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The needle and the damage done



Junk, smack, dope -- even the nicknames sound bleak. It's the drug that turns people into junkies. It turned William Burroughs into a raspy rail. It made Billie Holiday tottering and too doped out to care if she was beaten up or ripped off. It's the drug that people die from.

Heroin can kill you, and not just because you've suddenly gone over the top and shot a heap of it into your vein. You can die because it's more pure than you think or it's cut with something terrible or you've already taken into your body some other substance that makes you feel this or that -- something that you don't usually feel.

"I didn't want to die. I wanted to get high." That's why Adam did heroin, and did it again and again, off and on for five years.

At the time of this interview Adam -- which naturally isn't his real name -- had been off heroin for about a month. "It's been a while," he says, then thinks about it and adds, "It hasn't been that long by most people's standards. It's been a long time for me. But I don't know what's going on right now. I'm staying away from it, by choice, because if I didn't, I probably wouldn't be as strong as I am now. I made a conscious choice to stay away from it because it's been so long, and I'm just curious that maybe I'm not getting a whole perspective on anything."

Then there's the fact that over the years he's seen people -- "five or six people" -- overdose on it. "The last time somebody looked like they were dying, it freaked me out," he admits. "All these people have died" -- by which he means they overdosed and had to be resuscitated -- "and they've been around you. It's gotta tell you something. I'm tired of this. There's nothing scarier than somebody you care about just going out. You can't feel a pulse or a heartbeat, and they turn ashen gray -- there's nothing scarier than that. And you know that you're part of the problem."

Between this interview and a second follow-up interview about a week later, Adam snorted some heroin one night. Not much, he says. A lot less than usual. When his friend wanted to get more, Adam said no.

Once he drove to a friend's house to buy dope. The door was open a crack but "there was something in the way of the door holding it closed. It was my friend." That was the first of the "five or six people" Adam saw overdose: "It's not a real good scenario to walk into. Then you start to freak out -- this is your friend, you can't leave your friend, but you don't want to be there, either." After a few minutes of shaking and smacking the friend regained consciousness, but other people haven't. Adam has called 911. "And left," he says bluntly.

So you're sitting around with people and you're all putting junk into your bodies, and one person falls unconscious, or worse. That's how it goes.

Indeed, some of the times when people have gone gray and cold in front of him, Adam and the unlucky victims were doing "the same drugs. In some cases," he says, "it was people who were just messing around, but it's different [for me], because I can handle so much more than they can, tolerance-wise. But in other cases it was with junkies, and we bought a bundle, and [we were] doing the same amounts, and for some reason it affected them more than it did me."

In 1998, heroin killed 50 people in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties. That's nearly one a week. The average age of the victims was 29, which is two years older than Adam is now. Many of these people have heard the classroom lectures and seen the TV ads. Why do some people die and others don't? "I don't know why people die," Adam says. "I'm not a doctor. I suppose it's all luck."

Dr. Shashi Gore, chief medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties, can explain how people die. During an overdose, the drug suppresses the workings of the respiratory center. In the process, the brain's supply of oxygen gets cut off. Why one person and not another? Gore describes a bell curve. Eighty percent of the people will have a typical response, but the 10 percent on either end will react differently. "Even if you say its the same quantity," says Gore, "individual response to drugs is totally different." Really, it's a roulette wheel. "There are always these people who will react in an unpredictable manner."

Adam started heroin in his early 20s, snorting it first, and after a five-year relationship, he knows the drug -- knows every which way to do it and explains each method, knows where to get it in Orlando ("anywhere"), knows when someone who's doing it has turned the corner into some danger zone. He can tell the difference between "overdose" and "sleeping it off." Is it better to use heroin around people who've done it a lot because they know what they're doing? He considers for a second and says, "I can agree with that. The longer you use it the more you figure out about it."

And what exactly has he figured out about it? "That I like it," he answers. "That it's not too conducive to a normal lifestyle -- normal as in job, fitting into society, you know. It's just a totally different kind of thing. It feels great. But it's self-destructive. If you get involved in it for any length of time, it's going to affect your life in negative ways."

Any positive ways? "You feel good." In a soft voice he describes that feeling, trying to convey the allure that needs to be there, or why else keep coming back? "Heroin kind of makes you feel like you're just floating, you have no body and you're just a spirit. The first time I did it everything had a golden kind of aspect to it. It didn't really make me notice that it was masking my thought process all that much."

He describes the grubby, sordid side, enough of it to show that the weightless, golden-hued aspect can be scratched off with a fingernail to reveal something bleak and pathetic. "Going back and talking to people I realized I sounded really slow. But it wasn't something I'd noticed. I was totally happy until somebody who cared about me said, ‘What's wrong with you? You look baaad.' It definitely did play a game with my mind when I was a junkie and it was necessary for me to take heroin to go back to almost normal, 'cause it affected so many physical aspects of living -- sleeping, your eyes and nose constantly running, normal things of life people take for granted. Your bones hurting. Never feeling comfortable."

In that dope-sick ache, how desperate did he get? "I've been desperate in a mental kind of way," he answers, as if there were another, worse way to be desperate. "Every couple minutes thinking, ‘Back to heroin.' ... Desperate enough to lie to the people I know who care about me. But I never robbed a convenience store for heroin."

He describes, in a roundabout way, why he needed something to make him feel good, even something that could make all comfort vanish. "I didn't care, I wasn't happy about much at that time in life. I'd rather deal with that than deal with thinking about how shitty things are all the time. So, yeah, it was kind of positive for me. But in the long term, no. It was all good until it was a necessary thing."

It's easy to get drugs in Orlando. "You can get drugs anywhere," Adam says matter-of-factly. "It's just knowing the right people, figuring it out."

The agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration say the same thing. "The availability is increasing, the purity is higher, the drug is cheaper," says Steve Collins, the group leader for Central Florida's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) heroin task force. The agents say that if you wanted to get heroin here, you wouldn't have to look very hard, and that's not the case with every city. Undercover DEA agents have bought heroin in Denny's, in the food court of the Florida Mall, in parking lots all over the city.

Asked what he thought the DEA would say about drugs in Orlando, Adam offers this litany: "That there's lots of them. That Florida's a particularly bad area because of its location, its closeness to South America. There's lots of drugs here, and that's not a lie. More so than in most places. And they're cheaper than most places."

"Why Orlando?" asks Collins, and then he answers his question. "You've got a million-and-a-half people living in this area now. Look at it geographically -- close to Miami, where the majority of the heroin that comes into the United States is brought in to. And again there is a base of addicts here, and the more that's put here, the more that people are going to use." Other factors: "Young community. Extreme growth. Close to Colombia. Ninety percent of the seizures made in Florida last year by federal law enforcement was Colombian heroin."

Adam speaks softly but doesn't hedge his answers. He smokes cigarettes methodically, and before he lights one, he twirls it between his fingers for a few moments. Tattoos decorate his arms and chest. He notes more than once that he's honest to a fault. What about his family, and the hurts he has felt? "No, I won't talk about that," he says simply. Without a tape recorder running he mentions depressions and addictions in the family, an absent parent, a period as a teen-age runaway. The story's big, too big for words, and really nobody else's business. He rubs his face with his hands and runs his fingers through his short, shaggy brown hair. He didn't want to die but wanted to get high, to see the world glow, to hover above the dull, drab pain. That's honest, but it goes only a little way toward explaining five years, and doesn't explain snorting heroin aimlessly last week with a friend.

Adam's one junkie stereotype: A man in his mid-20s with a distinctly troubled, difficult life. And he's smart, though mostly he gets called "street smart," which he is, and he plays that up.

For a while, though, Orlando's civic leaders fixated on another stereotype, a more politically galvanizing one: affluent downtown club kids snorting high-purity heroin for weekend kicks. ("I don't go to clubs," says Adam. "Clubs just seem to me a place where a lot of people get arrested.") The DEA's Collins says, "I think you can say that a lot of the social use that's led to addiction has probably spawned there, and it's still available in the clubs today. But that's not the root of the problem."

There are also the junkies who are, for all intents and purposes, nonfunctioning. God knows what they were like before they started using, but the drug turned them hollow and incoherent. Collins notes that heroin has "always been here, but it's been in a select group of long-term addicts that have been hooked for years, and they were hooked on 3 to 5 to 7 percent heroin." The purity these days has skyrocketed to 80 or 90 percent, which is why it can be snorted, although someone who's hooked will doubtless start injecting it, to make sure nothing gets wasted.

Adam says that most of the people he knows who do heroin are intelligent but hurt, although he makes it hard to see either of those things when he describes spending "a whole day looking for dope, to no avail. ... Mostly it involved calling people. You'd probably call, like, 20 people. Drive around to a couple places that we'd know. You could spend a good five, six hours [looking] and be totally pissed off, and sick on top of that."

The reality is that not many of the stereotypes are helpful. "I think I'm surprised by the wide range of people that the drug has impacted," notes Collins, "from entire families to young kids to 45-, 47-year-old adult males that are the father of two children and are trying to earn a living. To me that's the most shocking thing. The drug really is not discriminative. It doesn't discriminate against you whether you're young or old, black or white or Hispanic. I'm surprised at Orlando -- being in law enforcement here for 26 years, I never would've dreamed that this community would have the problem that it has. We worked a few heroin cases prior to 1993. [Since then] arrests have tripled, the number of cases we work quadrupled, the seizures -- to think that within six months the HIDTA group seized five-and-a-half pounds of heroin -- that in itself tells you there's a lot of stuff available."

A few weeks ago a writer in the New York Times Book Review momentarily pondered how people today in their 20s and 30s can be so "bafflingly at ease with both seat belts and heroin." It's true; these days such things just sit side-by-side, not canceling each other out, not demanding a rank. Take Adam. Is he always "careful"? He gets almost indignant at the question: "About needles? What's the point of using somebody else's needle when you can buy a pack of 10 at Walgreen's for two dollars and 40 cents? Totally sterile."

One night back when he was still shooting up regularly Adam silently threw away the needle stashed in his pocket when it was clear that someone he was around couldn't handle the idea of heroin. How could he so lightly give up the prospect of heroin for the night? "I don't believe that my problems outweigh your issues with what I'm doing. ... I'm not going to whine about it. It wasn't going to change. I threw my needle out." It's respect, he says. Another night, lost in some cramped emotional tunnel, he freaked out a friend by shooting up, almost blindly, right in the front seat of the friend's car.

The people who died from heroin in Central Florida were both junkies and experimenters. The Orange County Sheriff's Department estimates that many of the overdose victims did heroin for roughly three months to a year before it killed them. Probably some consistently used sterile, store-bought needles.

"Most people do it because they're curious," offers Adam. "There's a certain amount of ‘ah, this is the worst thing I could possibly do, and I'm doing it.' But most people don't just jump into doing dope. They work their way through drugs, and finally at some point down the line -- though some people do drugs their whole life and never touch dope."

Curiosity gets some people to try heroin once. What makes them do it again? Physically addictive, heroin runs your body up against a wall of aches so bad you can't sleep, but Adam talks too about an emotional effect. It displaces pain. Internal hurt becomes external, for other people to deal with. You've got a shimmering, hazy bubble, and the rest of the world stays outside, faded and far enough away that you can't see the pain you've transferred to the people near you.

"When you're a junkie," he explains, "you've pretty much already given up on society and found a very small portion of subsociety, and you did that probably because you didn't like what you encountered in society. Not to say that getting high is an answer to that. It's not really an answer. You're just lifting yourself, pulling yourself out of society." He gazes steadily when he says this phrase, "lifting yourself," and its curious poetry masks the fact that, in this scheme, you're lifting yourself by using something else.

Lifting yourself out of a world that's what? Too much or not enough? "Depends where you're looking at it from," Adam says. "I would say the world is what it is, but your wants and your needs, are they too much or not enough? Because the world's going to be what it is, and you're going to want and desire what you want and desire. It's just all your expectations of the world."

He's allowed himself a few more expectations of the world, but with room to pull back. "I still smoke, drink, do some drugs," he says, and for now he's not including heroin among those drugs.

"The reason I stopped [heroin] is I got a little scared," he explains. "And I've got too many goals to be limited by something that's as life-encompassing as a drug problem. Got over it. And I'm not even saying that I'll never be a junkie again." He pauses. "That's too much of a promise to make to other people."

So you see some people, maybe five or six people, OD and you stop doing heroin. Wait a while, and then maybe you'll start again. None of it sounds too deliberate, yet Adam had made a conscious effort to quit a month ago. Why? "I have lots of good things in my life," he admits. "I don't even know why I made a conscious effort to be a junkie."


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