July 09, 2014 - (Editor's note:Part one of a two-part story. Conclusion in July 19 edition of The Citizen.)
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Gwyn Brady at the Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac where she is recovering from heroin addiction. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
Gwyn Brady's first time using heroin was on her 21st birthday.
It wasn't her first time seeing the drug— that would have been nearly 19 years before when she saw her own father shoot up, her earliest childhood memory. And it certainly wouldn't be her last time using the drug— the only surprise is that she is still alive at 41 to tell her story.
At her darkest time as a heroin addict, the only thing that saved her life, she says, is that she didn't have in her possession a .45 to put to her head.
"I didn't have the guts, thank God," said Brady. "I'm real grateful to be here."
Here, for Brady, is the Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac, where she speaks at length on a recent afternoon about her long history of substance abuse and how she is finding hope for happiness and a life free of drugs in the GCH recovery program.
Such hope is difficult to find after trying heroin, said Oakland County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Greg Glover, Brandon substation commander.
"When I ask younger people how they were introduced to heroin, they always say it was by a 'friend,'" Glover said. "I tell them that 'friend' is either going to land you in prison or the grave. I've never seen anyone kick the heroin habit forever."
Heroin use, he continued, is on the rise in Brandon Township, as well as surrounding communities, particularly among high school students. In the month of June, Brandon deputies responded to a heroin overdose in the township, as well as a report of three individuals cooking heroin in a vehicle in a business parking lot in the 5900 block of Sashabaw Road in Independence Township. A traffic stop was conducted on that vehicle on M-15 at Glass Road and a 22-year-old Ortonville man was arrested for possession of heroin. A second Ortonville man, 27, was turned over to his mother with what appeared to be a fresh needle mark in his arm. Syringes were found in the car and a 19-year-old Lapeer woman in the vehicle was arrested for possession of crack cocaine.
Brady says that on that fateful birthday 20 years ago, heroin use wasn't as prevalent as it is now. She had gone to the drug house with a restaurant co-worker who suggested they "get something" before celebrating Brady's birthday at a bar. At the time, Brady's drug of choice was cocaine, but the dealer didn't have cocaine, he had heroin. Brady had only one question— "How am I going to feel?"
The drug dealer's response was that it would make her feel good.
"That's what I was always looking for— something to make me feel good, I didn't know the beast," Brady reflects now. "I was so mad and hurt from my childhood, I don't know if anything would have stopped me. Maybe if I'd been younger and had a mentor or if I could have seen where it would take me. The story is destruction. Maybe if I could have met a me at that age to know how it would turn out. Back then, I needed someone who understood me, but no one took the time."
Brady was the only child of college-educated alcoholics who divorced when she was 2. Her father was a Vietnam veteran who owned a hair salon. Her mother supervised the ultrasound department at a hospital. After their divorce, Brady lived with her mother and grandmother, but says she was left to her own devices and raised herself as her mother would sober up and then relapse into addiction repeatedly.
"I had a great deal of responsibility at a young age and it gave me the feeling I didn't need anyone," she said. "There was no balance, no structure."
Brady began drinking alcohol when she was 14-years-old.
"I didn't want to be like my parents, but I was looking to take away the pain they caused," she said. "Once we put any substance in, it's the one thing that takes it away if you don't have coping mechanisms. A teen with any dysfunction is looking for something to numb the pain."
She kept drinking and added marijuana in as well. When Brady was 17, her father died from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcohol abuse. After she graduated high school, Brady attended Lansing Community College, but as she puts it, she majored in drinking and flunked out after a year.
"I drank with purpose— to get drunk and black out," she explains. "I was unwanted, unsafe, trying to cover the shame of my family not being like other families and feeling unworthy."
She was working at a chain restaurant, was quickly promoted to shift manager, and was happy to be making a decent amount of money with no degree, thinking she had it all figured out, even as her substance abuse was spiraling out of control. She recalls a moment of clarity where she realized she had a problem. By that point, she was also snorting cocaine— given to her one night by a random guy at a bar and which she thought wasn't a big deal because she wasn't smoking it— she wasn't an inner-city crackhead. Labels, she says now, were so important then, but what she didn't know was that she was about to get the label of junkie.
Brady snorted heroin her first time, terrified of needles. She had not had a drink beforehand, an important distinction, she says, because she didn't need a drink after that. Heroin didn't make her feel happy. Nor did it make her feel sad. She felt nothing.
"There was no pain, just numbness," said Brady. "I wanted to not feel at all, and that did it. Six hours of nothing for 20 bucks. It's cheap and effective, that's the problem."
Except it wouldn't be cheap— it was going to cost her financially and rob her of years of her life.
A day or two after that first time, Brady's "friend" told her she was going back to the dealer, did she want anything? She did. She knew she could die, but says it just wasn't a concern. In her "dope man education" she had been told to start with a little and she could always do more. She started snorting heroin three or four days a week, spending $100. A month later she was snorting two or three times a day, seven days per week. Six months later, she lost her qualms about needles and began injecting herself with the drug. She was still working, but was like a robot, she recalls. She was evicted from her apartment and became really thin, eating a roll and soup everyday and not much else.
"None of this has changed from 21 to 41," Brady said. "It's the same story, it just gets darker."
Brady had become physically ill from heroin and found that unlike alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, heroin was something she couldn't put down.
"It had me physically as well as mentally, it's a nightmare," she said. "It becomes all you think about... It's like when you have the flu and you know Dayquil will fix the problem, but you don't have the money to buy the Dayquil, so you're miserable and you're going to find a way to get the money— times 100. That's the physical, but mentally you now hate yourself— you're a slave to this drug."
In an attempt to get clean, Brady moved with her mother to Tennessee when she was 22. As dysfunctional as their relationship was, her mother was there for her as she went through withdrawal. She was clean from heroin, as well as all substances, for six months.
She made new friends and didn't tell them about the sordid past of which she was embarrassed and ashamed. During this sober time, she says she didn't crave heroin, but just something. She had vowed she would never again touch heroin, but she took up drinking once more. When she was drunk, she would think of heroin and wish she was back in Detroit. Tennessee afforded her safety from heroin, she thought, but she says now that safety isn't anywhere.
Brady kept away from her ultimate vice, but took up all her other habits again— primarily alcohol and cocaine. At 30, she was arrested on three different occasions for drunk driving and got sober until she herniated two discs in her back while self-employed in a cleaning business and the doctor prescribed Vicodin. The minute she took the painkillers, it took her right back to the feeling she'd had when using heroin. She went from doctor to doctor to keep getting the pills for a year, then bought them off the street. One day, she noticed the guy she was buying the pills from had swollen hands. She asked him if he did dope, and just like that, her vow to never use heroin again was broken.
"The beast was awake and there is no human power that can calm the beast once it's awake," said Brady. "It's a wild animal."
Next week: Relapse and redemption
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville