Intersections: Finding a way out is a lifelong struggle

This is the third in a four part series exploring the impacts of heroin use on the greater Glendale area.

On a Friday morning at the New Way Foundation rehab facility in Burbank, 20 men slowly crowd into a room. The stark white walls are covered in motivational posters. The blue door swings back and they sit down.

Their offenses are varied. For some it's alcohol, for others heroin. For a few, cocaine or meth. Their backgrounds are varied too: They're Armenian, Indian, Latino, biracial and white. Some have been clean for six days, others for 80. They are open and honest and ready to tell me about how their lives were impacted by drugs.

For close to an hour, we talk about life, their battles with addiction and the public's misconceptions about their struggles.

“We're not worthless, deviant people,” one of them says.

They are all here because they wanted to be, and New Way offered them a path to be able to feel whole and human again, to cope with and fill the voids in their lives with something other than destruction. But if you wanted to know why they used in the first place, the answer is simple: “All of us did this to be happy.”

I ask if any of them faced added cultural stigma among the tight-knit new immigrant families they grew up in. They answer yes.

Their addictions are kept hidden from extended relatives, out of shame. The long recovery process isn't understood by their parents. “They think it’s willpower,” someone says. “They ask, 'Why don't you just quit?”

But they can't just quit, because when drugs, especially heroin, grab hold of you, letting go doesn't come easy.

They tell me how potent a disease drug addiction is, about the lifelong struggles they face, but also hope to overcome. All of them look like any one and every one you know — your brother, your father, your uncle or husband.

Close by, a narcotics anonymous group convenes at the Armenian Relief Center, a facility that offers assistance and treatment for drug addiction, mostly to the city's Armenian-American population. As the sun sets over the Golden State (5) Freeway, the Armenian-language meeting starts — there's talk of heroin, of alcohol, of shame and loss, but also of hope and strength.

Across town on the border of La Crescenta and Tujunga, another group of men, women and teenagers — many of whom used drugs together — meet. In a wood-paneled room, with inspirational books lining the shelves and free coffee, they pray together and are bound by only one caveat: the desire to stop using.

At the end of the day, all groups share the same message: how utterly vital their meetings — a concept they liken to medication — are because the process, the realization of being an addict and then having the courage to recover from the disease, is absolutely brutal. The lifelong maintenance of a craving that can be suppressed, but one that never fully goes away, requires all the help an addict can get.

With her cascading dark brown hair, tattoos and brown eyes, Liz is unforgettable, and a testament to this. She's only 33, but her addiction has been a part of her life for 20 years. At 13, she started using alcohol and prescription pills. At 18, she was addicted to heroin.

She felt like she was on top of the world at first, but she lost everything. She's attempted numerous suicides, endured strokes, heart attacks, a coma and bouts of domestic violence. She tried to drive her car off the Glendale (2) Freeway, but she experienced what she says was a divine intervention.

Then she found out she was pregnant, but was told by doctors that stopping heroin could have meant losing her baby.

“I hated God,” she said. “I wanted to die and he would not let me die. I thought, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’”

Her family found out when her daughter was born, premature but healthy. She quit, but it didn't last for long.

Last year, when her mom found her with a needle in her arm, she asked for help. It was the first time she had wanted to stop. Almost 10 months later, she is clean and in many ways has been reborn stronger than ever.

Her mother, whose respect and loyalty she has earned, is her rock.

It is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects in recovery, but for Liz, detox was a godsend.

“Detox is not only getting you off from what you're on, it's mental, emotional, spiritual help,” she glowingly says. “I wear my scars with pride. I'm not ashamed — it's made me who I am today.”

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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