In Durham, one woman’s struggle with heroin addiction

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comApril 6, 2014 

— Heroin may be a new drug for some who are switching from prescription painkillers. It is not new to April Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, 32, is a heroin addict. She grew up in East Durham in a family ravaged by drugs – a father she described as a raging alcoholic, a mother hooked on prescription pills and an older brother whose addiction to crack keeps him in and out of prison. At her request, The News & Observer agreed not to use her full name.

Since 2005, state court records show that Elizabeth has been a regular in Durham County court for criminal charges directly and indirectly related to her addiction: possession of drug paraphernalia in 2012 and 2010, prostitution arrests in 2009 and 2010, larceny in 2008, shoplifting in 2005. The courts in each instance sentenced her to probation, community service and drug treatment programs.

As a child, she learned to cope by keeping her mouth shut around her volatile parents.

“If I opened my mouth and said the wrong thing, I got my ass whupped,” she said.

“I swore I would never use,” Elizabeth said. “I used to laugh at prostitutes, and I ended up being one.”

Trying to cope

Elizabeth used heroin for the first time when she was 18 after she found it difficult to cope with her autistic son, of whom she says she lost custody because of her addiction. Now, she struggles with a $120-a-day habit. She says a $60 package contains about one half gram – enough for the two shots she needs each day and one the following morning when she wakes up “dope sick.” She hasn’t worked in five years because some mornings she wakes up with no idea of where she is.

“I started prostituting because there was no way in the world I could drag myself up to go to a job,” she said. “I was puking, cold sweats.”

Elizabeth says before the addiction, before the sickness, heroin felt good: “The first time I used, when I felt that rush, I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.’ 

She started shooting dope every day and soon realized she couldn’t make it through the day without it.

“It’s the best feeling in the world with it, and the worst without it,” she said. “You’re sick. Heroin slows you down. When you get high on it, you don’t worry about anything. The only time you worry is when you’re not high.”

The high lasts six to eight hours. When the high ends, she immediately starts searching for another shot.

Caught in ‘a nightmare’

Elizabeth says that after 15 years of using, it’s not about the high anymore. Now she shoots up each morning “just to get by.”

“I do a shot as soon as my feet hit the floor,” Elizabeth said. “Withdrawal will wake you up. A nightmare. That’s what I feel like I’m living.”

She thinks many of the new heroin users are turning to the drug because they can’t get help for their addiction to prescription drugs.

“When I first started doing heroin, you did what you had to do,” she said. “Now it’s the style.”

But there are signs that Elizabeth is seeking help. A close friend who answered her phone Tuesday said she has been admitted as a patient at a drug rehabilitation clinic in Butner.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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