Thank God I Was A Heroin Addict
“There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
In 1980, when I was new to South Florida, I read an article in the Miami Herald about a new program in Fort Lauderdale. The article caught my attention because it featured interviews with two heroin-addicted alcoholics who had stories similar to mine. There was a phone number listed and I dialed the number, and someone came to pick me up.
When we arrived at the meeting, I was immediately put off. It was in a makeshift church in dingy storefront. As for the people I saw there, each looked worse than the other. Within a few minutes, I had the feeling that this was just another place where I didn’t belong. I’d spent fifteen years battling my addiction– hospitalizations and suicide attempts were the normal course of business. I was two month shy of my thirty-second birthday and had long since accepted hopelessness as my life.
I thanked the guy who’d picked me up for bringing me, apologized for leaving so soon, and headed for the door. I wanted to get away as fast as I could.
There are those threads in a person’s life which I am convinced are orchestrated by some higher order in the universe. At the exact moment I was leaving, not a minute sooner or later, someone from my past walked through the same door, except he was on his way in.
We were both pretty shocked to see one another. Marc was from the same neighborhood where I grew up in Bayside, Queens. I ended up back in the meeting, cup of coffee in hand. Marc turned out to be the designated speaker that night, but I didn’t need to listen to his story– I’d lived it with him.
We both came of age in the 1960s at the height of the Age of Aquarius. We both hung out with a “rat pack” of close buddies who were always on the cusp of trouble. Marc’s arrests had been in the papers, just like mine. Marc and I started shooting heroin at the same time, and we shot up together regularly. But that evening, when Marc spoke, he told us proudly that he hadn’t found it necessary to put any substances in his body for the last six months.
Six months! My ears perked up. The Marc I remembered couldn’t even go six hours without putting something in his body. The only time I’d known Marc to refuse a drug was when he was already passed out.
That evening marked the start of a 180-degree turnaround in my life. After fifteen years in and out of rehab– I’d even been in a coma where my family was told, “Don’t waste your time visiting. If he happens to live, he is going to be a vegetable!”– I finally quit for real.
And as I put to rest what had been my life, I started an unexpected new life.
One of the experiences Marc and I shared happened when the Queens DA’s office orchestrated a sting on dope-dealing high school students. The cops and the newspapers made a big deal out of this. Next day, we all awoke to screaming headlines– “Early Morning Raid Nets 23 Drug Dealers.” And on the front page of The Daily News was a picture of Marc being dragged from his mom’s house. They made him, all of us, look like big-time dealers. But the worst part was that the reporter who wrote the story mentioned that Marc had had rollers in his hair.
Rollers in his hair!
At the time it happened, Marc was in the doghouse– we all were! But, in retrospect, in the telling the story became hilarious.
I started speaking in front of groups and discovered an unexpected new gift– laughter!
I’d been given the ability to bare my soul in front of audiences and have them laugh and cry. My greatest joy is when someone tells me how their life was transformed after hearing me speak.
All the hell I once experienced has become a tool for me to help others. I have a treasure trove of amazing stories– from when I passed out in a patch of poison ivy to when I hallucinated at a Broadway show (and thought I was part of the performance). From when I sat in a rocking chair watching a TV that didn’t work (I’d just had shock treatments at Creedmoor State Hospital) to my wife telling me, “Stop trying to kill yourself by jumping off the roof… It isn’t high enough!”
The more I was humiliated at the time, the funnier– and more inspiring– it is now when I share it.
What a joy it is to get standing ovations from packed audiences from Montreal to Jerusalem and all over the world!
I have spent the better part of the last 35 plus years helping people get back on the right track. I have spoken in prisons and state hospitals, where I feel very much at home. And I’ve spoken at black-tie galas for the NYC and Palm Beach elite.
It is an overwhelmingly gratifying experience when I see someone’s eyes open. The fact that I am able to write this at all is indeed a miracle.
I sit here with tears in my eyes for two reasons. One is for all the people in my life who succumbed to addiction and died from it. The other, with tears of gratitude, is for being spared and having a life today that is second to none.
I’m using a talent that would have been buried and lost had I not been a heroin addict!
Written by Paul Efron