Expert Voices

The Lure of Heroin: Painfully Addictive and Difficult to Quit (Op-Ed)

heroin, addiction, Ben Cimons, recovery
Ben Cimons, now in recovery. (Image credit: Amanda Leimbach.)

Ben Cimons, who grew up in Bethesda, Md. is now living in a recovery house in Wilmington, N.C. He has been clean and sober for more than four months. This Op-Ed was adapted from an article that first appeared in the Washington Post health section on Feb. 11, 2014. Cimons contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Recently I received an e-mail from my mother with a link to the harrowing tale of a 16-year-old Northern Virginia girl who overdosed on heroin and died, and whose companions had dumped her body. My mom wrote that she found the story "terrifying, because that easily could have been you. I thank God every day that it wasn't, and that you are safe and healthy."

She was right. It could have been me, and it very nearly was. The only difference was that after I passed out from an accidental heroin overdose, the person I was with called 911 before abandoning me.

Today I am 23 years old, living in a recovery house in Wilmington, N.C., and slowly regaining my life. But it has not been easy.

Heroin is seductive. The minute it hits you, all your worries disappear. You are content with everything. You feel warm. You can't help but smile. You feel free. The first time I tried it, I found an escape from the feelings of sadness and isolation I had been experiencing for as long as I could remember. But once heroin gets a hold on you, it never lets go.

Heroin has been in the news a lot lately, most recently because of the death, apparently by overdose, of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heroin is everywhere. It's easy to find, including in the suburbs where I lived until recently, and cheaper than prescription pills.

You don't have to be wealthy or famous or a criminal to become addicted. I grew up in a nice Bethesda, Md., neighborhood, with a single mother who never drank, smoked cigarettes or used any illegal substances. But the neighborhood kids I hung out with did. I wanted to fit in in middle and high school, and to stop feeling lonely. That's how I started on the road to my overdose.

On Sept. 16, I snuck out of the house after my mom was asleep, met my friend, and we drove to Southeast Washington, D.C. looking for heroin. We both shot up in the car. I remember starting to drive, but then — as I later learned — I passed out and slumped onto the horn, blocking traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue. I had stopped breathing and my lips were turning purple. My friend, already on probation, made the 911 call — then fled.

When I woke up, still in the car, I was surrounded by police and paramedics. Apparently they had given me Narcan, a drug that almost instantly reverses the effects of heroin. They took me to George Washington University Hospital's emergency room, where a doctor told me how lucky I had been: "You flat-lined for 30 seconds, and if we hadn't gotten to you within five minutes, you would have been dead, or brain-dead."

I started to cry. I was so young. How had my life gotten so bad?

When I started experimenting with drugs in middle school, it was mostly weed, and my using increased in high school. But I was willing to try anything — except needles. By my junior year of high school, I was high almost all the time. I smoked marijuana before school, during school by skipping classes, and at lunch. I smoked at home when my mom was out running or asleep, and when I went out to walk the dog. I was suspended twice from school and arrested once for marijuana possession and distribution — charges later expunged from my record — before I finally realized I needed help. I confessed to my mom, who immediately arranged for treatment. Ultimately, I ended up in a residential program for 45 days. [Painkiller Abuse Can Lead to Heroin, Study Reveals]

After I got out, I had a couple of brief relapses during the next two years, but eventually got clean and stayed that way for three and a half years using the tools I had learned in rehab — such as recognizing the triggers that made me want to use and surrounding myself with other people in recovery — and by dedicating myself to 12-Step, a spiritual program for personal alcohol and drug recovery. By then, I was a student at Montgomery College, still living at home, hoping for a career in criminal justice, possibly as a police officer. I had been a serious competitive swimmer since age 6 and, despite my drug use, swam successfully all through high school. Now, while in college, I also worked as a swim coach, earning good money.

About 18 months ago, however, a serious relationship ended, and I was feeling vulnerable. Gradually, I stopped talking with my drug recovery sponsor and the members of my support network, and began to let go of all the skills acquired in rehab.

I missed my old neighborhood friends, whom I had been avoiding for more than three years in order to stay clean, and wanted them back. I thought I could handle it. Then I started going to overnight raves — electronic music concerts where drugs are plentiful. It was all too easy to slowly slide back into my old habits. I started using the club drug Molly, a form of Ecstasy, and then weed again.

I couldn't believe I had allowed this to happen. The guilt was killing me, but the drugs made those feelings go away in a hurry.

The night I tried heroin for the first time, in November 2012, I was at a friend's house in the District with seven other people who were shooting it, smoking it and snorting it. They offered me some, and I decided to snort it. I couldn't believe I was using a drug I said I would never touch. I felt relaxed, and began nodding out. Soon, I was snorting it on a regular basis.

A few months later, someone suggested that I inject it. "It's so much better than snorting," he said. I'd thought I would never put a needle in my arm. I hate needles. I barely can handle getting a flu shot. Yet I decided to give it a try, and I couldn't believe how wonderful it felt.

My life began to revolve around a needle and a bag of heroin.

And soon it no longer was so wonderful. It was necessary; I needed it. Once you start injecting heroin, you can't go back. Your life becomes a bottomless pit. You no longer recognize yourself, and you can't crawl out of it. You lie, cheat, steal and pawn.

I would blow through my work money in two days, shooting up $800 worth of dope between me and a friend. I couldn't go 24 hours without it. When I did, I began suffering the classic signs of withdrawal : runny nose, sweating, muscle aches, tremors and through-the-roof anxiety. The slightest thing would set me off. I began having emotional meltdowns in front of my mom, who thought I was still clean. I was fooling everybody — her, my boss and my therapist. No one knew how dangerous my life had become. The only smart thing I did was use clean needles — I worried about track marks and HIV.

Last June I was back at the house where I'd first tried heroin. I had been shooting up all day. It was late, and I was about to shoot up again. One of my friends warned me I was about to use too much. I shrugged him off and injected myself. Then everything went black. This time, I woke up on my own. Everyone was staring at me. Someone said I'd overdosed, and had slumped over and was barely breathing. They could hardly feel my pulse. While I was passed out, apparently they tried to put me in a car to take me to the hospital, but I woke up and screamed at them to put me down.

That June incident was my first accidental overdose and should have been a big warning. But I ignored it. My life was a wreck.

Even after the Sept. 16 overdose, when I came so close to dying, I couldn't stop. For the first 48 hours, I felt a new appreciation for life. But once withdrawal began, I was shooting up again.

Two weeks later, I spent a night shooting up $400 worth of dope, and realized I'd had it. I was tired. I couldn't live this lie any longer. I called my longtime therapist and told her I needed to see her. I broke the news to her that I had been injecting heroin, and she urged to me to return to rehab — and to tell my mom. Initially, I resisted, then I agreed.

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Within hours, they found me a place in a rehab facility, Father Martin's Ashley, in Havre de Grace, Md., and I got ready to go. I cried all day. That night, in desperation, I tried climbing out a window to go cop more dope. My mom caught me. Instead, a friend of mine came over — ostensibly to say goodbye — and that night I got high again. The next day, minutes before getting into the car to go to Ashley, I shot up again.

That was Oct. 3, the last time I used heroin.

I spent the next 28 days at Ashley, where I relearned what I needed to know to avoid another relapse. I am committed once again to staying clean. I know I can't go back to Bethesda anytime soon. The pressures and old influences are still there, and I am afraid I could succumb again.

I wanted to move to a new city far enough away from Montgomery County for me to get a fresh start. The counselors at Ashley had recommended this: Don't take him home, even to pack, they said. Go directly to Wilmington.

I live in a house with 15 other recovering addicts. We follow 12-Step and have one another's back, no matter what. I've learned here to be accountable for my actions and that I can live without drugs. I know now that I can have good relationships with other people. I am slowly repairing the bond with my mother. Wilmington is a big recovery town, so I never feel alone.

I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I want to live again. I have dreams. I want a family. I want to experience life. And right now, I'm heading in the right direction.

This article was adapted from "A Suburban Heroin Addict Describes His Brush with Death and His Hopes for a Better Life" in the Washington Post. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.