Together and Alone: Nine years since I kicked my heroin addiction
by M. Sophie Franchi
Sitting on the warm cement close to the sidewalk at the end of my dad’s driveway in Highland Square, I kicked around a few pebbles and tried not to cry as I looked at the red brick street. I was on my pink flip phone, talking to my childhood friend, Abe, who was one of a few people that knew what was going on. He and his girlfriend, Jill, had been supporting me during rehab — distracting me with new music, taking me out and introducing me to new people.
I told him I was starting to feel really shitty. The clonazepam was almost gone and my anxiety was taking over. Dad wanted to know why I was in such a bad mood all the time, why I was never home, and I was going to have to tell him the truth. Abe told me I should, that it would make me feel better. My dad, he said, loved me no matter what, and there was no reason to be afraid. I wanted to believe him, but I didn’t want to explain to my dad how I had become so weak, how I had been lying to him for five years. I wanted compassion where I assumed there would be none.
I met Trey in Portland, Oregon, where he introduced me to space rock and heroin. We lived in Hollywood for a year and a half while his band tried to “make it,” but we ran out of money. Heroin was cheap in Los Angeles, but good jobs were hard to find. Our best option was to get clean, so we moved into his parents’ huge home in southwest Florida, living with them, his grandma, his brother and sister-in-law and two dogs.
(Sophie in Hollywood, 2004. Photo courtesy of M. Sophie Franchi)
We knew we would have access to drugs if we got desperate. We didn’t know that his brother and sister-in-law were deep into their own addiction, and that it wouldn’t be as easy to get clean as we had expected.
Trey lived off his parents’ money and credit cards, but we could only take out so many unnoticed cash advances. My serving job wasn’t supporting our habit anymore, partially because we had fallen deeper into addiction, partially because heroin was a lot more expensive in Florida. I walked into a strip club intending to ask for a cocktail serving position. Instead, I auditioned to be a dancer.
For the next six months, every day went like this:
- Wake up around noon, slightly dopesick. Call our dealer.
- Drive 30-45 minutes to meet him in a random parking lot. Trey insisted that I do this alone, because he thought I was less likely to get pulled over as a woman.
- Buy heroin.
- Drive 30-45 anxious minutes home to do heroin with Trey while getting ready for a night at the club.
- Drive 30-45 minutes to work, where I would spend eight hours naked and numb.
- Make the long, slightly dopesick drive back home. Do more heroin. Nod out watching “X-Files” or “Star Trek” in the early hours of the morning.
It got old. It wasn’t just the excessive anxious driving, the ridiculous amount of wasted money, and the daily interactions with gropey men and women. I got sick of lying. Somehow Trey’s parents didn’t know, or pretended not to know what was going on. My parents and siblings and friends were all far away, and I barely spoke to them anymore, but when I did, I lied.
Around the time I started crying every day, my dad moved back to Akron and asked me to visit. I brought enough morphine to get me through the week. Even as I crushed up pills on the bathroom countertop of his Highland Square home and parachuted them down my throat, I wanted something to change. When I got back to Florida, I told Trey that I had to get clean. He could recover with me or not, but I was done.
The doctor at an outpatient rehabilitation clinic prescribed buprenorphine to wean me off the heroin and clonazepam for panic and anxiety. The combination made withdrawal more tolerable, but it left large gaps in my memory. He told me to come back in a month when I needed more. Instead, I left West Palm with my dad, Akron-bound in a rental car full of my belongings, two orange bottles stashed deep in one of my bags so no one else would see my name on the labels.
Dad thought I was moving back to Ohio to escape depression. I let him believe that. Really, though, I wanted to come back for two reasons: I didn’t know anyone here who sold heroin, and I knew a lot of people in Akron who cared about me.
(Sophie, 2007. Photo courtesy of M. Sophie Franchi)
To make the pills last, I broke them into halves and then quarters. Instead of a sudden and terrible withdrawal, I endured a slow, long, dull-aching one. My heart would race and skip beats. At night, my legs kicked around under the covers like I’d just gotten off a bicycle after a long ride. My lower spine felt like someone was holding it in their hands and squeezing, gripping, twisting it. My lungs were heavy, as though they could never take in enough air, like I was breathing in water.
Jill and Abe went to a lot of festivals. They were going to Bonaroo at the same time that I would be starting the worst part of withdrawal. My buprenorphine ran out the day they were leaving for Tennessee. Since returning to Akron, I spent most of my days with Jill. She and Abe shared a beautiful old apartment, which looked like it came from an Ikea catalogue because Jill, an artist and a neat freak, kept it spotless. She kept me sane.
The hardest part of recovery was that I could feel again. EVERYTHING. Constant overstimulation, emotionally and physically. I had never been so afraid to drive, avoiding highways at all costs even if it took an hour and a half to get to Cleveland. That was better than pulling over to cry because I’d passed a semi truck filled with pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse. But Jill was a strong woman who helped me find my own strength again.
(Jill being Jill. <3 Photo courtesy of Jill Schumann.)
Her Toyota Corolla was covered with vibrant graffiti. She was covered in tattoos and piercings. She always had the best short haircuts. She taught me to hula-hoop, and she filled my ears with beautiful music. She was the best friend I had. I was scared to face withdrawal without the buprenorphine, especially because I would have to do it while she and Abe were out of town.
That’s when they shocked me, letting me stay in their apartment to detox in peace and quiet — no little sister and stepbrother, no dad and stepmom, no loud dog barking.
No judgment. Me. A recovering addict. A junkie. Alone in their apartment full of valuables. I had never stolen anything, even during the height of my addiction, but they didn’t know that.
When I arrived at their apartment, I found the note they left me. Along with the instructions on how to water the plants and their permission to eat or drink whatever I wanted, they wrote that they were happy I was in their lives. They were proud of me for going through this and were thinking of me.
(Letter from Jill and Abe, 2007.)
“Stay Strong,” Jill wrote, complete with illustration of a flexing arm.
I read their words and cried. Then I crawled into their comfy bed and slept, with the sunlight shining through long black and white curtains.
When I’d finally told Dad the truth, I realized Abe was right: He didn’t hate me. But I couldn’t ask him to save me either. I didn’t have the courage to ask my parents for help.
I didn’t have money. I didn’t have health insurance. I couldn’t afford drug counseling. I was terrified of group therapy because I had no idea that secular group therapy was a thing and I was turned off by the religious aspects of NA or AA or HA. But I also didn’t want to do this for years. I wanted to just be done with addiction, and I wanted withdrawal to be over.
For a few days at Jill and Abe’s apartment, I cried through back pain, stretched and breathed. I tossed and turned under their cool comforter. I drank a lot of water. I didn’t eat much. By the time they came back, the worst was over, though a few side effects lingered. Shortness of breath. Restless legs. The anxiety. Difficulty maintaining emotional control. My back pain would still be intense almost a decade later.
The one thing that relieved my symptoms most was exercise. Specifically, walking. If I walked enough and stretched enough, my legs would be too tired to kick at night, or at least I would be too exhausted to notice. Plus, physical activity produces endorphins and chemicals that aren’t present in the opiate-addict’s brain.
(Virginia Kendall Ledges in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo by M. Sophie Franchi)
Jill was a walker. Sometimes we’d go hiking on the trails in the Summit County Metro Parks or in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In nature, I could meditate on the beauty of all the things around me: the chirping squirrels, the hawk’s screech, water trickling down limestone walls, wind blowing through trees. I would touch a moss-covered boulder and smile at the bright, soft covering. I would sit atop a glacial ledge overlooking the valley and revel in the green of early summer.
Sometimes we’d just hit the brick streets and busted sidewalks of Highland Square. Jill would bring her camera or her portable iPod boombox, and we’d sing and romp around, chain-smoking American Spirits, smelling flowers and talking about feminism. And we would laugh. Jill has the best laugh.
Laughter produces endorphins, too.
(Playing in the snow, year one of recovery. Photo by Joy Huth)
While I stayed off heroin, I continued addictive behaviors for many years, abusing alcohol and marijuana, staying in codependent romantic relationships, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Maybe group therapy or individual drug counseling would have helped me avoid those patterns. If I’d gone back to an outpatient clinic for more anti-anxiety meds and buprenorphine, maybe my physical symptoms wouldn’t have been so bothersome. Maybe I’d be more in control of my anxiety now.
But I made my own way. That’s what’s important—that I made it one way or another. On my nine-year anniversary of leaving Florida for Akron, I graduated college with honors. I’ve got two darling young sons. I have a great job and I am surrounded by friends who love me, who have compassion for me and for my struggle, and who support the woman I have become.
Those friendships are what really saved me.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you can get help by calling the Summit Co. ADM Board’s Crisis Hotline at 330-434-9144, or visit them online at admboard.org.
(Featured photo: Jill (on the left) and Sophie, year two of recovery. Courtesy of M. Sophie Franchi)