From heroin addict to PTA treasurer mom: ‘I used to stick needles in my neck’

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Life In Addiction

“My name is Tracey Helton. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. I also used to stick needles in my neck. You might have seen me on YouTube or HBO in a film called ‘Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.’ That was me, sleeping outside, pushing a shopping cart and degrading myself on a daily basis for a few bags of drugs. I have been sober for 20 years now. Here is a bit of my story.

I began using opioids as a coping mechanism. I can say that now, looking in the rearview mirror. Having been diagnosed with depression at 12 years old, I always felt like I was different from other kids. The compulsive behaviors had already presented themselves: compulsive overeating, obsessing over things, and stealing for no real reason. Alcoholism had run in my family. I thought somehow it would be different for me. I started drinking and smoking pot near the end of high school. I was destined for great things. I took four college classes in high school. I was really going places. Where I ended up was in the open-air drug markets of San Francisco.

Woman when she was younger as heroin addict
Tracey Helton

When I got my wisdom teeth pulled at 17, I just remembered being in love with the feeling of opioids. I didn’t feel fat or awkward or nerdy during that week. I just felt disconnected and happy. While I did not repeat that experience right away, after ending an abusive relationship, I was seeking some type of relief. I had friends who had opioids — mostly left over from surgeries or found buried in the back of their parents’ medicine cabinets. I was working and going to school, but I was gaining an education in getting high. My drinking and drug abuse escalated quickly. My old friends disappeared. New friends with new addictions began taking up all my time. I dove head first into the unknown when I tried heroin at 20. Within five months, I left home for spring break in San Francisco never to return.

In short order, I got ‘strung out’ in the city. I had tried opioids but I had never had a consistent supply. When my money ran out, I found myself begging for money on street corners. When that didn’t work, I was encouraged by my new using buddies to turn to prostitution when necessary. I rapidly lost weight, becoming unrecognizable as the person I was when I left Ohio. I was living like a feral human on the streets on and off for six years. Jails, infections, and an occasional overdose became the norm. I completely cut off contact with my family for almost a year. Treatment options were limited to non-existent. I had even tried to kill myself to end my predicament. In the process of dying, I learned that I wanted to live.

Mug shot of woman who used to be a heroin addict and is now PTA treasurer
Tracey Helton

Getting Clean

In 1998, I was arrested. I decided to beg for a treatment program. I had made up my mind that I was going to try and take a real shot at recovery a month or so before they had put me in handcuffs for the 11th time. I have stayed off drugs ever since.

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Woman sitting in orange shirt after being arrested
Tracey Helton

I completed rehab, moving into a long term sober living facility. I went back to school through an ex-offenders program. I got into therapy. I attended groups. I attended 12 step meetings. I was desperate for a change. Time slowly creeped along. I began to reunite with my family. I developed a life worth living. I met my husband, then boyfriend, in 2000. I began working with people like myself.

Recovered heroin addict smiles in red chair
Tracey Helton

New Life

Today, I have a beautiful family with three children ages 7, 8, and 10 years old. I spent many years volunteering at their school as the PTA treasurer and the Board of Directors of my son’s preschool.

Recovered heroin addict mother smiles in selfie with son licking ice cream cone
Tracey Helton
Recovered heroin addict mother now PTA treasurer in selfie with three children
Tracey Helton

I run a Naloxone program from my closet that has helped save over 300 lives. Naloxone, otherwise known as Narcan, can help reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. I am an advocate who speaks nationally on issues related to addiction and public health policy. I got this tattoo where I used to shoot up.

I am extremely proud and grateful to give back to the community. As the ‘heroin heroine,’ which I’ve been dubbed, I have been entrusted with a gift — the gift of representing people who are struggling with heroin. I am touched by the overwhelming love and support I receive on a daily basis.

My story is a story of hope — that anyone can change. I am the proof.”

Recovered heroin addict mother smiles in selfie while walking down street
Tracey Helton

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tracey Helton, 47, of the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of “The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin.” Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best love stories here.

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