Erik has now been clean for 18+ years and now lives in the Atlanta area. He agreed to meet with me and share his experience with heroin and how he was able to break free.
Erik: When I was growing up I did nothing but sports 24/7. Basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, football. I didn't even think about anything else besides sports. I was always the tallest kid in the class and it came easy.
As I grew older, everyone started to catch up to me. I started out at a huge high school, just outside of Buffalo, New York. The competition went from me having it pretty easy to me being on the outside. I realized when I was a sophomore or junior that I wasn't going to be able to do sports in this high school. Everyone kind of passed me.
As quickly as I decided that, I got into music. I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dillon and read about what they did. They did drugs. The drugs sound like a lot of fun and you're not old enough to realize there's another side to it. I started with the usual marijuana, acid, stuff like that when I was 13-14. By 15-16 I graduated into that kind of life where drugs were a pursuit because they were fun.
Purchase is part of the New York state college system. It's right outside of New York City so there is easy access to all of the great parts of NY like music, theater, but also the drugs. My friend went there and he started doing heroin. Brought it back to Buffalo a couple of times. All of us tried it and that was that. Once I started doing that it was like, oh my God, this is amazing.
Again, you read all the books about The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed and all that kind of cool stuff, but you don't see the other side of it, which is the crippling addiction.
A group of about 8 or 9 of us started casually snorting it. You'd buy 2 bags on Thursday night and Sunday night you'd still have a bag and a half left. You don't need that much when you start doing it. I was just doing it to get high or whatever.
I started shooting when I was 20 and I [shot it] until I was 24.
BW: How did shooting change things for you?
Erik: It turned it into a more serious kind of thing. Before that it was no big deal. Do a little toot before class or school. When I started shooting it became more like a job type of thing.
BW: Was it about escape for you?
Erik: Yeah big time.
BW: What were you escaping?
Erik: I think a lot of it was never feeling like I was good at something, or that I was truly needed in any way. It kind of laid all that to rest. Like I said, I played sports, and I was great, and that always gave me something I was proud of, and when that stopped I was like... I don't get it. I don't get what it is that I'm supposed to be doing, or what it is that I'm good at, or why I'm needed in the world.
I quit heroin about a month after I graduated from undergrad. I had to make a decision. I felt like graduating was my opportunity to start a new life. It goes slow at first. You start going downhill but then you really start dropping. The money runs out, friendships run out, people willing to help you and believe you and deal with you run out. I hadn't gotten in any real trouble. I didn't get HIV. I hadn't killed anyone. This was an opportunity for me to stop and have minimal consequences. A lot of my friends kept going and a lot of my friends died, or in jail, or in life altering, no way back type of situations.
BW: Why you? All your friends [chose a different path].
Erik: I ask myself that a lot. My best friend died. I honestly don't know. I was still able to see through the fog and say this isn't going to be me the rest of my life. I'd seen a lot of old timers that we'd deal with and [I knew] that's not what was meant for my life.
BW: How did you actually quit?
Erik: I kind of knew what was coming. I prepared in my head. I went to this free clinic and they gave me stuff to help remedy each little thing. Your stomach, diarrhea, blood pressure, to help you sleep. I told the people there what my plan was and they gave me enough stash of meds to piecemeal my way through the week. I told my girlfriend that I was going to lock the door on Monday and I wasn't taking phone calls or seeing my friends or leaving the house. Here's my money. Here's my keys. I just have to do it. I knew it was coming but I had to just sit there and take it.
BW: When you quit did you have to change your life? Did you use the 12 steps at all?
Erik: I never went to 12 step programs. The religious aspect of it, I didn't want to get involved with. But I had to change people, places, and things. I could not hang around with my same friends and I could not hang around the same neighborhood. Obviously dump the needles, get rid of the belt, get rid of the spoons, all that kind of stuff.
I had an aunt and two cousins in Philly. I told them what was going on and they offered to help anyway that they could. I said, "If you guys would let me move here and live here I could get away from the people and places..." I got really lucky.
I started working at Borders Bookstore. That was right up my ally. I was 100% books and music and that's what everybody there was. I just really easily made some really great friends that ended up being in my wedding, that I still talk to everyday. I was just really lucky on that end.