Opiates, a love story

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.