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Sue: A Family's Battle with Heroin Addiction

A full-time housewife and mother, Sue hardly fits the stereotypical picture of a heroin addict. But for a year and a half of her adult life, she was consumed with getting high on heroin -- a passion she shared with her husband, Ted, who has battled his own addiction for more than 20 years.


Ted had been a heroin addict for years when Sue started shooting up. Despite the toll it had taken on Ted and on their marriage, Sue decided to try the drug one day, after a friend vowed it would ease the headache and muscular pain from epileptic seizures she had suffered since she was 15. "I had a friend who sold it," she says. "He said, 'Susan, I have something that will take the pain away.' That was my first time. He wasn't much of a friend."

Sue says the reason she started heroin -- even knowing of Ted's struggles with it -- was a desire to feel better. She says she felt sure she would never become dependent on something that could make her so sick.

"Breaking The Boredom"

Sue says she was also curious about heroin. "I wanted to know what this was that [Ted] was doing. Why it was so attractive. And, I thought, 'Well, if I just do it a couple of times, I won't get addicted.'" She'd also heard that heroin improved sexual performance. (The seizure medications she had taken for her epilepsy had dampened her libido.) Heroin, she says, helped her feel more sexual, and that was a big attraction.

She had it all figured out. To avoid getting hooked, she refrained from doing the drug for four days between uses. Then, she started doing it on the weekends "to break the boredom." Despite her plans, Sue quickly became addicted. "I saw what it had done to my husband. But I had no idea of the pull it had. None at all."

She was working at the time, selling and buying blue jeans. The income helped her feed her habit. Payday for both her and Ted, she says, "was always a good day," because they could go buy more drugs. But it also caused strife in their relationship. They would share their drugs, and, Sue says, the pull of addiction led them to start distrusting each other. She feared sending him alone to buy drugs with her money because he would take more than his share on the way home. He felt the same way about her. "It just starts eating away at your love, your partnership, the whole marriage," she says.

Just starts eating away your love parnership the whole marriage

A Family Affair

Eventually, buying drugs became a family affair. Her two young children, including 10-year-old son T.J., were coming along for the ride. "It was complete craziness, the whole lifestyle," says Sue. Their daily life revolved around having money or getting a paycheck, getting it cashed, beeping the drug dealer, and "biting your fingers waiting for the call back," she says. Sue and her husband were "held hostage" by their suppliers. "It was always they who called the shots. Where [we] met, what time; and you had to go by what they said." With the two children in the backseat listening and watching, Sue and Ted would get their drugs. Too impatient to wait out the 20-minute ride home, the couple would find a dark street corner and risk arrest to get their fixes, sometimes fighting over who got to shoot up first. Sue, already quite thin, was losing weight. Needles and heroin had left her with bruised and swollen arms, hands, and feet.

Sue admits her drug habit clouded her better maternal judgment, but she was unable to do differently. "Consciously it never sat good. I didn't like it. But I had to have it. It was like my seizure medication. . . . If I didn't have the heroin, I was going to be real sick." She justified her behavior to herself. "When I was high, we had a very good time. . . . We were very happy. And we were much more patient with the children and more apt to do things with the children than when we were trying to get the drugs." Sue says once she got her fix, she could put it out of her mind and pretend her family life was routine. Their lifestyle was a secret. Nobody at her job knew of her problems, and even her mother didn't know. "But I knew we weren't [normal]. And I knew my kids knew we weren't a normal family." T.J. once found Ted doped up on heroin, face down on the kitchen floor, blood everywhere, with a needle dangling from his arm, and he called 911. Ted had collapsed while surreptitiously trying to shoot up what turned out to be a bad batch of Mexican heroin. (Sue says that experience was a turning point for her and Ted, although they didn't quit immediately.)

Trying to Stop

Sue tried to stop three times on her own -- without methadone -- but all three efforts failed. One time, Ted helped her and she went cold turkey for two days. But it became unbearable. She had the shakes and sweats, and she lost muscle control. She began screaming for drugs. She had made Ted promise not to give in, but eventually he had to give her some heroin to calm her down, or she would have had a major seizure. Her son T.J. saw the whole thing. "I don't know what was worse for him, seeing his mom have to lay there and be that sick and scream and cry, or watching me shoot dope," says Sue.

After realizing she couldn't stop cold turkey, Sue decided to try methadone. Years earlier, when she first found out Ted was a heroin addict, she had convinced him to go on methadone. He did for 10 years, Sue says, and it was some of the best years of their marriage. Although Ted relapsed, Sue realized that methadone was the only way she was going to be able to kick the habit. She checked into a program that included methadone maintenance with counseling. "I wasn't sure if it was going to work but I wanted to try." T.J. was with her when she threw her needles away. "We broke them and tossed them," she says. She let her dog chew up the elastic band that she used to tie her arm off with.


Focus on Family

Since she started down the road to recovery, she hasn't done any heroin. But that didn't happen until she lost her home, totaled two cars, and almost saw her marriage collapse. Now living with relatives, she and her husband are trying to get their lives back in order. He's back at work. They enrolled in a family counseling program, Focus on Families, where they were learning to be better parents and help their kids cope with their parents' addiction.

Unfortunately, Ted relapsed about six weeks after starting the Focus on Families program, and the family dropped out. Sue had to go back to work in order to support the family, and her working hours prevented her from being able to take care of the children and continue the Focus on Families therapy sessions. Several months later, fortunately, Ted was able to get into a methadone maintenance program of his own, and is now struggling to maintain his sobriety.

Sue says she is glad to be getting back her life. She used to get up and, first thing, get a drug fix. Now, she gets up and makes coffee and visits the methadone clinic. "I'm learning to live a whole new way again." She enjoys getting up with her kids, helping them get ready for school, and doing other routine things like driving her husband to work every day. "We are slowly getting things back to sort of normal," she says.

Sue doesn't know what effect her and Ted's addiction will have on their young children, particularly T.J. T.J. knows that what his parents did was wrong, illegal, and something they could have been thrown in jail for, says Sue.

Related Articles:

Medications for Addiction

Profile of a Methadone Maintenance Program

Reaching Out to Parents

"He knows what drugs can do, he's seen it first hand." Despite the horror of his finding Ted overdosed, she hopes the scene remains vivid in T.J.'s mind, as a deterrent to doing drugs. "If my son has to see something like that to keep the needle out of his arm, than I'd rather have that than see him someday dead from heroin." She says she and Ted have since pushed T.J., now about 11, into baseball and soccer so he will become more interested in sports than mind-altering drugs.

Sue's long-term goal is to wean herself from methadone. She says she has no intention of staying on it for the rest of her life. "I don't think of it as anything like the heroin, don't get me wrong. It's been a life saver. It's gotten me away from that whole crowd, from the needles and everything." But she still views it as a drug, and she wants to eventually wake up each day and take only her anti-seizure medication.

Although it's been a rough two years since she quit using heroin, Sue says she is finally starting to see herself as a "normal person" again: "Finally things are starting to open up again. I'm starting to see that there's more out there to life than sitting around doing drugs."

-- Janet Firshein

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