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LOUIS: Reclaiming Himself from Drugs


Louis started using drugs to escape himself. He began mainlining heroin at age 19 and eventually became addicted to cocaine as well. Like many other addicts, Louis, now 40, says his drug dependence snuck up on him. "I didn't choose to become an addict. I chose to experiment, to escape." Drug abuse, he adds, helped him cope with anger, anomie, and feelings of powerlessness. (Even before trying heroin, he had a troubled life: Running away from his Camden, New Jersey, home at 16, he ended up on the streets of New York and joined a gang before being sent to prison for 18 months.)

"I can clearly remember my using [drugs] because of [emotional] pain, and because I didn't know where to go with the pain or what to do with it. . . . I think sticking that spike in my arm was a violent act, maybe it was an act of just basically anesthetizing myself," he says.

It didn't take long for Louis to figure out that he was addicted. "Emotionally and psychologically, I just knew that this was it," he says. "This was going to be my way, you know, to cope."

Louis did try to stop using drugs many times. He tried methadone. But his early efforts didn't last very long, even though drug use eventually became mundane and not even pleasurable. Louis says he knew there had to be more to life than getting high, but by some point he felt powerless to give up drugs even when their use became what he calls "an empty routine." Louis says he did whatever he could to support his habit.

Hitting a Turning Point

Although many addicts must "hit bottom" before they seek help, Louis was always able to find "a trap door," he says. In 1986, however, at age 29, he hit a turning point. He found out he had the AIDS virus. "At the time I was on heroin, so I didn't really feel the [news]. It took some time before it sunk in that I have this result, this diagnosis." Louis says the diagnosis was a wake-up call, but it wasn't until 1989 that he would be able to give up drugs for good.

That year, he was released from the last of many detoxification programs. Upon release, he began to reflect on his life. He realized he had spent most of his teenage and early adult years in an institutionalized setting. At 33, Louis was an HIV-positive drug addict, out of work, and living in an abandoned building in Harlem. Tired of what he describes as "a cycle of institutional incarceration," he decided to find the means to change his life while waiting in a soup line in an East Harlem shelter. He found it at that shelter. There, Louis entered a community with which he could connect. Although there were rules and regulations to follow, Louis says "there was a wholeness" in the shelter that he hadn't felt in a long time: "It was a place that wasn't like anyplace I'd been before."

Finding a Haven

Louis also decided that he had seen one too many friends die from drugs or AIDS. "There were others who had the same dreams that never came true . . . never had the promise of their recovery really fulfilled, because they were cut short," he says. Watching friends die from AIDS, Louis says, he began to reflect on his own mortality. "I wanted to be conscious as opposed to being on chemicals." There was no blinding moment of truth that led him to recovery, he says. It was more of a gradual process.

Seeing other addicts recover and enter upon a "transformative process" showed him how it could change his life. When addicted people realize that there is a choice and an alternative to addiction, "to me that speaks [about] freedom, and that is what recovery is all about," says Louis. "Recovery is about change, and change is about freedom."

Today, Louis feels like a person with a purpose on the planet

Louis says things "sort of came together" for him at the shelter. Shelter officials talked about personal and social responsibility and advocacy and change. "[They] talked about community and a sense of community, belonging, not being powerless but being powerful," says Louis. For the first time, he felt that he could make a difference. "I felt perhaps I can change and work in a process for change."

The shelter made all the difference for him in recovery, he says. It provided a respite and safe haven and a place to be connected to others. At the shelter, he had responsibilities that made him feel like a vital part of a community. Instead of being in a soup line, Louis was now running it. Instead of begging for a coat, he was giving coats out to others. Eventually Louis was on the other side of the counseling desk, listening and talking to drug addicts who had gone through the same experiences he had.

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Finding spirituality in some form is also a helpful step on the road to recovery, he says. Louis says that to him spirituality "transcends anything dogmatic or denominational or doctrinal."

Louis notes that his recovery experience demonstrates there are many ways to recover. For him, formal drug treatment didn't work. He went through two years of it but eventually returned to heroin and other drugs. Things finally clicked for him in a setting that was less formal, where nonprofessional former addicts listened to people going through recovery. "It [was] just two people listening, feeling, caring, hearing. . . .  You enter into an atmosphere . . . that says you're in the right place." Louis says the setting made him feel disarmed and eased his defenses. "There's a sort of collective consciousness that happens with honest sharing. . . . You feel it's okay, and you become maybe just a little open."

Helping Others

Louis, who now runs a home for HIV-positive addicts who have been homeless or in prison, hopes his experience can now help others. "I was seen as a very self-centered person who was only absorbed and concerned about [his] own interest. . . . I wasn't a bad person, but maybe a sick person." Louis wants the home he runs to be a place for addicts to feel safe, to lay a tired head, and to get care and treatment. The program also offers supportive services to those who are still active users. "We definitely advocate abstinence for health reasons. However, we support the rights of those who may never choose to stop using and must have a choice," he says.

Ultimately, he says, recovery happens when a person reconciles with or reclaims himself. When he put that first spike in his arm nearly 25 years ago, Louis says, "There was something about me that I lost . . . something that was never going to be the same again." He later identified himself as an addict, a homeless person, or a prisoner. Today, Louis feels he's reclaimed himself. He identifies himself as a "a person with a purpose on the planet, integrating principles of my life toward personal transformation and social change." Louis says he doesn't worry about putting a spike in his arm anymore. "I've died many times, and I have lived many different lives, but I've never lived this life before." Although he knows that living with AIDS also means living with the prospect of death, he isn't daunted. "There's a reason to life today," he says.

-- Janet Firshein

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