An Interview with a Heroin Addict turned Psychologist
Everyone loves a poignant rags to riches tale.
We all want good to triumph over evil.
We all pray for those struggling through life that they eventually find their way. Struggling past insurmountable obstacles towards achievement is the all American dream.
In the case of Dr. Melinda Tyler, former heroin addict and sex worker, she has not only proudly triumphed drug addiction, but has become an award winning psychologist and professor, and is now using her personal experience to help drug addicts everywhere.
Every parent fears that their child will end up on drugs someday, and I have invited Dr. Melinda Tyler to the Kitchen Table to share with us the challenges she has proudly overcome. I hope Melinda’s inspiring story will help to create awareness for the signs of drug addiction as well as help everyone understand the true needs of drug addicts and what can and should be done in America to tackle this ever-growing problem.
Melinda, how did you become an addict?
I have thought about that a lot, naturally. My childhood laid a perfect storm for me to become self-destructive. I was sexually abused from the time I can remember until I was approximately 14 years old. I was self-destructive from an early age; I used to cut myself. If I felt physical pain, it helped the emotional pain subside. When I became involved in San Francisco’s punk rock scene and started working as an exotic dancer, I started dabbling in drugs.
I did cocaine for years before my taste in drugs turned to heroin. The first time I did heroin, I remember feeling so warm and secure—it was a feeling I’d always wanted and had never felt before. Although I had seen others become addicted, I was powerless to stop. It was as though I embraced that self-destructive lifestyle. I remember the day I realized I was a heroin addict—I thought it was a normal, natural course for my life—I thought I deserved to be an addict. I even accepted (and hoped) that it would bring me death.
What finally led you towards help for your addiction?
My first husband died of a heroin overdose and I found him dead. Our relationship had been mutually destructive but he had always managed to keep a roof over our heads—he was a functional addict. When Michael (my husband) died, I was devastated. I took on the guilt of being responsible for his death (we’d had an argument before I’d left the house that day). I kept wondering if Michael had really committed suicide and it tore me apart.
Within a few months, I lost everything—our apartment and all our possessions. I became homeless, sleeping with friends (and strangers) from time to time—sometimes even spending nights riding San Francisco’s Muni bus system because I had nowhere to go. I had worked as a high priced call girl earlier in my life—before I met Michael and to support my habit, I started turning tricks on the street. I did this for a year—living an absolute hell of a life.
Finally, one weekend, while I was staying at the apartment of a friend, I decided I’d had enough and tried to commit suicide. These were serious attempts and on the last one, I nearly succeeded and woke up in a hospital room after having been in a coma for the prior three days. While I was in the hospital, I met a man named Tim Callahan, who found a treatment center that was willing to take me with no money or insurance. I stayed there for six months—they saved my life. I have written about this experience on the Melindaville Blog in my blog post, “Courage to Change.”
What was the withdrawal from heroin like?
Heroin withdrawal is like having the worst flu you can imagine and multiply that by ten. One of the reasons why withdrawal is so intense is that through the course of becoming addicted to opiates, one’s body stops producing endorphins, which are our body’s natural painkillers.
These endorphins kick in more during times of exertion (such as when you are exercising) or when you injured yourself but they are always produced, which allows us to deal with the every day pains of life. Heroin is a synthetic painkiller, very similar in structure to endorphins, so your body stops producing endorphins when you become addicted.
Therefore, when you are going through withdrawal, your body has to learn to produce those endorphins all over again, which takes time. I have written more about the terrible effects of withdrawal in my post, “The Hell of Heroin Addiction,” on the Melindaville Blog.
Do you think that if you had earlier intervention for the sexual abuse that you could have avoided becoming a heroin addict?
As a psychologist, I can tell you that children are much more likely to respond to any kind of treatments than adults are because children are more malleable. It is hard to say what type of lasting effects the sexual abuse would have had, even if I had received help earlier. I believe if the problem had been recognized at an earlier time in my life and intervention taken, then I would not have been as self-destructive as I was.
Has heroin use left any lasting effects on your body?
Heroin, luckily, is one of the least damaging drugs on the body. It is not nearly as hard on one’s body as say, methamphetamine or even alcohol. However, the lifestyle is such that it is very damaging. For example, going into dangerous areas to buy drugs, sharing needles, using dirty needles, or overdosing are all more likely to happen if one is addicted to heroin.
For many years, when I was addicted to heroin, I didn’t have proper nutrition, particularly calcium; so as a result, I have had to have almost $40,000 worth of painful dental work. The other problem I am battling today is having degenerative disc disease, herniated discs, and arthritis in my lower back—and I believe both my dental and back conditions were the direct result of doing drugs for so long. I am very lucky, though, that I still have relatively good health and that my mind was not impaired.
What kind of help is available for addicts?
One of the biggest reasons I am writing my book is to increase awareness that about the need for free and available treatment—because so very few options exist today for those who don’t have money or insurance. And many insurance policies don’t pay for treatment at all. There are limited options in urban areas, such as drug detoxification or community daycare, but they are unfunded and inadequate. Recently, there has been a huge influx of heroin in rural areas of our country, which I wrote about in a recent post, “The Hell of Heroin Addiction.”
What kind of help do addicts really need?
It should be as easy to get into treatment as it is to buy a drug on the street—and that is the bottom line. Addicts need to have comprehensive treatment that addresses the root causes of addiction, which are multifactorial and complex. I was in treatment for nearly six months and I needed every minute of that time. Through the course of my treatment, I started cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, job and life skill training, and learned to understand my addiction. Thirty days and then back to the same old neighborhood is not enough to produce lasting change, in my opinion.
It would really be better for our country financially to address treatment rather than simply locking addicts up. The great majority of inmates of non-violent crimes have an underlying substance abuse problem that is the real root of their criminal behavior yet only about 10% of the time is treatment even offered. If we can offer comprehensive and truly rehabilitative treatment, we can go a long way in addressing overcrowding in jails.
What can you teach children and teenagers now to prevent them from becoming addicted to drugs?
I strongly feel that many cases of addictions are genetically driven; therefore, I feel it is so important for parents who know of addiction in their immediate or extended family to talk about those dangers with their kids. At some point, we will probably be able to have DNA testing to determine if people have an addiction gene (we know that genes are implicated in addiction). Early communication and prevention are key; this should to start in the home, and then be reinforced in school and in communities.
What kinds of signs should parents watch out for that may indicate their children are on drugs?
Disorganized behavior, drastic changes in mood or friends, problems at school, or children isolating, or stopping to enjoy things they used to like, such as extracurricular activities at school.
What can parents do to prevent their children from using drugs?
Communication is the best key there is. Parents are too often afraid to speak to their kids about these kinds of issues but this is so important. And again, parents should let children know about addiction or alcoholism in their family so children know they are at high risk for developing a problem themselves. Knowledge is the best defense, in my opinion.
What can President Elect Barack Obama do to fix the drug crisis in America?
Acknowledge that it exists and that it is worsening. And it will likely become even worse with the state of world affairs and the economy. One of the biggest reasons why people want to do drugs is to escape—and these are times that make people want to escape. President Obama needs to not only address universal health care, but have treatment be part of that care. There were so many times I had a moment of clarity and wanted to stop using—but I would become so frustrated at not being to find help—and after a time, those moments of clarity pass. In my Melindaville post, “The Woman in the Satchel.” I wrote about how my mother had saved this large bag of old poems, lyrics, letters, and artwork that I had written during my addict year. I came across letters I had completely forgotten I had even written in which I just begged her to get me into treatment.
How has this experience shaped your life?
In just about every way possible. Because of wasting so many years in addiction, I am extremely driven today. I feel like a woman who was on death row and who is now on parole. I want to take advantage of every second of life. I want to experience all the joy that had been missing from my life for so many years.
The biggest way in which my life has been shaped is in my commitment to my cause, which is to start The Melindaville Foundation, which will help addicts in the sex industry get into comprehensive treatment and from there, help them pay for college or job training of their choice. I am committed to the belief that anyone can change as I did if he or she is given access to the resources and help that I was so lucky to receive.
Thank you Melinda for sharing your empowering story at the kitchen table. It truly takes tremendous courage and compassion to share your story in order to help other addicts. I look forward to sharing your book with my readers when it comes out and working with you in the future to further raise awareness about drug addiction through prevention.
To follow The Melindaville Blog and read more amazing stories about Melinda Tyler’s challenges around overcoming heroin addiction, stop by her website and subscribe. The most important thing parents can do NOW is focus on prevention and early recognition of the signs and symptoms of substance abuse.