Withdrawal effects stick with users

After nine years of not using heroin, John said he remembers less about what getting high feels like than the withdrawal.

“Even when you’re out there getting high, you’ll have have these moments when you say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,'” said John, 32, of Altoona. “Then the sickness starts in. After you’re into it for a while, it’s not about getting high. It becomes about not getting sick.”

He likened it to the worst case of the flu, one that looms over an addict everyday unless they get their fix.

“It’s a living hell,” he said of withdrawal, which he said is intense for four or five days and lingers for weeks.

John said he spent a year in Blair County Prison with no treatment and got high the day he got out, and although he finally got clean after going to state prison, he didn’t credit the drug treatment he received there as the reason he finally decided to stay off heroin.

“I more or less decided that I was tired of the in-and-out [of jail] thing,” John said. “I saw guys in their 40s and 50s in there and I didn’t want to be that guy.”

Jennifer, 34, said it also took a state prison sentence for her to start down the road to recovery.

“Once the pain of getting high was worse than the pain of getting clean, it became real to me,” she said.

After a year in prison she entered a drug treatment program in Harrisburg. At first, she struggled and found herself getting high again, a matter that was made worse when she was prescribed pain pills after having a Cesarean section.

She said she then realized the problem was bigger than herself but with a rather simple solution.

“It really is as simple as, don’t pick it up,” Jennifer said.

She said she didn’t return to Blair County out of fear she would slip back into her old ways. Even almost seven years later, she still thinks about heroin.

“I wish I could say it

doesn’t cross my mind,” she said. “Some days are worse than others. I know that if I touch it, I’m going to be right back in the same situation I was in before – or worse.”

John said time has repaired the relationships in his life that were wrecked by his heroin use.

“It destroyed all my relationships with family and friends,” John said. “The people you love the most and the people that trust you, they’re the first people you betray.” Trust he said, goes fast but is hard to regain.

The memory of withdrawal and the havoc heroin wreaked in his life have made it easier to stay off the drug, he said.

“I’ve already been down that road and have those regrets,” John said. “I don’t need that in my life. I never forget how bad it can get.”

Difficulty finding employment has been another unintended consequence of their addictions, both John and Jennifer noted.

John said he worked for close to four years for a company before a corporate takeover meant a background check from the new owners and a pink slip for him. Fortunately, he has a new job, although because of his arrest record, it’s not his ideal occupation.

“It’s very difficult to get meaningful employment with a criminal record.” John said. “Most places do background checks. That eliminates me right away.”

Both credit the support of their families in staying clean.

“They didn’t enable me,” said Jennifer. “When I was locked up they were there to remind me that they loved me.”

Jennifer said addiction is “a family disease,” one that affects everyone around an addict. It’s something she said she thinks people forget when they talk about addiction.

She recalled someone telling her that she didn’t look like an addict.

“What does an addict look like?” she asked. She said the addiction changed the way she thinks, something she has had to learn to live with and overcome.

“I do have a choice, but I know that once I pick [heroin] up, that’s it,” she said.

John said despite his experience, he’s in favor of across the board legalization of drugs and noted that while he pleaded guilty to robbery, he didn’t go to jail for that. Instead, it was a drug conviction that got him sent to state prison.

“I should have gone to jail for the theft,” John said, noting that in that crime he harmed someone. He likes to think even without going to prison he would have gotten clean, but then again, maybe not.

“I had plenty of time to reflect and do some soul-searching,” he said. “There are underlying reasons people do drugs, and you need to get to the bottom of that.”

In his case, drugs were a way to loosen him up, make him feel less socially awkward. For Jennifer, peer pressure had a lot to do with it.

Both said they had no idea where heroin would take them, or they denied it would happen to them.

“If I’d known I was playing with fire, I never would have [done it],” Jennifer said.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.