Trends | Features
The Truth About Heroin
Originally Published September 2009
Author: Pete Baggs | Published: Saturday, July 30, 2011
I remember shooting up in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, my decaying Buick parked in a lot of 5th Street on the Brooklyn side. My friend Eddie sat in the passenger seat, sharing bottled water with my syringe. He flinched each time I stabbed my veins, piercing scar tissue and drawing blood as I tried to get a hit.
Eddie said snorting dope separated him from real intravenous addicts and street junkies. I used to agree, but that pretense had long since evaporated. Poking holes in my flesh had become routine, more so than bathing.
On heroin, I believed my life was a dark and beautiful mess, a unique outlaw’s story waiting to be told in a Vintage paperback. Instead, I wasted years hammering at my veins and painting over my soul just to become a statistic and a cliché––one more recovering junky lost in the sprawl of Long Island.
It could happen to anyone.
That fact was made all too clear in June 2008 when an18-year-old honor student from Massapequa, Natalie Ciappa, took a fatal dose of heroin at a summer party. Her death grabbed the attention of local parents, law enforcement, government officials and media, all of them asking, “What’s happening to our kids?”
Ciappa was young, smart and attractive. She sang in her church choir and was headed for college at SUNY Old Westbury in the fall. Because of heroin, she died in a garage in Seaford.
Recovering teen heroin addict Ash Cavallaro, who shares memories of Ciappa in a memorial on DrugFree.org, said she had thought her friend was clean. “She always looked so well put together and always had a smile on her face,” Cavallaro said of Ciappa, proving that addiction can be hard to spot, even for the initiated, and heroin does not discriminate.
The drug slithers in without prejudice. It welcomes stockbrokers, teachers, soccer moms, honor students, politicians, cops, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers, fathers, athletes, priests and anyone else in need of sweet relief.
As a boy, I was never molested, beat up or emotionally abused by a trusted adult. I wasn’t born into poverty, nor was I cursed with the insatiable appetites of the spoiled rich, bored to tears with life and wanting for nothing. I never witnessed a horrific incident, battled repressed homosexuality, fought back suicidal urges or spent my childhood choking on some painful secret that required the blissful escape only opiates provide.
I’m a normal, 30-something man of respectable intelligence, some talent and slightly above average looks. Aside from my parents’ relatively-amicable divorce and a few dead pets and grandparents I barely knew, I have no major disappointments or tragedies in my past. I didn’t grow up as a child star, fighting my way out of the crushing pressure of the pageant circuit or under the whip of maniacal coaches in a bid for Olympic gold.
Like most hardcore drug addicts, I started with my parents’ booze at a very young age. I moved up to pot, then LSD, mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms in high school before slowly navigating my course toward ecstasy, pills, powders, syringes and speedballs. I didn’t turn to crime, I never sold my body and I’ve always had a home. Most assume heroin addicts are a tragic bunch, fighting to silence their long-lived suffering, but sometimes people just make poor choices.
I don’t know what went on in the dark corners of Natalie Ciappa’s past or what drove Ash Cavallaro to become an addict at 16, drop out of school, overdose four times and “die” twice in the hospital, only to be revived. I do know that heroin—for all the carnage and pain it inflicts—feels good. It feels really fucking good.
And that’s reason enough for some to fall willingly into its grasp.
Two stints in rehab, dozens of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, outpatient care, counselors, monthly doctor visits and a lot of reflection have done little to help me find the root of my addiction. The drug was around me, friends were using it and I wanted in on the adventure. I snorted one tiny line and fell in love.
Heroin filled a hole in me I never knew existed. I immediately felt complete, at ease and bursting with energy and a flood of creativity all at once.
Fast forward five years and I’m parked at a Bronx Getty station with 120 bags of dope hidden in my center console. I still lived with my mother in eastern Suffolk and spent my days selling heroin at overly inflated prices to other young, middle class suburban addicts. I had customers waiting back home, but my needs always came first.
The Getty bathroom was a filthy Hollywood stereotype, perfectly designed for addicts, prostitutes and degenerates of all stripes. The walls were a mosaic of crumbling tiles, dark stains, graffiti and exposed building materials. But I reveled in the seedy things, the desperation and grit my homogenized upbringing failed to include.
I ripped the tops off two bags of dope and dumped the brownish white powder into my blackened spoon, which teetered precariously on the edge of the sink. I tried to twist the faucet on, but no water came out. I needed to make my injection solution and with no other water source in sight, I headed for the toilet.
The bowl contained a putrid soup of disintegrating paper, cigarette butts and brown muck. Above it, the tank’s porcelain cover had been broken or removed, and a thick layer of dust and oil floated on the surface of the exposed water. I submerged my syringe to avoid the grime and pulled in a half cc of Bronx toilet water.
That incident in the Getty bathroom was a minor blip in what seemed to be an eternity of degradation, but it was my Alamo, my last stand, and the final moment before my dignity slipped completely away.
Maybe the growing number of kids getting high in Smithtown, Port Jefferson, Massapequa, Seaford, Levittown, and all the other towns in Nassau and Suffolk are like I was—attracted to the low life until there’s no way out of it. Maybe their well-to-do upbringing and loving parents, so often described in the wake of a fatal overdose, are exactly why teens and twenty-somethings turn to the blackness of addiction. Maybe it’s an escape from their politically correct world, a rebellion from years wrapped in the safety of video games, rumpus rooms, backyard pools, dance classes, swimming lessons, student government and after school sports.
It’s possible they didn’t get to climb trees, explore abandoned buildings or wander off in search of mad adventure, but there are so many reasons, what ifs and could’ve beens. The neglected kids are far more likely to use, but there are no certainties with this drug or any other, really.
Dr. Robert Z. Goldstein, one of Long Island’s foremost addiction experts, said that heroin and opiate painkillers have become a “major problem” in the region. He said the drug has gotten cheaper, more potent, plentiful and easier to use. “You can smoke it, you can snort it, you can shoot it, you can eat it––what more do you want?”
The doctor said his addiction patients are mostly upper or middle class people and many of them found heroin after getting strung out on painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin. “It’s all around us,” Dr. Goldstein said, noting, “Everybody is susceptible to this.”
I didn’t take a lot of pills during my darkest days, but I followed a trail of them to my last relapse. A pharmacopoeia of opiates, benzodiazepines and amphetamines is available in most medicine cabinets, and I never had a problem stealing them from family, friends, clients and even strangers. Unfortunately, once you’ve tasted heroin—the true forbidden fruit—Lortab, Darvon and even Percocet are small potatoes, and I needed handfuls of them to catch a buzz.
I moved on to pulverizing decorative poppy pods and boiling them into opium tea—a surprisingly potent and physical high—but it wasn’t long before I bought some dope.
For most, especially young teens and unsuspecting adults, pills can be deadly. Moms and dads get them after dental surgery or a broken leg, and their recovery becomes a little too enjoyable. The reprieve from crying kids, housework or a soul-crushing job makes their return to real life that much harder to take. Pretty soon, mom gets a refill, dad grabs a few pills from a coworker and their daily grind begins to feel a little less Sisyphean.
Opium inspired some of our greatest artists and poets, but for centuries the dark nectar has also helped legions of the working class battle fatigue and depression. The image of the listless junky is mostly a false one. Work is easy when the body feels no pain and the mind is blanketed from the hard edge of reality. An addict can be the most prolific worker in a crew, held back only by covert lunchtime trips to meet dealers and periodic sick days when supply runs dry. I used to call in with the “flu” or some kind of vague food poisoning whenever my withdrawals were too much to bear.
My charade of normalcy depended on a complex web of my lies, other people’s denial and the pervasive, uninformed image of how a drug addict appears.
For kids, pills facilitate the transition from pot and Budweiser to powdered narcotics. Heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription painkillers, and new users don’t have to inject it.
I started out snorting dope recreationally, but in time I needed it just to feel normal and keep from getting sick. Most addicts spend years chasing that first, amazing high and the pursuit led me to inject the drug. Before long, I added cocaine to the mix and the deadly rush is still something I find difficult to resist.
No matter how hard they tried, no one could stop me from running back to my drug. All the rehab, therapy, ultimatums and interventions were fruitless. No addict will stop until he’s ready. I’d stop or cut down when money ran low or my habit got crazy, but dope is a patient and welcoming mistress and I always returned to her embrace.
I’m not sure exactly how or why I stopped, but I found love and purpose in my life and the rest fell into place. No matter how good a speedball or a shot of dope felt, addiction was a painful, exhausting existence and I’d had enough. I saw a glimmer of light through the fog and I became determined to reach it.
My habit never landed me in jail and I’m still alive, but heroin took its toll. The world was a bleak place after I stopped using. It took months before I believed life wasn’t a boring and insignificant endeavor, and I still struggle to pay bills and manage adult responsibilities.
Young addicts do go to jail and die every day, but there are more subtle and certain consequences. Survivors of this malady are left as faded shadows of their former selves. An old-timer in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “If you walk five years into the jungle, you need to walk five years to come out.”
I used to wear my track marks and, later, my long healed scars as a badge of honor. I used to recount war stories from the frontlines in Bushwick, the Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. My memories of buying bags from nine-year-old kids, dodging cops in burnt-out buildings and buying methadone from vagrants used to seem cool, but today they’re well-guarded secrets.
I joke around with in-laws and coworkers, talking politics, cell phone plans, mortgage rates and careers. No one in my office could imagine that I regularly shot cocaine until I vomited bile or picked my face until it was a mask of bloody sores. My boss doesn’t know that I’ve lived through two interventions or that I take medicine every day to ensure I never do dope again.
My old life is more foreign every day, but part of me will always recall that time with fondness, like an ex-smoker running his fingers along each familiar dent and scratch on his battered Zippo lighter.
Sometimes I feel like I’m an interloper in the straight world, smiling like a fool, fumbling through the motions and waiting for the other shoe to drop, but life gets better with each passing day. Now, the line between performance and reality is blurred and I don’t think I’m acting anymore.
I’ve regained the trust of family and friends, and they now assume the best from me instead of fearing the worst. I have a wife, a nice place to live, a good job, health insurance, cash in the bank, and I’m working toward attainable goals and a real future rather than rambling about pipe dreams.
Everything has improved for me, but I’m hearing about more and more addicted kids, overdose victims and massive heroin busts on Long Island. Suffolk County police recently seized 17 pounds of nearly pure heroin in Melville and they said it could be cut into 500,000 doses.
The barbarians are at the gate and the noose is tightening. Odds are that the next big shipment will make it to the street and this blight could continue to spread to every high school, park, local bar, gas station and hidden corner of the Island. Our police may be powerless to stop it and eventually I’ll stand face to face with my former master.
Worse still is that I may be looking forward to it.
How to Spot an Addict
Pinprick pupils is a BIG one. Heroin constricts the pupils.
Cut straws, cd cases with lots of scratches and maybe powder residue (lots of people sniff drugs off jewel cases)
Falling asleep at inappropriate times
Leaving suddenly or at odd times to run “errands” or disappearing for periods of time
Wearing long sleeves in summer
Picking at skin
Becomes removed from family and friends
Finding little cotton balls, spoons, blood stained clothes or napkins, rags-whatever
Getting Help for Addiction–Inpatient or Outpatient
Behavioral Health Services, Brookhaven Hospital, East Patchogue
Inpatient: (631) 687-4357
Outpatient: (631) 854-1222
Quannacut Rehabilitation And Detoxification, Eastern Long Island Hospital, Greenport
Inpatient: (631) 477-8877
Outpatient: (631) 369-8966
Behavioral Health Services, Mather Hospital, Port Jefferson
Inpatient: (631) 473-1320, ext. 4360
Partial Hospitalization: (631) 473-3877, ext. 27
Outpatient: (631) 331-8200
Long Beach Medical Center, Long Beach
Counseling Center: (516) 897-1270
Family Alcoholism Counseling and Treatment Services: (516) 897-1250
Methadone Therapy Program: (516) 897-1330
Department of Psychiatry, Community Health Center, North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset:
Behavioral Health Services, Mercy Medical Center, Rockville Centre
Crisis: (516) 705-2248
Inpatient: (516) 565-0215
Partial Hospitalization/Outpatient: (516) 705-3419
Psychiatric Services, South Nassau Communities Hospital, Oceanside
Inpatient: (516) 632-3937
Outpatient: (516) 377-5400
Substance Abuse Counseling Center: (516) 766-6283
South Oaks Hospital, Amityville
Inpatient: (631) 608-5610
Outpatient: (631) 608-5028
Chemical Dependency Rehabilitation, St. Charles Hospital, Port Jefferson:
Psychiatry Department, Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow
Inpatient Detoxification: (516) 572-6394
Inpatient Substance Rehabilitation: (516) 572-9419
Outpatient: (516) 572-6822
Huntington: (631) 920-8000
Smithtown: (631) 920-8300
Coram: (631) 920-8500
Wyandanch: (631) 920-8250
Inpatient Westhampton: (631) 288-1122
Amityville: (631) 424-2900
Medford: (631) 451-6007
Mineola: (516) 747-5644
Patchogue: (631) 363-2001
Riverhead: (631) 369-7800
Yaphank: (631) 369-7800
Goldstein Addiction Services, Hicksville
Outpatient: (516) 935-1312
New York State Office of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Services Help Line:
Nassau County Drug & Alcohol Hotline:
Crisis Response of Suffolk County:
Narcotics Anonymous: (for the addict)
Nar-Anon: (for the families of addicts)