With my head held low, I see the shoes in front of me and hear those shuffling behind me. Some are dressed for work; some carry bags and wear other people’s clothes. I feel the tension hanging thick like moisture in the air. We’ve traveled different roads, yet found the same home. I feel invisible as I stand in my place; fifth in line at the Denver Health methadone clinic. It’s a line that makes my todays resemble my yesterdays and allows for my tomorrows. I’ve learned the hard way that whether you get your drugs on the corner from a guy named “Smooth” or a lady in a long white coat, if you stay on the road long enough, a place called addiction you surely will find. Comparing the two is like meeting up with a couple of grizzlies in a clearing: Even if you’re faster than your friend, you still have to outrun the other bear.
I thought I was different because I got my drugs from a doctor and took them for pain; however, with pain being both physical and emotional, I guess we can all make that claim. I started my opiate career with a broken arm at eleven years old. My career took off quickly as I discovered that the value of playing hurt was held in high regard. While most of my teammates preferred Gatorade, my coaches and I knew it was Percocet and codeine that kept the best players on the field and in the end zone! The first time I took drugs for a reason other than physical pain was when my girlfriend left for college. I was going to take one Percocet if I missed her a little and two if I missed her a lot. At sixteen, when I was sure I knew it all, it seemed so innocent and it worked, for a while. That stunning redhead was a force of nature, and yeah, I missed her a lot.
As my life moved on, the sports injuries continued and the surgeries designed to get me back on the field came at an ever-increasing cost. Before I knew what had happened, I had two problems. While I battled the residual pain from the surgeries, my addiction stalked me like a ghost in the night. Back then, back in the late ’80s, many of my doctors assured me that I couldn’t be addicted to something prescribed legally. Of course, I had a vested interest in believing them. I didn’t want to believe I was an addict, and I sure as hell didn’t want anyone else to think I was. So like two competing hurricanes, for decades my addiction ran unabated with pain as its willing accomplice, destroying almost everything in its path.
For me, methadone — or opiate replacement therapy, as they call it in the industry — is recovery, but to others it’s simply replacing one drug with another. The world of addiction and recovery can be a long and confusing path, which is why it’s so important to find what works for the individual. It’s often hard not to get caught up in the “myth” of the disease. It’s not a myth that addiction is a disease; it’s a myth that our society treats it like a disease. Think I’m wrong? Think I’m too critical? Maybe, but when you are diagnosed with cancer, you’re in the fight of your life: a noble fight your friends and family will stand side by side with you to fight. If you have a disease called addiction, a lot of people will see it as a moral failing since you did it to yourself. Throw in something illegal like heroin and this attitude increases exponentially. Thankfully, this attitude is changing, albeit never as fast as we would like. This accelerated understanding phenomenon is an ironic and welcome by-product of the opiate crisis we are currently experiencing.
In the past decade, doctors have added another tool to their toolbox called Suboxone. This drug contains both an opioid agonist, buprenorphine, and an opiate antagonist, naloxone. The agonist, buprenorphine, works as an opiate replacement while the antagonist, naloxone, blocks the effects of any other opiate. Suboxone is also being offered as an implant that can last for several weeks, freeing the patient from daily ingestion.
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Like many things designed in our society for good, methadone and Suboxone have a dark side. As patients move through different levels of care, they are entrusted with “take-home” doses of their treatment drugs for weekends, holidays, etc. My counselor told me when I started at the clinic that while absolutely illegal, the take-home doses lend themselves to a kind of “secondary market” whereby they are bought and sold. Without going into any details, I have found my counselor’s words to be completely accurate.
As I take my dose of methadone and the cup hits the trash, a familiar yet distant thought announces its presence. Against all odds, what I’m feeling is hope mixed with gratitude. I feel alive again and the best part is, I deserve it, but only because I learned to outrun those bears. And remember that girl? After thirty years we found each other again! That’s right, I get to walk through life with the best person I’ve ever known, so don’t tell me that miracles don’t happen!
As I leave the window, I thank the nurse and nod to a few of my fellow patients. As you walk to your jobs this morning, you may see some of these people; they may even ask you for a hand. How you choose to react is up to you...but please understand, addiction is not only a disease, it’s a disease that affects the entire community. Remember, the addict is someone’s child, someone’s mother or someone’s brother. They may even be a relative or friend of yours, and you don’t even know it. These people are part of the human collective, which is to say they’re one of us!
Westword occasionally publishes opinion pieces on topics of interest to Denver residents; Stephen Shelley's seemed particularly relevant in the wake of our recent story about heroin-using University of Colorado students. Interested in submitting an op-ed? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.