, Salem, MA

April 29, 2014

Watson: An addict asks for less stigma

By Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week’s column described the drug-saturated life of an addict who started inhaling glue vapors regularly at the age of 13 and rapidly moved on to marijuana, cocaine, crack and heroin. He managed only a few short intervals of sobriety over the course of 48 years.

At 61, while smashed and vomiting one night, his esophagus ruptured and he barely survived. He had no choice but to join a treatment program and stay with it. Today, he is 64 and has been clean for 32 months, and will probably stay that way.

Recently I spoke with another addict, Bill, whose story is much different. He led a normal, addiction-free life until the age of 36.

Bill grew up in an affluent, solidly conventional family in a desirable suburb of Boston. He had three siblings, was an excellent student and athlete, and his happily married parents loved their children.

He attended elite colleges, receiving a bachelor’s, and a master’s in economics. Upon graduation he landed an outstanding job with a major Boston corporation and in 10 years advanced quite far into its executive leadership. About nine years ago he moved to another blue-chip corporation and has been there since as a well-regarded senior executive. He is 48 today.

His troubles began in 2003 when he was 36. He went into the hospital for a major operation to correct a life-threatening condition. The operation lasted eight hours. Things did not go smoothly and he suffered many serious complications. He spent 10 days in intensive care and then three more months in the hospital.

For the entire stay, he was on either a morphine drip or other uninterrupted, opiate painkillers. After release from the hospital, he was given prescription painkillers for eight more months.

Finally, he was physically healed, so the doctors halted his medications. The problem was, after 11 months on morphine, Darvon, Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin, and others, he had inadvertently become a drug addict. His withdrawal symptoms and cravings were so unbearable that he immediately sought more prescription opiates. He had plenty of money, and a young friend got him the drugs.

That worked for a while, until the medicine became harder to procure reliably in the steady quantities that he needed. So he switched to heroin. He found a discreet, white-collar, wholesale dealer who was professional and safe.

Bill rapidly progressed from a $60-per-week supply to a $1,200-per-week habit. He never used needles and he developed a disciplined, rational (it’s relative) approach to using the heroin like it was a medical maintenance program. At the same time every day, three times a day, he would snort a line.

He did that for two years, keeping it secret from friends, family and co-workers. So well did he achieve a steady, chemical “balance,” that he received a promotion during that period and performed outstandingly for his company. He emphasized to me that he didn’t feel “high” or euphoric, he was simply holding at bay the many withdrawal symptoms that would have incapacitated him — and rendered him unable to work — in the absence of the heroin.

He did try to detox four times. But each time, when the withdrawal pain and convulsions increased, and his bones felt like they were breaking, he walked out on the process.

However, in 2006, about to get married (she did not know of his habit), he realized that he had to get clean. He paid $10,000 for the special, Waismann “rapid detox” method. In a hospital, he detoxed in six hours under general anesthesia.

It was like magic, he said. The next day he had absolutely no cravings. He stayed clean for four years until — stupidly, he admits — he took an offered pill, and instantly relapsed.

Since 2010 he has cycled back and forth between heroin and suboxone treatments, trying unsuccessfully to wean from his addiction.

He says he lives an emotionally exhausting life — spending energy procuring, using, hiding, deceiving and covering up for his drug life. His wife still does not know he’s an addict, and that damages the character of their relationship.

Bill is embarrassed by his habit. He would like to be able to seek and follow a treatment program openly — without hiding it — because he thinks that then he could successfully stay with it and the many steps, actions and meetings that it would require. If he could detox and recover openly, he could also tap many sources of support, and also continue to work.

But society today, mostly, is judgemental and harsh on heroin addicts. If he “came out,” he could lose his job, and his professional reputation. Bill became an addict through no fault of his own, but the stigma of addiction still limits his recovery options.

Bill sought me out, to write this column. He’s ready to do the hard, recovery work, but he needs our understanding of the nature of his disease, so we don’t penalize him further and counterproductively.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at