Until Kenneth Mack entered a long term methadone treatment program, the only thing he cared about was getting his next bag of heroin. He would do almost anything not to feel the sickness of withdrawal. His struggles to control his drug use had left him isolated from his family and friends, but methadone opened a new chapter in his life.
Kenneth was introduced to heroin at the discos in New York in the 1970s. He started going to enjoy the freedoms the discos offered, a place where people of different backgrounds could come together and have a good time. “I was introduced to cocaine, heroin, and things of that nature in the club. At first it was just fun, but after a while it was an area to escape from the realities of everyday living,” he explained. Selling drugs helped him to pay for the drugs he needed to self-medicate for mental health issues and issues related to his rocky childhood.
Kenneth’s mother is Jewish and his father is African American. In the Brooklyn projects in the 1960s when he was growing up, it wasn’t easy to be biracial. “On our way to school, we used to get ridiculed,” he explained, “we used to be called zebras, have eggs thrown at us, rocks, all types of stuff.”
When Kenneth was six years old his parents split up, and his mother was left to raise him and his siblings on her own. As a teenager, Kenneth got a job at a bead shop to help support his family. He made only minimum wage, but it helped supplement his mother’s low income.
When he moved out on his own as a teenager, he wasn’t able to support himself on minimum wage. He hadn’t completed high school, so better paid work was hard to find, and he started selling drugs to make ends meet. He continued to help out his mom and siblings as well. In his early twenties, he was arrested and sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison. He left prison committed to piecing his life back together. He had earned his GED, and managed to get a job for the neighborhood work program. He later became a site supervisor.
Kenneth eventually relapsed and began using heroin again, driven especially by his need to self-medicate for his mental health issues. He had tried taking prescription psychotropic medication, but they made him feel like a zombie and like he couldn’t take care of himself effectively. Heroin had fewer unpleasant side effects, and he was completely reliant on it for his daily functioning.
“I was using heroin anywhere from ten bags to 20 bags a day. That may sound insane, but the craving for it is outrageous – because you want to feel normal.” He describes how withdrawal led to unbearable vomiting, diarrhea, and hot and cold flashes. He remembers feeling like he couldn’t tolerate being in his own skin.
Kenneth relied on heroin for years, until he connected with a methadone treatment program. “It keeps you from going out there and having to steal, sell drugs, or anything else to get high. It’s really hard to explain because I can hold a job now, but with active addiction it was hard to hold a job because you always had to be after the heroin.” He now works part time, and has reconnected with his family.
He travels by bus and then train, one hour each way, from the Bronx to his methadone program in Brooklyn, which dispenses the medication to him each morning. He goes every day except Sunday, when the clinic is closed. For his Sunday dose, the clinic sends him home with a take home bottle of tablets on Saturday. On Mondays, he brings the bottle back to the clinic.
Police routinely hang out in the area around the clinic, stopping and frisking patients. They say that this is necessary in order to stop people from selling their methadone on the street. But this police preoccupation with criminalizing people who might be selling drugs is actually getting in the way of people who use drugs – like Kenneth – accessing effective treatment. Treating everyone accessing the methadone program as potential drug sellers contributes to the ongoing stigmatization of methadone patients, turning many off the idea of seeking this life saving treatment.
Kenneth dreads Mondays especially, since he has an empty methadone bottle with him. He worries the police will use this as evidence that he’s been selling. “They make me take my socks off in the street to see if I have something in my shoes. And I mean it’s really bad. They – the only thing they don’t do is have me take my pants off, you know? And that is – it’s just bad. It’s really bad, that they go to the extent that they do to get a bust.”
Some days, his anxiety about interacting with the police is so severe that he skips going to the program altogether. He feels it’s only a matter of time before it’s his turn to be arrested on a selling-related charge. “I am supposed to go every day but I just sometimes don’t go because I don’t want it to be my turn.”
Interview conducted September 23, 2018.