Long Island’s Addiction

Two years ago, I was a terrible person. Some would say I still am. Back then I was 146 pounds and 6-feet-tall, shooting $400 worth of heroin a day. I was raking in $3,000 a week pushing sleeves of this junk on the streets. When I wasn’t peddling, I was robbing houses, holding up banks and liquor stores, stealing thousands of dollars from my parents just so I could keep up with my spiraling habit. I was 21-years-old. I was dying. I was killing my family. My family was killing me.

But then suddenly, there were no more turns in the road. I got caught and thrown into jail. I was a sloppy thief and if I didn’t get snagged I’d be dead right now. I know this because most of my closest friends are buried in the cemeteries near my town. In fact, just a mile down the road from where we used to play hide-and-seek, my best friend’s gravestone sits. She always said she was going to be a doctor and now she’s nothing. I put her there. I sold her that last shot and I walk around with that every day.

Where am I now?

I’m at Hope House. I’ve been here for six months. It’s a free, long-term recovery center for young addicts tucked away in the hills of Port Jefferson. I’ll be here for another 12 months learning to live, to feel again. There are 40 beds and 40 guys here and a waiting list that’s 8 months long. People care about each other in this house; it’s a community where you can reflect and grow and even eat a decent meal. For a full year I had to beg to get admitted. Every week I’d call from jail. I even wrote letters to Father Frank, who started the program over 30 years ago and still runs it himself. When I finally got in, I remember crying on the phone to my mother. I hadn’t cried in years. They were letting me out of jail; it was a second chance—a place where I could try to make sense of the disaster I’d become.

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My story begins in Sayville, the small, picturesque South Shore community where every face is familiar. Most families here have two cars, two kids, a dog and that proverbial picket fence. My father ran
a textile business and made $200,000 a year and my mother pulled in another $100,000 as a teacher. I held a 90 average at school and was the captain of my varsity tennis team. I had a job at my local pizza place. A beautiful brunette once loved me. The world was mine to make as I wanted.

imageThen the pills started and this “world” began to fall apart. Why do any of us start? Because we’re kids, curious, ignorant, willful, impressionable, insecure and self-destructive. It could’ve been pot or beer, but our parents’ medicine cabinets overflowed with pills and we figured if they were gobbling this stuff then how bad could it be? So we ransacked our homes and started throwing weekly pill parties with Vicodin, oxycodone, Roxys… anything we could find. And from that very first pill, that warm, wicked rush, that sudden absence of inhibitions, everything seemed better: Conversations, sports, work, screwing, sleeping, driving. Within a few months, I couldn’t even get through a class without getting lit. No one knew anything. If they asked, I was just tired.

But the problem was: I wasn’t the only one hooked. I’d say 3 out of every 10 kids at school were tangled up in this opiate-craze. It wasn’t just Sayville. Head over to Miller Place, Dix Hills, Great Neck, Wantagh, Garden City, anywhere on the Island… And we weren’t the typical wayward addicts everyone imagines. We were athletes, honors students, cheerleaders—the kids you’d invite over to your house for a chicken cutlet dinner.

Soon my little pill fascination escalated into a full-blown problem. And when the street prices rose from $5 to $40 a pill, we couldn’t afford our 20 pill a day habits anymore. That’s when the transition to a cheaper, more powerful opiate seemed like the right idea. Heroin, at $8 a bag, was now cheaper than beer. In no time Manhattan was importing the stuff by the carload and soon we were all nodding off in our parents’ basements.

A couple of months elapsed and 5 bags skipped to 10 a day, then 30 and so on. I went to detox centers, rehabs, outpatient programs, South Oaks, it didn’t matter. It just got worse. Overdoses and funerals cropped up, slews of robberies ensued. By the end of that year, I even took a bat to my dealer’s head so I could snatch the rest of his stash and a few hundred dollars. Then two towns over my friend’s 19-year-old sister hung herself from a tree in her front yard. That was the third suicide in two months. The newspapers started to chime in, but we kept pushing forward. The drug demanded it. You have to listen to your body, your disease, or else you get junk-sick: The super-flu, shivers, vomiting, itching, body aches, paranoia and hallucinations.

I remember the first time I woke up with slops of jelly on my chest, a shouting doctor hovering over me, shocking my flatline back to life. Within an hour of getting out of that hospital, completely withdrawing, I was right back at it, stabbing the black stuff into my veins. That was even after seeing my own mother howling in the emergency room, the horror stretched across her face, those spidery lines circling her eyes. I was destroying everyone. I knew this. But I also knew I had to get high.

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Right after that near-death hospital visit, no one in my family said a word to me. I was getting high every day, sleeping all hours while my parents sunk deeper into denial. They became drones, dragging through life, mechanical and empty. They even became kinder to me than before all this madness began. I was given money when I needed it. They made excuses when I crashed cars, got fired from jobs and lifted jewelry from their bedroom. I was dying and my all-too-petrified parents were too embarrassed to admit it. Because their storybook life had to continue, they presented another illusion to the outside world, one that said “everything is all right.” How could I blame them? They were just trying to protect me, right?

Then there was jail. After spending nearly two years high every day, I was now desperate enough to get caught. On a whim, I decided to rob a bank. I needed quick cash to get high, but I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote a note demanding $5,000, walked inside a bank, passed it off to the clerk and she gave me my 5 Gs. It was too damn easy.

But for whatever reason, I lingered in that bank a little longer than I was supposed to. Staring up at the piercing lights, gazing into the surrounding crowd, I couldn’t believe what I had just done. When I ran outside there was a parking lot full of cops pointing their pistols at me. Please shoot me, I thought. All I craved was the simplicity of death. Instead, I was thrown in jail and Newsday slapped my gaunt, ugly mug in their paper. Suddenly, I was a local celebrity and my little town was now buzzing about the monster they gave birth to.

But I wasn’t the only one. There were others out there too and the community began to perk up. Put those losers in jail, they all quietly shouted from behind their tall, white fences. But wasn’t I your star athlete? Your A student? Didn’t I take your daughter to the prom?

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The judge gave me three years and I was locked up at Suffolk County Jail, given a cell, a uniform and a number. My dignity, privacy and identity were wiped away. Jail is something you never get used to. It claws at your soul. You vanish. Time slows to a crawl and yet days, months, fly by. I remember after six months, when my head started to clear, I’d wake up in a cold sweat. It was always that same dream: A crisp blue spring day and I was at the park with my parents. I must’ve been four or five years old as they pushed me on a swing. I was giggling. My mother’s movements were light and free and I could hear my father’s warm voice, “Up to the moon we go!” Then I’d be staring at those concrete walls again.

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Right now, I’m at Hope House, trying to do the right thing. Life is simple here. There are no distractions, no cell phones, no Internet, no Facebook. It’s just people listening to each other. I have real friends in this place. We share breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. We go to NA meetings daily, meet with counselors all week, volunteer at homeless shelters and take on regular chores. We read books and write in journals. This morning I sent my parents a letter. I plan on attending college next semester. I want to be an architect. These days I even laugh. I cry. I feel. My family loves me and I love them. I’m living again. I like being clean. I like who I am.

And I’m only here because of Father Frank and the donations that keep this place going. It’s not just me, who can afford $30,000 a month for rehab? That’s why all these kids are rolling up in coffins. There’s nowhere for them to go and the insurance companies and the government are not helping. This is a long-term problem but most places try to fix it with short-term answers. Twenty-eight days isn’t enough for any addict to recover. Even after I finish this 18-month program, there are still no guarantees. I know this. Every addict knows this. For the rest of my life I’m going to have to confront my disease. So what happens when I finally go home and all my friends are still getting lit? What about when I visit my best friend’s grave? Will I be able to cope? I hope so. I want to. But how can I be sure?

This epidemic is bigger than any one of us and it’s happening right here. Every day someone on Long Island dies from heroin and if it’s not your child, then it’s your brother, your friend, your neighbor. Is it going to take finding some congressman’s kid face down in a bathroom with a needle in his arm before anything changes? I hope not. Because no one wants to live this way. I was once a good kid. I just happened to make some really bad choices.

For more about Hope House or to help support Father Frank’s efforts, please visit hhm.org

LICADD has been providing attention and referral services through intervention, education and guidance for more than 57 years. Help support them at their annual Angel Ball on May 12th. LICADD.com.

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Addiction by the Numbers
words: chris connolly

image200
The approximate percentage by which US drug overdose death rates increased in the last quarter century.

300
The approximate percentage by which admissions for opiate dependence treatment for ages 25-34 increased in New York City between 2007 and 2012.

2,000,000
The number of Americans who reported using prescription pain relievers to get high for the first time in the year 2010-almost 5,500 new users per day.

84
Percentage by which heroin-related deaths increased in New York City between 2010 and 2012.

81
Percentage by which drug store robberies increased nationwide between 2006 and 2011.

70
Approximate percentage of prescription pain pill abusers that get their supply from friends and relatives, according tot he US National Survey on Drug Use.

121 and 120
Heroin deaths in Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2013 and 2012, respectively the two highest figures ever recorded.

$6-10
Approximate cost of one bag of heroin on Long Island due to its proximity to New York City.

$30
Approximate cost of one bag of heroin in rural tri-state areas and New England, where the supply chain is more convoluted.

(516) 747-2606
Number for the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. If you or someone you know is using heroin, call for help right now.

Sources: Center for Disease Control, CDC, New York Mayor’s Task Force on Prescription Painkiller Abuse, CDC, NYC Department of Health, USDEA, US National Survey on Drug Use, Newsday, Newsday, Newsday