He was barely breathing, eyes closed, face turning blue, the needle still stuck in his arm.
Jimmy was about to die.
One of the guys shooting up with him – Derrick – was a bright kid, an “upscale” user. While others in the drug house ran, Derrick pulled out a syringe of Narcan, an antidote for heroin overdose. He jabbed it into Jimmy’s chest.
Jimmy’s breathing got stronger. The blue tint left his face. His eyes opened.
Derrick saved his life. Jimmy was ticked off.
“I was angry,” Jimmy told me Friday, shaking his head in disbelief, “because he had killed my high.”
The story, to my mind, underlines the power of addiction’s grip. It shows how compulsion corrodes character. It highlights the folly of punishment over treatment.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death grabbed our attention. A rich, renowned actor was reduced to buying street drugs to “medicate” a disease. A great talent became another casualty of the War on Drugs.
There are thousands of addicts out there. Some are famous, like Hoffman. Most are like Jimmy, known to only family and friends. All of them take the same risks – and fight the same battle – that killed the Hollywood star.
I met Jimmy, who didn’t want his last name used, Friday at Renaissance Campus, an adolescent drug treatment center in West Seneca. Clear-eyed, lean, with scruff on his chin, the 20-year-old could be the kid next door. That’s just one face of addiction. It cuts across neighborhoods and ages, income and race.
Jimmy’s parents were alcoholics and drug users. His mother gave him his first drink at 12. By 14, the math whiz and hotshot athlete from the Southtowns was partying hard. He climbed the addiction ladder from alcohol to coke to prescription pills. When the recent crackdown on painkillers drove up the price, he – like many others – turned to heroin.
Using a needle disgusted him, the drug scared him, but – and this is the point – he could not stop.
“The drugs controlled my mind, they awoke that monster inside me,” he said. “Everything I hated in a person, everything I swore I’d never be, I became.”
He woke every morning in the hammerlock of heroin. Either shoot up, or suffer withdrawal that feels “like the flu, times a thousand.” He was living in his car and couldn’t hold a job. Even druggie friends avoided him.
“I would tell you I loved you,” he recalled, “then take the wallet out of your pocket.”
There are various reasons why people get addicted: Genetics, environment, a compulsive personality. Even early on, Jimmy could never take just one drink. Later, he needed a fix every day. He stole his father’s TV for drug money. Jimmy was witness to his own demise, helpless to stop the free-fall.
“My heart wanted to stop,” he said, “but my mind wouldn’t let me.”
Jimmy got arrested a few times, but was lucky. His crimes – possession, assault, DWI – opened the door not just to jail, but to treatment. After a couple of relapses, he realized: “I couldn’t stop on my own.”
The last time he slipped, he walked up to a cop on the street and begged to be taken to rehab.
“He wouldn’t arrest me,” Jimmy told me, “so I smashed a bottle on the ground. Then he checked and saw I had outstanding warrants.”
You tame a beast like this with prevention and treatment, not punishment.
“Addiction is a disease, like cancer or diabetes,” said Jodie Altman, Renaissance director. “It needs to be treated ... Some people can’t just stop.”
Attitudes are changing. Pot is legal in two states, medical marijuana is OK in 18 others. Hoffman’s death may open society’s eyes to addiction’s reality. It may soften the hard-core, lock-’em-up mentality toward users of harder drugs. Like a diabetic, an addict’s illness should be managed with alternative drugs or with prescribed, medically managed heroin. Otherwise, users play Russian roulette with street drugs. That’s what killed Hoffman, and nearly claimed Jimmy.
He has been clean for nine months – learning to become a human being.
“I never knew how to build relationships with people,” he said. “I had stuffed down my emotions through years of using.”
Every day is a battle, waged in his head. I don’t know how it will end. I’m just glad he survived long enough to fight it.