Lauren was about 500 miles away from home when she found the sense of belonging that she had formerly sought in heroin.
The 26-year-old Napa native, whose last name is not being used in this article to keep with the traditions of Heroin Anonymous, had been sober many times before. But Lauren said she felt something she hadn’t felt during a trip to San Diego, when she attended a Heroin Anonymous meeting. She had heard about the group in rehab, but the only Northern California meetings were in San Francisco or Santa Cruz.
“I immediately started crying (after the meeting),” she said. “(Addicts) want to feel like they belong. This is what everyone’s searching for.”
An idea hit her. What if she could return to Napa and recreate that feeling for others struggling in her hometown?
“(Heroin is) a problem everywhere,” she said. “Doesn’t matter where you come from, what your childhood was like.”
The next day, Lauren found a place willing to host her 12-step meetings. The national Heroin Anonymous organization helped her start planning.
Getting her group off the ground was difficult. She said it was hard finding people who could speak out about heroin abuse because it’s a less common drug than alcohol, for example. Friends told her they could never go to such a meeting.
Some have since changed their minds, Lauren said.
It’s important for people seeking recovery to identify with others who have been through similar struggles, Lauren said. People dealing with substance abuse tend to think they’re alone and nobody understands what they’re going through, she said.
Though Lauren’s meetings are geared toward those who use heroin, they’re a safe place for people to talk about other substances they may be struggling with, too. Heroin isn’t usually the first substance people try, she said.
“An addiction is an addiction,” she said.
‘I was immediately hooked’
Lauren said she first started using drugs at 13 years old, when she rifled through her dad’s medicine cabinet and found painkillers. She experienced something she said she hadn’t before: feeling comfortable in her own skin.
Lauren later turned to drinking and smoking cannabis.
“It was like grabbing a rattlesnake that I didn’t know would bite.”
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She was arrested for stealing alcohol and ignored the conditions of her probation. Six months in, Lauren’s probation officer said they thought she had a substance abuse problem and could either go to rehab or juvenile hall, she said.
She chose rehab, but said she was in denial that her using was wrong or hurting others.
Lauren said her first “waking up moment” came there, when her counselor asked her to look around at her surroundings. If she left, the counselor said, her probation officer would get her. Lauren then realized that her substance use had consequences.
She went to an all-sober high school in Santa Cruz and started dating someone addicted to oxycodone, a prescription opiate. Things were fine at first, until Lauren said she developed an infection and was prescribed painkillers.
“What was supposed to last me a week lasted me maybe two days,” she said.
Her boyfriend put an oxycodone in her hand. She took it. It was a feeling that Lauren said she wanted to experience for the rest of her life and chased for years after. Eventually, she turned to heroin. It was cheaper, stronger and longer-lasting, a friend told her.
“I was immediately hooked,” she said. “That’s really where things went downhill so quick.”
Heroin became a lifestyle, Lauren said. It took her “three years to burn everything to the ground,” she said.
Lauren said she lost jobs because she would try to detox, lose track of time and skip work. She said she was unemployable at a certain point and gave up on looking for work.
Lauren said her most recent sobriety journey began when she was arrested twice in one week. She was put on supervised release after her first arrest. The next day, she said she realized she wasn’t going to be able to stay sober.
Thirty minutes later, Lauren crashed her car during an overdose. She said the next thing she remembers is a medic saying they saved her life with Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of an overdose.
She was eventually placed in Napa County’s Drug Court program, which addresses drug or alcohol abuse as related criminal cases move through the courts. She said it provided her needed resources and kept her accountable.
“I love Drug Court,” she said. “If you’re ready to do something different, it’s the place.”
Lauren said she’s been sober from intravenous drug use for almost a year. She now takes vivitrol, a medication that prevents people from getting high by blocking opioid receptors in the brain.
On Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m., Lauren can be found in the Napa First United Methodist Church, trying to recreate for others the same sense of belonging that she felt at her first meeting in San Diego.