She had already made it through one last night alone under the freeway bridge, through the vomiting and shakes of withdrawal, through cravings so intense she’d scraped a bathroom floor searching for leftover traces of heroin. It had now been 12 days since the last time Amanda Wendler used a drug of any kind, her longest stretch in years. “Clear-eyed and sober,” read a report from one drug counselor, and so Amanda, 31, had moved back in with her mother to begin the stage of recovery she feared most.
“Is this everything I have?” she asked, standing with her mother in the garage of their two-bedroom condominium, taking inventory of her things. There were a few garbage bags filled with clothes. There was a banged-up dresser she had put into storage before moving into her first abandoned house.
“Where’s my good makeup?” Amanda asked.
“Maybe you pawned it with the jewelry,” said her mother, Libby Alexander.
“What about all of my shoes?”
“Oh, God. Are you serious?” Libby said. “Do you even know how many pairs of shoes you’ve lost or sold?”
Amanda lit a cigarette and sat in a plastic chair wedged between the cat food and the recycling bins in the garage, the only place where she was allowed to smoke. This was the ninth time she had managed to go at least a week without using. She had spent a full decade trying and failing to get clean, and a therapist had asked her once to make a list of her triggers for relapse. “Boredom, loneliness, anxiety, regret, shame, seeing how I haven’t gone up at all in my life when the drugs aren’t there,” she had written.
She had no job, no high school diploma, no car and no money beyond what her mother gave her for Mountain Dew and cigarettes. A few days earlier, a dentist had pulled all 28 of her teeth, which had decayed from years of neglect. It had been a week since she’d seen her 9-year-old twin sons, who lived in a nearby suburb with their father, and lately the most frequent text messages coming into her phone were from a dealer hoping to lure her back with free samples: “Got testers,” he had just written. “Get at me. They’re going fast.”
In the addicted America of 2016, there are so many ways to take measure of the pain, longing and despair that are said to be driving a historic opiate epidemic: Another 350 people starting on heroin every day, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; another 4,105 emergency-room visits; another 79 people dead. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States — worse than guns, car crashes or suicides. Heroin abuse has quadrupled in the past decade. Most addicts are introduced to heroin through prescription pain pills, and doctors now write more than 200 million opiate prescriptions each year.
But the fact that matters most for a chronic user is what it takes for just one addict to get clean. The relapse rate for heroin has been reported in various studies to be as high as 97 percent. The average active user dies of an overdose in about 10 years, and Amanda’s opiate addiction was going on year 11.
She believed her only chance to stay sober was to take away the possibility of feeling high, so she had decided to pursue one of the newest treatments for heroin. It was a monthly shot of a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the effects of opiates on the brain and makes getting high impossible. But the shot came with dangerous side effects if she still had opiates in her system. Doctors had told her that first she needed to pass a drug test, which required staying clean for at least two weeks, which meant her appointment for the shot was still four days away.
“Soon you can breathe. You can start getting your life back,” Libby said. “That’s all just days away.”
“Days are forever,” Amanda said. “Do you even know how hard it is to go for one minute?”
She had been trying to occupy herself with coloring books and cellphone games, anything to keep her hands busy. Now she picked up a hand-held mirror and began reapplying her makeup for the second time that morning, even though she hadn’t left the house in a few days. She had worked as a model in high school, but now her gums were swollen and her arms were bruised with needle marks. She tugged down her sleeves and put away the mirror. Shame was a trigger. Regret was a trigger. She grabbed her phone and looked at the dealer’s latest text message. She wondered if her mother was still locking her car keys in a safe. She wondered if she could find a ride into Southwest Detroit for one last $10 bag: the euphoria when the drug entered her bloodstream, the full-body tingling that moved in from her hands to her chest, erasing pain, erasing fear, erasing sadness, erasing anxiety and feelings of failure until finally the tingling stopped and the only thing left to feel was blissful numbness, just hours of nothing.
One minute — she could make it one minute. She watched a video on her cellphone. She sorted her nail polish and lit another cigarette. Libby came back into the garage, setting off the burglar alarm she had installed a few years earlier, after Amanda had helped a boyfriend steal $5,000 worth of guitars from Libby’s husband.
“I hate that sound,” Amanda said. “It brings everything back. It’s a trigger.”
“I’m sorry,” Libby said. “It’s our reality.”
“Yeah, I know,” Amanda said. “And reality’s a trigger.”
Their condo was tucked away in a small development surrounded by pine trees and occupied mostly by retirees: no loud noises, no solicitors, no unauthorized visitors allowed beyond the guard shack after 8 p.m. Libby was usually in the living room with the TV on mute. Amanda’s stepfather was in the study, playing chess online. It was a place so quiet that Amanda could sit in the garage and literally hear the clock tick. Seventy-two hours left until the shot. Seventy-one. Seventy.
“No way I’m going to make it,” she said. She was sweating and picking at her nail beds, and when she said that she might know of a few clinics where she could get the shot right away, Libby agreed to drive her.
They drove out of the exurbs, through the suburbs and into the city. Libby tucked her purse against the driver’s side door, where Amanda wouldn’t be able to reach it. She relocked the doors as she drove and cupped her hands over the car keys, remembering a time when Amanda had grabbed her keys and refused to give them back unless Libby paid her. For most of the last week, she had been requesting time off from her job as a beautician, afraid of what could happen if she left Amanda alone.
Amanda sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window as they came into Southwest Detroit, passing the overgrown lots and decaying houses where she had spent so much of her adult life. Her first opiates had been a prescription for 120 tablets of Vicodin, offered by a doctor to treat a minor snowmobiling injury in high school. The pills chased away that pain and also the anger left over from her parents’ divorce, her depression, ADHD and self-doubt, and soon she was failing out of high school and becoming increasingly dependent on pills. Just one or two to make it through another shift at work, a pawnshop where she stood behind the counter and gave addicts their $25 loans. Just two more to pass the time spent alone watching TV while her husband, a truck driver, was traveling. Just three or four to get going with the twins in the morning, to feed them, to sing to them, to feed them again, to sit and play all day in a lonely trailer out in Macomb. Just five when it started to feel like she was suffocating, 24 years old, divorced and already so stuck. Just a dose every five or six hours throughout the day to quiet the noise in her head, so why wasn’t she numb? Why was 15 pills each day still not enough? If only there was something cheaper, stronger, and so in 2012 a boyfriend had introduced her to heroin, and she had been injecting it into a vein in her forearm twice a day ever since.
Now they drove past the boarded-up trap houses where she’d met dealers and learned how to buy a $10 bag, until her tolerance grew and she needed five or six bags each day. They continued past the corner where she’d panhandled; and the blocks of abandoned houses where she’d learned how to strip out copper wire and sell it for scrap; and the motel where she’d worked from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., shooting up before and after each shift, the only housekeeper in a 31-room motel where the rooms were rented in three-hour blocks and the best tips were drugs left behind by customers.
SOURCE: Eli Saslow
The Washington Post