After addiction, former drug addicts are still stigmatized for their past actions
This is a short excerpt from an interview conducted by Eva Thomas.
Find money. Get drugs. Get high. Repeat. A year and a half ago, these thoughts would have consumed Zoe Kelly’s mind. But now, the 20-year-old is a new mom, eagerly planning for a bright future with her partner, Mark.
But she still battles with remnants of her darker past, one that has her in the doctor’s office twice a week for blood tests and left a felony on her record.
On a warm Saturday evening, I arrived at Zoe’s house for our first interview. She opened the door, and after a hello and a hug, we walked up the stairs of her house and entered her dimly lit living room. A small window let in the last bit of sunlight. Two couches and a cozy rocking chair filled the space. In the center of the room stood a dark brown wooden table with some skittles, magazines, and nail polish remover.
“A lot of addicts say this, that they always grew up feeling like everyone else had something figured out that they didn’t,” Zoe began. “And that’s something that is very prevalent in my story.”
Kate Lehmann, a drug and alcohol counselor in the Minneapolis area, said feeling like an outsider is common in addicts.
“The feeling of [being] alien is quite common and a part of the reason why people feel a great sense of relief when they get into a group with other people who share this feeling,” Lehmann said.
At just 12-years-old, Zoe started smoking cigarettes and marijuana with a friend, finding comfort and peace of mind that made all life’s “shit” go away.
“I always felt like I had to work really, really hard to be like everybody else,” she said. “And I felt like I was the only one [who] didn’t have it figured out, so when I started smoking pot, it was like, all of a sudden, none of that mattered and all my anxiety went away.”
Lehmann said people who struggle with anxiety or depression often end up using drugs to suppress the pain. Part of the reason it’s so hard to quit is because the drugs—whether it’s marijuana, alcohol, or opioids—are very effective.
Experimenting with marijuana at such a young age may have put Zoe at a greater risk of drug abuse and addiction. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the earlier marijuana use begins, the higher the risk of addiction. In 2013, 19.8 million people were using marijuana in the United States, of which 7.5 percent were just 12-years-old or older.
Zoe began experimenting with harder substances in high school, snorting her first Vicodin in 9th grade. There is a close link between heroin addiction and other substance abuse, and people who are addicted to alcohol, marijuana, and opioid painkillers. These users are two, three, and 40 times more likely, respectively, to become addicted to heroin, according to the CDC.
Zoe said her substance abuse didn’t start all at once. Some days she would drink, others she would smoke, but by her senior year of high school, things spiraled out of control.
“I started drinking four days a week and smoking pot every single day,” she said. “I was skipping class to get drunk or to smoke, [or] I was snorting pills in the back of class with friends.” Soon after graduating from high school, Zoe began shooting up heroin.
In 2011, 4.2 million Americans who were 12 or older had used heroin at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. An estimated 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on it.
Zoe’s plans to attend college faded away as her dependency on heroin took over. She went to Minneapolis Community and Technical College for four days, but after the fourth day, she never returned. The drug consumed her mind and all of her money.
“[I] would look for things to sell and pawn for money,” she said. “Nothing mattered, if it was gold, a laptop, my dad’s tools, if I could get money for it, that was all that mattered. And it never once occurred to me that my parents were suffering.”
Sometime in November of 2014, Zoe overdosed and came back after a few minutes. Two days later, she overdosed again, but this time, she didn’t come back for 10 minutes.
“I remember being dragged out of the car, my eyes were open, my lips and face were blue,” she said. “I woke up on the sidewalk, but I wasn’t scared at all. The only thing I was focused on was heroin. It was scary for everyone involved, except for me,” she added.
Most drugs impact the pleasure center.
“When people [talk] about their first use of heroin, they talk about an incredible sense of pleasure and well being,” she said. “It’s the best thing they ever felt, [and] they want to repeat that sensation. Addicts are always seeking that; what that first experience was like, that first high.”
Opioids — primarily prescription painkillers as well as heroin — are the main driver of overdose deaths, according to the CDC. In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,657 deaths, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 2000.
Heroin use, specifically, has increased among most demographic groups, with a 100 percent increase in females between 2002 to 2004 and 2011 to 2013. More than 8,200 people died due to heroin-related overdoses in 2013. From 2001 to 2014, there has been a six-fold increase in the total number of deaths.
After multiple stints in and out of recovery centers and what Zoe called the most intense high she ever experienced, something clicked.
“It’s a high I will never forget,” she said. “I went in [to recovery] after this. I was so exhausted with the lifestyle, with not having a solid place to live, with never having any money, and always being sick and cold.”
Lehmann said there is always some type of tipping point that pushes people into recovery.
“As human beings, we are not really interested in change until the pain of staying where we are is greater than the pain of changing,” Lehmann said.
Zoe was stuck in a never-ending cycle. She was always on a run to find money to buy more drugs, a run from her parents, from recovery, and from herself. But her exhaustion and constant sickness were her tipping point.
She checked herself into detox and was eventually transferred into Hazelden Treatment Center for 90 days. The first 30 days of her stay at Hazelden were split up between one-on-one time with counselors, small group meetings, mental health group meetings, sessions on meditation and breathing techniques, and stress management.
She then moved into the extended care unit for the next two months, where she talked about her powerlessness to drugs and her once unmanageable life and attended sessions with speakers every night.
“I was just with women who knew exactly what I was going through,” she said. “I felt really comfortable talking.”
Zoe said she was lucky to be able to stay in this “sanctuary” for the full 90 days.
“It was so peaceful learning so much about recovery and the disease. I couldn’t have gotten what I got from just 30 days,” she said.
Studies have shown the longer a person is engaged with treatment, the lower the chance of a relapse. Patients in treatment are constantly evaluated to ensure they are getting the correct level of care.
After Zoe completed the 90 days, Hazelden set her with a sober house, where she followed a strict day-to-day schedule. She applied to work at Caribou, receiving the job on the spot.
She slowly integrated herself back into society, but often questioned, “How do I be normal after this?”
“Finding a job, paying for bills, [it seems] daunting,” Zoe said. “But it’s not really like that. My parents helped me pay for my bills, so I was able to really focus on staying clean. But then you start paying for some of your own things and slowly gain back your independence. You learn to be an adult, which was something I never had to do.”
Part of being an adult was learning how to speak about her past, an important step in her recovery process. But Zoe said there are still times when she feels uncomfortable discussing her past drug addiction, especially when in a doctor’s office.
“As a former IV user, you don’t have a lot of veins or they are not in the best shape,” Zoe said. “It’s really awkward, telling them [that they] should try this arm.” She said every doctor reacts differently, often times responding in a way that makes her feel even more uncomfortable. Some don’t say anything; others make a judgmental face, and some just get frustrated.
But Zoe said she won’t let anyone make her feel regretful of her past.
“It’s important to not be ashamed of it,” she said. “That will just weigh me down.”
Zoe has experienced the stigmas against drug users first hand, saying that a lot of people treat drug addicts as criminals. But, often times, there’s more to their story.
“I don’t see drug addicts as anything other than victims,” Zoe said. “It’s a shitty disease, and it sucks that we got dealt this hand.” She added that it’s hard for people who haven’t gone through it to understand just how hard it is to quit.
Current stigmas in society about drug users create lots of obstacles for people, Lehmann said.
“It’s very hard to get well if you feel really ashamed of the disease that you have,” she said. “We don’t have any other diseases where we punish people for having the disease,” Lehman said. “The idea of somehow punishing people for being ill is really terrible. And it takes a lot of education for [people] to get their heads around the fact that the person isn’t bad, but [rather] that they have a bad disease.”
Zoe was constantly told that she could not get clean at such a young age, and people at treatment centers did not expect her to last long.
“My age has nothing to do with my story,” she said. “There are a lot of 50-year-olds who aren’t ready [for recovery].”
But at 18 months sober, Zoe has surpassed the time frame when most relapses occur.
“It’s really nice to feel healthy and be able to do things,” she said. “I love being able to go out and do fun things and not be miserable if I’m not high or drunk. I’m never dope sick anymore. I just take care of myself.”