The name of the subject in this story has been altered to protect his identity
"Ryan" is addicted to heroin. He wished to remain anonymous, but he wanted to share his story, which began at age 14 when a friend offered him hydrocodone, a prescription opioid, that the boy had been prescribed for a toothache. The 25-year-old was only nine when his mom passed away from cancer, and, although he’d gone to counseling, he’d never found a way to deal with the trauma.
"I never felt like I had the breakthrough in dealing with that grief, you know, because I was so young and not able to process it all, so I took to just acting like everything was ok and hiding those feelings," he said.
The drugs took the edge off his depression.
Eventually, he started using heroin, which he said is “everywhere in Springfield, if you’re looking for it.”
It’s an expensive addiction that can cost Ryan up to $100 a day. Most of what can be bought on the street is $30 for a single dose, he said, and a heavy user will dose two to four times a day. But it’s something he said his body needs now.
"To imagine not using heroin in some ways feels a lot like imagining yourself never eating again," he said.
He’s not too concerned about additives that could be mixed in with the drugs he gets. Sometimes dealers sell heroin spiked with the synthetic-opiate substitute, Fentanyl, which carries a much higher risk of fatal overdose. He’s more concerned about something else.
"It sounds messed up, but, you know, the additive that makes it stronger is less of a concern than if I was buying something that had been cut to make it weaker and, you know, to be throwing my money away on something that is useless or has been cut so much that it doesn't provide that relief that I'm looking for," he said.
He wants to eventually find a way to quit. He said he has people in his life who “care about me and that I care about very much.” When his girlfriend discovered he was addicted to heroin, she thought about leaving.
"I'm surprised you didn't," Ryan said. His girlfriend replied, "I'm surprised I didn't. He's just great, and one of the reasons is, I'm confident he's going to get better, so I'm not going to give up because I feel like he makes my life better."
She worries all the time that the next dose might kill him. He hates knowing that he’s hurting those he cares about. But he said there’s a lot of anxiety about starting down the road to recovery.
"You know, once you've tried something so many times and had failures, it's easy to develop a mental block and then there's the chemistry side of the addiction, you know, your brain is accustomed to this reward of using heroin, and you feel like--it becomes almost a second hunger," he said.
He was able to get off of heroin for about two and a half years while getting methadone-assisted treatment at a Springfield clinic, but he stopped going when he went through relationship issues, and eventually, he began using heroin again. He missed a recent appointment to return to the clinic.
Sally Gibson, vice-president of addiction services at Burrell Behavioral Health, said drug addiction is a medical disease, not a moral failing. According to Gibson, drugs physiologically change the body.
"Just like a diabetic, if they are insulin-dependent they may be on insulin the rest of their life. However, there are some people that can monitor it with diet and exercise. There are some people that may just need a medication, so it's the same thing with drug addiction," Gibson said.
At Burrell, she said they treat the whole person, not just the addiction. Treatment consists of educating patients about the drug and what it does to their body, prescribing medicine such as methadone, Suboxone or oral naltrexone, if necessary, to help manage opioid addiction, as well as group and individual therapy. There are also education classes focusing on life skills, Gibson said, including "how do you identify emotions? What do you do with those emotions? I'm amazed at the number of people who don't even know when they're getting angry. We talk about just life skills in general: how do you handle family stuff? How do you handle job items? How do you handle money management?
There are several options at Burrell for those who are seeking help, including day treatment, which is six days a week, eight to nine hours a day, sometimes with residential support. And there are two levels of outpatient treatment.
Relapse is common in the treatment process. According to Gibson, studies have shown a person relapses, on average, three to seven times in treatment.
The longer a person is able to not use and get their brain clear and focus on skills they need to learn, Gibson said, the easier it is to say no to the drug they are addicted to.
Ryan is optimistic he can beat his addiction one day. His girlfriend reminds him of the personal possessions he’s sold to buy heroin—like his music and his guitar—that he can one day replace if he stops using the drug.
According to Ryan, addiction is something he’ll always struggle with, but he thinks if he can get past the withdrawal symptoms and focus on his spiritual side and other things he's interested in rather than the next high, he might be able to get his life back.