Pat, a lifelong Philadelphia resident who for several years used methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, sat down with CatholicPhilly.com recently to share his perspectives on Philadelphia’s plans to create a safe injection site for drug users.
After several years of addiction Pat was hospitalized for a stroke and shortly thereafter committed to a recovery facility. Now 54, he is active in local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) chapters and in the Calix Society, a support group for Catholics in recovery. Pat believes that abstinence, combined with spiritual healing, is ultimately the most effective path to long-term sobriety.
Q. Do you think safe injection sites are a viable option for those who are in active addiction?
A. No. Based on my own experience, I wouldn’t have used one, and I don’t believe most people in addiction would. For one thing, most people in that situation like to stay under the radar, so they wouldn’t feel safe going there. They already have Prevention Point (a needle exchange outreach in Philadelphia’s Kensington section). That place is altruistic in nature, but when you’re sick from withdrawal, as soon as you get it (heroin), you’re doing it, so it’s not like you’re going to read literature on recovery. Absolutely not. After you’ve used, you’re in a state of delusion. So reading about recovery options at that point, it’s not happening.
Q. What does the cycle of withdrawal and reuse feel like? What do you experience?
A. When you’re in withdrawal, for some reason, your legs don’t move; there’s just this dead tiredness to your legs. You have no energy, and the nausea is overwhelming. That’s followed by diarrhea. When you inject, you get immediate relief, and the sickness goes away. We called that “getting well,” or “getting your legs.” But when you have a habit already, you don’t get that high anymore. That’s why so many are doing fentanyl; it’s a new high.
After you inject, the immediate rush only lasts a couple of minutes, and then in the mind of someone who’s addicted, you’re already looking at that next bag of heroin. So if you have a habit and it takes you four bags to “get well,” in another five hours, you’ll need another four bags.
Q. Would the prospect of accessing clean needles make you want to visit a safe injection site?
A. I always had a clean needle anyway. You can walk into any pharmacy and buy one for about 49 cents.
Really, if I’m addicted to heroin and I have the means to buy my drug, and if there’s an available shooting gallery (a place where users inject illicit drugs; often an abandoned building), and I know people out on the street have Narcan — why am I going to leave that and go to another place to use?
Most people I’ve known in that level of addiction tend to stay in about a five-square-block area. And at this point, there are more overdoses in South Philly now than in Kensington. So I’m sure no one’s going up from South Philly to Kensington to a safe injection site.
And you’re still stigmatizing the person who’s addicted. Can someone who’s a meth user go into the safe injection site? What about a pot or coke user? Where do they go?
Q. You said you’ve attained sobriety through abstinence. What is your perspective on maintenance medication for heroin withdrawal, such as methadone?
A. You’re trying to replace one drug with another, and it’s proven that it hasn’t worked. I was just at an AA meeting with someone who’s been on methadone for 27 years. They’re zombies at that point, and their whole day is about getting up, getting their coffee, getting on the bus or the train and getting to the clinic. It’s an addiction to a lifestyle.
Q. What roles have AA and the Calix Society played in your recovery?
A. AA identifies alcoholism as a spiritual malady, “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” That’s what Dr. William Silkworth (an American medical doctor and key figure in the founding of AA) maintained. And he knew that very well from his long work with alcoholics.
When I walked into my first Calix Society meeting, I was using two canes, I was stuttering, I couldn’t talk without crying. After Mass, Father Doug (McKay, national chaplain of the Calix Society) gave me the anointing of the sick. I didn’t yet feel the presence of a higher power, but I felt evil leave my body. And I didn’t feel good, I didn’t feel bad — I felt calm.
It got easier to stay clean from that moment. I had already been praying sporadically, but that night, I came home and began searching for different prayers to read, and I became consistent in prayer. And along with seeking recovery through the 12 steps (of AA), I started to search for this contact with a higher power that I knew I could find in the (Catholic) faith I was raised in. It was just going to take me a minute to get there.
Q. In addition to AA and the Calix Society, what other resources do you think are needed to help those struggling with addiction?
A. First off, we need more inpatient rehab places. There are not enough detox facilities in Philadelphia. In the past two weeks, I sent 10 people to the NET (Northeast Treatment Center, an addiction treatment nonprofit in North Philadelphia), and there were no beds available. We need more money invested in detox treatment, abstinence and 30-day inpatient centers, where they can teach cognitive therapy and life skills.
Here’s the problem with safe injection sites: they’re not fostering treatment, they’re deflecting our money to maintenance medications, and to offer maintenance to anyone suffering from opioid addiction is to keep them medicated and down, so their voice won’t be heard.
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