I loved using drugs from the first time I tried them. Beginning with marijuana, pills and alcohol when I was 12, I escalated to IV drug use by the time I was 16 years old. I was living in a rough neighborhood in El Paso, TX and had already become immune to the fear of trying something new or getting in trouble. Out party-hopping in search of marijuana one night, we ran into my friend’s sister. She was an IV drug user, and was doing it right in front of us. My friend said he wanted to try it, and wanted me to do it with him. I said ok, and that was the first time I shot heroin. It was just that easy.
Things were happening in my life that were definitely not positive. I had issues at home with my family, parents who were making bad choices for themselves caused lots of stress and chaos for me. My girlfriend had also attempted suicide shortly before the first time I used. Any of these would have made understandable excuses for trying heroin, if there are any understandable reasons, but honestly I tried it simply because it was there. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t vomit, get sick, or experience anything negative that first time. It was amazing, and I loved it. That was the beginning of an almost 30 year battle with addiction.
Early on, it was difficult for me to admit, or even understand that I was becoming addicted. I had always excelled in school, and that didn’t change even with my use. Although I left home at 17, and lived on the streets for almost 2 years, I completed high school, graduating with honors, and was accepted to a number of Ivy League universities. Unable to afford those schools, I began to attend a local community college in El Paso. Attending an Ivy League school was just a pipe dream. Around this time was my first visit to an inpatient rehab facility. I completed my first 28 day program in El Paso, but I continued to use immediately after my release as so many opiate users do.
In 1990 I began working with my father at his business, and experienced my first period of sobriety. Lasting almost two years, I was doing well, and for no particular reason, I began to use again. That’s what opiates, or really any drug, can do. You stop using, you’re doing well, and then they suck you back in again with no rhyme or reason. My sister was moving to Guam with her husband, so she invited me to go with her, and I accepted, looking for a change of scenery. In Guam, every drug I could possibly want, and even some I’d never tried were cheap and easy to get. It was a drug user’s paradise, and I took full advantage. I was working, and got injured at my job, making me unable to continue working. In 1995 I came home, injured, addicted, and right back where I started from. Working with my father again, I met a girl, and decided to try medication-assisted treatment (MAT) again in 1997. I had tried it before, but it didn’t stick, just like all of the other ways I tried to get clean.
The medication-assisted treatment began to work, and I experienced a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time…HOPE. I began to attend school again, attaining my bachelor’s degree in Microbiology and Chemistry from the University of El Paso. My mother became very ill as I was finishing my degree, and the MAT allowed me to be able to care for her while going to school. I was so proud to be able to give something back to my family for the first time in so long. I began to receive offers of internships, and fear took hold. Fear that I would have methadone show up in my drug tests and lose opportunities I had worked so hard for. I made the decision to quit MAT, and do an ultra-rapid detox. I was left feeling empty. I began to smoke cigarettes and drink, and felt myself headed down the same roads I’d been down before, in the same place where I grew up, like nothing had changed.
My hard work resulted in my receiving an internship at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, where I found a methadone clinic. Back in medication-assisted treatment, I began to feel good again, and for the first time realized I was able to keep up with the Ivy League graduates I was working with, and was published for the first time. Over the next few years, I was blessed with a number of opportunities to move forward in my career, as well as continue to experience success in MAT programs. I received early acceptance into the graduate program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York where ultimately I received my Ph.D. in the Biomedical/Neurosciences. I had once thought this was only a pipe dream, living on the streets at the age of 18, but through hard work, determination and my MAT program support, I was able to accomplish the seemingly impossible. A local doctor had taken me under his wing, and allowed me to do rounds with him at Beth Israel hospital where my story was told to countless numbers as a prime example of the possibilities of success with methadone. I became the poster boy for MAT.
When I began using, I felt numb. My tolerance grew leaps and bounds, and I chased that feeling of numbness with opiates, cocaine and Xanax. I would get up, and then need to come down, a never ending cycle of panic attacks, hospital visits and consequences I never expected when I shot up that first time at 16 years old. I thought I was superman, until it was too late.
Back in El Paso now, I’m caring for my father who is ill, and teaching at a local community college. It is tough being in the place where it all started, and I don’t plan to stay here forever, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be present in the lives of those I care about. Family is the most important thing to me right now.
I would tell anyone considering medication-assisted treatment to do their research, understand how it works and take it seriously, but do it. After high-end inpatient facilities, state run hospitals, and everything in between, I can say with conviction that MAT saved my life. I am something of a “welcome wagon” to new patients in my home clinic, MedMark Treatment Centers El Paso, and I always try to make clear two points, (1) do not use and (2) If you do, ask for help. Those are the most critical things. If it’s going to work, it’s up to you, so take advantage of the resources that are available. Counselors are there to help, and really do help, even if they haven’t all used like I used, or even taken drugs at all. Addiction and dependency is a human problem.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely off of the methadone, but I’m tapering down and working with a psychologist and for now that’s working for me.