Home 2018 Collegiate Magazine My Journey Through Heroin Addiction

My Journey Through Heroin Addiction

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Staley on GRCC's main campus. (Harrison DiCocco/The Collegiate)

By Mike Staley

I awoke gasping for air. Cold, confused, and in full withdrawal. I tried to regain my bearings and figure out where I was. I was on the banks of the Arkansas River nearby downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. As I began to walk back to the last place I remember being, all I remember thinking about was how at 22-years-old, this wasn’t where I imagined my life being.

When I was in high school, I had big dreams and aspirations. I wanted to play professional baseball. I wanted to do stand-up comedy. I wanted to be a touring musician. All these dreams were lofty, but I was taking steps towards them. I was raised in a Christian home and was taught that anything is possible if you trust in God and put your mind to it.

Growing up, I played just about every sport I could. I loved sports, and along with music and comedy, it was (and still is) one of my biggest passions. Sometimes though, sports can be hard on your body. I had a few minor back injuries playing high school football. These injuries would eventually lead me to lose almost everything.

In August of 2007, at the age of 18, I experienced another back injury, but this wasn’t like the others. I was in Texas playing a pickup baseball game with some friends. I was up to bat and like I had done thousands of times in my life, I swung the bat. This swing was different however. I remember hearing what sounded like a pop. I dropped to my knees and for a moment, I thought I was paralyzed. The pain was so intense I couldn’t move any part of my body without being in excruciating agony. I had to be carried back to the dorms where I was staying.

Even though the pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced, I was skeptical that the injury was anything major. I laid in bed for a day or so waiting for the symptoms to diminish, but after a full day the pain was still as strong as when the injury occured. I drove back to Tulsa the next day and set up an appointment with a chiropractor. He took some X-rays that were not conclusive and scheduled an MRI for me the next day.

After the MRI, I waited for the results and the findings were not what I was hoping for. The MRI specialist informed me that I had two bulging discs in my lower back with one of the discs being partially torn causing bone-on-bone friction. The MRI specialist gave me a few names of doctors to go see. I went to doctor after doctor, chiropractor after chiropractor, neurosurgeon after neurosurgeon, and all of them told me the same thing. I needed an operation to fix the problem, but I was too young to operate on.

Being only 18-years-old, nobody would operate on me because the male body isn’t finished growing until about 24-years-old. If you operate too early and the body changes, it can void the effectiveness of the operation. I was in too much pain to wait six years for a doctor to feel comfortable operating on me. Something had to give.

I was introduced to a pain management doctor that told me the only option was to medicate and mask the pain while we waited for me to get to the appropriate age to operate on. I couldn’t live with the pain and medication seemed like the only option for the foreseeable future.

At my first appointment, I was prescribed some relatively weak drugs like Percocets and Lortabs. These drugs would give me relief for 10 or 20 minutes, but after the pain would return with a vengeance. I couldn’t stand, sit, or lie down without high levels of discomfort. Getting off the couch was a task that took mental preparation to deal with the pain that was to come. Even the most minuscule actions like raising my arm to scratch my nose would send shooting pain throughout my back. I told my doctor, and he decided it was time to bring out the big guns.

At my next appointment, my doctor handed me nine prescriptions to fill. These were some of the hardest, most addictive and dangerous drugs on the market. Most notably was 80mg OxyContin, the highest milligram of the drug available. Being so young, I was clueless as to the damage these pills could cause. Every month I was taking over 1,000 pills. When I went to fill the prescriptions, the pharmacist had a look of disbelief. She said she couldn’t fill these without first talking to the doctor. After a few minutes on the phone with my doctor she filled the prescriptions still seeming concerned.

About 30 minutes after taking my first dosage, I had a warmth come over me. I felt pain relief like I hadn’t experienced since the injury. I noticed flexibility coming back and was able to move around without discomfort. I was ecstatic and so thankful to the doctor for helping me. This relief however, came at a steep price.

A little less than a week later, I started noticing the pills weren’t giving me as much relief. The effects didn’t last as long, and when I hadn’t taken a pill in a couple hours I began to have cold sweats and nausea and the pain would often be amplified. I was unknowingly experiencing opioid withdrawals. In just around a week, I was completely dependent on these pills and had become a drug addict.

At my next appointment, I told my doctor about these issues. He explained to me that it was normal and there was nothing to worry about. I told him that the pills’ effects weren’t lasting as long and that it wasn’t giving me as much relief as it was in the beginning. I begged him for more pills. The doctor explained to me that there are certain laws about how fast he could increase a patient’s dosage, and if he were to break these laws he could lose his license to practice or even face criminal charges.

He could tell that I was hurting and didn’t want to leave me in the condition I was in, so he gave me advice that would end up being the next step down my dark path. He told me if I were to lick the time release coating off the outside of the pill, dry it off, then crush up the pill into a fine powder I could snort them. He said it would hit me faster, harder and it would last longer. After hearing this, I knew something with this doctor was off, but there was a level of trust I had for him simply because of his title. Being a drug addict changes your brain and all common sense and logic go out the window. I knew I shouldn’t have been doing it, but all my brain cared about was the next high and getting the relief I needed. I told him I would try it, and I was on my way. As I was leaving, he asked me if I smoked. I said no and then he told me that nicotine will intensify the feelings of the drugs.

I filled my prescription then parked my car in the pharmacy parking lot. I had a college textbook in my car with me and I decided to try this new method right then and there. I began licking off the time release and as I did, I almost vomited. The taste of the coating was so bitter, I could hardly stomach it. After the coating had been removed, I wiped the pill off with my shirt and set it down on the textbook. I used my license to crush the pill and chop it into a fine powder which I then formed in a perfect line. I still couldn’t believe what I was doing. It looked to me like a scene out of “Scarface.” I rolled up a dollar bill into a straw-like structure and stuck it up my nose. After a deep breath, I leaned over and snorted the line.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. I sat back and let the drugs take hold of me. The pain relief and high was almost instant and lasted longer than it had before. I smoked a cigarette after this and the first puff almost felt like I had just snorted another line. It felt great and my problem had been temporarily solved. The problem with these drugs is your body continues to build up a tolerance for them, and after another month it wasn’t enough.

I had been snorting my medications for a month, and it was time for my next appointment with the doctor. I had been experiencing even more intense withdrawal than before, and when I wasn’t high the pain would just keep getting worse. I explained all this to him and how much I needed more medication. He still wouldn’t prescribe more but he did have another bit of advice for me.

He told me to continue crushing the pills up into a powder, but don’t snort it anymore. He told me to put it into a spoon, mix it with water and boil it until it turns clear. He then told me to put a small piece of cotton in the water and stick a needle in the cotton and draw it back. I could tell where he was going with this, and I was honestly terrified. I had never messed with needles before, and it made me uneasy. I thought this was crazy, but I was more terrified of the pain and withdrawal I would experience if I didn’t do it. I needed my fix and that was all I cared about.

By this time I knew a few people through the doctor’s office who were doing the same thing. I had one of them show me how to do it. I watched in amazement and horror as he cooked the product and drew it into the needle. He began to search for a vein on my arm and located one. After he stuck the needle in my arm, he pulled back on the knob of the syringe and rush of my blood shot into the needle. He looked at me and counted down. Three, two, one.

That first shot was indescribable. The feeling was instant as one pump of the heart carried the drug throughout my entire body. It was euphoria. One shot and I was never going to swallow or snort a pill again. It was the needle from there on out. At this point, drugs were the only thing that mattered in my life. I stopped hanging out with my friends, I stopped showing up to class and eventually dropped out of college.

I continued shooting up my medication and over the course of that year my doctor raised my prescription dosages twice. Every time he did it would give me relief for a little while, but I would inevitably go back to feeling like my dosage was never enough.

I had been a drug addict for over a year now. I hid it from my family as best I could. My parents knew I had a prescription for painkillers, but I always played down how serious the situation was. Towards the beginning I don’t think they understood how serious these drugs were and just how bad off I really was. I would avoid them as much as possible to hide the symptoms of drug addiction that they undoubtedly would have been keen on — symptoms that eventually I could no longer hide from them.

Because I had dropped out of school, I could no longer be on my parents’ insurance and found out I was losing it. These pills were expensive with insurance, but without insurance it was going to be thousands of dollars a month. Having prescriptions of the strength and volume that I had was hard to keep secret in the drug world. Drug dealers and addicts would find me and were always trying to get pills from me. Because of this, I knew a lot of drug dealers in town that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.

For the first few months of not having insurance, I would find a drug dealer to pay for my prescriptions and then would give them half my prescription to sell. I was already struggling to stave off withdrawal, and now I was going to cut my dosage in half. I couldn’t function, and once again, something had to give.

It was around this time that one of my drug friends introduced the idea of heroin to me. I was immediately taken back by this idea. Heroin! That’s a serious drug. The sound of the word was sharp to my ears. I never imagined myself doing heroin. Sure, I was shooting up medication, but it was prescribed by a doctor. I somehow found that as a justifiable excuse. He explained to me that OxyContin and heroin share many of the same chemical components but heroin is much cheaper.

After much convincing, I decided to try it. It was a similar process cooking the pills but just different enough where I needed a tutorial. He drew it into a needle, tied my arm off with a belt and stuck the needle in my arm. I look down just in time to see the rush of blood enter the needle before he injected me. Before he could finish pumping the entire shot into my arm, I was already experiencing the greatest high I had ever felt. Much like the OxyContin, it was instant but it was even better. I laid there for what felt like an eternity reveling in the euphoric feeling that I hoped would never end.

For one hit of heroin to get me high, the street value was $40. For one hit of pills to get me high, the street value was $300. By this time I needed a minimum of four hits a day. It was clear I could no longer afford the pills, so I switched to heroin full-time.

During my time on heroin, it was the only thing on my mind. I never thought about my next meal or plans for the weekend. I stopped caring about what my parents thought, and they started to figure out that I was much worse than they originally thought. The only thing I could think about was where my next high was coming from. If I couldn’t get my fix fast enough I would have to worry about withdrawal. Being dope sick is one of the worst feelings I think a human could ever experience. It’s the closest thing to hell on earth there is. But this was my life now.

A year would pass and another year would pass but here I was in the same drug house day after day, year after year. The house is probably what someone would imagine a drug house full of heroin addicts looked like. A bedroom full of trash knee high that would some time double as a restroom (no, there wasn’t a toilet in that room). A hole in the old, weathered hardwood of the living room floor that looked down into the crawl space beneath the house. Exposed beams in the ceiling and walls and a kitchen that was brimming with black mold were just a few of the amenities this house had to offer.

I had been a drug addict for four years now. By this time, I had my fair share of overdoses, but nothing I couldn’t come back from. One night on the floor of this drug house, I shot up and immediately passed out. The people around me weren’t too concerned because this was pretty normal for heroin users. After a while though, they started to get concerned. I was turning blue and getting cold. One person checked my pulse. He was an ex-Army Ranger who had been trained in the military to be able to find a pulse. He checked all the spots on me and couldn’t find a pulse. Another stuck a mirror under my nose to see if I was breathing. Again nothing. The last thing they tried was taking a lighter and burning my hand to see if I would react. I didn’t respond.

The concern shifted from my wellbeing to them trying to figure out how to get me out of the house so the police didn’t have to be called. There was drugs all through the house and everyone was high. It was either them or me and they chose them. They decided to throw my body in the car and drive down to the river banks. They went to a secluded area and rolled my body down the quarry on to the banks of the Arkansas River. I was left for dead.

The next morning, I awoke gasping for air. Cold, confused, and in full withdrawal, I tried to regain my bearings and figure out where I was. I walked back to the house and much to everyone’s surprise, I was alive. They explained what happened, how they thought I had died, and why they had disposed of my body. To be honest, I wasn’t mad at them. In fact, at that point in my life, I probably would have done the same thing had I been in their shoes.

After something this drastic happening in someone’s life, the sane and logical conclusion would be to hang it up and go seek help. But the sickness of drug addiction doesn’t care how many near death experiences you have. My heart wanted to quit so badly but my brain wouldn’t let me. I was going to need something out of my power to help me. I needed a miracle.

About a month after being abandoned on the river banks, I got my miracle. On Sep. 5, 2011, I was eating in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. I had fallen asleep and the store manager called the police. I was startled as I heard the sound of a large flashlight hitting my drivers side window. I looked up to see an officer asking me to roll down my window. He asked me what I was doing and why I was sleeping. I explained that I was just getting some dinner after a long shift at work. He asked me to get out of the car began to perform a field sobriety test on me.

After a few minutes the officer cleared me because I wasn’t drunk. I got back into my car and was just about to leave when the officer was saying his final words to me. As he was talking, his partner was on the passenger side and reached in the car, grabbed my keys and turned off the car. He looked at me and asked me what this was. He pointed to a blue pill container that was attached to my key chain. My heart skipped a beat. I knew what was in there, and I was praying he wouldn’t open it. But he did open it and found balloons of black tar heroin that I swore were not mine. The other officer pulled me out of the car and arrested me for possession of heroin.

I couldn’t see it at the time but this would be one of the best things to ever happen to me. I was now involved in court proceedings that had my freedom at stake. I knew this was serious, and I had no other option but to get sober. On Sep. 21, 2011, I did heroin for the last time.

My parents were my angels who were looking out for me and never gave up on me. I knew how much I had disappointed them over the last few years, and they still stuck by me even when I called in the middle of the night to have them bail me out of jail. They took me in and let me go through withdrawal on their couch. I was determined to get sober, and I was going to do it cold turkey.

For three weeks, I experienced the worst feelings of my life, an experience I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. I didn’t sleep and hardly ate. I was vomiting, having seizures, cold sweats and my skin hurt to the touch. I was burning hot and freezing cold all at the same time. This is not how a doctor would recommend a drug addict get clean. The body can go into shock and cause cardiac arrest. I had one doctor tell me a few months later that he was amazed I didn’t die while going through that. There were plenty of times I wished I had died while I was trying to get sober. I even sometimes prayed for death, but God had other plans. After three weeks on that couch, a couch that I still own to this day, I came out a new man. I was ready to be healthy and rejoin society.

Photo courtesy of Mike Staley. Harrison DiCocco | The Collegiate Live

I couldn’t believe how many miracles I had experienced, and I was about to witness another one. During my court hearings, the judge was trying to figure out how exactly the officer obtained the evidence from my car. After much back and forth between the prosecutor and my defense lawyer, the judge found that the evidence was found illegally because I had been cleared on my field sobriety test and I wasn’t under arrest at that point. The officer didn’t ask my permission to search the car, he had no warrant and no probable cause, so he should have never obtained the evidence. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was I clean from drugs, but I didn’t even get anything on record. I remember thanking God for blessing me and staying by my side through everything.

Three months after getting sober, He blessed me yet again. I met the girl that I would eventually marry. She still says to this day that if she would have met me during my drug days, she never would have given me a chance. I like to think I still could’ve charmed her.

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, don’t wait to get help. There are plenty of support systems and facilities in your community. If you’re looking out for your safety or the safety of a loved one, the Red Project is a non-profit organization in Grand Rapids that supplies clean and sterile equipment and hands out Narcan for anyone who experiences an overdose.

If a person like me, who had given up on life, can escape death’s grasp anything is possible. The power of prayer and belief are real. No matter how hopeless a situation may seem, there is always hope.

Staley’s tattoo serves as a message and reminder of his past. (Harrison DiCocco/The Collegiate) Harrison DiCocco | The Collegiate Live

From Needles to New Beginnings

Harrison DiCocco | The Collegiate Live

Kelly Galbraith is a student at Grand Rapids Community College, and she knows the pitfalls of substance abuse all too well. She’s is a former addict who has touched many people with her story of how she overcame her addictions.

“It’s so hard for me even to remember exactly how it happened,” Galbraith told me in an interview. “I just snorted a line of OxyContin after never in my life doing drugs. I really thought that I would never get addicted to drugs.”

That one hit of OxyContin was enough to get her hooked. That led to 15 years of struggling with heroin, pills, and any other substance she could get her hands on. After many failed attempts at rehab and moving around the country, she came to a Michigan treatment facility where her life was turned around.

“The first month was rocky and rough,” Galbraith said. “I always left rehab. I’d get uncomfortable and physically would get so sick and I’d just leave. I finally just accepted ‘ok, this is where I am, let me just try this and let my brain heal and let the drugs get out of me’ and one day I just woke up and I was so happy. I started to feel again like a month in and thought ‘ok, this is not too bad.’ I made it through this part that I couldn’t make it through before.”

Galbraith has been sober now since December 2015 and is a residential supervisor at the Sanford House in downtown Grand Rapids. She is currently enrolled at GRCC and plans to become a certified drug and alcohol counselor.

In 2002, there were just over 10,000 opioid related deaths in the United States. In 2015, that number went up to nearly 35,000 and the numbers are still rising. Michigan and the rest of the country are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Galbraith has been sharing her story in hopes that it will make people think twice before using opioids.