'My Heart Still Beats' Part 1: Abbie (Transcript)
"When you have anxiety, or chronic depression, your mind is constantly going. And I tried opiates and realized that my brain was just quiet for a little bit."
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ABBIE HOLDEN: When you have anxiety, or chronic depression, your mind is constantly going. And I tried opiates and realized that my brain was just quiet for a little bit. It was like a vacation from my brain.
GARY MILLER, HOST: That’s Abbie Holden, talking about the first time she tried opiates. I’m Gary Miller, and Welcome to My Heart Still Beats — a project from Writers for Recovery and Vermont Public Radio. My Heart Still Beats features conversation and original writing from the recovery community all around Vermont. People in recovery from substance use disorder. And people helping those in recovery rebuild their lives.
I met Abbie Holden in the spring of 2018, at a Writers for Recovery workshop in Springfield, Vermont. She was around three months clean from heroin. Abbie was a fantastic writer. She was funny. She was smart. She had a dog named Zinnia that she adored. She grew up in the tiny town of Chester, Vermont, the third generation to live on the family dairy farm, which stopped production just before she was born. Her mother ran a daycare; her father was a police officer in Chester.
Abbie was an imaginative kid, a reader and a writer. At age 10, her poems took on a dark tone. She wrote about her sadness, about cutting herself. By high school, self-harm was a daily habit. And then she discovered opiates.
ABBIE HOLDEN: I was 17, my senior year of high school and I had my wisdom teeth taken out. It was really before the opiate crisis had started, so I remember being prescribed like your typical antibiotic, and then two different types of narcotics to treat my pain for my wisdom teeth.
The problem that I was encountering was that every time I took it orally, I would get sick and start vomiting, and I didn't want my stitches to rip. And I think somebody at school just suggested, "Well if you just crush it up and snort it, you won’t have to deal with being sick. But it’ll still treat your pain." And so once I learned that trick, it was just kind of off and running. [Laughs.]
So, like, I was OK with the pill circuit, I felt like, you know because it was a pharmaceutical, it was safer, I wasn't going to get hurt doing this. Then I found I had this, like, restlessness, and was struggling using other substances. And was kind of — I had always told myself over and over again that I won’t go near heroin because it’s dangerous and I know I’ll like it. [I] actually ended relationships because people were dealing with heroin or had it in their life. And then [I] had a very close person in my life try it. And I was furious. I was really angry at them. I remember crying and begging them like, "Please don't do this, dah dah dah.”
And then about two weeks later, I called him and said, "You know, maybe you're right. I don't wanna be afraid of this anymore.”
And I tried it. And sure enough, I loved it.
GARY MILLER: Abbie knew heroin was dangerous and addictive. But she had a system that she thought would keep her safe.
ABBIE HOLDEN: I was never a daily user. So a lot of people, I found, didn't consider me an addict, because I didn't look like one. But it was clockwork. It was, every two weeks, the second I got paid, I knew exactly how much was going to go to drugs. And I usually tried to space out what I bought so it would get at least me most of the way through every two weeks. But I guess I was unlucky in the fact that I was told very early on by somebody that I knew who used, that, “Oh well, if you don't do it more than three days in a row, then you'll never have to deal with feeling withdrawal.”
So I, from the very beginning had a set cycle for myself where I would use for two days, take two days off, use for two days, take two days off. And it made it a lot easier for me to look like on the outside, that everything was fine.
GARY MILLER: Everything wasn’t fine for Abbie. She knew she needed to get away from heroin, but she just couldn’t seem to.
Abbie Hoden: I would get a month clean, two months clean, three months clean and then usually right around three months, I would nosedive. And it happened over and over and over again.
It was June of 2016, and I was about to celebrate one year clean from heroin. And I had just reached this point in my life where I now felt like even when I was clean and I was doing all the right things, that things weren't getting better. And I was just kind of over it. I didn't want to do it anymore, I didn't want to put in the effort, and I disclosed to a friend of mine that I was going to buy a bunch of heroin and intentionally OD.
And she drove to my house and picked me up and proceeded to sit with me in the ER for 12 and a half hours, until they could get me transport to the Brattleboro Retreat.
GARY MILLER, ON TAPE: And how did your dad respond to your hospitalization? He's a police officer, and so where was he and how did you guys interact through your whole active addiction?
ABBIE HOLDEN: For the most part, in my active addiction, I didn't interact with my father. I never wanted him to see me and know that I was high. My father's reputation and his integrity was always very important to me. So I tried to just keep the pieces of me that I knew he wouldn't like as far out of his vision as possible.
It's still obviously a very difficult topic for him to talk about or hear about, but we've come a really long way. And I'm at a point now where if I am really unsafe, or I'm feeling really triggered, or I'm feeling like I might go do something I don't want to do, I can walk down to my dad's house and say, "Dad, I know you don't like it, but this is where I’m at," and he might say, "Yeah, you're right, I don't like it. But what do you need from me?"
That is so beyond what I ever thought a parent could do for their child. And I'm incredibly lucky that I have the dad that I do.
GARY MILLER: Abbie continued to struggle with her sobriety. The turning point came in February, 2018, when her boyfriend died of an overdose at age 29.
ABBIE HOLDEN: It was Valentine's Day, and my roommate at the time, her boyfriend was on the way to pick her up, from the apartment and he got there and said, "Oh, wow. There's something going on over here in Springfield. And I don't know what it is, but there's lots of cops, there are lots of ambulances, I'm not quite sure.” And I remember just feeling this sinking feeling, and my heart just dropped out of me. And I just knew.
And I literally got in my car — it was February, I didn't even put shoes on. Drove around to all the places where I thought he could be. I had gone through my whole Rolodex of possibilities. I drove up the hill to the hospital and I remember the moment that I saw his mother standing in the parking lot of the hospital.
This was the person who was not just my best friend, but he was the person I thought I was gonna marry, that I thought I was gonna have children with.
Losing him — it's been a little over five months now — it completely derailed this whole plan I had in my head for how my life was gonna go. I felt like my entire life had been just completely destroyed in the matter of an hour-and-a-half morning.
There aren’t words.
But now that I've had time to think about it, this was very — this was always a very good possibility as an ending, whether it be me or him.
GARY MILLER, ON TAPE: I’ve had people tell me, and I’ve heard people say, this idea of, if someone gets involved in drugs, it’s their fault, and we don’t need to provide support with these people, you know, basically just let ‘em die. What do you say to someone who says that?
ABBIE HOLDEN: I say if you don't — if you have never experienced it, you don't understand the way that your brain flips a switch. And I, I firmly believe that there was almost no way I was not gonna get addicted to heroin. I made a choice the first time I tried it. That's absolutely true. But from then on, my brain is doing its own thing. It will find any reason to justify or tell me that this is the way to handle things. That doing heroin, or doing other drugs, or getting drunk, was the way to handle things.
And I absolutely felt like I had no control over myself. And the perfect example of this is: Just a couple of weeks ago, unfortunately I found an empty heroin bag in my car a couple weeks ago. And I brought it up into the house and I’m looking at my partner, and I’m trying to work out like, "How long has this been in here?" Like, where did this come from? And I had this urge to open up the bag and see if there's anything left on the inside. And I looked at my partner, and I was like "You're gonna need to take this from me," because I knew that if I put the trust in myself to get rid of it, it wasn't gonna happen. Or there was a possibility that it wasn't gonna happen.
But you have to remind yourself that any situation that could be complicated or put you at risk, it's your responsibility to avoid it.
I think the hardest thing now is that — is the judgement that comes with being an addict and how everybody assumes once they know it about you that it's just a matter of time before it happens again. And most of these drugs completely rewire your brain. Like, I'm never going to feel the same amount of joy that I did the first time I did heroin. That is a scientific chemical fact. My brain cannot do it the same way.
So it’s reminding myself that I am still capable of feeling happy and coping with difficult things and dealing with my life and being an adult without the use of drugs. So I have a lot of tattoos, and two of my tattoos are “serotonin” and “dopamine,” and that's kind of my reminder to myself that almost every drug out there or substance that people use to alter their brain, your brain already makes it. So that's just my reminder to myself that everything I am looking for is already in my head.
GARY MILLER: Now we’ll hear Abbie read her two-part poem, “Mornings,” written in Writers for Recovery, a series of workshops for people recovering from substance use disorder.
“Mornings” By Abbie Holden
This tent is crazy hot.
It’s not even six, but the way the sunrise hits this beach, it only takes about 11 seconds before it feels 115° in here.
I cannot breathe through my nose, my head pounds. I have no idea how you’re still sleeping. Then I remember it’s barely been two hours since we went to sleep.
“More?” my brain asks sweetly, a toddler with puppy dog eyes who wants another piece of cake.
I know it will be your first thought.
I start counting the money, pace our riverside beach, smoke a cigarette, swim. Count the money again, begin planning in my head: this much for gas, this much for smokes, this much for more.
If we don’t drive around when it’s gone, forget the gas and get even more.
“More?” it asks again, hungrily. How are you still sleeping? It is a wonder I ever rest these days when I am so filled with all this want.
Another cigarette before I am gently waking you, my desire is a chant now: “More. More. More” One is too many, a thousand is never enough.
My eastward facing bedroom window has blanketed me with early morning light.
I watch the feathers from my dream catchers sway and dance in the sun a sweet dog with floppy ears gives me a look that says
“Mom do we have to?”
“No baby, not just yet.”
For now, we will stay here in the yellow light, smoke a cigarette and think about how when I’m ready to move I’ll make coffee and watch the dog find all the new smells in the yard, consider the way I’m not addiction free, but I’ve chosen the lesser evils,
think about how my nights now are filled with painting, writing, and creating things rather than wasted hours and money lost and friends I’ll never get to soak in the light with again.
GARY MILLER: That was Abbie Holden and this is My Heart Still Beats.
My Heart Still Beats is a production of Writers for Recovery, made possible with support from Vermont Public Radio and the VPR Innovation Fund. Producers for this series are me, Gary Miller, and Bess O’Brien. Erica Heilman edited the series and Angela Evancie is VPR's managing editor for podcasts. The music in this episode was by Brian Clark. Writers for Recovery is made possible through major underwriting from the Vermont Department of Corrections, The Rona Jaffe Foundation and Nat and Martha Winthrop.
For more information about Writers for Recovery and how to join a workshop go to www.writersforrecovery.org.
If you like what you heard here, please take a minute and review us on Apple Podcasts. This helps new listeners find the show. I'm Gary Miller. Thanks for listening.