Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Zombieland Survivor

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By Frank Rubino

Only a relative handful of heroin addicts manage to survive the perils of Kensington Avenue, get clean, and reinvent themselves as responsible contributors to society.  But virtually no one pulls that feat off without first enduring a real-life nightmare or two - or three or four or many more.

You could ask the woman we will call "Lorraine" about that.

A Frankford native who's so self-conscious about her background that she wants to be known by only by her pseudonym, this thirty-something mother of two lived a hellish life during her four-year stint around Kensington and Somerset, addicted to heroin and ready to do almost anything to feed her habit. She was a Zombieland regular who made it out.

Now off the drugs and in a job, Lorraine would be the first admit that no one dragged her kicking and screaming into the world of dope. "No, I can't say my parents didn't love me or anything like that," she says..

In the jargon of the street, she just got "caught up."

Kensington & Cambria.jpgShe took her first shot of heroin in August 2004, while living near Kensington and Allegheny with a friend she'd met at a methadone clinic, which she was attending to her get off an addiction to Percocet and Oxycontin, a habit she picked up after graduating from high school.

The rush from the heroin was euphoric, like nothing she'd ever experienced. Describing the feeling that followed her first injection, Lorraine says, "It was this warm sensation, it came and it just covered my whole body.  It made me feel really, really good.  Like, picture yourself running free in a field of lilies just that warm feeling, so happy and carefree."

What ensued was neither enjoyable nor carefree:  four years of turning tricks on Kensington Avenue, having knives thrust against her throat by johns who wanted their money back, being raped, sleeping in squalid abandoned houses, developing a heart infection that necessitated emergency surgery, contracting Hepatitis-C, breaking her wrist and back after falling from a playground wall, and being cognizant at all moments that if she didn't earn money soon, she'd become sick with heroin's dreaded withdrawal symptoms, which she describes as "having the flu but 17 times worse."

Getting "dope-sick", Lorraine said, is one of heroin addiction's most hazardous trapdoors.  "You're freezing cold, and you have sweats.  Your stomach turns, your body aches.   But you know if you can just get that little blue bag it's all going to go away.  That's where the chase comes from, because nobody ever wants to be sick.  That's the insanity of it.  You do it, and it's so much fun, but then you know you got to make more money to do it again because you're going to be sick. And you need to make money before you get sick because making money sick is even harder."

By 2007, she was injecting both heroin and cocaine separately - as opposed to mixing them to create the concoction known as a speedball - to play their contrasting effects against each other.  She was walking Kensington Avenue (her base corner was often Kensington and Cambria) from 11 p.m. until maybe 5 a.m.  She estimates she sometimes ingested as much as $500 to $600 worth of drugs in a day.

At first, she had a friend write down the license plate numbers of the johns, in case anything bad happened to her.  After a while, she stopped that practice.  Her need for drugs outweighed whatever danger there was of running into an unbalanced john. And she met some terrifying ones.

"The insanity of that is you just dust yourself off and go for the next date," she recalls. "You don't feel like you really have a choice.  You hope to God it doesn't happen again, but it's not like you learn a lesson from it."

One fall afternoon, feeling particularly dreadful, Lorraine walked off Kensington Avenue and through the doors of Episcopal Hospital.  She asked to be admitted to Episcopal's crisis center, and was accommodated.  The date was Nov. 30, 2007.  She "white-knuckled" a week or so of awful withdrawal symptoms, and has remained sober ever since.

"I was just so tired," she recalls of her final days on drugs. 

As she sips coffee in Fishtown's trendy Rocket Cat CafĂ©, it's hard to believe Lorraine had lived all that madness.  She sports a short, stylish haircut and a checked, fur-collared winter vest.   She loves the fulltime job she's landed as a peer counselor at a drug and alcohol rehab center, has regained custody of her oldest son and gets the younger boy, who lives with his paternal grandparents, on weekends.  She's also on top of her Hepatitis-C, having undergone Interferon therapy that's reduced the virus to an undetectable level in her bloodstream. 

Louis Rua New.jpgBefore making her dramatic U-turn, Lorraine quit or got bounced from numerous detox and rehab programs.   People wrote her off as a hopeless case.  What made the light finally go on for her?  And what prevents so many others from embracing recovery?

She suspects that, in addition to an opiate addict's physiological and emotional cravings, the fear of change also comes into play.

"I think it's about really wanting to do it, getting past the fear of change and leaving your 'chaotic comfort zone.'  Because the whole lifestyle is an addiction in itself, having nobody to care about but yourself.  For some people it's overwhelming to think they're going to have to pay rent, be a parent, be responsible."

Other addicts talk about wanting quit life on the avenue. With some, like Louis Rua, who sells syringes and the methadone-like tablet Suboxone at Kensington and Somerset, it can begin to sound like mere noise.

Rua, though only 27, has been using heroin for 15 years. Born in Holyoke, Mass., he went to live with his older sister in Puerto Rico at age 5 after their mother, a heroin addict herself, died of AIDS.  After injecting dope for the first time when he was just 12, and repeating the act for more than a decade, his sister handed him a plane ticket to Philadelphia, a city she'd heard boasted plentiful opiate treatment resources.

"I came up here trying to change my life," Rua says.  "But they just threw me at Kensington and Somerset with no other place to go and no money.  In Puerto Rico they told me 'Philly got a lot of treatments for you.'  But that was not the reality."

Sitting in a stranger's car on Lehigh Avenue moments after injecting a hit of dope in a house near C and Somerset, Rua, who's polite and soft-spoken, explains that he got his black eye and scraped forehead in a fight he had with a guy who violated street law by offering a set of works to Rua's client.  "You fight all the time down here," he says.  "I can't play with that.  I need that money to get high."

Except when protecting his turf, he says he's nonviolent and has never burglarized or robbed for dope money.  And he characterizes his desire to get off dope as "100 percent," although he simultaneously complains that every time he walks into a drug treatment center, he gets tripped up by "paperwork" problems.  His English isn't perfect, and he struggles to clarify the specifics of his paperwork problem, although he nods at the mention of "I.D." 

"That's one," he says.  "You got to have paperwork.  Nobody cares about you when you got this problem anyway, man."

That isn't necessarily true, according to Dr. Claudia Garcia-Leeds, director of the adult drug and alcohol outpatient treatment program at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a social services agency situated at Somerset and American Streets, just blocks from Kensington and Somerset.  Congreso specializes in assisting members of the Hispanic community with a broad range of issues, and Garcia-Leeds says that although Rua's addiction sounds too serious for outpatient care, Congreso could probably help him nonetheless.

Were he to present himself at her clinic, she says, he'd likely be assigned a case manager who'd attempt to help him with his "paperwork" problem.  More important, the agency would refer him to an inpatient program where he'd get a change at beginning a new life.

Tony Vega Use This.jpg"It sounds like he might be ambivalent about getting off heroin," says Garcia-Leeds.  "And that's understandable.  It isn't easy to walk away from something that makes you feel better, especially if you've had a lot of trauma in your life."

Pastor Frank Vega, 57, a former heroin addict who runs Inner City Ministries on Kensington Avenue, says his organization would also work with Rua if he requested help.

Adds Vega, who visits Kensington and Somerset frequently - and who's been clean for 24 years:  "That's usually the story; people are halfhearted about getting off (heroin), so they make excuses.  We just let them know there's an open door here.  And we'll help them any way we can."

Even when opiate addicts do seek treatment, their challenges can be daunting, according to John Carroll, director of Northeast Treatment Program's opiate treatment division.

Carroll says some addicts, once hooked, develop a brain disorder that triggers a long-term craving for opiates.  Many find they can't tackle that disorder without getting on methadone and staying on it indefinitely.

"Opiate addiction is very much a brain disease," he says.  "In some people, once they start using opiates, the brain's ability to develop a normal balance is affected in a way that they don't feel right (when they're off drugs).  Of course, people have such a negative image of methadone that some don't want to consider it even though it's the treatment best suited for them."

Vega, who kicked dope without methadone (and who perhaps doesn't suffer from the brain disorder Carroll speaks of), notes that many addicts characterize methadone as "liquid handcuffs" viewing its long-term use as a vice in itself.

Carroll disagrees. "It's medication, and in opiate treatment medication is essential for people who have this brain disease," he says. 

Lorraine, who's off everything, says she's through fooling with her life, which she's taking a day at a time, true to the familiar 12-step program credo.  As for the days she spent at Kensington and Somerset, she now views them with a measure of incredulity.

"If you were looking for me a few years ago, that's where you'd go," she says.  "To the Land of the Walking Dead.  If you notice when you're up there, they always pass you fast.  It's as if you're not even in the same world as them, you know?  And at one time I was in their world."


Cover Photo: An addict walks Kensington Avenue towards Somerset Street     

 Photos by Frank Rubino

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