Activist and author Tracey Helton Mitchell reminds us heroin users are "mothers, employees, advocates, and friends."
I woke up this morning thirty minutes before my kids. Ten of this is spent checking my social media. I had set my phone on vibrate last night to provide myself a bit of a respite from the flurry of messages I get in the wee hours of the evening, mostly from twenty-somethings trying to make it past day four of opioid detox or get naloxone in the wake of an overdose. Last night I was up dealing with a crisis of another sort. My son peed the bed. After cleaning him up, he had to be moved to the couch in an attempt to disturb him as little as possible.
Now, I am forced to tiptoe around the adjacent kitchen. I stop the toast in the middle of the browning process. I’m afraid the noise might wake him. I slather on homemade jam, made extra sweet in that it was created with my daughter’s tiny hands. A close friend volunteered their mother to assist her in navigating the process. I heat up some green tea in the microwave. Again, I halt the process before the loud DING. I gobble down my toast on my bed while I scroll through emails. I know the alarm is going off soon. Three bowls of Honey Nut cheerios and lots of whining, then we are out the door. An uneventful morning – just the way I like them.
Is this an article about a heroin user? Yes. That would be me – the same mother from the story. I am, in fact, a heroin user in long term recovery from addiction. Nineteen years, 34 abscesses, and eleven arrests ago, I had my last shot of heroin. I had been using opioids for ten years, heavily for eight of those. Like many users, my journey to recovery began in handcuffs. Jail was the only reliable place to receive access to services. My recovery was facilitated by incarceration but certainly was not a result of it. I was already highly motivated at that point to stop using.
As a homeless “junkie” in the 90’s, limited resources were available to me. The only way I knew to get into any type of recovery center was through the county jail. Rehabs were scarce, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) options were both limited and unaffordable. While twelve step was widely available, the stigma that surrounded not being sober while attending meetings existed and persists today. That day, those handcuffs, ultimately changed my life.
People who use drugs, are just that – people. We want to be seen as people first. We are beautiful. We are flawed. We are capable. We have hopes, dreams, ideas. I wasn’t born a drug user. I might have continued on that path to the grave if it wasn’t for a core group of caring folks telling me that I deserved more out of life. Hope was the light that guided me out of darkness. When I was sitting in a jail cell, the idea of having a family of my own was a dream that burned just bright enough to help guide me through the early hopeless days of recovery.
Another dream was to attend school, two degrees and a substance abuse counseling credential later, I can say I have achieved more than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams. I wanted a job back then. ANY job. I started as a volunteer and slowly worked my way into a career. I even dreamed of a furry companion to love me unconditionally. While a cat may seem like a strange recovery icon, having the ability to learn that I could care for something besides myself made me less likely to use drugs.
This article is about a heroin user, a heroin user in recovery.
I am a mother, an employee, an advocate, and a friend. I am loved.
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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a recovering heroin addict and author of "The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin." After completing rehab in 1998, she dedicated her life to the care and treatment of heroin users. Tracey entered school through an ex-offender’s program where she earned a bachelors of business administration and masters of public administration. In addition, she is a certified addiction specialist and supervisor. She was featured in the move Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street. She has also been featured by CNN, Anderson Cooper, Vice, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times in addition to freelance work as a writer. Tracey lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children.