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I went from heroin addict to PTA mom

By Tracey Helton Mitchell, Special to CNN
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1247 GMT (2047 HKT)
  • Tracey Helton Mitchell says her drug addiction spiraled after she was given painkillers
  • She says she wound up homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin district
  • The underlying cause of addiction can be painful to confront, she says
  • "There are many roads to recovery," Mitchell writes

Editor's note: Tracey Helton Mitchell lives in the San Francisco area and publishes a blog about her life and recovery. She is finishing a book, "Black Tar Heroin and Beyond."

(CNN) -- In many ways, my life is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

I am a working mother with three young children ages 2, 4 and 6. I got them dressed today. We fought over wearing hats because it was cold outside. I packed their snacks. I dropped them off and kissed their chubby cheeks. I am the PTA treasurer for my daughter's school. I am a volunteer in the community.

I am a wife to a partner I have been with nearly 14 years. I live in a suburb. I have all the trappings of a comfortable life. I am content in my daily life.

What sets me apart from the typical soccer mom is that I am an outspoken recovering heroin addict. Many people might be familiar with my story from the movie "Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street."

A look at heroin's deadly grip

I agreed to be featured in the film because I thought it would live on after I died from an overdose as a testimonial to the dangers of drug addiction.

Yet I survived eight years of heroin addiction. I was one of the lucky few from that time period when treatment options and evidence-based treatment solutions were limited.

I started my journey as a heroin addict while a college student in Cincinnati. I had been given Vicodin after removal of my wisdom teeth.

I fell in love with that feeling opiates provided me. My burdens seemed to slip away under the influence. I longed for that feeling.

After experimenting with many drugs, I found opiates provided me with the ability to forget my problems. No longer was I obsessed with feeling different. I was happy with being numb.

My addiction quickly spiraled until I ended up being a homeless junkie in the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

At first I was doing the drugs, but in short order the drugs began to control every aspect of my life. I was living on the streets and in and out of rat-infested hotels. In a few short years, I was completely unrecognizable as my former self.

My last day using was February 26, 1998. I was injecting heroin into the soles of my feet because I no longer had any usable veins. I could barely walk, I was emaciated, and I was relieved when I was arrested that night. I spent my first months off drugs in the San Francisco County Jail.

This was not my first time detoxing from heroin. Fortunately, it would be my last time. I was able to get into a treatment program followed by a sober-living house, where I lived for four years.

In the years I have been off heroin, I have struggled with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Many addicts find that once the drugs are removed, the underlying cause to the use can be nearly as painful as the use itself.

When the drugs are removed, there can be an overwhelming sense of sadness. Getting clean can be seen as the ultimate solution. When the veil of chemicals lifts, the person may not like what is revealed to him or her.

I dealt with these feelings without using heroin. However, the thought crossed my mind many times that relief can easily be found at the bottom of a spoon. That is part of my affliction.

Everyone has a different treatment story. The reality for me was and is that stopping use of the substance is relatively easy compared with staying off drugs.

The lifetime commitment to abstinence from drugs is what kills many people. When they have cravings to use, the stigma attached to heroin use forces them to deal or not deal with their affliction in private.

This decision is frequently fatal, as in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman. If we were courageous enough to try to conquer our insatiable desire for heroin, we feel weak telling another person that we feel like using is once again a viable option.

I know these feelings. Fifteen years later, I still deal with the stigma of being a heroin addict. The track marks and scars are visible, but the pain of longing lies deep under the surface. Many heroin addicts are embarrassed to admit they ever had a problem with this powerful substance.

If you are open about it, it triggers speculation and scrutiny as to your personal well-being. Addiction is a medical condition, yet there is little sympathy because society views it to be self-inflicted.

I have chosen a different path for myself. I chose to be completely open about my experience in hope that others can learn that recovery is possible.

What will I tell my children? They are too young to understand drugs, but they know I used to be homeless. I want them to understand how fortunate they are in hopes they will not go down the same path.

What do I say when people see the movie and contact me through social media looking for answers to their own addiction? There are many roads to recovery. The path that I followed worked for me, but I cannot dictate what may work for another user struggling to get off drugs. I can only share my experience.

I have spent my second chance at life teaching both harm reduction and overdose prevention because all of us have a life worth saving. I feel blessed I am able to bring a voice and a face to the issue.

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