Opiates, a love story

Opiates, a love story

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A recent haul of Percocet pills confiscated by Oak Bluffs police and members of the drug task force. — Photo courtesy of Oak Bluffs Pol

This is the third installment in a continuing look at opiate abuse and its effect on the Island community and Islanders that began on Jan. 2 “Opiate addiction hits home,” and was followed on Jan. 22 “Martha’s Vineyard police and physicians confront opiate abuse.”

“I broke down my grandmother’s back door to get her painkillers,” said John B., on a recent frigid morning in an Oak Bluffs coffee shop. Between heroin and pills, John said he worked up to a $300 a day habit. “I was going to the pawn shop every day,” he said. “I put a sign in my window, ‘Tag sale inside,’ and people would knock at all hours. Once, I tried cutting off my finger with a jigsaw so I could get painkillers,” he said, showing a deep scar on his left hand, shaking his head, still in disbelief.

As of January 21, John said he has been sober eight years. Gimlet-eyed and gregarious, it’s easy to see why he was a successful salesman — before he went into the spiral that opiate addiction inevitably brings. As part of an ongoing series about opiate addiction on the Island, John met with The Times to share his journey into the abyss, his repeated attempts to climb out, and the daily challenges, and victories, in his recovery.

John B. is not his real name and some details have been changed to protect his identity.

From jock to junkie

John, now in his mid-30s, recalls growing up in a stable, happy home with his father and his stepmother and his siblings. “My life hadn’t been wild and crazy. I was a pretty good kid. I did okay in high school, I played baseball. I grew up in a loving home,” he said.

Like many opiate addicts, John’s addiction started with painkillers. At first, he got them cheap, for $2 a piece, to help him through long shifts at the factory where he worked in his native Springfield. He was a highly functional addict, going on to get his college degree and then a well-paid sales job. He got married, got a dog, and bought his first home. Unfortunately, he and his now ex-wife moved in next door to a heroin dealer.

“I remember like it was yesterday when he laid out that first line of heroin. I remember thinking, ‘This is a great idea!’” he recalled, with mock enthusiasm.

John and his dealer became inseparable. His sales job allowed him the flexibility to leave the office for his fixes, which increased in frequency as the days went on. He tried to quit on his own, but his daily consumption only grew. He sold his house and moved away from his dealer, but he soon found a new dealer. In a short space of time he went from being a husband and homeowner with excellent credit and well-funded IRAs, to being homeless, divorced, bankrupt, and living out of his car, with only his dog to keep him warm at night. “I parked my car in an alley behind the factory where I worked,” he said. “It was a bad part of town, you’d always hear gunshots and screaming at night.”

John‘s insurance didn’t cover inpatient detox care, so he tried outpatient programs, and even though his father went to great lengths to support his recovery, it didn’t take. “I was at the outpatient clinic, shooting up in the bathroom while I could hear them talking about the steps to recovery,” he said.

Island escape

Like many Islanders, John moved to the Vineyard to start anew. He arrived with four methadone biscuits and a job interview lined up. “I was drunk and high at the interview,” he said. “I clipped a guard rail on the way home.”

Still, he got the job. But the methadone soon ran out, and he spent 17 excruciating days in withdrawal. “It’s like having the worst flu of your life,” he said. “I was bleeding out of every orifice. I barely slept those 17 days, and when I did, I had terrible nightmares. When I was awake, I was also hallucinating. It was hell.”

His mother, a recovering alcoholic, helped him get through his withdrawal, but his victory was short-lived. “Addicts have a sixth sense,” he said. “You can go anywhere in the world, and an addict will find another addict.” In John’s case, a new job pumping gas led to a meeting with a mechanic who was a heroin addict. “He’d fly to New Bedford and cop for both of us, then he’d hide it in his colostomy bag and fly home. Nobody ever searches a colostomy bag.” he said. “Who would want to?”

Pills were still John’s drug of choice, but like many opiate addicts, he used heroin as a cheap substitute. He had started out snorting heroin, but like many addicts, he began injecting it, sometimes mixing it with cocaine. He eventually overdosed, but unlike a growing number of addicts, he lived to tell about it. “I remember laying there, thinking “Jesus, don’t let me go like this.’ I laid in the bathtub under a cold shower, I don’t know for how long, I was going in and out. But my dog sat there beside me, the whole night.”

His near death experience didn’t end his addiction. “Honestly you get to a point where you are too afraid of quitting. My life was such a mess, I just figured I would be a junkie till death,” he said.

John said that being an addict on the Island presented additional difficulties. “The supply line gets broken here sometimes,” he said. “Back in Springfield, I had plenty of places to go, but not here. Sometimes I drove 300 miles to score. That’s a long drive when you’re dope sick.”

Over time, John became adept at doctor shopping on the Island — back pain was his most frequent “symptom.” He’d become a tradesman and he couldn’t make a living without his meds. Then one day, he took a prescription for 160 Percocet 30 milligram pills [prized among addicts] to the same pharmacy he’d filled a prescription for Vicodin the day before. The pharmacist called the doctor, and the doctor immediately canceled the prescription. “I raced over to the hospital to see the doctor. I started banging on his office windows. I was crazed, screaming, calling him all kinds of names, I was out of my head. Security had to drag me away,” he said, with palpable shame.

The road to recovery

A few months before, a friend had given John the card for Dr. Charles Silberstein, psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. John took the card out of his wallet and made the call.

Dr. Silberstein is one of two physicians on the Island who can prescribe Suboxone (buprenorphine), a controversial opiate-based drug that fills opiate receptors, and thereby eliminates the ravenous hunger, or “the beast” as many recovering addicts call it.

“Without Doc and Suboxone, I wouldn’t be here,” John said. “With Suboxone, I feel like I did before I ever started using.”

It wasn’t a clean turnaround. John relapsed four months after he began taking Suboxone. “I tried to get high again. But it didn’t do anything. Nothing. It was amazing.”

John recalled going back to Springfield and driving past his former dealer’s house. “He was out on his front step, he looked right at me and waved. I slowed down, the thought flashed through my head, but I just kept driving,” he said.

Beating long odds

The relapse rate for opiate addicts is daunting — as high as 90 percent according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Now, eight years and three weeks after his last relapse, John is one of the 10 percent who are staying clean. “You gain more confidence as time goes on,” he said. John added how easy it was for him to forgo the painkillers in his medicine cabinet that his wife — he’s remarried to an Island woman — recently received for some minor surgery. “I see the pills and it doesn’t faze me. I have no desire to use. And believe me, she counts them,” he said.

John’s still in therapy, a prerequisite for getting Suboxone from Dr. Silberstein, along with random drug screening, and he still goes to his weekly meetings with a tight-knit Suboxone group. But he recently parted ways with Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Even though A.A. was a big part of his recovery — he reckons he averaged six meetings a week over the past eight years, John felt he had to make a choice between A.A. and Suboxone. “I know I can’t be truthful with my sponsor about Suboxone,” he said. “I know I’ll be judged harshly by people in A.A. There’s no way they’d be okay with Suboxone. You saw the comments,” he said, referring to the critical reader comments to a January 2 MV Times article about the Suboxone support group on the Island. “Some people in A.A. say antidepressants are unacceptable. I don’t get that. Suboxone is like an antidepressant. It doesn’t get you high. It just helps you function like a normal person, and it works for a lot of people.”

Staying the course

“I don’t crave much these days, but I do miss the wild and crazy life sometimes,” John said. “But I focus on what I do have. Honestly, I just enjoy being happy and sober. It sounds corny, but I feel like I have achieved great things already.”

While Suboxone quells John’s desire to use, it doesn’t always ease his sense of regret. “The hardest part is being happy with myself. I feel bad about what I put people through, especially my father,” he said. “He tried so hard to help me.”

John shows a picture of his dog Bubba, who died two years ago. “He stuck with me through it all. He was by my side the whole time. At least I had my act together when he got sick,” John said, his voice quavering. “I got him the best care on the Island.”

John hopes to get a puppy in the spring.


  1. 1. How does a person “start anew” by moving here and then by going to their job interview drunk and high?
    2. Why does a recovering junkie drive by his old dealer’s house?
    3. Who exactly pays for the suboxone? For the drug testing? Dr Silberstein’s fee, weekly as I recall from the last article?
    4. Do private patients with depression but no substance abuse problems end up picking up the tab for medical tests and very expensive therapy/dr fees?
    5. How is not craving much (but still craving), missing the wild and crazy times, and other red flags for addiction sprinkled throughout this story any different from the same feelings of users who get results by going to regular NA meetings and having a supportive sponsor and tight knit friends working the program?

    AA is free. So is NA. Dr. Silberstein, suboxone, and drug testing are far from free.

    I am not convinced that “John” saw his drug dealer wave at him but just drove on by. That’s a serious red flag since he should not be driving by the dealer’s house at all, but I wish the guy good luck.

  2. Lets see if i can help- questions 1-3 are all based around addiction. John is an addict. Therefore it shouldnt be surprising he relapsed once he arrived here. The craving pulled him to do what he knew was wrong, thus drive by the old dealers. If he was taking suboxone, he must have known his normal “fix” would have no affect. We all pay for health insurance so the third question is confusing. Im sure john was answering the questions put forth by the interviewer honestly. So the idea that he still craves is just reality. Ask any addict, opiate or otherwise and im sure they would say something similar. Look, bottom line, sobriety is hard to find. I think we should wish John luck for a sober future rather than pick apart what he has done wrong in his search for it. I know that i do. Keep up the good work John. Thank you for the courage to tell your story.

    1. The only person who shows true courage in this topic is Lisa in her comment above. Anonymity is not part of courage. The agenda of this series is clear. It is an attempt to make the addiction to suboxone palatable to the public. Methadone was also touted as a wonder treatment for drug addicts at one time, but time has shown us otherwise. Also, there are many contradictions just in John’s story and it is not picking apart anything to notice nor to be blunt about it. Of course I wish John well but I am entitled to question the efficacy of substituting one opioid for another. “He is an addict” is not an excuse for anything. I am sure the prescribing doctor is well intentioned, but I don’t buy an 8 year-to- life addiction to an opioid as a solution to anything. It is my opinion that this barrage of articles has failed in gaining any acceptance by the general public of suboxone.

  3. One more thing to add. If John had succumb to his cravings as he drove by the house, he would have failed the drug test taken the folllowing week. These patients take scheduled urine screens and any slips would be caught. So that must not have happened. Just because someone is an addict, does not mean they are a liar for life! The more I think about that last line from Toma_toes, the more it upsets me.

  4. I just want to first say- John, Thanks for being honest and open talking about what must be a difficult issue.
    IMO, the title for the article is…interesting(implying love is like an opiate addiction?) and how the article is structured, makes it seem like its ok to become addicted to pills, cause now there are pills and support systems for that too.
    This all goes back to doctors over-prescribing, whether on or off-island. First, Do no harm…

  5. If there is a hero within this tale, it’s Bubba. Rest in Peace. Bubba exemplified the epitome of unconditional love, an elusive but powerful tool in the struggles in the fight against addiction.

  6. I’m very happy for John as he pursues a “sober” life. However he chooses to do so is his business and who am I to judge. I do however, have an opinion regarding the suboxone program and how it is portrayed in the article. It saddens me to see how quick a program of recovery, such as AA, was kicked to the curb considering the fact stated that John was going to 6 meetings a week for 8 years and 3 months. Now, if John were to relapse while only doing the suboxone and one group meeting a week. will that be published? How will we know if the 6 meetings a week was what was really keeping him sober? If people doing these interviews and publishing these articles for all the human race to see, actually researched, in depth, the REALITY of suboxone, they would find out that it is used as a “tool” to relieve withdrawal symptoms from heroine. It is NOT meant to be taken for 8 years without a recovery program. I understand that Martha’s Vineyard likes to remain unique and separated from the world of commercialism but drug addiction is a REALITY and is DEADLY. I don’t believe there are any addiction rehabs, treatment centers or clinics that support years of prescribing suboxone and definitely don’t discourage a 12 step program. On the contrary, a 12 step program is strongly encouraged. I am acquainted with some patients of this group and I know that clean urine is bought on the street so they won’t fail the test. Getting their suboxone is their main priority. These acquaintances also run out before they are supposed to and their lives are still dysfunctional and are a complete train wreck. They’ve been on suboxone for over 8 years as well. So, definitely not a foolproof solution!! People are dying quite regularly and my heart goes out to those families that are grieving for their loss due to drug addiction. I’d like to see an article of facts, which would entail interviews of recovering addicts who stay clean on a daily basis WITHOUT the use of drugs, any drug, including opiate based suboxone.

    1. You start by saying “who am i to judge” and then proceed to judge everything about John. You don’t even know John, so what gives you the right to talk about him and his recovery in this way? The man gave his story to be published with the hope it would help others. I commend him for being brave knowing the backlash that would be coming from the likes of you. Im sure it wasnt easy. I have read your opinions before on this subject and its obvious you have reasons for you distain for the program. I wonder why? Im sure Johns family and friends are glad his future is now bright, even if you are not.

      1. I am not judging John at all!! Kudos to him for living a better life. We’re all entitled to our opinion and I disagree that you’re “sober” while on suboxone. My whole reasoning for responding is that misinformation about suboxone can KILL people!! The REALITY of the disease of addiction is that people are dying everyday because of it. I do have reasons for writing what I do, I AM A RECOVERING ADDICT and have no problem saying so!!! I also have had personal experience with suboxone and while it helps relieve the “dope sick” addict trying to get clean, it can become a smoke screen. And as you so nicely put it, for ” the likes of me”, I have watched family members, friends and associates DIE FROM MISINFORMATION. I watch someone very close to my heart struggle EVERYDAY while going down the suboxone yellow brick road!!! I watch the pain, agony, tears frustration, discomfort and confusion of loved ones camouflaging a very serious condition. If suboxone HELPS them get clean, great but if its being used for a cure, there is NO cure!

  7. I have read with interest the series of articles on opiate abuse on the Vineyard and have found them interesting, informative and exhibiting a new face of addiction. Unfortunately, addiction has expanded globally into the wreckage and rescue of many of our own. Myself a recovering alcoholic of ten years, may I offer my opinion? Which is simply and I think resourcefully, my own. To find freedom from the “beast” in a proficient, educated professional is salvation to an addict or alcoholic. I am certain that John has been plainspoken and forthright while attending AA meetings of his additional requirements to live a sober and successful life. He has succeeded. I image that he has not only encouraged the addicted, but has inspired hope and salvation in the lives of some despairing souls. All of AA’s principles are simple suggestions, along with a requirement to live an honest life. The painstaking and adequate explanation at a meeting of your own personal, perhaps additional, requirements for survival is all that is needed to free yourself from scrutiny…it is your program of importance. In my eyes, you are a welcomed friend. Active addicts tend to be self-involved while recovering addicts are boldly hard on themselves. The halls of AA will unfortunately lack the wisdom of John who once sat in and claimed his seat as an alcoholic and addict. A man who shared his phenomenal and emphatic history. The new face of addiction and the victory of recovery is hallowed in the minds of the once despairing, hopeless addicts among us. A simple story of addiction? None are simple and all of the afflicted have the potential to swim with or succumb to the tide. The ride is horrendous and so multifaceted that the redeemed rescue and salvation must be multifaceted as well. Should we be recreant to one road of abstinence in order to be faithful to another road? John has grasped the many tools and flourished in his recovery. Hail to you John…one day at a time.

  8. So I definitely give John credit for what he has accomplished the past 8 years To go from living in his car with his dog to clean up his life remarry and stay sober for the past 8 plus years is definitely an accomplishment. Just because he takes a drug to stay sober who cares! The fact that he still craves of course he does. I quit smoking year’s ago and I still get cravings on occasion to have a cigarette. I give John credit for telling his story knowing that others will probably go on to knock it because he takes suboxone to stay sober. Why are you people worried about who pay’s for the drug for the doctor’s fee’s the testing. How do you know that John does not have health Insurance that would cover a part of this. I work with Naturopathic Doctors and don’t believe in taking a lot of prescription type drugs but if suboxone will help an addict stay sober why not take it. It’s just hard to believe that these people have been sharing their story’s and people have to come on here and knock them. I know you are all allowed to share your opinion but how about some of you out there giving John credit for sharing his story and staying sober! What work’s for some people AA may not work for other’s. What work’s for one drug addict may not work for another. The fact that this drug has helped many addict’s stay clean should be a good thing not knocked as just going from one drug to another. This person was able to clean up his life and hopefully will continue to stay sober and if that’s due to suboxone so be it. Let’s give these people credit for the fact that they have cleaned up their lives let’s not judge by how they chose to do it. We all don’t know just how difficult it is to get and stay sober. I do hope that John’s story will help other’s to seek help and get the help they need.

  9. The saddest part is the addict searches for help. Finds it in Suboxone, then is kept in the throws of addiction by a 15 minute meeting with a Dr. Who perpetuates the cycle of abuse in the name of medicine/money. If there is a desire to limit massive amounts of drugs on the streets of Martha’s Vineyard, take that Dr.’s script pad.

  10. Lisa Pachico has gone through the mill and she has learned honesty rather than manipulation and deceit. She speaks truth with conviction and If I were an addict I would seek her counsel without hesitation.

  11. Dr silberstein is a legal drug dealer. He calls himself a spychiatrist but charges $100 for a 20 min. session. when i was crying my eyes out trying to get to the depth of my addiction, @ 19 minutes he asks you for payment and literally pushes you out the door. psychiatrists should care…no? He does not. he only cares about taking his $100 every 20 minutes and sending you off with your paper script with his signature on it (aka BAG OF DRUGS). Isnt that a drug dealer? Soboxone has helped A LOT of people. i am not against the treatment. However i AM against kpraising dr silberstein. he is a psychiatrist and should care about mental health of patients, but god forbid he loses a $100 20 minutes while your in tears spilling your heart out and need a proffessional to listen. he pushes you out the door with your drugs and money in his pocket. thats a drug dealer in my opinion. A doctor can perscrkbe for your well being. dr silberstein perscribes to make money. DR.
    GORENBERG is another lisenced suboxone perscriber on MV. He actually listens to you and the core issues that may have caused the addiction. He councils you.

  12. John and others like John who have struggled with addiction should be commended. Whether achieving success with suboxone, AA or NA success is success. The alienation and isolation from family and friends that is part of addiction is an awful life for anyone. Life is full of choices. If John has chosen to focus on suboxone vs. AA is his choice and if it works best for him that’s great. If he choose to reach out to AA in the future to assist him with his continued sobriety as he did before it should not be viewed as a setback or failure. AA is a good program and suboxone is another viable options to assist with addiction. What matters most is getting his life back on track and reconnecting with the ones that have not given up on him and love him unconditionally. Rock-on John!!