The Heroin Blues

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photo by Sarah No

Madison, WI–In the sordid, voyeuristic, details to emerge from the presumed heroin overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman I hear echoes from my own recent life, now marred by psychic wounds that have barely begun to heal.

Of the many terrible things my girlfriend, Sarah, and I witnessed while living in New Mexico the icy blue color that washed over the faces of those overdosing on heroin jarred us the most.  This ghoulish discoloration is caused by a sudden decrease in oxygen due to respiratory depression, preceded by a loss of consciousness. As far as dying goes, one could hardly ask for a more peaceful exit.

We moved to New Mexico, via Madison, in March 2012. There I wrote for a paper in the northern part of the state, while Sarah continued with college.

We were at a house on Lower San Pedro Road, in Espanola, the first time we saw someone fall out, a euphemism for overdose. Espanola, population 12,000, is a small valley town about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. Of its many distinctions, the one most mentioned with no deficit of bravado by its largely Hispanic and Native residents is its standing as America’s opiate capital. For more than a decade, it’s heroin overdose death rate has hovered around six times the national average. In the Valley, the chiva is cheap, abundant, and deadly.

We were visiting Severo and Lupe that day when, shortly after we arrived, a young man named Ivan stopped by on his lunch break to fix in their kitchen. After getting well, Ivan went to untie the tourniquet when, without any warning, he dropped like a sack of potatoes to the floor, hitting the ground with a loud thud! A soft crush of blue supplanted his maple complexion.

Sarah burst into tears. As Lupe and I comforted her, Severo dashed to the other end of the trailer, returning with Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray that flushes the brain of opiates, instantly reversing the overdose. Within seconds, the man opened his eyes, regained his color, and rose to his feet, unaware he had nearly crossed over. Watching someone nearly die rattled me and Sarah enough that we decided to quit using–just as soon as we burned through the stash we had just picked up.

Days later, I picked up a few Narcans from the public health nurse. It is given freely in New Mexico following a brief training on how to assemble its three-piece delivery system. It was a strange, almost eerie, medicine to keep at the ready. We carried one each in our backpacks, with one at home. Completely inert, Narcan had but one drawback: someone other than the person overdosing had to administer it.

Sarah worried that Narcan would create a false sense of security around what we both knew were increasingly reckless and short-sighted decisions. Foremost, we had begun using when the other wasn’t present, something we said we wouldn’t do. Still, she brushed off my attempts to show her how to assemble the Narcan. It was her way of trying to frighten me, by raising the stakes, because I was hitting the needle a lot harder than she was.

Consequently, when I fell out, her only recourse was to slap and shake me and hope I came out of it without Narcan–and without calling paramedics. She was good at towing the line, but heroin was tightening its grip on her, too, or else she may very well have left me behind.

She tried finding humor in the situation.

I like slapping you almost as much as I like rescuing you, she said once after I woke up to her tear-streaked face.  We’ve got to stop. I’m not always going to be here to save you. 

The overdoses cut both ways.

In August, not long before we decamped for North Dakota, Sarah fixed early one morning when her eyes dropped shut and she fell back onto the pillow. I thought she was just enjoying the rush of the black juice sieving through the blood-brain barrier, but then the transformation came. In an instant, her pale face had turned a ghostly blue, her breathing reduced to shallow gasps.

Because we had detoxed during a 30-day road trip we had returned from only three days earlier, our Narcan was packed away. I spent several painstaking minutes tearing through boxes in the dark, moonless night, but was unable to find it. Paramedics arrived 30 minutes later and administered the life saving antidote. Eight hours later we fixed as she got ready for work.

That night we resolved to quit using once and for all. Sarah was distraught after contemplating the devastation her death would impose on her younger brothers. I was still in shock from having nearly lost someone I loved dearly. We took inventory of our shared dreams, and, as the night turned into morning, we held each other close, more determined than ever to not sabotage this beautiful thing we shared. Everything we wanted was still within reach, but if we stayed in America’s opiate capital, one of us was going to die.

That truth was now inescapable.

Covering the scourge
It is strange that I would relapse after 13 years of abstaining from heroin. Strange because one of my responsibilities covering the crime desk for Espanola’s newspaper was to aggressively report on the Valley’s overdose epidemic. The position gave me front-row seats to the nation’s most vibrant theater of heroin addiction, overdose, and death.

One morning last year, I spied a nice-sized ball of black tar in the police department’s evidence room. Police had seized it during the bust up of a fencing operation the night before. I caught a whiff of its nasty, vinegary odor and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I had enjoyed using the stuff years earlier.

By then we had been crushing painkillers on and off for several months. A couple Sarah met at work had turned us on to them and, before even realizing it, we would hurt for the candy, as it was called. It wasn’t long before the pills no longer hit like they used to, with the first casualty being Sarah’s grades. To save money, we switched to heroin, a bigger buzz at less than half the cost. For me, it was an old-times-sake kind of thing. Sarah just wanted to try it to say that she had. We pinky swore we would only use it a couple of times, after which we would get clean.

As our personal lives headed toward the abyss, I flourished professionally, producing work that later earned me two first place awards from the New Mexico Newspaper Association. Each week I filed several requests with the state’s Medical Investigator’s Office for various autopsy reports to keep tabs on the number of County residents who had fallen out from opiate toxicity.

I also kept a photographic record of many overdoses, rushing around town to wherever a body had been found. The officer manning the scene would tell me warm or cold, meaning whether the victim was dead or alive. The dead-on-arrivals were heart wrenching, as the deceased’s family began arriving at the scene, their anguish palpable enough to choke up the hardest of hearts.

Survivors made the most interesting photo subjects, as they were walked or wheeled from their residences, attached to IVs and sometimes other devices. Two years before we arrived, Lupe overdosed in the park behind City Hall. The paper’s then-crime reporter arrived moments after paramedics gave her Narcan, saving her life. She woke up with first responders hovering over her like guardian angels and a man standing feet away photographing her.

You bet your ass that picture ran in the paper…, right there in the police blotter, she lamented to us. Everyone was calling me an’ shit. ‘Lupe! Lupe! You made the paper!’

That wasn’t the last time she turned blue. Severo, after waking from his own stupors, found her on multiple occasions since then, barely breathing. Narcan saved her each time.

Although survivors made a better photo, it’s the blue faces that continue to haunt me. In one photo, taken by my predecessor, a pair of legs dangled from the doorway of a shed behind the Baskin Robbins, a scoop of mint ice cream still melting beside the man’s body. At another angle, his eyes were open and a syringe lay nearby. His face was not only blue, but frozen in time, the muscles relaxed in such a way that there was no mistaking him as among the living.

The man turned out to be homeless, making him to just another dead blue overdosed face among many. Too many for anyone to really care.

A new beginning
North Dakota was the worst for her and it was the worst for me. What we had hoped would be a quiet few months running a 52-room motel in Dickinson, a city in the middle of fucking nowhere, turned into an even worse situation than the one we left behind in New Mexico.

As live-in motel managers, we were basically slaves to the owner and his guests, earning a biweekly pittance that, when broken down, averaged about 17-cents an hour. Life as we knew it was on indefinite hold, because one of us had to remain onsite at all times. We couldn’t even walk our dog together.

The first month was fresh and new, hopeful even, but as autumn descended on Dickinson, we both became terribly depressed with the situation. The guests–many of whom were addicts, dealers, and prostitutes lured by the oil boom to western North Dakota–were like needy children, rude, and calling at all hours of the night with problems that many times could’ve waited until morning. Boredom and cabin fever set in, then the cold came and we receded even further inward.

Initially we planned to stay a year, but by November we had decided to leave come spring, then bumped our departure even closer, to just before Christmas.

With a few short weeks between us and our return home, we became even more reckless, this time without any pretense of being responsible junkies. In September, our second month there, we were back at it, though our use was infrequent as heroin was difficult to find in Dickinson, not to mention very expensive. In time we met an actual trafficker who cut preferred-customer deals and it was on. With an eye toward sobriety, those final weeks became an occasion to slam as much as we could, our last hurrah.

But in late November, reality checked us once again when Lupe and Severo fixed after returning home following a visit with their children, nodding off next to each other. Lupe woke up; Severo did not.

That night I spent nearly two hours on the phone with Lupe as she wept inconsolably over Severo’s passing. I could feel the pain seething inside her. She begged us to come back to New Mexico, not only for his funeral, but so that together we could all get clean. She was afraid to do it alone.

Sarah and I stayed up late that night, fixing shots, and discussing how awful it would be for the other if one of us die. She had taken an interest in photography while in North Dakota and had begun photographing our lives as addicts. We grieved for Lupe, who relied on Severo for so much, the same way Sarah and I relied on each other for the things we did.

What would happen to me if you died? she asked that night while snapping pictures.

The ride would end and you would go home, I replied. But I’m not going to die. 

The unthinkable happened less than three weeks later. Around 2 a.m. on Dec. 5, I woke up to Sarah sitting at the foot of our bed. She was folded over so that her head hung down above her lap, her arms hanging listlessly at her side. Her face and lips were blue. But this time it was too late. There was no gasping, no pulse, no life. All the Narcan in the world couldn’t bring her back.

After nearly four years together, in which we scarcely spent a moment apart, the ride had ended in the worst possible way. Every dream we shared was gone, over, dead. I had lost the best friend I ever had. She was 24.

I am still breathing, but barely feel alive. I relive that moment, and so many others, dozens of times each day, sometimes bargaining with fate, or whatever it is, for her return. My only consolation is that it’s unlikely she suffered and that is of little consolation at all.

Had I woken earlier I likely could have saved her with the Narcan we kept less than four feet from where she died. As with her first overdose in August, I mull over the countless what-ifs, only this time I go at it alone, without my friend.

I never asked her what I would do if she died, because I never thought she would. I don’t think she thought she would. She wasn’t reckless and excessive like I was reckless and excessive, insofar as one can use heroin safely and in healthy amounts.

Regardless, I now have an answer to that unfortunate question.

The aftermath
Today marks two months since she passed, and four days since Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment with a needle in his arm. Much has been written about the latter, about his greatness as an actor and his kindness as a man. His immortalization in the canons of pop culture is assured.

Far fewer people are thinking of Sarah today, even though she too was a kind, warm, and wonderfully loving person. The world won’t anoint her as an artist or romanticize her death. It won’t even give a passing thought to the person she was and had yet to become. It won’t take stock of all that she gave.

But her legacy lives on in the hearts she touched and the smiles she gave, and that is not insignificant. Indeed, as I struggle to make sense of my own world upended, and grieve over the loss of someone I thought I would spend my life with, I can only hope that time tempers the ache that has been so loud and persistent since that dreadful morning.

What I do know is that now, two months on, I still love her deeply and miss her terribly.

I wish I could tell her that.

7 Comments

  1. Jacyn says:

    I did think of Sarah in the midst of all the press over the recent events. And you for that matter. Since Dec. 5th, you two are all I can think about when I hear the word heroin. My heart aches knowing that this happened and that you had to witness something that many could never face. I applaud you for telling your story. I have been waiting to hear it….from you, in your words, your perception. You have shared the intimacies of the lure and the fragility of the state. Thank you for being courageous enough to speak about a truth that others fear to face. Keep writing.Jaci

  2. Robin says:

    I stumbled upon you by chance but I’m happy I did. I know how comfortable someone can come being so close to death on a regular basis. You paid your love a fair and loving tribute. My heart extends to you. All the bestRobin from Canada

  3. CJ Schmitt says:

    I read this in the Capital Times section of the Wisconsin State Journal a couple days ago. I cannot get it out of my mind.  Your writing is haunting, raw and vivid.  The story so very sad. It is the kind of story that you really don’t want to read because it is so horrible, but you are pulled in; you cannot quit reading and you cannot forget. Thank you for sharing what must certainly still be incredibly painful.  Perhaps cathartic?  Perhaps salt in the wound? I can only end by wishing you the best as you continue to fight the demons – but how cliché that must sound.

  4. steve says:

    The town of espanola is not what people say yes there is drugs but you find the drugs and go to them the drugs do not go to you

  5. Jenni says:

    My Name is Jenni, I am a resident of the Espanola Valley and your writing hit a nerve as soon as I read it, I have lived here almost all of my life and the drugs (especially) have touched my life in many, many ways. I grew up with a father who was hooked on heroin, I lost countless family and friends to heroin, prescription pills, and alcohol.I have watched my 14,15, and 16 year old cousins slip into addiction and live life waiting for the next fix. Your pain and loss is suffered by most here in the valley, the problem is too widespread for law enforcement to get a handle on, and every day we see those we love suffer from addiction with no hope in sight. There are not enough state/ government programs to help, the families are poor and parents do not have the capabilities needed to help their children since in many cases the addiction is passed on from mother to daughter and father to son. An epidemic that is so wide spread that it has become impossible to control. As a parent I worry about my child, he has seen and felt all that I have suffered, but with no outlet for our younger generation we lose more and more each day to the “life”. I fear leaving my home knowing that my possessions are not safe, that panhandlers are not asking for money for food but for a fix, and that going to the store after dark is always dangerous since those who have the addiction do not care what it takes to receive their fix. This community is one of the oldest in the nation, as it was taken control of from the Native Americans by the first Spanish Settlers in the late 1500’s, our cultures are dying, our pride in our heritage has dissipated and for those who struggle on we can only watch as the valley we love dies with our young ones.

  6. Eddie says:

    I just finished reading the story and it so sad! My name is Eddie and I grew up in Chimayo. I was like ten when my dad left us and it was pretty hard for my mom to take care of me and my brother.I had a hard time with it I always thought he was coming back and never did.Years went by and he never showed up. Later on as I got older I started drinking and smoking pot and just always partying then I  started hanging out with some other friends that said one day let’s try something different this stuff is getting old his dad was an addict so he had the stuff and a pack of syringes and he already new how to use it from watching. So we started shooting cocaine and it was a rush I will never forget but the feeling when it was wearing off it was terrible so we said let’s do some heroin to bring take that feeling away and that’s when it all started! It just got worse and worse I was using every day getting job after job and loosing them I finally just stopped working and started pan handling and stealing from family and got so bad that was on my mind day and night then later on I met a girl that had a good job so I started stealing from her and she finally realized what I was doing she got pregnant and we had a kid I put this women threw so much!she would would catch me using and I would fight her until I would get my syringe back from her I even poked her with it once! She finally said enough is enough and she left me I put my self in several rehabs to try and clean up for her and my kid and would get clean for a while and start back up and was in and out of jail I told my self I’m going to get on methadone to get off this junk and that was a very bad mistake because I just started shooting it up and still doing heroin I was to the point where I didn’t want to even live anymore I had already over dosed once and just woke up on my own my tolerance was so high it was taking more and more just to feel normal for the day! It was one of the worse feelings in the world waking up sick and having to hustle! And I had my ex and my brother praying that I wouldn’t die. And then one night I started praying and asking God to please take this from me I can’t live like this anymore I prayed and prayed every night didn’t give up and not till my ex at the time started praying that God would bring me to my lowest point to where I had nothing and nobody left to turn to just God! So that prayer was answered I had nobody left nothing left so I just cried out to my God the very next day I said I’m done with this life for good I put my self in a Christian bible based rehab and felt like I was dying from withdrawal it was bad I was just thanking God and claiming that I was done with that life style! So I just want to say that people  can try anything and everything to clean up cause I did and not till I cried out to God is when he heard my cry his word says ask and you shall receive seek and you shall find knock and the door will be opened so I asked sought and knocked !! His word also says I can do all things threw Christ who gives me strength it was not me on my own it was Christ who set me free from my addictions!! So now going on thirteen years clean married to the mother of my kids for twelve and very blessed !! People our town needs a move of God desperately and it starts with US !!! JESUS IS THE ANSWER NO DOUBT ABOUT IT!!! GOD BLESS!

  7. Sammy says:

    Nathan, I love you and I am thinking of you.I miss you so much Sa-Rah! -Sammy

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