West Side resident William Davis says he has used heroin for about half of his life.
He is 54 years old.
When Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia asked how addiction has affected him, Davis laughed at the question.
“Oh, very negatively,” he said flatly. “I used to sell and I sold to use. That’s what it was about for me.”
Today, Davis says he is nearly clean. He recently completed treatment at Lawndale Christian Health Center, which prescribed him with Suboxone for his addiction.
“It’s saving my life. It’s actually saving my life,” he said of the treatment. “Since the treatment, I talk every Friday with groups, because I want people to understand that this is what’s saving my life. And it’s there for you if you really want to get into it.”
In 2013, The New York Times called Suboxone a “blockbuster drug” while noting its potential pitfalls — mainly that Suboxone’s primary ingredient, buprenorphine, is also an opioid “that can produce euphoria and cause dependency.”
Dr. Thomas Huggett treats heroin addicts at Lawndale Christian. He says he’s been prescribing Suboxone for about two years and calls it “an amazing treatment.”
“There’s been a heroin problem on the West Side for many years,” Huggett said. “But it’s really been over the last couple of years where it’s really escalated and we’ve really seen a lot more problems with overdose deaths.”
As part of a weeklong series on the opioid crisis from the perspective of those affected, Morning Shift sat down with both Davis and Huggett. Below are highlights from the conversation.
The first time he used heroin
William Davis: I had just got off work. I was working in a restaurant and I was stressing so hard to where I didn’t know anything else to do. And I was talking with one of my friends and he was like, “Here, try some of this.” He didn’t tell me exactly what I was going to have to go through afterwards. He just introduced me to it.
What caused him to seek out treatment
Davis: I overdosed twice. The only thing that saved me — I was by myself but … I fell out on the street and somebody saw me and called for an ambulance in both cases.
From that point on, it scared me. It scared me. Both times, it scared me, to where I’m like, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it. I’m either going to die or I’m going to be back in jail. And I can’t afford either one of those.
Sarabia: Where’d you go from there? How did you know where to seek out help?
Davis: I just talked to my doctor at Lawndale and let him know what was going on with me — that I was tired. I was using and I was tired of using and I wanted to get clean.
‘This is the story that we’re seeing on the West Side’
Dr. Thomas Huggett: It’s really not a “get addicted to pills first and then move to heroin” issue. It’s really the issue of people going straight to street heroin.
Sarabia: Why do you think that’s happening?
Huggett: I think that’s just what was happening in the community. The stories that patients tell me is that people went to heroin when they were stressed out, like Mr. Davis said, or they might have used heroin when they wanted to celebrate. It was something that was on the street that was available that people tended to use. But the downside is what Mr. Davis really outlined: It does cause an addiction and does cause severe withdrawal if people try to stop using it.
Local factors that contribute to the opioid crisis
Huggett: On the West Side of Chicago where we’re serving — in East and West Garfield Park and North Lawndale — there’s a lot of socio-economic challenges, of course. So a lot of folks have had problems with obtaining jobs or maintaining their families. That’s really been a problem. I think access to care has been an issue for a lot of our patients. There’s not a lot of healthcare providers, so that’s been a struggle for a lot of our patients — to try to get the care that they really need for primary care and for substance abuse disorders.
‘There is hope’
Huggett: [Suboxone] is really an amazing treatment. We’ve had people reunite with their families. I have one patient that got together with his daughter that he had not seen for nine years. He met two grandkids that he had never met before. It’s really life-changing for lots of our patients. I think the possibility is there. I think we have a lot of work to do with those other social determinants — with housing and employment [and the criminal justice system] — so there’s a long ways to go.
I don’t think that [William Davis] is the exception. I think that his story really exemplifies the hope and the possibility for folks. So I think part of the story is: There is hope. People can get the medication that they need. They can get away from heroin, and they can live a life that they want to live.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the ‘play’ button above to listen to the entire segment, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.