Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Shame of methadone use clouds heroin addicts’ recovery

DANVERS — I should be able to write their full names.

But because we have made so little progress when it comes to opiate abuse, because we cling to the stereotypes, feeding the stigma, there will be no last names, no identifying details.

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They are Elizabeth, Josh, Brian, and Tracey. They are recovering heroin addicts. And they are just like you and me. They are raising children, and have loving families. They work hard, at good jobs.

They come to this methadone clinic by a Danvers cornfield, run by Lahey Health Behavioral Services, at around 6 in the morning — a time set aside for working men and women to get doses before heading to their jobs. About 400 of the 4,000 patients here work full time.

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“We’re out in the world,” said Tracey, a sunny, 40-year-old dental hygienist. “You’re passing us on the street. You don’t guess we’re out there.”

She always held down jobs. Nobody but her partner had a clue she was using heroin for six years, after becoming dependent on painkillers a doctor had prescribed. Not her parents. Not her children, who always had Christmases. She has been in recovery for seven years.

Josh, 29, gestured at the line of men and women waiting outside. Workers’ hour had passed. Some of the people there now looked broken and wasted, like the stereotype that persists even though we’re constantly hearing that addiction can strike anyone.

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“Would you want those people in your house when you’re not home?” asked Josh, who installs central air. “Hell, no. People don’t see the flip side — the dental assistants, the lawyers, the doctors.”

He and the others are in a bind. As long as they avoid coming out as addicts, people will continue to think of users in a one-dimensional way, as those nodding wraiths, losers from bad families. But as long as people think of addicts — and those in methadone treatment — in that one-dimensional way, they can’t risk coming out.

In the throes of his addiction, Brian, now 34, was homeless, and powerless, trying detox 20 times. He brought his daughter, then a toddler, along when he scored, and when he got high. He wanted to die, for her sake. The turning point came eight years ago, when he nodded off while leaning against his bureau.

“I woke up with a needle in my arm and my daughter [hanging] on my leg, wanting her father,” he said.

Brian’s daughter is now 11. He owns a condo, is married, and has another child. He manages 15 guys at a landscaping company. But because he has righted his life with methadone, he doesn’t get credit for it. “I tell people I’m a recovering addict, all of a sudden I’m on a pedestal,” he said. “When I tell them I did it with methadone, I drop right off it.”

Methadone is frowned upon by some in the recovery community: To many people, true recovery means being completely substance free.

Brian and the others don’t get high when they drink their daily doses of red liquid. They just feel normal. They would all love to live without methadone, and a couple of them are dialing down their doses. But for some people, it is all that works.

“It’s just like being a diabetic and taking insulin,” said Elizabeth, 49, a former schoolteacher who clawed her way back from a 40-bag-a-day habit. Even though her family buried two of her sisters after heroin overdoses, they don’t approve of her treatment, she said.

Tracey tried everything to free herself from heroin. Nothing else worked.

“I tried ‘toughening up,’ ” she said. “I am strong, but I am not that strong.”

She and the others feel a double shame: The sting of addiction, and the stigma attached to methadone.

“As long as my parents are alive, I will never admit that I come through those doors,” Tracey said. “Not to anyone.”

That’s not her problem to solve. It’s ours.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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