If you’ve ever seen an opioid detox, or lived through one, you know how frightening of an experience it is for addicts. We will do anything in our power to avoid going through that withdrawal, including lie, beg, borrow, and steal. The very thought of going through withdrawal sets an addict in motion first thing in the morning, just like someone who gets up and heads to work, they get up and start scheming. Where will the money come from? Do I have some method of getting money that doesn’t hurt anyone but me? Can I sell a treasured heirloom of mine? How about one that belongs to someone else? They’ll understand, right?
The time I feared withdrawal the most was when I got arrested in Waterbury a few years ago. I had taken the bus from my sober house in New Haven and sat the hour long ride into the dirty water. I had to get off and catch another bus to get to my dealer’s spot. You know in rap songs when they talk about the trap house? People love to quote those rhymes. Trust me, a trap house is not a glamorous place and you don’t want to be a trap queen either. The trap queens I’ve met live a dangerous and terrifying life. They take all the risks. The live in squalor. In this particular trap, there’s a broken crib in the kitchen where a baby plays with a cardboard box. It always smells like dirty diapers, because they save them to stash drug trash in so they can throw it out and not worry about it leading back to them.
So I got what I needed and I then walked a few miles to a Home Depot nearby. They have public restrooms that nobody really uses or pays attention to, or so I thought. I had a stress fracture in my foot at the time, and was walking through the snow and ice on it, just making the whole situation worse.
It was during a particular cold spell, and I had on two scarves, two pairs of pants, and two pairs of gloves. This is how badly a person will fight against impending withdrawal.
An another note, my mother had already picked me up and taken me to the Yale Hospital branch in Guilford to have a look at my foot. During registration they asked about allergies, and as was our policy at the time I stated that I was allergic to opiates. As Robert Downey Jr. once said, “They make me break out in handcuffs.” When I eventually see the APRN who is assigned to me, she is short and rude with us from the moment she walks in the room. I immediately know and understand that I’m being profiled, treated as drug seeking, and my very real injury is being ignored.
This is a common occurrence for addicts, whether they are in recovery or not. If someone is using, it doesn’t make their injury or sickness any less real. It still demands the same attention and treatment that a normal person would receive. I wasn’t even looking for pain medication, I never even asked for it. I wanted her to fix my broken foot. Simple as that. She told me it was a sprain, gave me an ace bandage and some crutches and sent us on our way. No x-rays, no imaging of any kind. I was living on the third floor of an old mansion in New Haven that was my sober house. It had been a plantation long ago, and was old and the stairs were steep and narrow. So crutches were not going to help me at all.
So back to Waterbury and the Home Depot. I have my dope, I’m in a bathroom stall, and I am trying to not only get high but medicate the injury that I am aggressively aggravating traipsing around the state on foot in the snow and ice. I guess I overdid it. I passed out. I wake up and about seven Waterbury police officers, all men of course, are standing outside my stall in the Women’s bathroom yelling and pounding on my door. They think they’re so smart and make a big show of searching all my possessions, but since they were so busy shaming me and calling me a junkie they didn’t even find all my drugs or paraphernalia that I had on me. Should have focused on actually doing their jobs, I guess.
They insist on putting me in handcuffs, behind my back, and parade me out through the store like a trophy. Every single person in the store turns to stare at me, mouths gaping, eyes wide. I am a spectacle, just like they want me to be. There are five cruisers out front, and a transport van to bring me to the station. No ambulance, I notice. I guess they didn’t care if I might have needed Narcan or medical attention. No one even asked me if I was okay or needed any help. Their concern was primarily with punishing me as an addict, embarrassing me as much as possible, and belittling me to their little hearts’ content.
I have already been arrested a few times in my life and I know I am running out of get out of jail free cards. I am worried they’re going to hold me for bail. This means I will start to detox in custody, with no medical attention. I have never been more terrified. I am in a cell that is the definition of cold and dark. I have nothing but a metal ledge to sit on and a toilet. I have to ask for toilet paper so I can go to the bathroom while they watch me through the bars. Luckily, after all the years of supervised drug tests, I’m pretty good at peeing in front of strange women. Now I learn how to pee in front of strange men.
Law enforcement may just be doing their jobs in arresting addicts. The cops on the street have little say in what they do and who they choose to arrest. I imagine that any sympathetic cops are likely paired with a hard ass partner, so they are forced to arrest people who they may have been inclined to let go. They don’t make the laws they enforce. I will never be mad at a nice, sympathetic, understanding officer who is just doing their job. I’ve been in trouble before, and that didn’t mean the officers I was dealing with had to treat me like the scum of the earth. They were kind, curious, wanting to know what went wrong for me and encouraged me to get help.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered officers who thrived on my pain and discomfort. The first time I got arrested, the cop’s father worked for my father. He drove the cruiser to my house, with me in the backseat, and made me watch from the driveway as he personally went to the door to notify my father. Not exactly protocol, but he definitely got his rocks off on it. “So your dad is a big boss up in Cheshire, huh?” he says to me as he cuffs me. I didn’t even know at the time that my father was anyone’s boss, let alone this cop’s fathers. For the first time in our then troubled relationship, I actually feel heartbroken for my father and how he will feel walking in to work the next morning. This cop went out of his way to personally embarrass me, and then my completely innocent father. This is what makes it difficult for an addict to have any kind of relationship with the police, even in recovery. I still remember every word this cop said to me, over a decade ago.
The people who determine that we get locked up and incarcerated without medical detox, ultimately, are the lawmakers in our states and in congress. I personally feel that before anyone is allowed to introduce or vote on any drug legislation, that they should have to experience a full blown opiate withdrawal in a jail cell. I guarantee you, if they knew what kind of inhumane practice they were encouraging, every single addict would be administered medication before they even got into holding.
If an addict commits a burglary, or some other violent crime, then yes there should be a criminal punishment for that. It is unfortunate that because of the lack of access to treatment, that addicts are forced to commit these terrible crimes in order to avoid withdrawal.
But why, if an addict is only in possession of drugs for their own private use inside of their own private hell, do we need to put them through our broken criminal justice system?
And for the love of God, why do we need to put their names in the paper and their faces on TV? In case the addict themselves is not sufficiently shamed or embarrassed, let’s make sure to drag their innocent families into the mix. Let’s make sure everyone knows the terrible struggle this person is dealing with. For what purpose? Who does it benefit? Who is helped by knowing that John Doe in Town X was caught in possession of narcotics? How does that make anyone’s day better? It doesn’t. This antiquated practice should be done away with immediately, and I will fight for this until the day I die. So now a person has been forced to withdraw cold turkey in a jail cell and on top of all that, be publicly dragged through the mud all because they have a disease.
On that night in Waterbury, they continue to screw me. I start to wish they would keep me overnight so I’d already be in town to pick up first thing in the morning, if they let me out at all. I’m still terrified they’re going to demand a bond and I’m pretty sure my mother wouldn’t pay it at this point. They decide to wait until all the buses stop running for the night and set me free.
I have to call a friend in Florida and ask for her to give me her credit card number so I can charge a taxi all the way back to New Haven. It costs about a hundred dollars. I promise to pay her back. Of course, I never do. I arrive back at the sober house in my cab and act like nothing happened. Just like after my overdose. I just bury it all and deal with it on my own.
I wind up taking a bus to court for my first appearance, before my mother inevitably finds out what happened and drives me going forward. The prosecutor tries to offer me a suspended sentence, leaving me with a felony on my record, for the nonviolent, victim-less crime of possessing drugs. Luckily, I’ve done my research and I know there is a program available to me because of my mental health history. I ask him about it and he says no. So now I have to get a public defender.
The preferential treatment I receive from the judge becomes customary to me. White girl, in a suit, people mistake me for a lawyer rather than a broke addict with a public defender. I am back in sobriety at this point, enrolled in treatment, and I know for sure I’ll be walking out of there with community service. I watch the black and Hispanic drug offenders get clacked into handcuffs before me. I watch the poor people of every race get harsher punishments, more community service, bigger fines, less chances. This has become routine for me as it is now my fourth arrest, and by default I’ve been in the courtroom more than my fair share of times.
I know if I was not who I am, not privileged, that I would’ve needed to be bailed out in Waterbury. Sure, they embarrassed me, belittled me, made me cry, and called me names. Sure they let me out into the streets of Waterbury in the middle of the night with no way home. But in the world of addiction, with opioid withdrawal as a consequence, they still did me a favor. They made sure that I wouldn’t be going through detox in a cell. Forget about medication, you don’t even have the comfort of a bed for your incredibly sore muscles. You don’t have a shower to sit in, where you can flash the water from cold to hot to try and soothe the erratic temperature shifts. You don’t have a basin to throw up in, so you’re crawling to the metal toilet on the cold concrete. You don’t have anyone to take your blood pressure, in case you’re someone with a pre-existing condition who is susceptible to actually dying from withdrawal. I cannot imagine a more painful and unpleasant experience.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, except lawmakers and police. I think that collectively, if the people who determine when non-violent drug offenders are going to detox in jail knew what they were signing someone up for, things would change very fast.
We would see laws that protect addicts, rather than demonize them. We would see tax dollars dedicated to building treatment facilities, not prisons. But things are changing, believe it or not. If you’re new to the world of addiction, things probably seem pretty bleak to you. Just thank your lucky stars you weren’t dealing with this ten years ago. There are resources out there now, and people like myself, who make themselves available to shorten your learning curve and minimize your pain. You are spoiled with resources and you don’t even know it. So please, ask for help. You deserve it.
©Copyright 2016 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin
DISCLAIMER: This is not intended to be an attack on police officers. There are many honest, caring officers out there who risk their lives every day doing their job. I commend any man or woman who goes to work each day to serve and protect their community. This blog reflects my personal experience with the criminal justice system as a whole, including the officers I’ve encountered in that process. If the shoe fits, then wear it. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t apply to you or your loved one in law enforcement.