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“Beating heroin is child's play compared to beating your childhood.”―Stephen King, The Waste Lands

Heroin Anonymous

Friends and Heroin: More than Eight Decades Building a Stairway to Sobriety—Paul Haeder

A mother is listening to 28-year-old daughter talking about the very nature of her addiction – “I was addicted I think when I was born. I needed validation, needed to just fill myself up with more and more of anything, just to be me, to be.”

Then, 40-something South Baltimore native, now completely ensconced in Portland, his new home, is talking about being addicted early, aged two, “standing on street corners in the summer and just eating any candy I could get a hold of.”

He started using early, his old man a junkie, his mother a user, both parents train wrecks. Our South Baltimore fellow, we'll call J, had no role models of his own gender except for the revolving door boyfriends of his addict-drunk mother. “Yep, I honestly can say I have issues with men to this day.”

People he looked up to had cash in their pockets, carried guns, and used drugs.

An easy mark in what J calls “the heroin capital of the US, South Baltimore.” That was a time of crack cocaine's heyday, when J was a youngster.

Welcome to that world Gary Webb sacrificed his sanity and life exposing – that Dark Alliance between this booze-running, arms-trading, drug-dealing, poverty-serving, prison-worshiping American society.

Welcome to that world Gary Webb sacrificed his sanity and life exposing – that Dark Alliance between this booze-running, arms-trading, drug-dealing, poverty-serving, prison-worshiping American society.

Drugs and contras and CIA and the rotten National Security Agency, these wimp generals and colonels, civilians, and the like, helping serve up a large dose of drug addiction to hoods from LA to Harlem, from Tucson to Akron. Reagan, Carter, Clinton, Bush . . . .

Heroin Anonymous in Stumptown

This was a Saturday in Portland, the city with a large group of heroin addicts and this great organization (except it isn't an organization, per se) called Heroin Anonymous. They were there from 2 p.m. to 10 at night, in fellowship, games played outside, ice cream consumed, barbecue eaten, testimonials delivered, talks exchanged, and a fundraiser to boot for a men's retreat up near Mount Hood in August to get the cobwebs of city life out of their heads and to find even more ways to bond as a group of guys who have seen the school of hard knocks, hell, who have written the curriculum for the school of addicts' hard knocks.

There were sixty people, coming and going, but for the speakers' hour-and-a-half, the addicts sat and listened to J, the South Baltimore addict, and A, the bi-racial woman who acknowledged family there, including her 50-something mother.

She stopped breathing twice, carried out like a bag of dying bones by paramedics, in her addiction. “I know my mom, though, and she told me this, 'I hope she dies . . . just to get out of the misery of her addiction.' I was self-destructive, and I was taking anything to self-destruct.”

These are simple meetings, with no dues, no sponsorships, but following the basic tenants of the 12-step program set forth in the AA literature. Several times the group went to the Big Book to reaffirm their commitment to memory, to moving beyond for what many of the recovering addicts was a complete living hell.

J talked about lesions, abscesses, “even on my back . . . no how the hell does that happen?” Moving from one heroin region – Baltimore – to another, Portland, he said he had to “learn how to use” Stumptown's brand of heroin . . . real careful as to not OD.

This fellowship of men and women affirms the power of collective action and collective will and consciousness. Their stories are different but similar, each one struggling to get out of the living hell they ended up in – homelessness, sometimes dozens of ER visits a person, jail time, disease, emaciation, complete societal debasement and resentment, selling their souls for a fix, and anything goes.

You can turn blue in the face trying to rationalize who one should get out of a life living with rusty spoons while drawing up bad dope in a used needle while holed up in rat and human feces-strewn abandoned buildings, and the continual burning bridges between addict, parents, siblings, friends, lovers and spouses. Many times the addict is the whipping post for Draconian policing measures, and the media have made a mess about this topic of addiction, both ways, from valorizing to denigrating.

Daily, I hear people say addicts – all the ones they picture in the insipid out of balance media or entertainment (sic) circles – should be rounded up, and then a large dose of gasoline should be mainlined into each and every main artery of each user/abuser/addict, and then adios, hasta la vista, baby.

This is a society that is really only two degrees of separation from addiction hitting close to home. Booze is a staple in millions of homes, prescription drugs are consumed at an astounding rate (hundreds of billions spent on those prescribed pain, gain, reduction, lobotomizing, picker-upper meds), children are medicated, and we are all sucked into more toxins and lazy thinking, all part of the tenderizing of humanity to accept our defeat.

It's an easy mark – addicts who crawl into the night like rabid raccoons or scamper around the shadows like giant cockroaches. But in the end, everything that is pureed in pop culture and in this consumer culture is nearly always completely distorted and disjointed a bit just to make all sense of truth and causal reality of why so many get hooked vanish.

Yes, that kid, we'll call her, A, got addicted young, and she was fulfilling some DNA prophecy, she believes. Something in her genetics and brain chemistry jumbled up all logic and she went into a blizzard of every kind of addiction and lifestyle associated with any number of variations on a theme: drug thug, strong-arm robber, smash and grab expert, shoplifter, murderer, walled-in user, in the middle of the woods tweaker, professional deceiver, husband, wife, child, grandparent, teacher, doctor, lawyer . . . . Addicts fit all those and more.

So, A, sure, who has issues with her father, but in a good family, and, J, messed-up men and women in his life early, and getting the crap beat out of him at home and in the mean streets, yet, here they are, in Portland, saved, or recovering, years under their belts, but speaking as if it was just yesterday, and others in that room I know, who spent long stretches of time in prison, and who are running programs now to help the recovering addicts.

There is a vulnerability and triumphalism in this place, and patience, and the ability to hear story after story, narrative after narrative, pain after pain. Each day is a rejiggering of something in their lives, some lucky stars counted, some talisman in their hearts and people who they look to as safety, nets and sponsors and human benefactors. The very definition of “humane” comes from their lips.

J, who was down to a hundred and ten pounds, having gone through dozens of treatment programs, well, he is filled up with that air of moving everyday – telling his story to anyone or any group. It's his way of centering himself in his own recovery, making sure that he gives back to the world, maybe stave the wounds of someone who might be ready to drift back quickly into the rabid nights of addiction with just the right triggers.

AA's Anniversary

The added benefit of this gathering was the anniversary of the very thing that comes off their lips as the 12 steps toward permanent recovery, over and over, hour by hour, this world of people like human nets, holding their friends when that line gets crossed from sobriety to wanting a fix. AA turned 81 this week.

We romanticize and demonize, and we use this tool of the long arm of the law and the short memory of pop culture impresarios to bide our time in history and bid our forgetfulness as consumers who have little time for deep understanding of the condition of man and woman in this deadening and delaying and denigrating thing called capitalism, modernism, industrialism, and worse yet, digitalism.

These people were there, simple in their common thread, all with stories of demons and manifested devils and monsters. One fellow I know, missing an arm from the shoulder down, got a new lease on life after some buddies cut it off, because of all the abscesses, necrotic tissues, rotting veins.

But in the end, these former addicts (always an addict, never recovered, and always in recovery) had someone they could call the unbroken chain pulling them back to the surface, back up for air, deep from within the cesspool of their demons and society's mean dogs.

They have had to succumb to usury, the very hell created by the punishment society, by the holders of liens, rents, penalties, fees, fines, garnishments. They have been eaten inside by their addictions, their numb heads facing memories of maybe never good times, or some good times, even shooting up, but there are so many stories of one, two or several more good people that stuck with them, got tough, took no bullshit, and stayed in their lives. But in the end, these former addicts (always an addict, never recovered, and always in recovery) had someone they could call the unbroken chain pulling them back to the surface, back up for air, deep from within the cesspool of their demons and society's mean dogs.

Punishment from within, and from without: gangs of cops, lawyers, judges, repo men, entire swaths of society judging-condemning-marking.

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I take very seriously all of this drug sentencing, these billion-dollar industries of addiction services, cops, recovery centers, legal drugs, prison industrial complex, and all the money made from people triple or quadruple down on their luck. I've been with judges on several Texas golf courses, on the back nine, toking up pot and sniffing lines of cocaine, all the while these judges were laughing at the books they've been throwing at the criminals caught with dope. Really!

Gary Webb, 1996, San Jose Mercury News:

“When it comes to cocaine, it isn't just a suspicion that the war on drugs is hammering blacks harder than whites. According to the U.S. Justice Department, it's a fact. The 'main reason' cocaine sentences for blacks are longer than for whites, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1993, is that 83 percent of the people being sent to prison for 'crack' trafficking are black 'and the average sentence imposed for crack trafficking was twice as long as for trafficking in powdered cocaine.' Even though crack and powder cocaine are the same drug, you have to sell more than six pounds of powder before you face the same jail time as someone who sells one ounce of crack - a 100-to-1 ratio.”

Remember, A, the bright, articulate woman speaking about her demons and continual hell as an addict – heroin was the drug that completed her, the real thing – wanted to die. Wanted to never see her family. Wanted to find something so big to fill up the giant hole in her heart and soul.

J was always a small step away from being a human cockroach, and he knew that people were afraid of him, in his gaunt stare and jittery movements.

What does it take to stop, to quit, to not die permanently, because A and J had already died many lifetimes over, and literally, their hearts, stopped, and they were dead a few times in the ER, or in the back of a squad car, or at the edge of the dumpster behind good old O'Malley's Beer and Spirits Pub.

A society with legalized lobotomizing, booze on every corner, in the Safeway aisles next to the organic bread, a society that worships the sweaty cold cans of beer and volcanic shaped hard liquor drinks.

Many a billionaire made his fortunes on selling addiction.

What does it take to stay in recovery? Actor (dead of an overdose Feb. 2014) Philip Seymour Hoffman had been clean for 23 years before he relapsed in 2013. Here, some reactions around his death and what it is to be or live with an addict, from Alternet:

I was a high-profile model and intravenous heroin addict. I copped on the street. Heroin doesn't discriminate. It is unbearably wonderful for suppressing pain and generating a false sense of well-being. I loved heroin. Addicts who say "I hate heroin" are lying to themselves. We wouldn't stick needles in our arms daily if we didn't love the way it made us feel. But when it wears off, you're in a hole so big its impossible to climb out. No one sets out to be a heroin addict. It's not a lifestyle choice."
– Janice: six years clean, Middletown, New Jersey, US

I know people who are 40 years clean and sober, and people who've gone only a couple of days, but we are all in the same boat: we are sober today. It's easy to think that because you have been clean and sober for so long that using one time will be OK. It's easy to become complacent in your recovery. That's why I attend 12-step meetings, so that I don't forget what it was like, to remind myself that I'm only one drink or drug away from the person I once was. If I had one drink or one hit, my illness would make me want more and more, something the 'normal' person may not understand." – Mike: two-and-a-half years clean, Bristol, UK

I'm the recovering child and grandchild of addicts. The media's 'It's so sad', 'How could this happen?' style coverage of a celebrity overdose pisses me right off, frankly. It's naive, voyeuristic and irresponsible. Everyone ignores the addict's victims completely. Addiction is a family disease. Addicts don't just ruin their own lives. Everyone in the family becomes dysfunctional." – Foster: parents were addicted to heroin, Orange County, California, US

When I was using heroin, very few people were aware of it. I was ranked in the top 4% of my 1000+ high school class and a member of the varsity basketball team; not the most likely suspect for heroin addiction. Now, I always try to be vigilant for the signs of mental illness in others, and help to support my friends who struggle with addiction and depression as I once did. The temptation of addiction isn’t a constant pull that diminishes over time; it ebbs and flows corresponding with the powerful emotions that lead to such harmful escapism in the first place. The concept of triggers is very important to understand; certain events, places, people and emotions serve as a catalyst to invoke the temptation to fall back on one’s progress. I can go for months without being tempted to use, but if something happens to trigger my need, the craving comes back as fresh as it was the very first week of sobriety." – Jack: nine months clean, Texas, US

For those who cannot comprehend its power, I would tell them that a person can become hooked after using for the first time. It happened to me. In the summer of 1995, I snorted a bag of China White in a stairwell on St Mark's Place in New York City. Three days later, I was shooting black tar in Golden Gate Park. I was seventeen years old." – Leah: 14 years clean, Quito, Ecuador

My work has been with students, gang members, prisoners, and people in colleges from El Paso to Spokane, and the common thread we have as people are the significant emotional events in our lives, the markers that make or break us, the family histories, the epigenetics of passed-on trauma, the debilitating struggle to make it in a world when families fail, friends wither and self-confidence and self-worth crumble.

In El Paso I was around Abraham Verghese, a doctor and now a doctor-novelist. He practiced in El Paso for 11 years, where I was a writer, journalist, teacher and activist. The Tennis Partner was a novel exploring a friend's addiction and eventual death to drugs – a story about physician drug abuse.

I was teaching in middle school programs where a few of the students were glue and gasoline sniffers. The story of addiction crosses all socio-economic planes.

These men and women at the Heroin Anonymous event are testaments to cracking that snake in half, and throwing away the allure and the mighty erotic and attractive moment of the fix hitting all those dopamine-serotonin cylinders all at once.

Working with Addicts

The border – Juarez-El Paso – was full of crazy nights, carousing, giant lines of coke, immense parties, dangerous crowds, even more dangerous friends and acquaintances. I was a writer delving into some dark worlds and corners, and I know how the show of the drug world like cocaine can slither into one's soul like a beautiful jade snake.

These men and women at the Heroin Anonymous event are testaments to cracking that snake in half, and throwing away the allure and the mighty erotic and attractive moment of the fix hitting all those dopamine-serotonin cylinders all at once.

There are no boundaries to human suffering, human depravity, and in a moment of hope and human partnership, too, there might be a time when there are not boundaries to the love, help, support, understanding and intelligence of our human condition when it too is running like a purring 12-cylinder engine pulling the world into a steady stream of hope, safety and recovery.

Who knows where that might come, even if in bursts and spurts.

People recover and overcome, and in that process, which is a deadly loneliness, they learn to be family, communal, together again, after leaving one or many of Dante's levels and gates in hell.

Eighty one years since the 12 Step program started up a wave of people getting their lives back together or together for the first time. That was 1935, in Akron, Ohio, where two guys, one a stockbroker, Bill, and then Bob, a surgeon, met, and the snowball started rolling and gathering. Both drunks, and both wanting some salvation from the disease, though it was not called a disease then, and now, in the era of Trump-Maddow-Hillary-Oz-Bad Western Medicine, the alcoholics and drug users all are still in most cases “treated” with the power of the badge, the judge's gavel, time in jail, revolving door spotty social work/recovery.

Heroin Anonymous, 2004 started in Phoenix. Narcotics Anonymous, 1953, California.

There are so many variations on that theme, and there are different philosophies around what shall be a “higher being,” diving oneself into some “god,” and all of that.

Getting sober, however, free-falling into the lucidity of that moment – a day, a week, one year, even 20 – is both like a diamond as big as your fist, in front of you, and the rainbows, and in the same shattered shard of light, there is that hoary thing lurking just outside the beautiful veronica of prism light.

paul haeder

A lifetime is spent keeping the troll of temptation away, locked out at night, or in the dawn of memory and pain. It is always one day at a time, and then that telephoto shot of the last time you shot up dope.

Paul Haeder