Heroin

Jam Alker -Breaking Barriers

Photo by Bill Whitemire courtesy Jam Alker

When musician Jam Alker entered treatment in 2014 he took his guitar with him and began writing songs about his struggles. He discovered the creative process allowed him to lean into his feelings instead of trying to numb them. Now Alker takes his message of music's healing powers across the country, playing concerts, speaking to students, and leading workshops. He also works with Recovery Unplugged. You can learn more at www.JamAlker.com.

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The feeling produced by heroin was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.

It is not a high like smoking a joint or having a few glasses of wine.But it is a euphoria. At least in the beginning.

There is a rush of pleasure, warmth, contentedness. Everything feels like it's going to be all right. It feels like a mother's love.

That's how it starts. But it doesn't last

I grew up everywhere. I was born in England, moved to the States when I was three. A lot of violence, upheaval in my childhood. One of my first memories is my father walking towards me, sort of staggering, wide-eyed with blood gushing down his face, and my mom breaking a whiskey bottle over the top of his head to stop his violent advances.

Shortly after that, my mom picked me up on the way home from a friend's house one day when I was five years old. We got in the car. The next thing I knew we were in Las Vegas.

She then married another violent alcoholic. Spent a few years with him until he, in a violent rage, destroyed the house.

I thought my mom would grab me and my brother, put us in the car and take us somewhere else. Instead, she stayed with him, put us in a bus across the country to go live with my father.

Stayed with him for the next eight years, moving around the country. In that time I saw my mom two, maybe three times, till I was in 10th grade and my dad couldn't be violent towards me without me retaliating. So he sent me to go live with my mom who was in Chicago.

Moved in with her in 10th grade. Was on my own by 11th grade. Finished out high school and moved down into the big city, deciding that I was going to become a famous musician.

So I started playing in bands. Had some success. Did some touring, made some albums. And in that lifestyle there are certain things that are accepted, if not celebrated.

I'm talking about the distracting behaviors, the numbing behaviors, the desire to find comfort on the outside that I now know only comes from the inside.

My addictions were more my ego. Chasing after fame, after power, after prestige, after love, after relationships. Wanting people to love me to make me feel important because I didn't feel important inside.

I had that thing inside of me that so many addicts and alcoholics talk about: this hole in their soul, this hole inside of them that they've never been able to fill. This discomfort.

And we're taught that the answer to that hole inside, the way to fill it, the way to find that internal happiness is through external means.

And so I bought into that. I didn't know any different.

So then I thought it would be money. And I made a ton of money.

From the outside world looking in, you would think at that point that I had everything.

I was well on my way to becoming a millionaire. I owned a recording studio and a record label. I had toured the country, signed autographs, had music that had been played on the radio.

But I was miserable.

And then I was introduced to heroin, to opiates. And opiates are physical painkillers, but opiates are also emotional painkillers.

So that thing that I had been trying to fix, that hole I've been trying to fill it that I never been able to. I would not been able to fill that hole, but this at least numbed me to that pain.

It wasn't long before the money was gone. The property was gone. The recording studio was gone. The record label was gone. Many of my closest, dearest relationships were gone.

And I gave all of these things away, for heroin.

I didn’t lose half a million dollars on a couch cushion somewhere.

I didn't misplace that recording studio or that record label in the back of a cab in a hurry one day in downtown Chicago.

And I didn't misplace some of my dearest relationships.

I gave those things away.

In that 10-year period, I gave all of those things away because heroin, opioids, became all that mattered in my life.

So that's where I was.

And four years ago, I finally surrendered and checked into a treatment facility and I brought my guitar with me, honestly thinking it was just going to help me pass the time. I hadn't picked up my guitar almost at all over the decade in the deep dark hole.

I began writing again. I began writing about all of the experiences that I had been through, and all of the discomfort that I was going through there in early recovery.

I decided I wasn't going to get high anymore. That meant all of those things that I had been burying my whole life, all of the things that I had been numbing myself to, I was going to have to start to deal with those things. I was going to have to start to process those things.

Or I was in danger of going back out and I knew the next step for me was death. I had no doubt where I was headed.

So I picked up the guitar, and it's just my own form of therapy, I began writing. And I finally felt connected spiritually.

And things started to happen and I continued to cultivate that contact with the creative source -- whatever that thing is -- and I began to heal some of my deepest wounds.

I wrote a few songs. I started to share them with some of my peers in my unit, and some really significant, impactful moments started to happen.

You know, addiction is about isolation. Recovery is about community. And community can happen on a large scale coming together, but community can happen one-on-one as well.

It's empathy, when I feel what you feel, when you feel what I feel -- that connection, that is community. And that's what recovery is about.

And these guys in my unit with me started to come to me and say, "You're able to put into words some of the things that I'm feeling. Thank you.”

And I realized at that moment, that the only thing that ever truly filled that hole inside of me was helping others, being of service to others who had no way of repaying me.

I knew that this was my path.

I started a therapeutic music program using some of the music I had written in recovery where we do a lyrical analysis of one of my songs called Crows.

And the song, Crows, is a story-song about a broken man who's sitting outside of a church, sort of reviewing where his life went. He doesn't know how he ended up where he is.

But it's very open for interpretation. It's metaphorical rather than literal.

When I do the group, I'm trying to get the clients to start to touch on what their own traumas are, the reasons why they ended up there in treatment.

So I'll play the song, and I'll hand out the lyrics to the clients and we'll do a lyrical analysis.

So we'll read the first stanza, the first verse, which is In the front of the church on a concrete step, a low paid man rests his head. He sat down to catch his breath, can't quite figure where it went well.

And then I'll say, “Let's talk about that. Let's make up a narrative of what's going on. Why is he sitting on the step? What does the church represent? Why is he resting his head? Why is it a concrete step?”

And people will start to talk. And in order to create the story, to create the feelings, to create the images behind the story, they have to touch on their own experience.

They’ll say, “He's there because nobody loved him.” “He's there because he was kicked out of the house.” “He's outside of the church because of his resentments towards the church.”

Well, where are they getting these ideas from? They have to get it from their own experience.

“Why is he resting his head?” “He's tired.”

“Okay. It's a low paid man. Does that mean that he has to be poor monetarily? Okay, how else could he be low paid?”

“Spiritually?” “Nobody loves him.”

All of these things, and then people start coming out and they get excited about it and we create this entire narrative behind the song.

And at the end it's a very cathartic experience for these folks. And they love it and I let them know at the end that they just did their own form of therapy.

Now, if I were to have walked in and said, “Let's talk about when you were at your lowest and you were sitting there thinking, What is the point of life? Why am I doing this?

Nine times out of 10, they're going to shut down and they're not gonna to want to talk about it.

But by doing it this way, it almost tricks their trauma into putting down its guard a little bit. It doesn't realize that it's what's coming out.

Oh, we're talking about that guy that poor broken man sitting outside the church. We're not talking about my experience.

And so it takes down the barriers.

And that's what you have to do in recovery.

You have to bring down those barriers and allow yourself to open up, be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Be comfortable being vulnerable and allowing these things out because these things, these traumas, are the things that we bury.

And that discomfort becomes unbearable.

And there's only so long -- particularly those of us who have substance use disorder, those of us who are sitting early in recovery, trying to figure out a way to manage all of this discomfort --there's only so long you can sit with that or try to bury it before that voice will come up: This is too much. We're just going to go out, just today. We can deal with it again tomorrow, but just for today, it is too much. I can't bear it. I need a drink. I need a hit. I need a shot.

And eventually that voice will convince you.

Or the other option is to learn how to process these things as they come up.

I'm Jam Alker and this is my story.

Denise Williams -My Twin Sons

About ten years ago, Denise Williams found herself trying to navigate the intersection of mental illness and addiction with her twin sons, Ryan and Matt. 

She wishes she had been better prepared.

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I have twin sons, Ryan and Matt, and a daughter, Katie. She's two years younger than the boys. And both of the boys, they’re twins, they died of a heroin overdose.

From the beginning, I thought I was a very lucky person. My kids flourished. They did well in school. They were active in all the community things. The boys played sports. My daughter did the cheerleading.

I thought that we were the white picket fence family, that there was nothing wrong.

And when Matt was in high school, just before graduating, I got a letter or a note sent home from his English teacher. She had given them an assignment to write a speech to their classmates what they would wish for them for the future.

And Matt's was totally morbid.

It talked about suicide. It talked about bullying. It talked about the injustices in the world.

He did not want to go on living if, if this is what life was. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was his senior prank -- that someone had put him up to it because of this wasn't Matt. Matt was my happy-go-lucky. He was the people-pleasing child. Out of the three that I had, he was the easiest to get along with, always looked for approval and wanted to please people. And he never had anything bad to say about anyone. And here he's talking about suicide? It wasn't a prank. It was his words. He wrote it. He started feeling like that in middle school.

And it's like, "Well, why didn't you tell me that this is how you felt?"

And he said, “Because I didn't want to be like grandma.”

My mother-in-law lived with us. She suffered from severe mental health issues. And not understanding what mental health was, I thought it was a weakness. And, um, if she would just get up, out of bed, take her medicine, take a shower, eat a good breakfast, she would be good. It was her choice to lay around and feel sorry for herself.

Often there were jokes around the household that,"There's grandma, she's up to her old tricks, you know, just trying to get attention."

Matt flat out said,"I didn't want to be like grandma. So I handled it."

"Well, what did you do to handle it?"

And he goes, "You know, I handled it. Today I'm feeling a lot better."

In my mind I was like, Okay, well, I was right. He got out of bed. He pushed himself forward. And it's just, like I said, mental health is a weak disease that, you know, he overcame it.

I did find out the first time he went into rehab, what he meant by that.

He meant I had a bottle of liquor hidden underneath my bed. And every night I would drink. Every day before I went to school, I would drink, and it would take away my anxiety, my depression, and it was my coping. You could have blown me over with a feather. I, I just -- what, where was I? Why didn't I notice all these signs? I mean, he just -- he hid it so incredibly well.

Nobody ever would have guessed that he was depressed, and suffered from anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.

He said he didn't want anybody to know because that was his problem. And he didn't want to be made fun of. And he didn't want to be like grandma.

It increased after high school. But after high school he did go to college in the evening. He worked full time. And he had a girlfriend that went to Towson. And he would spend most of his weekends out there with her.

And I thought everything's great.

When Matt was around 20 years old, he just had a big turnaround in his personality. He quit college. He broke up with the girlfriend. No one knew that he was unhappy. And he became this person that he was staying out all night. Coming in totally wasted, disrupting the household, dropping things, walking into walls.

It finally got to the point that, you know, "If you can't live under my roof, doing my rules, you're going to have to go.”

And Matt welcomed that conversation because he already had a place set up.

It was quite a bit of a party house. But I thought, Hey, now he's got to pay rent. He's going to have to grow up.

Well, that didn't happen. The partying increased.

January 17th of 2007, 4:15 in the morning, I get a phone call from University of Maryland Shock Trauma. Matt had been in a serious car accident and we needed to come quickly.

You know, he had some pretty serious injuries to his arm, but he would survive. And the state police were there. And they said they would be charging Matt with driving under the influence.

And when the doctor came out, he said, “The good news is, he's in recovery right now. The bad news is he's got a long road to recovery.” He was in the hospital for a week. He broke, chipped, dislocated, and crushed every bone in his left arm. He broke his right leg. He had lacerations all over his body, a couple broken ribs, a concussion. When I went to go pick him to bring them home, they had just taken them off of the morphine drip and they had started him on opiates.

And he was not doing well. He started vomiting.

The vomiting continued. He was supposed to take the opiates, the Percocets and the Oxy's, every four hours. And every four hours Matt would be vomiting.

I called back up to the hospital,and I was just told, “Matt's got to get used to it. He's got a long road to recovery. He's got to just keep taking the opiates. There is nothing else that we can give him. And eventually he'll get used to it.”

Well, he did. He said it was less than two months after starting the opiates he was waiting for that for 4-hour interim to come so he could take another pill.

He ultimately needed seven operations, four days a week of intense occupational and physical therapy.

They did wean him down from the Oxy's but he was given Percocets, ninety at a time.

I didn't think this was going to be a problem because this wasn't Matt's drug of choice. It was pot, cocaine and alcohol. Pills? He was vomiting, you know. He isn't going to get addicted to it. And he kept the fact that he was looking forward to that every four-hour timeframe to himself.

As he got more mobile, he started buying them on the street in between. But eventually he couldn't afford it. He wasn't working. He, you know, he had a girlfriend that was helping them buy things, and he was coming up with lame excuses to borrow money from us, and we never, ever dreamt it was to buy a pill.

He said by the one-year anniversary of his car accident, he had to switch to heroin because he could not afford to keep up his opiate habit on the street.

That happened when he was 21. It wasn't until he was 25 before we actually got him to commit to a rehab. And you know, it's just like anyone else suffering from the disease of addiction -- things were coming up missing. Electronics. My husband had a welding business so there was a lot of tools that were very valuable. They were always coming up missing.

We didn't call the police on him. We tried to handle this on her own, buy it back from the pawn shop, and threatened Matt, You got to stop it.

We finally got Matt to commit to a rehab right around his 25th birthday, which was 2012. But he was there for two days and I got a phone call from the psychiatrist and the caseworker. They needed a meeting with me.

Matt greeted us at the door, and he’s like, “Happy birthday to me!” because it was actually was there his 25th birthday.

“Happy Birthday to me! It's the first time since I was 14 that I've been sober on my birthday.”

And it's like, “What are you talking about? What about when you were 15, 16, 17?”

He said, “No. I wasn't.”

And then we went to meet with the psychiatrist and the caseworker. She said, “He has so much pain. Matt will never be sober unless he handles the demon beyond the addiction, which is his mental health.” For probably an hour, he just sat there and bled his heart. The things that bothered him -- I mean it went back to early childhood. The counselor would say, “Remember, this has been festering in, in him. It snowballed and got bigger and bigger, and he was never treated for any type of mental health.”

But then there were other things. His father is an alcoholic. And he said, “I don't think my father knew my name until I was old enough to sit on a barstool next to him. He didn't go to my concerts. And if he did, he came in at the last five minutes, and he was drunk. And that hurt.”

I get it. I get it.

They gave me a list of mental health treatments, and she says, “Matt's insurance only pays for 14 days, but I think because of the mental health, I can get an extended time. But you have to have him set up with a psychiatrist before we leave. That is the only way he will remain sober.”

Well, as it turned out, Matt's insurance, they would pay for if I paid out of pocket. We had just paid $1,500 for him to walk in the door, and then after that it was going to be $65 a day, excluding any expenses. And I, I just did the math. How can we afford this? You know, we're middle class. We struggle!

And so I had to bring Matt home, prior to getting a psychiatrist. And I hate to bring money up because his life is way more valuable than that, but these are the walls that people face for healthcare.
In 2014, Matt finally did get clean and he was seeing the psychiatrist and, and everything seemed to be going well.

Ryan thought he -- it's time for him to follow up because he had fallen into the same path from depression, from actually having adult issues, finances and relationship problems.

It was in December. Ryan wanted to wait until after Christmas because he had a young son and he didn't want to be away from home. So just like he promised, two days after Christmas he went and got his own Maryland state insurance, then went to a treatment center. Well, when he got to the treatment center, they said, "We don't take walk-ins.”

So he made an appointment, went back the following week.

They told him, "You don't have that insurance card in your hand," even though he was preapproved, and state --Maryland state insurance does work that way -- that you can be preapproved. And there is a website that any treatment center can go on and see who is preapproved. And we were not aware of this at that time.

They told him no. They told him to come back when he physically had the insurance card in hand.

Ryan died 25 days later. The insurance card came the day of his funeral.

But Matt held everything in. And he told me later he didn't deserve to cry because he was the one that introduced Ryan to the heroin after being turned down from treatment and Ryan needed something stronger than the pills he was getting on the street.

Matt pretended for two years, and right after the anniversary of Ryan's death, because it was in January, Matt started becoming more and more verbal that things weren't right. And he had a full blown-out relapse.

At the hospital, they looked into his past history, and they didn't call this the normal relapse. They said that he's never dealt with the grief. He's never dealt with the guilt. And that he was doing what Matt knows how to do -- self medicate in order to resolve his problems. And it was treated like that. He never went into a drug treatment program even though all the mental health facilities overlapped with that. The drugs was the secondary. The most important thing was the mental health -- getting Matt to cope with Ryan's death, and the grief and the guilt.

It was like everybody was pulling together to help Matt.

In February of this year, he wasn't doing good, and he did not want to go back into inpatient because every time he complained that the demons with Ryan were getting greater, and more vivid, and keeping him awake all night long, all's they did was increase his antidepressants. And he said he could actually exist in a world doing illegal drugs and still function normally. But the antidepressants were so -- at such a high volume, he slurred his words. He was falling over. He was Zombie-like.

And, and he was crying.

And he said, “Mom, I can't exist being a drug addict, and I can't exist being highly medicated. I am unfixable. Once Ryan died, that was it for me. I've always envied where he went because he's at peace. I hate that I'm doing this to you but you have to know it's time to let me go. I have to do what I have to do.”

And I begged him. And he said, “No! If they come here, I'm over 18. You know, if I'm not hurting anyone, all's I have to say is I'm not going into treatment. And I won't. And they have to leave.”

And -- which is true. So I said, "Well, will you go back to the hospital?"

He said, "Sure on Monday," but it wasn't a very convincing ‘sure on Monday.’

The next day he intentionally overdosed.

Matt went into the addiction with mental health issues. With Ryan, he did not have them and I do think Ryan could have recovered.

But I think Matt would have always lived a very troubled life. I saw my mother-in-law. She died with this disease.

It ruled Matt. It was Matt's demon beyond the addiction.

And, you don't want to lose your kids.

I'm 62 years old. I have four grandsons that are beautiful little boys-- and they, they put a smile on my face.

But then come like Christmas morning, it's obvious the ones who are missing.

I'm Denise Williams and this is my story.

Jenny Beetz -Human Contact or Heroin? You Can't Have Both

Jenny Beetz loved how heroin made her feel but she appreciates the stability of her life without it.

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It’s very hard for me to pinpoint when exactly my addiction started, or even what started it. I would imagine I started doing drugs at around the age of 12, really. It just just always seemed to be part of my life. It wasn’t something I even thought about. Which has been an ongoing problem by the way. I’ve always missed that middle part where you maybe reflect and think, Well, should I do some drugs? As soon as that thought hits me, I’m already driving to go buy drugs.

By the age of 16, I had discovered opiates. The heroin. It was, This is my drug. I felt like I found finally my peace. And that is something that it has always given me is a sense of peace. And also a sense of wellbeing. A lot of people, it seems, when they do opiates, before you know it, they’re licking the floor, or their head is about a foot from the concrete. Contrary to that, I feel energy. It puts the skip in my step and I go around the house singing or humming.

Honestly, I have often felt it’s a financial problem more than a drug problem because when I have had plenty of money, gainfully employed and all that, it didn’t interfere in my life in any way. I wasn’t being arrested. I wasn’t crawling around half sick, trying to get my drug. But when it gets to that point, which it seems to for virtually everybody, that is the hell.

It feels like you’re missing a couple of layers of skin. And you’re jumping into rubbing alcohol. It’s hell.

But I took a long break and I thought that it was simply a passing phase. I had gone to college. I got a degree in philosophy. I thought philosophy was all Sartre and Camus, and all of that really great stuff. No! It’s this really boring analytical crap—Hegel, Heidegger -- oh my God, you know, that’s torture! They should use that at Guantanamo.

But I’m not sure what started me again, at all. A lot of my drug use has been because it’s just been right there in my face, most of my life. Every time I’d gone to New York City when I was younger, part of my visit there included good New York dope. So when I moved there, it was like Wow, I live in the land of good New York dope!

And it started out very slowly. I had a boyfriend who was not a drug addict and we started using together. I became a raging junkie and he stopped the first he got a habit. He was no, this is awful, this sucks. And I just kept going with it.

I spent pretty much all of my time in New York City being a heroin addict. In my 30’s, I went to a methadone program. I was very, very, very stubborn. I did heroin every day of my life for a least a year, knowing I’m not even going to get high because methadone has a blocker in it.

Again I was very stubborn. And I still am. I am on a methadone program now. I have a lot of resentment about it, in a way. In general, in life, I have a lot of resentment about my use or not use of heroin.

Why can’t I do my drug?

My friend for example, he – he gets drunk virtually every day, and it’s fine. You know, it’s socially acceptable, really. Well, to a degree. And, I’m not allowed to do my drug. It that pisses me off. It really does.

If I were to win the lottery, all bets are off. I’m, I’m buying land in Afghanistan. I’m going to marry Hamid Karzai, and I’m just going to have acres and acres of poppies. Drug lord, whatever, you know. I’m really looking forward to it, in fact. I mean, this is the sort of thing that comforts me.

But being a drug addict, weird things tend to comfort me, like Oh, I can always just kill myself! That’s a comforting thought to me. There’s always that option if I’m sick of this, I can always just, you know, do my last shot and be comfortable and …

What motivated me to go on a methadone program at all or even to consider quitting is I did lose that well-paying job, which by the way, was answering phones in a whorehouse. But I became homeless. Theoretically the methadone program, it’s there to help a person get off of opiates. Great! Wonderful! You can’t get addicted to methadone in two weeks. They would taper you off and then hopefully you have follow-up care.

Methadone maintenance? To me, it is solidly absurd. I have traded basically an illegal drug and illegal activities for a legal thing called methadone maintenance program.

I can’t get take-homes because I take Seroquel and that’s a whole other horrible – and that’s a -- by the way, a lot of mental illness mixed in with all of this. I am disabled, officially, with major depression. I’ve been hospitalized. And also with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like serious -- like my childhood was outrageous including kidnapping, gang rape. Just horrible things.

The benefits again are I’m not getting arrested two and three times a year. So now I’m on as low dose as I possibly be, and my life has been – it’s stable. I realized wow, I actually feel, both physically and mentally, I feel engaged in the world around me. And it’s pleasant.

And then I realize, and this is a strange way to realize it, somebody just rubbed my back in an affectionate gesture, and I realized I had had zero affection or anything like that, by choice. By choice. And it was again revelatory. It was like this is what I’m missing in my life. -- human contact.

And the less methadone I was on, the more engaged I became. And I got to a point where I was down to 10 mg of methadone, and that was great. My tits came back. I started fucking again which I enjoy a lot. But -- and you can’t have both. It’s human contact, and caring about people, and sex, and boobs and all that -- or it’s heroin addiction. You can’t have both. Heroin ends up being a kind of a boyfriend.

When I rejoined the living, I noticed all these benefits that I had not foreseen. And it’s good in a way. I really miss heroin. I do. And I feel jealousy when I see somebody licking the sidewalk out front – I feel jealous, actually. You know, it’s like, I want what she had!, you know.

I think this is definitely part of my nonuse rather than using, that my writing has exploded with regard to how much. But the quality as well is really good. And then, I started making collages. And I just started with one and now I think I have about one hundred and twenty. And I do them all by hand. And that’s been really great – the art work, you know.

I believe that from the day, the year, whatever age you are when you begin taking drugs, that’s pretty much when you stop maturing -- emotionally at least. And so, in a lot of ways, I’m this, you know, annoying, intellectual artist type. But also I am a, a 12-year old, you know. And if you start doing drugs at a very young age like I did, I mean you’re kind of fucked in a lot of ways, you know, being this 12 year old and negotiating the world supposedly as a 53 year old, you know.

I’m trying… I might cry. Yeah. I don’t know why that makes me cry but --

Because I’m the 12-year old for a second here, you know.

I’m Jenny Beetz and this is my story. Thank you for listening to my story.

Eric Whitaker -Peer Pressure

Eric Whitaker understands the destructive patterns and habits that can rule life. And he's figured out a way to break his. He's clean and he's sharing his story.

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When I was around three or four years old, my parents decided to move us from West Baltimore out to Carroll County, a very small town in Carroll County. It was a shock but it was a welcome shock.

Now, school begins and the first thing I notice is I don’t look like these people, I don’t sound like these people. And I felt different. You know, I am a black man and 2% of the population in that county, to this day, is minority.

At first I tried to work through it. However kids are cruel. For one, I had a stuttering problem. It was fueled by anxiety and everything else. So I was made fun of and I was picked on. But it was stressed in my household to read, to learn, and no one would ever be able to deny you. And as soon as my grades were great – I mean, I was a great student – I was always at the top, I won spelling bees and everything. I felt like I was part of something that I belonged to. So, one could say that like at an early age I was also searching for approval of others. What kid doesn’t?

However, throughout middle school and high school, that same need for approval had me doing things that I really didn’t even care for. I went places with people that I didn’t like or even want to be with. It was a constant need for approval. Peer pressure.

The time I turned 15, I decided to start using drugs. I started to do heroin before I did anything else. I thought that a cool guy my age did drugs and drank. And this was 1995. When I graduated there were four black people in my class, counting myself. What was happening was, I was not black enough to be around them, but I was not white enough to be around the others. That’s when I debuted selling the drugs, because at this point, my heroin habit had gotten insane. I had gone from thirty, forty bucks a week, to now I’m close to a hundred dollars a day.

No one knows what it’s like to need to put fifty bucks in your body before you can brush your teeth. No one knows what that’s like unless you’ve been through this. It’s like waking up with the flu times one thousand.

Every night, I’m not going to sleep. I’m laying down and resting my eyes for three hours, after homework, sports, social time, girlfriend, family time. Getting right back up at four o’clock in the morning. I’m being picked up from a small town in Carroll County, Maryland by older white men that would otherwise not talk to me at all so we can go down and I can get them their fix, their money can get me mine, and I can be dropped back off to get on a school bus and go to school and perform, pass tests, give speeches, and act like nothing was wrong.

One teacher my senior year spoke to me. She said, “You know, Eric, I know you’ve had some problems. And if there was something I could do to stop you, I would. Only you have the answer. Please let me know what I can do to help.“ And I looked her dead in her face, and I said, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

What can you tell a teenager --especially a teenager that feels like he or she is in charge? When you’re not done, you’re not done. And I was out to do harm to myself. I couldn’t do enough drugs. I couldn’t do enough drinking. Everything I did was just so far off the meter.

It’s not about the drug pulling you. It’s about feeling you have nothing to live for. You have no hope.

So I began to seek the solution. I chose this self-help group. I could show up the way I was. I could be who I was. And within reason, me keeping my story as my story, someone was going to relate and get something from me, even on my worst day. It was about learning how to live again. All I knew was drugs and that’s not living.

So in ‘08 or ‘09, I checked into a sober-living situation. I put together two years clean – my first time getting clean, I put together two years living clean. But I fell again and used. And in 2010, I overdosed for the first time. It was a combination of prescription meds that I was prescribed for anxiety, pain meds that I was prescribed for a broken collar bone, and a couple of beers. So that began my overdose history.

Once you overdose once, you’re pretty much in line to continue that path until you die. And that’s just what I know based on experience. Overdose again, two more times that year. At this point, we know how it goes: I do well, and then I do not. I continue the same behaviors and I get the same results. I didn’t have enough to live for to worry about -- dying. It was as if I always needed someone’s approval to validate me wanting and needing to live. I was never good enough for me.

And I believe that’s what different about this time around. And I’m never going to say, I got this, I’m okay. But I’m definitely all right.

This time I checked into a facility. That was in April of 2017. I now work for a very prominent local hospital. My job is I link people with the help and the hope that they need to possibly seek treatment. Because I practice the principles tolerance, patience, faith, perseverance, I managed to make a career out of my story, my life, and my experience. So this has taught me to look at myself and learn myself. And when someone is speaking, truly listen, listen to learn. Because I don’t always have an answer. But I do have an ear to listen.

I’m Eric Whitaker and this is my story.