Staring into the glassy-eyed mug shots of heroin users—people who have prostituted their own daughters or shot up in their children’s hospital rooms—one question usually comes to mind: What the hell were they thinking?
Tracey Helton Mitchell knows, and she’s using that knowledge to help anyone she can from meeting that same fate. In her memoir, The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, published by Seal Press this spring, the West Chester native explains in harrowing detail what it’s like to fall into heroin addiction, and what it took to get her out. Mitchell was an Ursuline High School student in the late 1980s—shy, studious, depressed, and lacking self-confidence—when a dentist prescribed opioid painkillers following surgery to remove her wisdom teeth.
Mitchell spent the next few years trying to recapture the euphoria opioids granted her. Scrounging for excess pills eventually gave way to trying heroin as a student at the University of Cincinnati; a move across the country to San Francisco, homelessness, and addiction soon followed. She documents her descent with unblinking honesty: trading sex for money so she could afford more heroin; shooting the drug into her feet because she had no working veins left on her body; the arrests and abscesses she endured as friends were dying all around her from overdoses and AIDS.
Convinced she’d be dead soon too, Mitchell agreed to be profiled in the 1999 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street that explored an earlier strain of the epidemic. She still runs into people who recognize her from the film, in which she was shown injecting heroin into her legs, arguing with a boyfriend, trying in vain to kick the habit, and talking on a pay phone to her mother in West Chester. Before the film’s release, cornered by cops for yet another arrest, Mitchell decided it was time to end her addiction.
The damage wrought by heroin is well-trodden territory, but Mitchell’s account illuminates the seemingly endless and insurmountable obstacles on the path to recovery. She’s initially rejected when she tries to return to school. Her teeth are a mess. She gains weight as soon as she stops using. She has to train herself not to store money in a sweaty bra or refer to all women as “bitches.” The depression and shyness her drug habit papered over are again conspicuous, as is the legacy of what she characterizes as an alcoholic father and an enabling mother. But with heroin out of her life, she’s forced to find other ways to cope.
Mitchell slowly climbs out of her addiction, landing a job, then going back to school, then settling into a career in mental-health counseling in the San Francisco Bay Area with a husband and three children. She even becomes a PTA mom, albeit one who carries the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone in her purse at all times.
In fact, Mitchell has become a Naloxone fairy godmother of sorts, distributing it as much as possible. The drug’s price soared in recent years, from less than $5 a dose to as much as $100, making it harder for those without insurance to get their hands on it. Once, having lunch while visiting here in town, she jumped up from her meal and crossed the street to give it to someone who looked to be in need. People e-mail, call, and text, asking her for it almost daily, and she counts nearly 200 lives saved because she sent Naloxone to them or their loved ones. Her advocacy has become a defining pillar of the journey from addict to activist, though she’s battling more than the debilitating power of dependence. “It’s not just opioid overdoses,” says Mitchell. “It’s Hepatitis C, and there are cities where HIV rates are going back up.”
She knows how hard the habit is to kick. But that’s why Mitchell offers her success story any chance she gets, as testimony that an addiction is not automatically terminal.
“When parents of addicts contact me, the first thing I say is, Take a deep breath. There’s a deficit of hope when it comes to heroin,” she says. “We need to keep people alive until they’re ready to get better. A person can’t get clean if they’re dead.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this summer that five nearby counties—Brown, Dearborn, Gallatin, Grant, and Campbell—are at risk of an HIV outbreak at a rate nearly five times the national average, due in large part to needle-sharing among heroin users.