Heroin in the High Country: the slide into addiction
Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series about heroin’s growing prevalence in Colorado’s Central Rockies ski resort communities.
Rich attended four of his friends’ heroin overdose funerals before he graduated high school. They all started on the same pain pills, at about the same time.
He found that the pills can kill you — or lead you to something that will, like heroin, as they did him.
“I’m a perfect example of a life turned upside down by pain pills,” he said.
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He says he doesn’t know what makes someone an addict, whether it’s the brain wiring you’re born with or the rewiring you do with the drugs.
“My thinking was the problem. I couldn’t deal with reality and drugs were my escape,” he said. “I’d go 90 days and convince myself I wasn’t an addict because I could stay clean for three months.”
These days, he’s helping other addicts stay clean and teaching inmates how to function in the free world.
Rich was born in Denver and moved to Atlanta with his mom when he was 10, to a neighborhood called the Bluff. It’s near a glittering professional sports stadium, and it’s about eight square blocks of impoverished purgatory. Three years ago, that’s where you’d find Rich.
You drive up to a building and someone comes out to ask, “Whatchu want? Whatchu need?” You tell them and drive around. By the time you get back, it’s waiting for you. You pay, pick up your purchase and drive away.
Rich started with pain pills. He was 17 years old and an astounding skateboarder, but he took a hellacious fall, badly injuring his left rotator cuff. Doctors put him back together and prescribed oxycontin and other drugs to help with the pain.
“They pumped me with a lot of pills. They weren’t forcing me, but I was consuming them in greater quantities than I should have, and selling them to friends,” Rich said. “By the end of the summer, I was a junkie.”
But he was a confident junkie.
“I felt like I could go through life and handle anything. It’s a slippery slope,” he said.
After that summer, his doctor cut him off. He was left with a full-blown addiction to pain killers and no supply.
By that time Rich had made “friends” in that industry. They’d steal prescription pads and fill out fake prescriptions. One guy knew exactly what to write. Rich was still in a sling because of his shoulder, so he went in to get the prescription filled. They’d target small mom-and-pop pharmacies late Friday afternoons or Saturday, and it wouldn’t be flagged until Monday. They’d sell the pills over the weekend, at least the ones he didn’t crush and snort.
He wasn’t making much money, just enough to support his growing habit. He was also building up a tolerance, so the doses got bigger until he was snorting two 80 milligrams at one sitting.
A nose for trouble
He cruised along on pain pills for four to five years.
“It wasn’t causing too many problems at that point. You just feel high all the time,” he said.
Eventually, though, oxycontin wasn’t enough and was too expensive. He began considering heroin. Even junkies are apprehensive.
“The name ‘heroin’ is pretty heavy. It comes with certain negative connotations and you don’t want to be part of that,” Rich said.
He started slowly, but soon he saw the attraction.
“It was more bang for my buck, and it’s more potent,” he said. “Oxycontin is $60-$80 per milligram. Heroin is much cheaper, it lasts longer and is more intense. It all added up.”
Heroin held him hostage for another two or three years. The time frame is a little blurry, but so is everything else from that period of his life. His life disintegrated quickly. His best friend died in a car accident, and he got fired from a restaurant job in a high-end restaurant. Soon he started doing it intravenously, first with help then by himself.
A junkie can’t function without it.
“If you don’t have it, you get sick. Hot and cold sweats, twitching legs, vomiting,” he said as his voice trailed off.
“I’d wake up every morning, and I’d swear it off. ‘I am not going to get high today,’ I’d say,” Rich said. “This was me making a promise to myself.”
But it was a promise he couldn’t keep.
“In a couple hours I’d be downtown with a needle in my arm,” he said.
Late in the day he’d get down and depressed, and need a little bump.
“In the middle of the night I’d wake up and have to do another shot to go back to sleep, so I could get up in the morning and do the whole nightmare over again,” he said.
He got to the point where he was shooting up 15 times a day.
“The most exciting part of the day was 5 a.m., when I knew I was going to get high. The rest was maintenance,” he said.
Feeding the habit began to get costly.
“I pawned, I stole, I did whatever I had to do to make it happen,” he said.
Better lucky than good
He was once arrested, and within hours of release, was back downtown in his car with a needle in his arm.
Heroin was creative in the ways it tried to kill him. He totaled five cars when he was on heroin. Someone would pull out in front of him and he’d be too buzzed to react. The other driver would take the blame.
“There’s no way to test for heroin on the spot, so I never got caught and that helped bolster the illusion that I could handle it,” he said.
Once his mom walked in his bedroom and caught him with a needle in his arm. She loves her son and did everything a mother could. But Rich points out the brutal truth: His mother wasn’t the junkie, he was.
“Lots of people believe they can get someone sober. No one can get anyone else sober. You have to get that for yourself. You have to hit that spot,” he said.
He hit that spot one day when he was dope sick and depressed, and knew there were two things he could do about it. He moved in with his 12-step sponsor, gave someone the keys to his car and started going to the meetings.
“It was the meetings and the steps. The people who were there helped me. I couldn’t do it on my own, no matter how I tried, I always ended up back in the same spot,” he said.
Home from heroin
His father, who lived in the Vail Valley at the time, asked his son: “If you had cancer and someone told you the only way to survive was to get out of Atlanta, would you do that?”
Rich eventually moved out to Colorado to start new. It wasn’t a smooth landing. His father and stepmother had hidden everything in a safe, including the aspirin bottle, but he found a few they missed, and started a binge that landed him in the hospital.
“I finally realized I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t go on like that,” he said.
These days he doesn’t want to drink or use drugs. He can walk by pharmacies without fantasizing about jumping the counter and stealing drugs.
“My life is good today, beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.
He doesn’t make an issue of his addiction and recovery, but doesn’t hide it either.
“Everyone is aware I’m sober. People sometimes come up to me quietly and ask a question about something they’re dealing with,” he said.
“From a selfish junkie, I’ve transformed into someone who just wants to help people. I help people, give rides, do things for people. I kept acting it until I was living it. Now, I’m submerged in this world of service.”
Recently, he blew out his ACL and meniscus. He went through surgery and recovery without pain pills.
“The line between whether you’re using it for pain or not, is a line most recovered addicts don’t want to cross,” Rich said.
He’s been clean for two years and eight months and is involved in Survive, a program that teaches restorative justice to inmates in local jails, helping them prepare for life out from behind bars.
“When they’re released, they find themselves standing on the street with a plastic bag in their hand and nowhere to go. They end up doing what they know how to do, and they’re right back where they started,” Rich said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.