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It probably isn't news to you that America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Perhaps you, or someone you know, struggles with addiction.
Alex, 23, is one of those people. He lives in Brockport, New York, a small town near Lake Ontario's southern shore, just outside Rochester.
He's skinny, smokes Marlboro Red 100s, sings in a metal band, grew up skateboarding. He went to the local high school in Brockport and the local four-year college.
When Ben and Amory first talked to him, he was four months and 15 days sober, the longest he's been clean since he started using heroin about 5 years ago. He has an app that tracks his days, to help remind him of how far he's come.
To be addicted to heroin isn't all that abnormal right now. But Alex used Reddit to help fight off his demons, which is not something everyone can say.
We first encountered Alex on r/happy, where he posted two side-by-side photos of himself. On the left is Alex when he was using heroin; on the right is Alex after 95 days clean. To us, the photos don't look all that different, but Alex clearly sees something.
"I was not happy-happy [in the photo on the left]. I could look at my eyes and tell I'm high," he says.
What's far more illuminating than the photos is how Alex describes heroin addiction to a commenter wanting to know what it's like:
If you want an idea just imagine looking at your mother crying, your girlfriend angry and begging you to please stop. Imagine them threatening to cut you out of their lives, bargaining with you, trying to help, doing anything they can. Imagine your cute old grandmother saying "you're breaking my heart." Imagine being ashamed, having pawned your most prized possessions, owing a lot of money to a lot of people. Imagine having the flu times a thousand and wanting to die. Imagine having multiple close calls where you did too much and couldn't breathe. Imagine having a college degree and knowing that literally all you have to do to get rid of your misery is simply not use heroin again. Then imagine getting in your car, driving to the shady part of the city at 2am, going into a run-down house with scary people and seeing a gun on the table, spending money you borrowed from your 15 year-old brother for gas on heroin, and then doing it the second you get back to your car. Then you go home and you lie to your girlfriend, who has been your best friend since fifth grade. You look her straight in the eyes when you're about to nod out and tell her you're clean, feeling great, and that you hope she's proud. You have no fucking idea why you do this. You just know you can't stop.
People use internet platforms to get drugs, certainly, but there's also several communities on Reddit devoted to helping people quit. And r/opiatesrecovery -- with a tagline that reads "You Are Not Alone In This Fight" — is where Alex found some solace.
"The most common thing I did was sit there and search all day for people who had been clean for awhile and said they were happy, because I needed to believe that that was possible, and I didn't," Alex says.
"I can't even tell you how many times I gave up hope. How many times I resigned myself to being a heroin addict for the rest of my life."
His road to heroin addiction is a familiar one. He got a knee injury in high school from skateboarding and was prescribed Oxycodone. When the pain persisted, he got more prescriptions. He had Vicodin, which made him feel like a lot of the bad stuff — anxiety, low-level pain — went away.
And like many others, he turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get than pills.
He went through college, using the entire time, combining the heroin with Adderall to get his schoolwork done. He eventually figured out how to incorporate the heroin into a common cold treatment he can take in front of other people without them realizing he's getting high. He lied to his mom, his family, his girlfriend Kasie.
He asked for loans of $20, $30, $40 from friends and family. He even stole his dead grandfather's pain meds.
"That breaks my heart," says Alex. "I can't fucking believe I did that."
Alex was disgusted with himself, and he says it impeded his ability to recover.
"You're just so ashamed with the things you've done. Why bother? Why bother redeeming yourself when you're such a shitty person?" he says.
Eventually, Alex's mom, who happens to be a retired cop, helped Alex, several times, to get clean. He was talking to her on the phone one day while he was in rehab, and she told him excitedly about the great deal she'd just gotten on a dehumidifier.
Not the most scintillating of topics. But something clicked inside of Alex.
"I just couldn't help but think, that's all I want. I just want to be able to go with my girlfriend and get excited about getting a good deal on a dehumidifier," he says.
When he got out of rehab, he and Kasie went shopping for shower curtains. He was happy.
"[It] felt amazing to just care about something that mundane," he says.
Beyond dehumidifiers and shower curtains, Alex has other plans for the future. To have kids and be a good dad. Maybe to move to Florida with Kasie.
But for right now, he's going to take it one amazing, mundane day at a time.
Alex has set up an email that he wants to use as an open line of communication for other people trying to fight addiction and wanting to talk to him directly. You can reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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