I Tried To Find Out What An Addict Needs

I Tried To Find Out What An Addict Needs September 29, 2021

I wanted to do something to help the local dug addicts.

I don’t know when this idea popped into my head. But I heard there was a needle exchange in the neighborhood, something we’ve needed for a long time.  I thought of my dear friend from Columbus whose son struggled with addiction, and my other friend who bravely told their story. I thought about all the people I’ve seen in LaBelle in agony from drug use. I wanted to help. But I didn’t have a clue what to do.

I vaguely remembered an episode of Touched By An Angel where the angels counsel the parents of an addict that they made her this way by spoiling her and never saying “no.” The repentant parents threw the addict out of the house, the angels sat with the addict while she convulsed and complained, and then she was cured. That certainly wasn’t going to help. I am not an angel and I’m not so sure about the ones on television either.

They didn’t teach us what to do to help a person who’s addicted in Catholic schools in the nineties. Instead, they brought in a police officer– not a nurse or a psychiatrist but a police officer, because addiction was considered not a mental health condition but a crime. The police officer had her gun holstered at her ankle instead of her hip, for the protection of waist-high children who would run up and hug her, just in case. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that detail. She had lots of lurid stories of the children she’d arrested at the point of that gun, but we were good children, so the gun stayed on her ankle. She sat at the front of the classroom and told us about children just like us who wanted to be cool and popular and have fun, so they got in with the wrong crowd and started using drugs. We memorized stories and put on skits about stupid children who try drugs for fun and then they flunk out of school, go to jail and die. That was the whole course of study: drugs are bad, some drugs are gateway drugs, using them is stupid, and if you use them you will surely go to jail and die. Even once is too much. One toke on a hand-rolled cigarette and you’re out of the land of the living and in the land of addiction. As if people who struggle with addiction are already dead.

Maybe that’s why we despise addicts the way that we do: because we think of them as already dead. One mistake and you’re a walking corpse, and there’s no hope for you. I learned about it in elementary school. 

My course of study in elementary school wasn’t going to help me.

I googled “what do addicts need?” and what I got was platitudes and advertisements for rehab. That wasn’t helpful either. I couldn’t afford to send anyone to rehab.

No one I read seemed to have thought of what addicts need just now: in the moment, when the high wears off, just to get them through the next few hours, just to help with a little of the suffering. That was all I wanted. It’s been driven home to me again and again that I am not God. I can’t work miracles and I can’t raise the dead. Giving up the Ghost, descending into hell, trampling death and rising from the dead are beyond me. But I might be able to be Simon and Veronica on the Way of the Cross. I might be someone who helps with the agony, even for a moment. That’s what I’m supposed to do as a Christian.

I got on Facebook and asked my friends. “This is probably a stupid question,” I asked, “But what do heroin addicts need just in the very short term?”

The answer was immediate, from my friends who have worked with the homeless. “Electrolytes and snacks.”

It turns out that when withdrawal hits, the pain is so severe that addicts will spend every cent they have on more heroin, rather than on groceries, so they’re always hungry. And when withdrawal hits, the diarrhea is so severe it could kill you, so they have to drink Gatorade or another electrolyte source and hope it’s enough.

One of my friends told the story of well-meaning people who thought all that addicts needed was some tough love, similar to what the angels in Touched By An Angel advised. They more or less kidnapped their addicted friend and took her on a road trip to get her away from her dealer. Which is how she ended up lying on the ground halfway out of a tent at a hippie camp, covered in her own filth, screaming in pain, waiting for an ambulance.

It turns out addiction isn’t just a selfish craving for the next fun high, you see. It’s being in that level of pain, all the time, and being in a society that treats you like a selfish and spoiled walking corpse so you can’t get any real help to make it stop.

Another friend reached out and told me about the over-the-counter medicines they had used to combat the worst symptoms of withdrawal. The next time I went to the Dollar Tree and Wal Mart, and came back with electrolyte packets, cereal bars, and blister packs of anti-diarrhea pills. It cost about twenty bucks, which was all I could afford that week. I gave them to the people who run the needle exchange to pass out.

That’s not going to save anybody’s life or break the cycle of addiction. But it might help somebody not suffer so much for a little while.

I mentioned to my friends what I’d learned. Another friend took me to the drugstore and filled a basket with more supplies.

Another friend told me the story of how they put off a needed surgery for years because they had no insurance, and that was how they ended up with an opiate habit. And they had no choice but to suffer through withdrawal alone, when they finally had to go without.  It reminded me of the time I waited almost a year to get my gall bladder removed, back in 2008 and 2009. I didn’t have any money or insurance, and the gallstones counted as an elective surgery instead of an emergency, so the doctor wanted half the cost of surgery in advance before he would schedule it. I kept on going to the emergency room when the pain was severe, because the emergency room would bill me later and send the bill to collections but they’d have to see me.  The emergency room kept on giving me a week or two of Percocet and a warning to go see the doctor I couldn’t afford, and I kept on taking it, not realizing what could happen. And after the Percocet was gone, I stayed at home shaking with physical and mental anguish for a few days without really knowing why.

I hadn’t known that that was opiate withdrawal. I hadn’t realized that I, too, had been an addict, just for a short time. I wondered how many of me there were. I wondered how it might have easily gone much worse for me.

It turns out that addiction doesn’t usually start with stupid children trying to have fun or be cool. More often it’s people in severe physical or mental distress who can’t get medical care and end up taking painkillers instead. And then they need more. And then things spiral out of control. And instead of help for their misfortune, they get treated like monsters who did this to themselves on purpose.

It turns out that addiction is not something that happens to “other people.” It can happen to anyone.

I brought the bag of drugstore things to the outreach. Perhaps it will help somebody get through the next few hours.

I am not God or an angel. I can’t work miracles. But I’m human. And maybe, the first step toward being able to help people is to see them as human as well. Not to make up stories about how they became bad and evil by doing the wrong thing, but to see them as a human like me.

If we started from that premise, instead of the premise of crime and arresting children with a gun on your ankle, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Maybe the world would look very different.

I think I would like that world better than this one.



image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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