By Jack Adams
Gary, who chose to hide his identity to protect his business, said some people get a headache when they take Advil. But for Gary, “Heroin was my Advil.”
When Gary was 19, he was offered the painkiller Oxycontin by a friend’s brother. But it wasn’t Oxycontin. It was heroin. Gary didn’t like it very much because it made him feel sick, so he tried what he still believed was Oxycontin two months later, and he was hooked. By the time he learned that what he was taking was heroin, he didn’t care.
Gary grew up in a loving home in Vernon Hills, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. He played high school basketball, and had plenty of friends. It was with these friends that he began drinking and smoking weed on weekends, beginning his sophomore year. Gary didn’t consider this to be a big deal; he thought it was just a normal part of being a teenager.
“If you had shown me a crystal ball back then of me being a junkie, I would have never believed you,” Gary said.
By his senior year of high school, Gary began smoking weed every day and would occasionally experiment with other drugs, like mushrooms, cocaine and Oxycontin. His parents had a zero-tolerance for alcohol and drug use, he said, and when his school gave him a code violation for underage drinking, his parents took it seriously. They cracked down on him, but Gary pushed back.
“It’s not that big of a deal, that’s what you do, blah blah blah,” Gary said to his parents.
From that point on, the relationship between Gary and his parents grew worse.
In Vernon Hills, Gary said there is an expectation that you go to college, and most of his friends did. Gary and another friend stayed in Vernon Hills, taking some classes at a community college, but they didn’t take those classes seriously. What he did take seriously was his drugs and alcohol.
His drug and alcohol use persisted, until his parents said they’d had enough and kicked him out of the house. He began living with a friend he prefers to call Tim. It was at Tim’s house that Gary first met heroin.
Gary said his heroin use increased much faster than his use of marijuana. Within two years after he started smoking weed, he began using it every day. Within two months Gary had graduated to snorting heroin every day.
One day, Tim’s brother took them both to the West Side to buy heroin.
“It was like this huge adrenaline rush, being in an area where you know you shouldn’t be.” Gary said. “All this kind of like ghetto, makes you feel badass.”
Gary got the dealers phone number. Now he could buy heroin whenever he wanted.
Gary and Tim introduced heroin to several more of their friends, and within a very short period they were all hooked. Snorting heroin with friends made Gary feel that it was okay to use the drug.
Still, it wasn’t long before Gary began to snort heroin alone.
Gary was snorting 13 bags of heroin a day; that’s 13 grams, which normally costs $10 a bag, but by buying 13 bags at once, Gary got a bargain, called a jab: buy 10, get three free.
He had a regular dealer whom he would meet on the West Side or in the Loop. If he couldn’t reach his dealer he would resort to what is known as “going shopping.”
Gary drove slowly through the West Side, past certain spots on Cicero Avenue, and looked for people standing on street corners.
“When they would see that you were white, they knew that you wanted something,” Gary said. “They started yelling ‘rocks and loads,’ which is crack and heroin.”
Gary said police stopped him twice. They searched him and found his wallet full of money and asked him if he was in the area to buy drugs.
“You say no,” Gary said. “And they say you’re full of shit.”
Gary said the cops took his money and told him he wasn’t going to get high that night. When he complained, they took his cell phone, found his mothers number, and asked Gary how he thought his mother would feel if they told her that her son was in the ghetto at 2 a.m. buying drugs.
“That’s the way it was,” Gary said. “If you bitched they would tell on you.”
After a year and a half of using heroin, Gary was growing tired of being a junkie. It wasn’t fun anymore, and he said he realized his life was going nowhere, so he checked into a rehab facility. There, he was given a drug called Suboxone, which blocks the brain receptors that make a heroin high possible. The drug must be taken every day to work, which Gary did for 11 months after he left rehab. Then his dosage ran out, and he forgot to refill it.
The doctor who prescribed the drug was out of town, so for two weeks, Gary had no access to his only deterrence from taking heroin.
“The Grim Reaper is just waiting. The withdrawals don’t go away,” Gary said. “You’re just offsetting them.”
He started where he had left off, snorting 13 bags of heroin a day, one bag every hour, to maintain his high.
For three months Gary said he used heroin every day, and every day he told himself that he was going to quit.
“I would set things up to trick myself into thinking I was a productive member of society,” Gary said. He would dress well and listen to NPR to feel as though he was above a common junkie.
“If I’m going to be using,” Gary said, “I want to be as productive and ‘booshi’ about it as possible.”
Gary said he knew that there was a better way to live, but he didn’t think he was capable of living without heroin.
After three months Gary said he was constantly sick and ready to quit again. He called a friend in New York and told him he wanted to quit. Gary said he believes he chose a friend 800 miles away because he thought the distance wouldn’t interfere with his addiction.
To his surprise, his buddy called a mutual friend who did live close to Chicago that Gary had known since the age of two. That friend checked Gary into a hotel in an attempt to cut him off from heroin and to be there to help Gary through withdrawal.
“I was such a piece of shit that I brought dope into the hotel,” Gary said, “and I was just in the hotel with him getting high.”
When his supply of heroin ran out, Gary said he made up excuses to leave the hotel to buy more. His friend let him leave, but only on the condition that he follow along in his own car to watch Gary. When Gary left, he headed directly to the West Side with his friend following right behind.
Before getting to the West Side, Gary pulled into a parking lot, and his friend pulled up next to him. Both got out of their cars and right there in that parking lot Gary confronted his friend, telling him he was going to get high and that his friend was either for him or against him.
“As soon as I open up the passenger door he gets in, gives me two good shots to the face,” Gary said, mentioning that his friend was a minor league baseball player, “and takes my keys and my wallet and says, ‘You’re going to rehab. Let me know when you’re ready to go.’”
For the next eight hours Gary said they sat in the parking lot waiting for Gary’s parents and an ex-girlfriend to arrive. Gary argued with all of them, saying he wanted to get high one last time. They wouldn’t hear of it. Within eight hours, Gary had checked into a rehab center, still wearing the black eye his friend gave him. He hasn’t taken heroin since.
Gary now had the time and energy to launch the janitorial business he had planned while still using heroin. He married the ex-girlfriend who helped him get clean, and they bought a house together. They’re expecting a son in April.
But Gary still thinks about using heroin sometimes.
“I’m always going to feel triggered by times of stress,” Gary said, ”or maybe just because it’s sunny outside and Wednesday.”