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One woman's descent into Minneapolis' heroin epidemic

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It all started when I was 15, back in New Jersey, with a guy passed out in a bathtub. I walked in to pee and saw his fully clothed figure, limbs splayed over the empty tub's rim.

I stood hypnotized as another girl at the party crept in, shutting the door behind her. She was from my high school, one of those girls with a sketchy reputation.

She emptied a miniature bag onto the ceramic sink counter, leaving a tiny pile of beige powder. I bent down and inhaled sharply through a rolled-up dollar bill, filling my nostril.

I arrived in Minneapolis seven years later with two suitcases and some spare change. By then it had become habit to run from myself to a new city. I thought Minneapolis was different. I had sober friends here who wanted to help me.

Paralyzed by the 27-hour Megabus ride from L.A., I crumpled into the depot wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, convinced this Arctic tundra was so far removed that the dope man would never reach me. It didn't take long to realize that I'd actually managed to land smack dab in the middle of a narcotics bazaar.

The heroin epidemic is here. As pain pills become too expensive, heroin serves as a cheaper, more abundant aid for killing what ails you. It's not just on the North Side, or in the dead-eyed vagrants downtown. This is a giant spider web, reaching out from cities to suburbs and into the vastness beyond. It looks the same as the places I ran from, maybe worse.

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Newspapers chronicle big busts and overdose victims, while readers seem surprised it's all around them. People cling to stereotypes, disbelieving that a polite, well-educated white girl (like me) could ever be a junkie. Didn't we all go through D.A.R.E. class?

But heroin doesn't choose its victims based on gender, ethnicity, education, or class. Addiction doesn't discriminate.

I met Mary at a bar one night. It didn't take long to figure out she was high. Her eyes were a striking blue with pupils the size of pinpoints, outlined by dark circles she blamed on work. Our friendship grew rapidly, though I knew I was tempting fate. I told her my story, dropping subtle hints of temptation.

On a Wednesday night several months later, we were drunk. Closing time was approaching at a downtown bar. I followed her into the bathroom, joining her in a stall.

Our two figures flanked the toilet bowl and she pulled a small satchel from her purse. Mary unfolded a scrap of tin foil and placed a chunk of black tar heroin atop it. She flicked a lighter beneath the foil and began melting the dope, forming dark, dripping lines to chase with the straw between her lips, sucking up the smoke.

She grinned guiltily. "I feel so bad for doing this with you," she said, then handed me the tools.

My hands were shaking but my mouth was sure. I sucked in the familiar smoke, keeping the straw aligned with the shrinking, streaking tar. The rush was immediate, familiar. I felt a warmth envelop me from inside out, a blanket extending from my innards to engulf me.

Taking turns, we sucked our lover dry, then flushed the evidence. We paused for a selfie before exiting. Mary and I exchanged knowing glances. I was home again.

Mary introduced me to Joseph, who became my supplier. I gave him the entry code to my apartment. Every morning he let himself in, waking me so I could throw money down from my loft bed. He'd disappear for about 45 minutes while I slept, then crawl into the loft with me and shoot up while I smoked my tar.

Every time the heroin hit me, the world went away. The anxious voices in my head stopped talking. My problems ceased to exist. I somehow maintained a steady waitressing job that gave me cash for each day's pickup.

The more I smoked, the more I needed to smoke. I started waking up feeling cold and fearful, desperate to retreat to my lover's arms. Instead of waiting in bed for Joseph, I began crawling down the ladder and joining him so I could get high in the car.

We pulled up to the morning's designated spot in a south Minneapolis neighborhood and anxiously smoked cigarettes. I fidgeted with my hair while he fidgeted with the radio. Though it was summer, I was holding a sweater tightly around myself, skin crawling with goosebumps.

Joseph talked me through the withdrawals, though he was experiencing them just as badly. I kept my eyes on the side mirror, looking for the familiar vehicle's approach. I sighed with relief when it appeared, crouching so that the driver wouldn't notice me.

Joseph sauntered down the block, hopping into the passenger's side and disappearing around the corner. Sweat leaked from every pore, though I was freezing. I gathered my tools in my lap: foil, lighter, straw. I counted up to 10 and back down to one until I saw his slight figure walking back to the car, a black outline against the green of grass and blue of sky.

He got in and handed me a balloon, which I ripped open with my teeth. I smoked vigorously. My bones ached with every movement and I felt as if my body was covered with bruises. Slowly this feeling began to dissipate as the chunk of tar grew smaller.

We turned up the radio and drove back to my place with the windows down. Wind that just 10 minutes ago felt like murder was suddenly soothing. I rested my head back and allowed my eyes to close as he drove, trusting we would reach our destination. He had more balloons in his pocket. The day had only begun.

Sarah, in a T-shirt that once belonged to her friend Joseph

Sarah, in a T-shirt that once belonged to her friend Joseph

Co-workers started to notice strange visitors and my habitual bathroom breaks. Sometimes I couldn't pick up before work, so I showed up sweating and silent until Joseph arrived in the back alley.

I couldn't make it through a full shift without getting high. At one job, a patron witnessed me "smoking drugs" in the bathroom during a busy Saturday night. At another, I accidentally left the safe open after shutting down one evening.

I'd already been given a month's leave to seek treatment. I'd already returned from that "leave" to be caught several times by co-workers smoking heroin in the restroom. I was given every chance because they saw the person in me apart from the sickness. They even prefaced my firing with an apology.

To them, I was human. To myself, I was machine, powered by narcotics.

So I decided to give stripping a try. I'd lost all sense of reason.

At a strip club in downtown Minneapolis, I constantly retreated to the bathroom to smoke heroin. The other girls didn't talk to me much; they could tell something was wrong. I could barely walk in my heels. But I did my best to saunter sexily and sell lap dances.

On game days, sports fans showed up drunk, offering me ludicrous amounts of money to sleep with them. I smiled and laughed, but inside I wanted to gouge out their eyes with my acrylic nails. They bought me tequila shots that I dumped on the floor behind me, no one the wiser.

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One customer was different. He was handsome, thirtysomething, assured. He'd arrived with a coked-out friend, who spastically pranced toward the stage. Clearly he was playing babysitter tonight.

He sat at the bar, apologetically offering to buy me a drink, and asked what I was doing in a place like this.

I told him that I was once a varsity athlete in track who earned a full scholarship to the State University of New York as a visual arts major. This is my truth. I typically stuck to forced laughter and casual banter, but I wanted this dark-eyed stranger to know who I really was.

He listened, enraptured, as I explained how I wound up throwing my dreams into the gutter for reasons I did not wish to explain. "You remind me of Bettie Page," he said, and ordered me another drink.

The nice man showed up regularly, paying in the neighborhood of $300 an hour to bring me to a back room to spend time with me alone. When I looked in the mirror, there was a beautiful girl staring back, but only because I coated her with makeup and carefully did my hair.

Joseph picked me up from work each night. We would stay up until dawn watching old episodes of Daria and doing heroin. He'd massage my aching legs and feet while I counted out money for the next morning's dope run.

About a month into my stripping career, I was called into the manager's office. "Why do you bring your purse into the bathroom each time you go?" the manager asked.

I stared at him blankly, stunned. I had a pack of cigarettes tucked into my garter and he asked to see it. I handed it over, continuing to stare as if he were speaking another language. It contained a small bundle of heroin.

He muttered something vague about doing whatever I wanted to at home as long as I didn't bring it into his club, then put me on a month's leave. I was escorted out with 80 dollars in my pocket.

He didn't take my heroin, so I smoked the rest and sat crying on my bed, wondering why I was too scared to kill myself. Wondering if I was already dead and just slinking through hell.

The heat in my apartment never worked right, so I slept with a giant space heater in front of my mattress on the floor. I woke up every morning freezing, shaking, and reaching for my phone to see what time it was and if the dealer was open yet.

Joseph had a family reunion out of town. He promised that a mutual friend would supply me with dope while he was gone. I couldn't use the coveted number to the deep voice who instructed us where to pick up each morning. The dealer only knew Joseph. He wouldn't sell to just anyone who called.

Things went as planned until the fourth day Joseph was away. Our mutual friend turned off his phone. I probably called a hundred times, getting nothing but voicemail as I grew sicker and sicker. My body was shaking. I kept trying to vomit but nothing would come out.

Once, when Joseph's phone battery was dying, he'd borrowed mine to call the dealer. I'd secretly saved the number for an emergency. I pressed send, trembling. The deep voice answered.

"Hello," I said. "This is Joseph's friend, Sarah. Can I meet you?" Snot ran down my chin as I rocked myself back and forth on the mattress.

"Who is this?" the deep voice asked. "This is Sarah. Joseph's friend. I am always in the car with him when he comes to meet you. He's out of town right now and I need to see you. Can I please meet you?"

I started to cry. The deep voice instructed me to call Joseph and have him call the number, verifying that I could be trusted.

Joseph was livid that I'd saved the number. But I was crying hysterically. He promised to make something work.

It wasn't long before the deep-voiced man was parked outside my apartment. I asked for the usual amount, handing the man a wad of cash. "This is too much," he said. He then gave me twice the amount of dope I'd been anticipating.

It was then I discovered that I'd been funding Joseph's habit. I cut off ties with him, realizing the power this phone number yielded.

With the ability to buy heroin cheaply and easily, I knew that if I hooked up my friends, I could fund my own habit off of theirs. It was a hook-up fee, I rationalized, not the blatant robbing Joseph had been doing to me for so long.

The phone calls started coming at 7 a.m. I was living with a boyfriend I'd met in the dope game, a musician hiding his habit. A pile of money sat on the desk next to our scale. My phone rang incessantly.

I hated myself, but I blotted it out by smoking as much heroin as I could while attempting to run a business of sorts. I survived on cereal, candy, and pizza. One of my customers worked for a pizza chain. He would give me gift certificates in exchange for deliveries during the few times I ever left the apartment.

There was no reason to go outside, other than to get dope. Then I'd return to sit on the bed, chain smoking and watching movies that I couldn't remember, so I'd watch them again.

People did everything I wanted as long as I gave them dope. There was no friendship. There were only people waiting to use me for what I had. Sometimes Joseph called, crying, and I would help him with a little tar.

I held on to my shredded empathy, staring knowingly into their dead eyes. I couldn't live without it either.

Everyone disgusted me. When I looked at them I saw a reflection of myself. But despite my repulsion, I kept answering the phone and opening the door, wishing I could make this all go away.

I had known sobriety before. I'd had a life and real friends. I felt love. And I wanted these things back.

I began admitting myself to detox, using county insurance to foot the bill. Each time, I arrived at the emergency room in Fairview Riverside Hospital with gray skin clinging to bones that protruded jaggedly and seemed to rattle between whatever muscle I had left.

I avoided showering for days. My clothes hung from my body. People looked at me strangely, moving away. Old friends barely spoke to me.

In the detox ward my life was organized. They gave me buprenorphine, meant to alleviate the torture of withdrawals. Sometimes I felt like it wasn't working, so I signed myself out early. If I stayed, I'd wander the halls and annoy the staff. They turned off the television at night, so I learned to bring books. But my vision was sometimes so blurred I couldn't read.

There were visitors from Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous who brought meetings to the ward. I resented these people. They reminded me of the first meeting my parents made me attend as a teenager, where I was instructed to introduce myself with the phrase, "I'm Sarah, and I'm an addict."

Ever since, I'd felt condemned to this identity. Half the patients in detox were too fucked up by withdrawals or medicine to stay awake through the meetings. Others would brag of their adventures, saying they were only in detox due to arrest or being forced by parents. Some wept, both in gratitude and despair. Still others brimmed with enthusiasm, finally seeing this as a viable way out, their detoxified vision now clear.

I would occasionally awake without knowing how I'd arrived. I wanted to leave immediately. Other times I wished they'd keep me locked up forever so I could eat popsicles, watch the Discovery Channel, and never have to face the outside world again. The idea of living any semblance of a normal life was terrifying. I had forgotten who I was.

During one of these detox stays, I was more determined than usual. Then I watched my roommate pull a syringe and some dope from her hiding place in the bathroom ceiling. I called Joseph. Despite our falling out, I knew he'd get me immediately. I had cash.

I shoved my belongings into a trash bag and sneaked downstairs, running out of the emergency room doors and into his awaiting Toyota. We spent seven days straight getting high, driving, talking, sleeping. On the seventh night, he dropped me off at my house.

"I love you," he told me. "You are the only person in this world who will ever understand me."

In the morning I was violently awoken by my boyfriend. He told me to get up and answer the phone. I kept shrugging him off until he crawled on top of me and shoved the phone into my face.

A friend was on the line. He was crying. "Joseph overdosed and died," he managed to choke out.

I attended Joseph's funeral dope-sick, sitting with sunglasses on and crying hysterically, blaming myself for his death. The parts inside of me that were still alive were shriveling as his family walked up the aisle. His junkie friends filled the pews. The choir sang "Forever Young."

Outside it began to rain. I found a ride home, where heroin was waiting. I got high and wanted to die. Then a thought: I'm already dead.

The cops finally got me on a December midnight. I was getting a ride from Northeast to Loring Park. The flashing lights shattered me. Someone must have tipped them. Why else would they ask for a passenger's ID?

They ran my name. There was a warrant for my arrest, an old court appearance for shoplifting I'd ignored. The officers noticed a marijuana pipe on the floor. Soon there was a drug dog sniffing out the heroin stashed in the bottom of my purse.

I spent the first two days in the Hennepin County Jail lying on a cot. The lights never turned off; they just dimmed. But I couldn't sleep anyway. My withdrawals were violent.

On the third day I rose for the morning count and suddenly felt voraciously hungry. I ate an apple and immediately projectile vomited. The guards screamed at me, throwing a mop and bucket my way, ordering me to clean myself up.

There was vomit in my hair. I was instructed to shower, surprised by the relief from the water pouring over my emaciated body.

At one point it got so bad I hobbled to the door and pushed the call button. A voice over the PA asked what I needed. "I can't breathe right and I feel dizzy. I think I am going to have a seizure." The voice instructed me to return to my cot. Help was on the way.

I woke four hours later. No one had come. An inmate put her blanket over me. I had been covered in goosebumps and freezing as the withdrawals got worse and worse. The women in holding had checked on me themselves, making sure I was still breathing.

Nearly a week in I was finally scheduled to appear in court. I stood before the judge and pleaded guilty to fifth-degree felony possession of heroin. I was released on my own recognizance, assigned a temporary probation officer, and ordered to phone in daily to see if it was my turn to submit a urine sample that day.

Hours later, after dark, I was led into a room where they returned my clothes and provided me with a secondhand winter coat. I walked into the subzero January night in a miniskirt with not a dollar to my name and nowhere to go. Another prisoner who had just been released gave me 20 dollars. I took a taxi to an old dealer's house nearby, got high, and found my way back to where I'd been staying before the arrest.

I accepted that prison or death were my only alternatives to getting sober. I went to a treatment center for one day, but they had no detox facilities. So I hid in various basements for nearly a month, resentfully getting high enough to be "well." Finally the phone call came. I was facing serious prison time for avoiding my probation officer and drug testing.

I entered detox, then treatment. I was sick, malnourished, and terrified, but pharmaceuticals helped the first 30 days fly by. Rather than re-entering a world that had become so terrifying, I chose to continue treatment for another 90 days in a separate facility. I then lived in a sober house for a year.

I didn't know how to live on my own.

I cut everyone and everything drug-related from my life. I actually listened to the people around me. I was finally willing to admit that I couldn't do it alone.

I did what my counselors told me to do. Each morning became less painful. Every night my sleep became more peaceful. I started talking, and then I couldn't stop. I told all of my secrets until there were no more inside me. Every day I took a bath and cried for Joseph. It had been almost a year but I had never truly grieved.

I dreamed of him one night. I was at his funeral, and noticed him sitting a few pews ahead. I ran to him, clenched his hand, tears flowing. Joseph held my hand and smiled. Then he laughed. "I'm okay," he said, eyes bright. "Don't worry about me."

It was just how it would have happened in reality — Joseph always kept it light, somehow burning through the darkness. I woke up smiling. It was the first time I'd woken up smiling in years.

Those were the best days of my life. My charges were dropped after I completed a program for first-time offenders. I started school again. I made friends who actually cared about me as a person, rather than for the drugs or money I had in my pocket.

I have relapsed since then, and made the decision to go on Suboxone. It is a newer alternative to methadone, one that prevents me from craving opiates and won't allow any opiate to have an effect on me.

Every morning I awake and stick a strip of the Suboxone to the bottom of my tongue, then wait for the awful chemical to reach my taste buds, reminding me that I'm still dependent.

This is not the ultimate solution. I am intent upon slowly decreasing my dosage until I'm entirely clean.

I continue to lose friends to this addiction, this thing people call a disease. There are too many categories and labels for me to feel comfortable using any of them.

I am Sarah, and I'm a human being.

I am turning 29 this January. Every single morning I'm grateful to still be here. I sleep underneath a dream catcher and a small pouch that contains a ring that Joseph gave me. I speak to him as if he were still here.

It's not often that people get as many chances as I've had. I get the feeling there may not be any left. If I could take everything back, I wouldn't. I could not be the person I am now without my past. I love myself too much to live beneath a shadow of regret.ç