By Frank Rubino
Only a relative handful of heroin addicts manage to survive the perils of
You could ask the woman we will call "
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,
In the jargon of the street, she just got "caught up."
She 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,
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."
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
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,
"I was just so tired," she recalls of her final days on drugs.
As she sips coffee in Fishtown's trendy Rocket Cat Café, it's hard to believe
Before making her dramatic U-turn,
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
Rua, though only 27, has been using heroin for 15 years. Born in
"I came up here trying to change my life," Rua says. "But they just threw me at Kensington and
Sitting in a stranger's car on
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.
"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
Adds Vega, who visits Kensington and
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.
"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
Photos by Frank Rubino