Fourteen years ago, Liz Whynott was a heroin addict. She entered detox in Greenfield, Mass., and didn’t leave like she had other times.
Whynott went on to treatment and has stayed drug-free. She now runs two needle exchange programs for Tapestry Health, in Holyoke and Northampton. She also counsels addicts when they come in.
Until this spring, almost none of her co-workers or the heroin addicts she meets knew about her past drug use. Whynott says the uncertainty over Holyoke’s needle exchange program — it could close this summer, after a judge recently ruled it should never have opened without approval from the City Council — is why she speaking up about her own heroin use.
I always thought I lived a double life. One side of me was a really good student, well liked by teachers, professionals. Then the other side of me was reckless.
Right after high school, there’s a group of friends that had gotten in to it, and the appeal of [heroin] somehow all of a sudden became strong. Although that drug was — always — the one [that] growing up…was kind of the line you don’t cross.
I was also just having a hard time in life. Just stuff I didn’t know how to deal with. I’m not using it as an excuse. But I decided to try it one day and I loved it. I obsessed over that drug every moment, every day for well over two years. Even months to years after I finally was able to stop using it. It really filled lot of the emptiness I was feeling inside at the time. The sense of euphoria was like nothing else I ever felt. There’s a reason why a lot of people are addicted to that drug.
I think any form of addiction, including heroin addiction, is personal. You know, and I think about myself, I was so lucky to stop using drugs. I don’t know why I was able to stop then, and everyone around me, especially the ones I was using with, weren’t. And other people haven’t. And why I was lucky that I’m still alive sitting here, and many other people have died.
I’ve been thinking about telling my story for a long time. And I didn’t talk about it and I didn’t incorporate it because — through my work — I also am very aware of how drug users are looked at. I think that people are quick to throw people off to the side and say that they did it to themselves and what they get is what they deserve. I’ve become so tired and frustrated with people’s judgment of others. I think it’s the judgement that has a lot to do with why people are dying and why people are contracting diseases. Because judgement creates stigma and shame. And judgement will put different drug users into the shadows and onto the fringes of society. And it will make people not access the help that they need.
I know how horrible addiction is. How scary it is, lonely, painful for everybody, including family members. I know that the guidance and the help that I received from the needle exchange made it so that I didn’t get HIV, or hepatitis C. And I’m not dead.
Whynott’s story first appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
New England Public Radio’s Jill Kaufman produced our story.