For some addicts, there’s a clear and often quick trajectory of hitting bottom before recovering. The harsh consequences of addiction seem to supply the clarity needed to make a resolution of sobriety. Others place the emphasis on minimizing harm to addicts while they’re using heroin.
“I believe that you can prevent harm wherever people are,” Louise Vincent said. “It is such a relief for people to be able to tell the truth. In order to get services you have to lie, and say you want to quit.”
Some heroin users seem to fall off the face of the earth as their addiction accelerates. Others manage to function. Vincent, for one, earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree while using heroin intermittently.
She teaches classes on prevention of Hepatitis C, a disease common among heroin users because it is transmitted through blood, at the Addiction Recovery Care Association, or ARCA residential treatment program. She distributes naloxone within her network of friends who are active users to reverse overdoses.
“We have an underground needle exchange, so they can get sterile supplies,” Vincent said. “They don’t promote use; they prevent disease and they link people to services. It’s still illegal in North Carolina. We hook them up with people who can help them. We make sure they know how to use naloxone.”
Vincent rejects the notion that recovery is an all-or-nothing proposition.
“The times I’ve had very traumatic experiences like death or a child gets taken away, you can look at my substance use and see a peak; you can see I use chaotically,” she said. “There’s other times when I’ve been in a good place, and I’ve been able to use moderately.”
Stacy West’s family tried to stage an intervention at church. They wanted her to go into a residential treatment program, but Stacy resisted the idea because she was afraid of losing her children. The disagreement caused a fight, and Stacy got upset and stormed out. As she was driving out of the church parking lot, she almost ran over her mother and one of her mother’s friends.
Meanwhile, her parents placed a call to Child Protective Services. It wasn’t long before West and her husband heard the dreaded knock at the door.
The two girls at first went to stay with West’s mother-in-law, but she got sick with cancer. Eventually, they wound up staying with West’s parents.
As a traditional supply point, High Point has always been an attractive location for addicts to buy heroin that’s both cheaper and more potent than what’s available in other parts of North Carolina.
“I know that it was cheaper for me to get it in High Point versus going to other places,” Misty Sanders said. “It’s insanely cheap, strong and good.”
She lived for a while in Myrtle Beach, but almost always came back to High Point to score.
“I’ve done heroin from South Carolina,” Sanders said. “None of it compared to what I got in High Point. I would drive up and get the drugs for the weekend, and go back. That’s how much better it was.”
When she lived in Thomasville, Sanders would come to High Point to get heroin, rarely waiting to get back home before shooting up.
“I used everywhere: gas station bathrooms, Walmart bathrooms,” she said. “I’d rent a room at a motel off Brentwood and get high for days. I’ve used in cars in parking lots. Most addicts carry around a bottle of water. Normally, when we get it we’re sick at the time, so we’re gonna use it at the dealer’s house or in the car.
“I’ve had so many run-ins with the police it’s ridiculous,” Sanders continued. “They came in my motel room. The officer asked me if I had heroin. I said I had needles in the room but no heroin, which was the truth.”
Sanders has had too many run-ins with law enforcement to count. But one encounter with the High Point police stands out.
“One of them called out my dealer’s name,” she said. “He said, ‘I hope you’re not buying from him because his dope is killing people.’ I said to myself: ‘Oh my, that is my drug dealer.’”
People who use heroin inevitably find themselves in jail at some point during the course of their addictions, whether from stealing or committing fraud to support their habit, or simply from possessing an illegal substance.
“The stigma on addiction is insane, and it’s insane the way people treat you because addiction is criminalized,” Louise Vincent said. “I have a lengthy criminal record, but it’s all for drug paraphernalia and drug use. I’ve never stole from anyone. What my criminal record is, is basically a hospital record.”
Stacy West’s experience with jail predated her use of heroin. When she was in her early twenties she stole handguns from her father, and someone in turn stole the guns from her.
“You know, I guess I just took them for my friends,” West said. “My dad took out larceny charges against me. I spent eight months in jail. I did a lot of hurtful things. My husband’s brother had the gun. I never told on his brother. I took the rap.”
The eight months West spent in the Randolph County Jail didn’t pose any deterrent to her later use of heroin.
“The officers loved me,” she recalled. “They’d say, ‘You’re a good girl. What are you doing here?’… I got along with everybody, all the inmates. Even a girl in there for murder. She was sweet as can be.”
If anything, Misty Sanders said, jail gives addicts an opportunity to detox, albeit with limited success.
“I understand why people go back to using,” she said. “There’s no resources. They get clean, but they don’t have any family to help them at that point. You have people who are in jail for three days. They detox when they’re in there, but then they get out and start using again. Most of the girls I’ve seen in jail were addicts of pain pills and heroin. If there were more resources available they wouldn’t go back to using.”
Maj. Chuck Williamson, the commander of the Guilford County Jail’s court services bureau, acknowledged that jail can only do so much to help addicts. The new jail in Greensboro has medical housing available for inmates who are experiencing severe and life-threatening symptoms from heroin withdrawal. The court services bureau looks at inmates’ charges to flag those who are in jail for drug-related offenses, and if the inmate confirms their addiction they receive a referral to a special drug court. Williamson said the purpose of drug court is to divert addicts from jail as long as they comply with a treatment program. The jail also refers inmates who are struggling with addiction to narcotics anonymous and other support groups.
“There’s a lot of social issues that go along with criminal activity,” said Williamson, who has 26 years of experience in the profession. “Let’s say I’m an addict. Whatever offense I’ve committed, it’s probably because I’m using and I’m trying to survive. I’ve cut off all ties to family and friends. I have a brother in this jail right now. They’ve cut off all ties to their family. They’ve stolen from them. A lot of them may not have housing, may not have income to meet their basic needs. You can refer them to a meeting. If there’s not resources to connect them to the basic needs of food, housing and security, they’re going to go back to what they know.”
Stacy West used methadone, an opioid medication that reduces symptoms from heroin withdrawal, to remain functional. She worked as a stripper to finance her habit. Her husband did sporadic tree work to earn money for drugs.
“After I got back from the club I’d get crack to cancel out the methadone, so I could feel the high from heroin,” West recalled. “I was dancing and working eight months after our kids were taken. I was mad at myself. I was mad at my family. I was mad at the world. I attempted suicide. I got to a point where I didn’t want to live…. The needle became my best friend.”
She had lost her entire support network, except for her husband.
“Scott was the only person I had besides the drug,” she said. “I hated him for everything we went through. I singled him out and focused on the drug.”
Misty Sanders’ addiction also reached a suicidal level.
“You don’t want to be sick,” she said. “Whatever you’re running from, you don’t want to feel that. I was trying to die. I’ve overdosed several times. When I was using heavily I was hoping that that last shot would be my last shot so I wouldn’t have to do that no more.”