It’s the first few minutes of the early morning that are really hard for Joey. For about nine years, until just a few months ago, he’d wake up — in a bed or on a park bench or under the Tobin Bridge — and immediately put a needle in his arm.
“I would always save a shot of heroin for myself for the morning to get myself going,” Joey, 47 says — just enough to keep the vomiting and tremors of withdrawal at bay. (He asked that we only use his first name because he’s still using the drug, and dealing a little, and we agreed.)
Joey says he misses the whole morning routine in a small way — like how some people crave the smell, look and taste of coffee in the morning. His face softens as he describes “opening the bag, pouring [heroin] in the cooker, pouring the water in it, drawing it up, seeing the blood in the needle, that’s all a part of the high,” he said — all part of the anticipated euphoria, all part of the power of heroin.
Joey sleeps these days on a couch in a Chelsea apartment that’s become a sort of crash pad for a few current and former heroin users. To avoid the cravings, he’s up and out before 7 a.m., seven days a week. With his long, lanky stride, it takes Joey 15 minutes to reach a methadone clinic in a white concrete building with barred windows where he’s been a patient since late June.
“I been trying to quit this shit for probably 16 years and nothing’s ever worked,” Joey says, in one of a series of recordings he made for this story. “I been in and out of detox, I can’t count how many times I’ve been to detox.” He estimates it’s probably more than 100. Sometimes he really wanted to quit; other times he just wanted a clean, dry, warm place to sleep.
He’s lost track of the number of programs he signed up for, the halfway houses or sober houses he moved in and out of, the 12-step programs he attended, leaving early to fulfill drug cravings.
“Nothing ever worked,” Joey says. “I went to detox this last time and the guy said, ‘Joey, just try the methadone clinic, give it a shot, if it don’t work you can always come off it.’ So I tried and guess what? It’s the best thing I ever did.”
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The daily clinic routine that Joey describes is strict, sometimes impersonal — though clinic management disagrees with his perception.
Joey says he approaches the clinic, looking for a signal from the building security guards.
“If there’s like 20 to 30 people already inside, we have to wait outside,” he explains. “So we look at the guards, if they put their hands up like a cross that means there’s a hold. We have to go to a back parking lot to form a line and they let us in like five to 10 at a time.”
Joey says the guards keep track of patients who misbehave, swear or violate any rules about the use of methadone, a synthetic opiate. (For treatment of opiate addiction, methadone is only available at clinics regulated by the federal government.)
“It’s a three-strike rule and then after three strikes [the security officers] throw you off the property,” Joey says. “They’re real serious, you know, they don’t fool around down there.”
Clinic management says they don’t have a three-strike policy and don’t kick patients out for bad behavior. They say a patient might confuse terms of a contract they sign before they begin methadone treatment with a three-strike rule. Doctors who work in methadone clinics say they try not to lose patients, giving warnings and offering appeals before stopping treatment.
Inside the clinic, Joey says he waits to be served at one of three windows, each staffed by a nurse. When it’s Joey’s turn, he steps to the window, presents a special methadone clinic ID and recites his numbers: 4/07/68 and 70 — his date of birth and his dosage, 70 milligrams of methadone.
A nurse hands Joey a plastic cup with about an inch and a half of thick pink liquid. Some patients dilute the medicine with water to help get it down while the nurse watches.
“You can’t leave the window.That’d be crazy if you left the window with the methadone,” Joey says, laughing. “You can’t even leave with the cup, you have to throw it out before you leave.”
Joey says he doesn’t mind the strict rules and impersonal treatment. He waves off the criticism that he’s still using a drug to treat his drug addiction or that methadone is like handcuffs because he must come to clinic every day to get it.
“It’s better than sticking a needle in my arm, that’s for sure,” he says.
If Joey follows the rules, and is stable, he will eventually be able to pick up and take home a small supply so he won’t have to come in every morning.
Joey plans to increase his daily dose of methadone. The more a patient takes, the longer it takes to come off the drug safely. But Joey says he needs more.
“I do have to go up another 10 to 15 more milligrams cause I, like I’m not using heroin on an everyday basis anymore but I still am chipping here and there,” Joey says.
Chipping, as in using once or twice a week. Still, Joey says that’s a big improvement. He tries to look forward, not back — tries not to get stuck in regret.
“I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, but it’s not where I want to be,” Joey says with a long sigh. “What I want is my own place, to be stable. I lost like 30 pounds since I got out of jail which is terrible, I look like a twig. My mom just died in March, I miss her terribly. Everything just builds up, and you get depressed. Especially when you had everything at one time and you lost everything.”
Joey’s mother died the day he got out of jail, his fourth time behind bars for possession, shoplifting — a string of charges tied to his addiction. The “lost everything” period Joey mentions was back in his 20s. He’d dropped out of high school but had a good job, working construction on the Tobin Bridge. He had an apartment, a girlfriend and he fathered a son who he talks to now once a month or so.
At age 24, a blood vessel burst in Joey’s brain, he had a partial stroke and a doctor prescribed the painkiller OxyContin. He says he was on 80 milligrams, three times a day for 15 years. When Joey’s doctor tried to wean him off the pills, Joey switched to heroin and, he says, nearly nine years of feeling controlled by the tiny bags of tan powder.
“Same thing, every day,” Joey says, his voice monotone. “Going to Chelsea Square, copping, getting high, sitting there like a zombie. Who the hell wants to live that way?”
The nearly three months on methadone is the first time he’s been almost off heroin or OxyContin in more than 20 years.
“I shoulda did this years ago,” he says.
Joey leaves the methadone clinic by 8 a.m. Now he’s got 10 or 12 hours to fill before he goes back to the couch in his friend’s apartment. Some days he finds the odd job, but nothing steady. Most days he stops by Chelsea City Hall three or four times to fish through the ashtrays.
“People go out from work and they take breaks and they take like two or three drags on their cigarette and put it out,” Joey says. “I fill up a box full of them cigarettes and use them to smoke. Pretty smart, huh?”
Just before 1 p.m., Joey heads for the Salvation Army and a free lunch, hoping for his favorite — stuffed shells.
“I come every day unless I am tied up or I have another appointment,” Joey says. “I don’t really miss it cause it’s my only source of food during the day for right now.”
Joey gets $194 a month for food stamps, which he says he spends on food for his apartment. He used to sell his food stamp ration half-price and buy heroin. His only other regular income is $724 he receives monthly from Social Security for his disability. He’s enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid, for free.
After lunch, Joey brings stale bread back to Bellingham Square and Chelsea City Hall to feed the birds. He calls the square a trap, where heroin is always available. It was Joey’s home base when he was shooting four to six times a day and doing small deals to pay for the heroin. Sometimes he gets sucked back in.
“I middled a deal today, made a quick $10,” Joey says, describing his role as the middle guy, between a buyer he knows and a dealer. He could get several years in state prison for that. But says he really needed the money — for soda and toilet paper.
“I woke up this morning and there was no toilet paper and you gotta have toilet paper,” Joey says. “I don’t care where, if you have to rob a bank to get it. That’s one thing you need in the house is toilet paper.”
Back in his friend’s apartment, Joey boils a hot dog and sits down to watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” one of a few DVDs lying around. He can’t afford cable TV. But Joey made it through another day.
“People say that you OD two or three times, the third time you usually die. I OD’d seven times and I’m still here, so someone up there is watching me,” Joey says. “Someone has a purpose for me or a plan, but I keep waiting for that purpose of plan or purpose and I can’t find it.”
Joey says he prays and goes to church when he can, looking for guidance. He can’t see the plan yet, but he’s pretty sure it will include helping young people avoid or cope with the addiction that has already consumed half his life.