By Nicole Hennessy
Jen considers herself a survivor. She says this unblinking, her wide-open eyes pushing back the heroin addiction she believes she’s overcome with the help of almost three years of methadone treatment.
Her 6-year-old son plays video games in their Lakewood apartment as she talks. He’s Superman and Ronald McDonald is attacking him, but he can’t hurt him because he’s gotten too strong.
A lot of addicts never get off methadone; it just serves as a legal replacement for heroin or pill-form opiates. But Jen, who thought it best not to use her last name, has been steadily decreasing her doses since she’s been on it.
One of the only Westshore-area patients at a downtown methadone clinic called Cleveland Treatment Center (one of only two in Cuyahoga County), she says most addicts on this side of town opt for Suboxone prescriptions, an alternative to methadone.
“I didn’t want to go on Suboxone, because it’s huge on the black market,” she says. “People use it to get high and they sell it to get dope, so I didn’t want anything to do with it because I didn’t trust myself with it.”
After a task force busted the apartment she was living in at the time and an indictment showed up in her mailbox, Jen knew it was time to get clean. But with an eight-month wait at the Cleveland Treatment Center, she felt she had no options.
So she resorted to begging and somehow got a spot, having detoxed twice already.
Each day she headed downtown for her dose of methadone, dreaming of a time in her life when this would all be a memory, not making friends or getting too close to anyone at the clinic, just focusing on her health and her son.
Still playing his video games, he listens, seeming to know what she’s talking about, but pretending he’s consumed with reaching level five.
Since Suboxone is a prescription monthly scripts are available, and, like Jen mentioned, most addicts end up abusing it. Methadone, however, must be obtained from the clinic each day, except for those who’ve shown improvement and a desire to recover completely.
Still, twice per week she goes downtown and picks up her doses, constantly decreasing her intake.
Jeff Rawlings, the clinical supervisor at the Cleveland Treatment Center, says there are addicts from the ’70s who still take methadone and probably will for the rest of their lives.
He and Jessica Hegedus, an administrative assistant, go through examples, referring to patients by the numbers assigned to them, fully aware of the faces that match.
To even be considered for methadone treatment, a user must have been using for at least a year. This helps weed out those who just want another option to get high. It also has to do with FDA standards.
If not on Medicaid, the user trying to get clean must pay out of pocket, as the center is a private nonprofit organization – which is still better than putting oneself in harmful, illegal situations to get heroin or pills.
Still, methadone clinics remain controversial businesses. Hededus herself fights stigmas because of where she works.
But she just wants to see people get better. Taking what she refers to as an epidemic very personally, she asks Rawlings questions about addiction – if it changes the user’s brain – desperate to understand what she sees all around her, in and out of work.
“There’s plenty of people calling all the time,” she says simply. The line each day of clients who can’t afford to be sick goes right past her office door. She sees them getting younger and younger, the line longer.
Like many addicts, Jen started partying and using pills in high school, which went on pretty harmlessly for about 10 years, until she started using seriously addictive drugs.
Having gone through a bad breakup with her son’s father, and trusted negative people; particularly, her slightly unstable seeming friend, who turned out to be physically addicted to opiates.
“She’d give me pills and I’d feel better,” Jen remembers.
But “I never knew you could get dope sick until oxys came along,” she continues, referring to Oxycontin, which is supposed to be prescribed to combat pain associated with chronic illness.
Often, it’s not though.
Jen recalls friends “doctor shopping” – trying to find a doctor who was OK with trading prescriptions for cash, many of them succeeding in their search.
Just six months into heavy Oxycontin use, it was only a matter of time before people were shooting up in the backseat of her car, encouraging her to do the same. She knew she couldn’t afford expensive pills anymore and that she needed a substance to keep her going –so she began shooting heroin herself, having acquaintances do it for her at first.
“You get sick and you’re gonna do a lot of things you never thought you would do,” she says, reflecting on her “nice” family from Fairview Park, her initial fear of needles and the realization that she was an addict at the age of 25.
“It didn’t take long for me to lose everything,” she continues. But, “It was the best feeling in the world. It’s not like it’s not fun; it’s super fun.”
Brushing off the memories integral to her recovery, Jen looks forward, working at a coffee shop and continuing her treatment. Though, even now, walking into the treatment center, she feels embarrassed, having come from a well-off neighborhood to go downtown and fill her methadone.
But at the same time, she hopes her story can either inspire someone who’s using to seek treatment or someone who knows a user to connect the dots and confront their friend, son or daughter.
“It can be anyone,” she says of addicts, even the most clean-cut unassuming person. And now that it’s not just an inner-city problem, opiate addiction has gotten the attention it deserves.
Tearing up, she believes getting caught turned out to be a blessing.
“I don’t think that without him in my life,” she says, gesturing toward her son, “I’d be able to do it.”
PULL OUT QUOTE: “That stuff is evil and dangerous; it sucks you dry.”