This is a story that Emerson F. has not told in public. He is not proud of this story. It haunts him and he does not want his full name made public.
He wants to tell it now because it might help people who are not heroin addicts understand the power of craving and the depravity of addiction — what it feels like when every cell in your body screams for you to shoot some dope before calling 911 about your lifeless friend on the floor.
“I had a friend who was a couple of years clean and he knew that I was getting high — knew I was selling dope — and he reached out to me and wanted to get high,” Emerson said.
Emerson gave his friend a hit of heroin in a little bag stamped with a design, which are used to designate the dealer, batch or type of drug. He went to the bathroom to shoot another bag — about one-tenth of a gram in a bag stamped with a different design.
When he walked out of the bathroom, his friend was on the floor.
“My first thought wasn’t, ‘I better call the cops’ or ‘I better call 911,’” Emerson said. “My first thought was like, ‘Did he get a better batch than me?’”
Emerson went through his friend’s pockets, shot the rest of the dope he found and then called 911. His friend was already dead.
“And now I think a lot about, like, if I had called them before, would they have been able to save him?”
Emerson, 32, has 18 months clean. He used drugs most of his life. He calls himself a “Dumpster” addict because he would get high on anything. But heroin was his drug of choice.
He is not one of those addicts who started with prescription painkillers and then moved on to heroin. He started with a syringe. He was 14.
Like many addicts, he has tattoos, gauges in his ears and bling around his neck. He also graduated from the University of Connecticut with a 3.6 grade point average and a bachelor’s degree in American studies. He paid his own tuition.
His mother is a college professor who named him after Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and his brothers were raised as Buddhists and he loves the Grateful Dead — even followed them around the country for a few years.
He had hopes of getting married but introduced his fiancée to heroin and that dream ended. She is still using — despite a recent overdose. Somewhere along the way, heroin stopped being fun.
“There is a tipping point where it goes from, like, recreational use to, like, when you realize, OK, I’m f——d up,” Emerson said. “I couldn’t do anything without getting high.”
Before going to bed, he prepared a shot for when he woke up.
“Five bags in the morning in one shot was how I started my day,” Emerson said. “That was my cup of coffee.”
It took more and more dope to get high. He overdosed eight times — twice in one day when he left the emergency room after being revived with Narcan then went out to his car and shot up again.
He tried to quit, concocting ideas that never worked.
- “I’m not going to use for three days in a row because that’s where the physical dependency comes in.”
- “I’m not going to use larger amounts. I’m just going to go until, like, I feel good.”
- “I am not going to, like, go to get the nod.” — his term for describing a good high.
A good night’s sleep was five or six hours — longer than that and he would start getting dope-sick. He didn’t take vacations because he couldn’t fly without his heroin.
“It got to the point where I would wake up sick,” Emerson said. Withdrawal symptoms were excruciating. It begins with fatigue, chills, sweats and then vomiting, bone and muscle pain, shaking and diarrhea.
The fear of getting dope-sick coupled with changes in the brain cripple the addict. Eventually, using drugs is no longer a choice — it feels like life or death.
“It gets to the point where you’re crying while you are fixing the shot,” Emerson said. “You’re using it against your will.”
In the battle between consequences and craving, consequences always lost. Emerson was not blind to them — he bounced between not caring and feeling so guilty that getting high was the only way to feel better. Besides, he figured he was going to die anyway.
“I didn’t care about the consequences because I didn’t think I was going to live long enough to see them,” Emerson said.
He cut the dope he sold with fentanyl he bought on the Internet. He didn’t know how much of the deadly painkiller to use. “You just play around with it and do a shot and it’s like, ‘Oh, that feels good.’”
He lives with that consequence now — not knowing if the dope he sold caused an overdose.
“I have that one on me, too,” Emerson said about living with what he has done.
Finally, he decided to stop trying to quit on his own. He came to Florida, went to detox and then treatment. He moved in to a sober home and this year got an apartment, a dog and a roommate.
Emerson helps other addicts whenever he can. He works, takes his dog to the dog park, goes to 12-step meetings and spends Sunday afternoons with a group of recovered addicts called the Wharf Rats, listening to a Grateful Dead cover band at a bar in Delray Beach.
More friends die — he stopped counting at 72. He is proud to be a recovered addict — among the lucky few who have not relapsed. He knows there is no second chance.
“I know that if I pick up, I can’t stop and I will die,” Emerson said. “I have no doubt in my mind.”