings, including “the nods,” where you feel like you’re sleeping, but remain conscious. It was always easy to get pills and heroin. In 2009, Purdue Pharmaceuticals introduced a new form of OxyContin, which was supposed to have abuse-deterrent properties. This move cut the street price of the drug in half, making it easier to get. And it was still easy to abuse. At the same time, the Twin Cities started to see more high-quality, low-priced heroin on the market.

As time went on, I started experiencing the negative side of addiction. I’d get violently ill if I went more than a day without drugs. I needed more and more to achieve the same effects, which meant I needed more and more money to fund my habit. My grades started falling as I blew off class to get high. I isolated myself from most of my family and friends and slipped further into depression. I had to hustle and do a lot of things I’m not proud of to support my habit. My life became an agonizing cycle: wake up, find a way to get money, get high, repeat. I no longer had goals or aspirations; I wasn’t looking to the future or doing anything positive for myself. I had a full-time, dead-end job in hell.

The messy path to getting clean

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and asked for help. I had a great, nonjudgmental primary care physician who helped me find a treatment program. I stayed there for a month and truly enjoyed being sober. Once I got past the acute withdrawals, things really started to look positive. I thought after 30 days in treatment, I would be “cured” and back on the right path. But getting sober is not that easy. I relapsed multiple times and was kicked out of the halfway house where I had been living.

My parents let me live with them as long as I didn’t use. That lasted about a week. After several months, I found myself at a crossroads – give treatment another shot, or get out. I had no money, no job and nowhere to go. So I begrudgingly went back to inpatient care for another 30 days. From there I was sent to an extended care facility out of state for two months, then to a halfway house for another two months. I then went to a sober living house for nine months. All said and done, I was in supervised care for 13 months. I had over a year of sobriety before I was on my own again, and I don’t think I would have made it if not for that intensive treatment.

It takes a long time to rewire your brain. Throughout addiction, you hijack the reward systems in your brain, which makes mental recovery even harder than the physical withdrawals. Cravings can be intense, leaving those in early recovery quite vulnerable. I was always told that recovery is simple, not easy. You’re taught the best practices when supervised, but taking action when you’re not confined to inpatient treatment is tremendously difficult. That’s why cognitive behavior therapy, involvement in 12-step programs, faith and sober living communities are all very important facets of recovery.

For me, simply finishing college and getting an internship were huge accomplishments. It was something I didn’t think was going to happen when I was addicted. I remember feeling really out of place among my peers when I returned to school. But I opened up to several of my professors and was blown away by their compassion and willingness to help me. Those first years of recovery seem like a lifetime ago, but I grew so much during that period, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I’m now 30 years old, and I’ve been sober for eight years. I’m married, I work as an analyst in health informatics and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many other people receive the gift of recovery. I’m grateful that my life wasn’t cut short by opioids. I hope that my story can help someone else.

Lessons learned

Here’s some wisdom that helped me recover and continues to help me stay sober:

  • Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease. It gets worse over time and will kill someone if left unchecked.
  • For family members and friends of an addict: have compassion for your loved one, even though it’s tough. People who experience addiction lie, cheat and steal to hide and maintain their addictions.
  • Lean on people you trust and a health care professional to assist in getting help.
  • Acceptance is the answer. It’s easy to admit you’re an addict but accepting it means taking the appropriate action steps to mitigate the disease.
  • Keep Narcan around. This is a medication that reverses an overdose; I’ve seen it save a life.
  • The opioid crisis is a public health problem, not a criminal justice issue. We can never arrest our way out of this crisis, and people can only recover with treatment.
  • Focus on mind, body and spirit every day. Become part of a 12-step group, practice your faith, exercise and eat well.
  • Know that there is hope. No matter how bad it seems, people are resilient and recovery is possible. I am living proof.

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