St. Louis deaths from heroin are hitting an all-time high. The drug has skyrocketed in purity levels and has never been more cheap on the streets. In 2016 alone, the body count for overdosing hit 650. The problem has strong prominence in the community and one former SLU undergraduate, and now graduate student, has stepped forward to talk about the very real and local epidemic.
Roberta Singer is a recovering heroin addict and describes her heroin use as first starting off as an experiment and then evolving into an addiction. Most people turn to heroin after being on prescription drugs. Doctors will get patients hooked and then patients will be suddenly cut off. Heroin ends up being their solution. “I took Vicodin for a wisdom tooth removal as prescribed. It gave me a euphoric feeling,” Singer said. With opiates, there is no “hangover” feeling. “[Heroin is] Not as hard as alcohol so I thought I was doing myself a favor,” said Singer when she recalled her time getting into heroin.
With addiction, once a person starts, they cannot stop. They get terrible withdrawals. “Last time I came off it, I didn’t sleep for 10-11 days,” said Singer. When heroin addiction sets in, it is not about the high anymore. It is about stabilizing and just being normal because the withdrawals are so bad. This why addicts have to keep taking the drug even if they really do not want to anymore. In fact, physiologically, an addict’s brain is wired in a way where continuing to take the drug makes the most sense. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs target the brain’s pleasure and reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Over stimulating this system with drugs is what results in the euphoric feeling that most addicts describe. This then reinforces the act of drug consumption as the brain keeps telling the body to take more. Therefore, addicts enter a cycle in which they find it difficult to escape. “In addicts, the pleasure portion of the brain is more active than in normal brains,” Singer said.
The road to recovery is not an easy one. Singer has had her own battles trying to escape addiction. In May 2015, Singer used heroin for the first time. By November 2015 she began outpatient rehabilitation but then relapsed for a couple of weeks. Between April and June 2016, she stayed clean but started using again and then went back to treatment in January of 2017. When she returned to treatment she underwent a detox.
When describing the detox, Singer said you basically just lie in bed sick. This treatment is intended to just flush the drug out of your system. “It’s hard. You think you can have the life you want and the drug,” Singer said. “Being an addict is lonely because you are constantly lying and alienating the people around you.” Something that helps Singer get through is thinking about her mother. “My mom, I love her to death. I think of it as what I am doing to my body, I am doing to hers,” she said. Singer’s father died from alcoholism when she was 27 and she believes that he too wouldn’t want this life for her
Singer also finds it unfortunate that society’s climate makes it difficult for addicts to come forward and seek help. “We need to have a climate that shouldn’t be punitive. If an addict comes forward they shouldn’t feel like they are going to be punished,” she said. According to Singer and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, merely arresting addicts is not a viable solution to the problem.
“Addiction is a disease and not some moral failing. One of the main reasons that insurance companies began to cover addiction treatment is because the disease model of addiction was finally recognized and the language surrounding it changed,” Singer said. She added that when an addict realizes they are not a terrible person, but that the problem is with their brain, it helps to remove a large amount of guilt and can help addicts heal. While Singer agrees this is not an excuse for bad behavior or harm done under the influence, she still believes looking at addiction as a disease carries a lot of weight and power.
Singer urges addicts, especially those within the SLU community, to not feel alone and see what’s out there. The recovery community is a lot larger than one would think. SLU’s counseling department is a resource. College Church also hosts AA meetings.