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Two journeys back from heroin addiction

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2012 - It starts innocently enough with pills, little capsules or tablets of opioid, depressants or stimulants. People use them to stay awake or fall asleep, ease depression or boost self-confidence. Or simply to get high because the medications have turned them into addicts.

When their sources of prescription drugs run dry, experts say some people feed the addiction by turning to heroin because it’s relatively cheap and plentiful. Officials say heroin has claimed approximately 500 lives in the St. Louis region in the past two years. The largest number of heroin cases has been in the south and central parts of St. Louis County. On average, area users are said to start experimenting with the drug at age 17 and often suffer a fatal overdose by age 25, unless they are lucky enough to get help.

By geography and age, Andrea Purvis fits the profile. She began experimenting with heroin in high school after being introduced to it by an older friend.

“At first, she'd ask us, and we’d say ‘no.’ But after a while, it seemed so normal because she was doing it, and she seemed fine. So I guess that made it seem safer. We tried it, and things just kind of escalated from there.”

One November morning during her junior year at Lindbergh High School, Purvis woke up and made a decision to break away from those friends -- and from her addiction.

“I felt really sick that morning. It’s like when you are hot and freezing at the same time. I was sweating and my body ached. It’s not a very enjoyable feeling.”

The incident became what she calls a “moment of clarity,” the point at which she decided “I’m not going to do this anymore.”

The thought strengthened her conviction to get up and make it to school. Rather than going to class, she headed straight to her counselor’s office, talked about her problem and was referred to Preferred Family Healthcare for treatment. The company serves many chemically dependent students in school districts throughout St. Louis.

Kids are reluctant to admit or confess problems with pain pills or heroin, Purvis says, even as they experience so-called "dope sickness," whose symptoms include loss of appetite, vomiting, being unable to sleep, and aching “in places you didn’t even know could ache.”

Purvis tries to use her own experience as a cautionary tale for others, making it a point to visit her old school and talk to students about the danger of saying yes even once to heroin and other drugs.

It’s important that vulnerable youngsters hear her experience, she says, because many of them dismiss the thought of being tempted to experiment with pain pills and heroin. “They think that they are invincible. They hear about this stuff (heroin), but they don’t think how close it is to them or how easily it (addiction) could happen to them even if they say yes once.”

As for personal goals, her next move is to enroll at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, but she hasn’t decided on a major.

“I’d like to take it step by step,” she says.

From pain pills to heroin

Chad Sabora is a recovering addict who wants to give back in a much bigger way. He’s a founding member of stlheroinhelp.org, which focuses on resources to address addiction and the toll it takes on addicts, families and communities.

He says his own addiction began as a way of coping with the deaths of both parents from cancer over an 18-month period.  His eventual downfall was all the more painful because he was a lawyer for the Cook County prosecutor’s office in Chicago.

“I ended up seeing a psychiatrist who’d give me any pill I’d ask for. Plain and simple, I was taking a large amount of pain pills daily just to function. It reached the point that I was getting so many prescriptions that I was cut off.”

Once that happened, he said he started “getting into dope sickness coming off the pain pills. I couldn’t handle it. That’s when I switched over to heroin.”

In 2008 he was arrested and jailed on drug charges. Over time, he said, “I’d lost my law license, my fiancée had left me, and my house was in foreclosure. Yet none of these things stopped me from using heroin.”

Finally, last year, after periods in and out of rehab, Saboda says he told himself, “I’m done. I’m sick and tired of being sick. I don’t want to be this person anymore. I’m this monster that nobody knows. I hurt everybody I love and I can’t be like that anymore.”

The day he made and kept that promise to himself, his “clean date,” was June 9, 2011. “When I got out (of rehab) after that, I changed people, changed places, threw away all my phone numbers and got heavily involved in a recovery program.”

He now earns his living as a waiter. In his spare time, he tries to give people a glimpse of the trench from which he has escaped, so that they might understand what heroin is doing and can do to others.

Recently, he and another recovering addict, Michael Friedman, returned to some north side locations that they found painful to revisit because it stirred memories of their former lives as junkies.

In a video shot at one of the sites, Friedman recalls the time he joined friends in search of heroin in the West Florissant DeSoto area. They had parked their car and were waiting to pick up the drugs they had just bought when the transaction was interrupted.

“We heard two shotgun blasts,” he recalls. “We saw people running in all directions. But our first thought was that we can’t go anywhere because our dope is coming.”

The experience reminds him now how “sick” he and his friends must have been. “If anyone hears a shotgun blast, the first thought should be self-preservation. Our first thought was: I don’t want to be sick tonight, so I’ll take my chances.”

Sabora picks up the story, describing his memories of junkies parking at a certain location in the Hall Street area, getting out to use the “dope phone” at a corner to call their contacts to buy heroin. “We are injecting stuff. We have no idea what’s in it or where it’s coming from, and that’s causing lots of people to die down here.”

Down here, he says, he can see things on certain street corners that elude the eyes of law-abiding people. “I can drive down the street and make eye contact with somebody for a second and the feeling I get will define our relationship. That’s my dealer.”

The place he is describing is not far from the St. Louis medium-security institution or the Work House.

“If you stay in this area long enough, that’s where you are headed.”

He refuses to sugarcoat his warning about the drug’s impact.

“Heroin has only one goal, to kill us, to strip us of everything. It’s progressive; things keep getting worse. Like cancer, it’s incurable. But it can be treated successfully. I’m proof of that.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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