Every addict’s story is different, but we all share one thing: In every case our lives got worse after we started using drugs. Every person in recovery has something in common, too: our lives didn’t get better until we stopped.
Before I started using heroin, I was what you’d think of as a success story. I led a fortunate life as a teenager and young man: prom king in high school, graduated college with honors… I was a real go-getter. By 30 I had a business with 20 employees. There were some rough times during my 30s. I got depressed after my divorce and did some drinking, but I eventually sobered up on my own. When the Great Recession hit, my company went downhill like a lot of other contractor businesses, and I was forced to shut it down. At that point, I was feeling burned out and hopeless, and that’s when I fell into addiction. I was 42.
At first the heroin gave me energy and motivation; it helped me cope with the depression and stress. But it was an illusion. As my addiction worsened, I started injecting heroin. I moved into an RV and spent most of my time and money supporting my habit. I sold drugs, stole things, scrap metal, catalytic converters, or whatever I could get my hands on. At one point, I had a $200 a day habit. I started sleeping with a gun.
I think something people need to understand is that things always get worse for an addict; they never get better, and they never even stay the at the same level of bad as long as you’re actively using. I eventually lost the RV I was living in, and started staying in a car. Then in a tent, and finally, on Seattle streets. I was on food stamps and state assistance, but it wasn’t enough to keep me in a place. Detox and treatment were options, but I wasn’t compelled to pursue them. My friends and family would have helped me get treatment, if I had asked for it, but I had burned every bridge with them, and they weren’t going to come looking for me.
Anyway, for me, recovery was so far off, the only thing I could think about was avoiding withdrawal. There’s nothing an addict fears more than withdrawal, which starts happening in 12 hours if you don’t keep the drug in your system. It happened to me a few times. What does withdrawal look like? It’s horrible. Painful. Shaking, convulsing, hallucinating. All you can think is: Get money, get dope, get money, get dope.
Eventually, my health started to go, just like it does for any addict. I was in and out of the hospital, with abscesses on my arms. I ended up as little more than a skeleton, with gaping holes in my arms. It was here I finally hit bottom. When I had nowhere else to go and was physically declining—this is what finally compelled me to get clean. I got into the Salvation Army’s recovery program at their Adult Rehab Center. Now I’m clean and sober with a job painting, and I live in South Lake Union right where the city wants to put a tiny shack encampment.
I’m frustrated thinking about it. Most of the people who wind up in there will be addicts. Just as most of my friends still out in the streets are, and just like I was. Putting them in a shack isn’t helping them. It would not have helped me. I’m thankful no one offered me a shack, because I would have taken it and who knows if I would be clean today.
These folks are not thinking rationally. They’re not capable of making good decisions. If someone had offered to set me up in a shack and paid for my living expenses, I would never have gotten sober. I’d probably be dead now. You can give an addict a house to live in, a ton of money, a job. Nothing helps until you take away the drug.
I specifically chose to live in South Lake Union after I got clean because this was a relatively drug-free place. As a recovering heroin addict, every day is a battle. On weaker days, it’s hard to walk past people shooting up and have the dealers approach, as it happens in other areas of Seattle. But now the city wants to bring drugs into my neighborhood, and honestly, I am afraid for my sobriety. I feel that the city is working against people in recovery. We’re trying to stay clean, but the city is putting those in recovery at risk to help other people continue their addictions. Why not make Seattle into a welcoming place for people in recovery?
What about instead of having shack villages that turn a blind eye to drug use, we made getting into recovery a package deal with housing? I might support something like that. But the deal they’re offering now? No. That’s bad for everyone.