How We Break the Cycle of Addiction

I met AJ recently at the inpatient alcohol and drug rehab facility in New York where I work. I asked how he was doing and he said, “Fine now.”

He went on to tell me how he had been released from the Sing Sing Correctional Facility four months earlier. He spent most of his life since his early 20s incarcerated. We are both 52. I thought immediately of my last 30 years and how free my life has been.

He says, “I am fine now because of a policeman, and I never thought I would say that.”

“Wait,” I say, wanting to hear his whole story but needing him to back up.

“Crack,” he says, mostly using and possession, small sales only, petit larceny. These were his only charges. He would do time, get released, relapse, get caught, get put back in.

Years ago, he once tried to run out of the courtroom during a trial; he was younger and couldn’t handle going back. He was upgraded to “fugitive status” and the remainder of his time was spent in maximum security.

In 30 years, he did what he called the “grand tour of New York”: Rikers Island, Attica, Fishkill, Lincoln. The last stop was Sing Sing.

He started using heroin in prison.

But heroin use is not in his official history, so he was released home without a mandate for treatment. He immediately overdosed on fentanyl. He was using next to a smoke shop and fell out. A policeman and fireman gave him Narcan and he was taken to the local hospital. He was observed and sent home.

Last month, he was in the same smoke shop and overdosed again. The same policeman gave him Narcan and took him to the hospital.

This time he waited for AJ to be discharged and then he drove him to detox. AJ said that thanks to this man. “I’m fine now,” he tells me. “I want to live.”

He says when the officer reached out to hold his hand rather than handcuffing it, he felt like he was finally seen as a man.

However we got here, I am glad we are here — destigmatizing substance use disorders and providing more accessible treatment to those it affects.

AJ is on Suboxone. He says he wishes they had something similar for crack back when he was using.

Wouldn’t that have been something?

Maya Hambright, MD, is the medical director for Nuvance Health Recovery Center and for Samadhi, a mindfulness-based outreach and outpatient recovery community center in Kingston, New York. She is an addiction medicine specialist who trained as a family physician.

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