‘It’s basically a miracle.’ First-hand account of heroin addiction and, finally, help

March 14, 2023
Signpost with the word addiction on the left side and the words way out on the other side.
A program at MUSC Health is helping people in the hospital for addiction-related health problems get science-based care to help them stop using drugs or alcohol.

The following account is by Lauren, a young Charleston woman who asked to be called by her first name only. Her life once followed a trajectory all too familiar to the millions of Americans who find themselves addicted to opioids. She just couldn’t quit. 

But Lauren finally got the help she needed after a life-threatening heart problem brought her into contact with an addiction treatment team at MUSC Health that uses science-based care to help patients stop using drugs or alcohol. You can read more about that team here.

How it began: As an escape

My addiction started when I was in high school. It started with pain pills, what many of my peers were also doing. I had some major problems at home with my family that shook my entire world and I wanted to find an escape from all of that. 

I ended up graduating high school on time, but I progressively got worse and worse. One thing led to another, and I started doing heroin. From there, it was game over. I’d found the thing I had been searching for — that feeling. I was on heroin for the better part of the next decade.  

Heroin and heartbreak

I always had a car, so if I was using hard and on the street, I would be at hotels with other people who used. Even though I chose to stay in hotels with other users, I always had a place to go. I could go to my mom or dad’s if I needed to, and at one point my sister and I lived together.

I used to have twin brothers. One of them passed away and then the other one killed himself less than a year after. That happened in 2017 and 2018. And after that, I didn't care. The only thing I cared about, which I think maybe saved my life, was the fact that I didn't want my mom to have to go through losing another kid.

So I was still using heroin, but I guess you could say I was being careful. I had fentanyl test strips, stuff like that. After a while I kind of got lazy but was still using a lot — probably more than I've ever used in my life. I was just doing it all day every day. 

Finding love and wanting to lose the addiction

I found someone who I really cared about, and we started dating. That's when I was like, okay, this has to change. Something has to happen. But I never thought I could get off because I had been to rehab about 15 times by that point. It’s incredibly hard to kick. 

I'd always managed to hold down a job, even during my times on the street. When I say “street,” I mean I would stay in hotels and stuff. I always had a job and portrayed a relatively normal life to other people. None of my work friends or family really knew the extent of it.

I just wanted to [use heroin] to maintain and kind of feel normal, because if you don't do it, you get sick. That's really what the cycle is. You have to do it or else you get severely sick. That's like the worst fear for a junkie like me. I didn't want to feel sick. 

I started dating my boyfriend in the beginning of 2021. I got really close to him and his family. He and I started house hunting together. The whole time I am just like, internally, what am I going to do? It was coming to the point where I was going to have to come clean because I didn't really want to mess this up. But I was scared, too.

The illness that changed everything

We were on vacation with my boyfriend’s family when I got really sick. I had a fever and I just felt awful. I’m prone to migraines, but this was like one of the worst headaches of my life. 

I progressively got worse when we got home. I was telling my family, mom, “I don't feel good.” I'm really close with my family so they would always ask me, “Are you still using?” I was, but I'd say, “No I’m not, it's something else.”

Eventually my boyfriend took me to the ER. That’s where a nurse noticed I had a rash on my fingers, and she's like, “When did this start?” I hadn’t noticed so I responded, “I really don't know.” She informed me it could be a sign of a blood infection.

They ran a bunch of tests. They found out I did have a blood infection. They also ended up doing an echo of my heart and found out the real problem was that I had endocarditis. Basically, my heart valves were shredded to pieces. And I was lucky I didn't have an embolism in either my lung or my brain. The endocarditis was from a blood infection I got from using.

I ended up at MUSC, which was a blessing because I just love everyone at MUSC. I had to have open heart surgery and have two of my heart valves replaced. I was 29 at the time. I found out that younger people don't usually have to have a full heart valve replacement and all that. Oh, and I had to have a pacemaker too because my heart isn’t able to beat on its own.  

The relief of a released secret

This entire time, my family, my boyfriend, and my boyfriend’s family were a thousand percent supportive. I couldn't have asked for a more supportive family. They were there for me through everything. And it just makes me wonder why I didn't tell them sooner that I needed help. 

I went into the hospital in the beginning of July, and I didn’t go home until early September. When I got out, I kept up with all of my appointments. I'm on maintenance medicine that my doctor, Dr. Allison Smith, gave me. 

I was always against being on maintenance medicine for addiction because I was like, “No, if I want to be off of it, I just want to be off of it.” But she said, “You have so much of a better chance of staying off it and surviving if you take buprenorphine. She basically told me, “It’s like a diabetic’s need for insulin.  A person with addiction needs the medicine that you're getting.”

Life after heroin

It's basically a miracle. I haven't craved at all with the medication. There's been nothing that's so overwhelming that I feel like I want to go out and use. It's all thanks to Dr. Smith and her team. I talked with a peer counselor, Patrick, who really helped, too. I was a complete mess when I went into the hospital. I've come such a long way from where I was. I almost died. And I've just been so thankful for the second chance at life. 

Since my surgery I haven’t worked. The physical toll has been a lot to deal with but I’m slowly getting stronger, so for now I’m on disability. But I would love to go to school and go to work. Go to college eventually. 

My sister, who I’m very close to, got sober almost five years ago and is close to graduating. I look up to her a lot. I feel like I am like so behind on just like life things because I was using for so long. I'm still trying to figure it out. But I think I just want to start somewhere. Yeah. And then figure it out along the way.

And to anyone else dealing with addiction, if you're having doubts, I understand. I had doubts too, that this could work for someone like me. But having somebody to talk to, having professionals around you, giving you advice — you should listen to them. They know what they're doing and I'm glad that I listened to my doctors. I am just so happy to be where I am now.

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