The Winding Road of a Heroin Addict’s Recovery
DAYTON, Ohio—She was the perfect child, her mother said—straight A’s and a 4.2 GPA in school.
Then, just like the other kids were doing at the time, April Erion took an Adderall, an ADHD drug prescribed to a friend.
That seemingly innocuous moment dragged her life into a hell she could never have imagined.
“It took me about nine months from then to be a full-blown heroin addict,” April, now 23, said on Aug. 2.
“I figured I would just stop doing drugs on my way to college and that would be that. I didn’t realize that it didn’t work that way.”
When April’s family moved out into the country during her senior year of high school, it hit her hard, and she hit the drugs harder.
“I didn’t want to go to a new school … [so] I decided to take my last two credits online,” she said. She had a car, money from odd jobs, and plenty of free time.
“I used a lot of that time to just get high, and I think that my mom really didn’t know about it. She knew I was using drugs, but she didn’t know I was sitting around doing heroin at 17 years old,” April said.
Lori Erion recalls the moment she discovered her daughter was using heroin.
“She was really sick, and I thought she was dehydrated and needed medical attention, so I took her to urgent care,” Lori said. “It was then I saw the marks on her arms, while she was lying there. I asked her what those were, and she said, ‘You know what they are.’
“Well, I had no clue. I knew she was using drugs, but I didn’t know she was intravenously shooting heroin.”
‘An Animal of a Different Color’
Lori started trying to find help for April, but said it was difficult to access.
“When I did find her help, she would walk away from it, and I couldn’t understand that,” she said. Lori had battled her own demons years earlier and was in long-term recovery.
“My drug of choice was alcohol, and right behind that was cocaine,” she said. She leaned heavily on Alcoholics Anonymous and is now 11 years sober. Lori assumed her own experience put her in a unique position to help April. But she was stumped.
“This was an animal of a different color—one that I really didn’t know,” she said.
Lori sent April, who was then 18, to rehab in California.
“I really didn’t want to go,” April said. “But she told me, ‘You’re going to go to rehab, or you are not going to live here anymore.’
“I stayed there for 28 days, and I got high right after I got off the plane. It was a complete waste of time,” April said.
She had also started to get into trouble with the law, mostly for petty drug offenses—nothing serious enough to slow her down.
“I didn’t really feel like I was out of control. I knew I couldn’t stop because I had tried to and I couldn’t, so I chalked it up like, ‘Well, it’s too late now.’ And no one was dying yet—I had not lost a friend yet to drug addiction.”
April is hazy on the details, but she knows she went to some state rehabs in between getting into more trouble with the law. But she didn’t stay in a rehab for more than a few days—as soon as the withdrawals set in, she left to find drugs again.
“Even the rehabs that have detoxes, they take three days, four days, to get you detox meds. I’m not going to sit there and be sick for half a week. That’s crazy,” she said.
Understanding Opioid Addiction
Lori kept trying. “I was worried that she was going to die. … It was a lot to handle for a parent. Every time the sirens go off outside, you wonder if it is for your kid,” she said. “You watch groups of kids and start wondering which one is going to be the addict. It’s like an all-consuming thing.”
Lori said her close relationship and open communication with April helped her to understand the addiction that, by 2013, was starting to grip the nation. She explains addiction as a physical allergy and a mental obsession.
“Physical allergy would be like when you eat strawberries, your throat closes up, and you can’t breathe,” she said. “The mental obsession is, yes, but you love strawberries and you are going to eat them anyway. Or you would obsess about the fact that you can’t eat strawberries … and it upsets you, and you are going to think about that day and night.”
April let Lori into her world by explaining the culture on the streets, why she left rehab, what hustling meant, and how her relationships worked with men who provided money.
“I started thinking about all the families who didn’t know much about recovery whatsoever, who were going through all these things I was going through, and I wanted to bring that education to them,” Lori said.
She launched the FOA (Families of Addicts) weekly support group in 2013, right in the middle of April’s addiction. Six people turned up at the first meeting, and the group has since grown to about 90 on an average week.
The First Turning Point
In early 2014, Lori pressed felony charges against April, after her daughter stole from her and wrote bad checks. But even that wasn’t enough for April to turn things around. After a short stint in jail, April agreed to go to Florida for rehab, and Lori dropped the charges.
This time, April made it through the rehab and into a sober living place. “I then decided to leave that sober living and go to another one that didn’t drug test or care if you got high, because I wanted to get high.”
She met a man who was in recovery and managing a sober living house. April started using drugs again and eventually he did, too.
“We couldn’t afford to get high in Florida, as we couldn’t afford the pills. It wasn’t heroin down there, it was pills. It cost $40 for one pill and there were two of us, so it was two drug habits. With both of us daily, it would be close to $100, and we couldn’t afford that plus rent and food.”
April considered going back to Ohio, but she wasn’t ready to quit drugs yet. The two moved into his mother’s place in New Jersey. She was there about a year.
“We would get up, and we would go buy drugs, and we would pull over in his pickup truck, and I would cry for hours because I couldn’t hit a vein. He is there nodding off, and I am still sick because I don’t have any good veins left. I’m one of those people where there is blood everywhere. It wasn’t just once in awhile; every time we tried to use, this is what we went through. He doesn’t know what it is like to be that sick and stabbing yourself over and over and pretty much with a broken needle at that point. It was probably just horrific to watch.
“Eventually for me, it got to the point where I didn’t want to keep getting high. There had to be something better than what we were doing. It was the same thing everyday,” April said. “I felt like I was getting older. I had been away from home for a long time at that point, and I just felt really alone.”
‘The Addict Needs to Be Tired’
Lori booked April a ticket home to Ohio in May 2015, having been led to believe April was mostly clean.
“I wasn’t,” April said.
She was high before she got on the plane, and then she sat next to someone who had some Xanax, a benzodiazepine anxiety medication. “I was taking these pills on the plane. I got off the plane really out of my mind. I could barely walk. The flight attendant had to wake me up to get me off the plane, because I was just passed out at that point.”
Lori focused on trying to help April through the outstanding court cases she had left behind and to find options for getting clean.
“I do feel like the person, the addict, needs to be tired, really tired, of the way they’re living,” Lori said. “They’re more afraid of staying the way they are than of making the change needed. They have to get to that point, and some people never do.”
But that’s only the first hurdle, she said. Just because you want help doesn’t mean you can get it.
“I look at it like a monkey bar. As long as we put another bar for them to catch, they can keep going, as long as they are wanting to grab the next bar. If we don’t have the bar there, they’re going to hang and eventually fall. We need to do better by providing a full set of monkey bars for them to grab, and that is not happening. When it does happen, when things are in alignment, you have a better success.”
Lori hopes FOA can be a monkey bar in the recovery process.
People often discover the group when they’ve hit rock bottom, don’t know what to do or where to go, and are “going insane,” Lori said. “FOA is really about not judging people where they’re at.”
The meetings are weekly and unlike AA, they’re not anonymous. Addicts and anyone touched by addiction are welcome to attend. The new mission statement is to educate, empower, and embrace.
Lori’s experience helps others to navigate the system.
“Navigating the system is really difficult for some reason,” she said. “Addiction doesn’t seem to have a protocol, as there is not an easy way to move through the system. So we help people move through the system, because those of us who have been through it understand it and know it better. Another piece to it is to show them that they are not alone.”
A Long Detox
April wanted to try the relatively new drug Vivitrol, an injection of naltrexone that blocks opioid receptors in the brain for one month at a time, but she couldn’t manage going cold turkey off opioids to get the shot. Instead, she lurched between jail and drugs for several more months.
“I started dating another guy, who was a friend from high school,” she said. “We left my mom’s, and we were staying in hotels and doing coke and meth. We were together all the way until I went to jail.”
It took 11 months in a county jail for April to detox and stay sober long enough to start thinking differently.
“It is always easier to detox in jail because you can’t do anything and you can’t leave,” she said. “So that year for me was really what changed my addictions. I think people get it confused because they think that I stay clean because I don’t want to go back, and that for me wasn’t it. It’s actually very easy to live incarcerated once you get used to it, because all decisions are made for you.”
“The 28-day rehab was just not long enough for me to change. Doing that year really changed my life, and I did have like a spiritual awakening while I was in there.”
But the worst wasn’t over.
April got the Vivitrol shot on a Thursday, the day after she was released from jail. “I thought that was going to be the end of my problems,” she said.
“On Friday, I shot a bunch of cocaine with an old friend … and within an hour I was having the same problem with not being able to find a vein. I was sitting on this hotel room floor … a year sober and trying to hit a vein. I still could not do it, and there was blood everywhere.”
“When you get sober for that long and then introduce intravenous cocaine back into your body … I thought I was going to die. It was not how I remembered it. It was all now so different.”
She called Lori and said she’d screwed up, and asked her to come get her.
“All I knew was that I did not want to shoot this cocaine and feel like this,” April said.
“I wish I could say that everything was perfect after that, but it wasn’t. It rarely is,” she said. Eventually, she and Lori figured out the Vivitrol was giving her some serious side effects. They had always been very close, but April’s personality changed dramatically after the Vivitrol shot, and things turned sour.
“It can really exacerbate some mental health problems if you already have them. That was my problem,” she said.
But, without Vivitrol, she was back at square one. It took April a while to find a doctor who she felt listened to her and understood what she was going through. She says he probably saved her life.
“I didn’t feel like I had been sober on the outside long enough where I could just go off Vivitrol and just do it on my own. I was a really bad drug addict.”
She started taking Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid, and naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioid medication. Suboxone has been used for opioid addiction since 2002, and methadone, the other main medication-assisted treatment, has been around for decades.
Lori said she used to be against the use of Suboxone, especially long term. But now she understands that it takes the brain a long time to heal and for the person to develop coping skills—a 28-day rehab program isn’t going to rewire an addict into someone who suddenly makes great decisions.
“Let’s face it, that’s how they have been dealing with stress, that’s how they have been dealing with life. The first time something happens, [like] you break up with your boyfriend, the instinct is to use, and that instinct could kill them,” Lori said. “That is where I feel that medication can help stabilize somebody to really start getting the brain to functioning more normally.”
April said she had “a pretty bad relapse” while on Suboxone.
Her ex, the friend from high school that she dated until she went to jail, overdosed and died. Devastated, April went on a bender for three or four days. “I gave some drugs to a friend of mine during that little run, and he overdosed,” she said. “[He] was blue and dead in front of me. Just seeing him like that, I never used again.”
That was about seven months ago.
The Casualties of Addiction
“A lot of my friends are dead, a lot of my graduating class are dead, and a lot of people close to my class are dead,” April said.
“It is very sad to see all the hate that addicts get because of the media attention. These people that I have lost were good people. They were students, and they came from good families, upper-middle-class families, even. It wasn’t because they had [bad] parents or any of that; it just happened.”
April said people spend way too much time discussing what an addict should or shouldn’t have done, rather than solutions.
“The problem is, here we are, with this many Americans being affected by substance abuse disorder—all of these communities across the nation being ravaged by the opioid crisis, all of these lives being lost.
“To sit and focus on what choices they should have made differently when they were in high school, that does not help the problem.
“Don’t you think that we all know now that when you are in a back alley shooting dope, you should have made some better choices along the way?
“The reality is that these kids that are dying and these middle-aged people that are dying, these are someone’s brother, sister, father, mother, all of that. So I think that to treat them like they made a mistake and that they don’t deserve to live is a huge moral failing on the part of the public.”
A New Future
April’s goals are different now that she’s a felon. Gone are the dreams of being a doctor or a having a career in law.
“For me, that is one of the hardest things to learn to accept,” she said. “People always say, ‘Oh, you can be whatever you want.’ The reality is, that’s not true, and that’s OK.”
Right now, she is working in a local sports bar, paying her bills, getting all her court commitments behind her, and working on getting her driver’s license back.
“I’m just trying to get back to a place where I don’t have so much looming for me to figure out,” she said.
Staying clean is not a daily struggle anymore, and April is confident she won’t relapse. Relapsing would mean dying or having to start over, she said. And it’s easier to stay clean than to get clean.
“As long as I stay clean, I can take care of the problems that I have. Anything that is going wrong in my life, I can find the solution for. If I use drugs for the solution, that problem will never be fixed,” she said.
She tackles each day based on the guidelines set down in the AA manual, or the “big book” as she calls it. And she is inspired by the spiritual change she went through while in prison.
“It’s so freeing to not live with that baggage, to genuinely try to be the best person that I can be,” she said.
“That, for me, is where the spiritual comes in. I live in a routine; I do the same thing everyday. Some people may say it is boring, but for me, I know what it is like to run around like that, day after day after day, just chasing a high.
“I am just very content with living this way. I have everything that I need. I’ve fixed most of my relationships, all of my important relationships, like with my mom and my brother. All of that has been restored for me through a lot of work and dedication and proving myself to be a different person.”
Her advice to other addicts is to hang in there, and remember that it gets better. “It will not always be white-knuckling it. It won’t always be a struggle,” she said.
“I remember struggling every single day. I remember thinking that there was no way that this was going to get any better, like ‘I got sober to feel like this?’ [Being] borderline suicidal, even, or when you can hardly even get out of bed, and the most you can do that day to stay clean is brush your teeth and lay back down. But you didn’t use. That passes, it does. I think it’s normal, and I know a lot of people who went through that.
“It does get better, and then it is just second nature, and then you help people.”
This last year of recovery hasn’t been without its pitfalls, said Lori, but it has been an upward journey, and April is doing great.
“I am fully confident that as long as I keep doing tomorrow what I did today, I’ll stay sober today and tomorrow, because that is how it works,” April said.
If you or someone you know needs help for an opioid addiction call the helpline:
Get resources online: SAMHSA.gov