In the span of about ten years, Corey went from being a star football player and an honor student at his high school near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to a drug dealer for the Latin Kings, moving heroin in New York City to support his own habit. There were several inflection points along the way that led him there, but the most consequential was when his brother introduced him to Oxycontin. “It's not his fault,” Corey told me, “but when I was 26, if he wouldn’t have been there with the opioids, who knows what would have happened.”
By the time Corey was introduced to opioids, he was already primed for a serious addiction. Growing up, his father communicated mainly through violence. He was controlling and put tremendous pressure on Corey to go to college on a football scholarship. To escape the abuse at home, he spent a lot of time at his best friend’s house down the street. His best friend’s mother, Sue, gave him the emotional support and safety that he needed. During his final years of high school, though, Sue was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately died. Corey and his best friend didn’t know how to process the pain of the loss. Instead, they escaped it by getting high together on the surplus of morphine pills she had left behind.
When he went away to college—to study art, leaving a football scholarship on the table—Corey found the escape from a difficult reality that he was looking for through booze and whatever drugs he could get his hands on while partying with friends. By his final semester, his mental health cracked under the weight of the unresolved trauma and heavy substance use. He was hospitalized for a month for a psychotic episode. Afterwards, feeling disoriented and confused at the turn his life had taken, he suffered a deep depression and never went back to college.
“Looking back on it,” he said, “I should have had someone there for me. I should have had counseling, should have had some type of therapist or psychiatrist, but I didn't. I didn't know how to ask for help.” With few other options, he eventually moved back home. When his brother introduced him to Oxycontin, the pills soothed the emotional pain better than anything else he had tried up until then. “I just loved opiates,” he recounted, “there was just something about them. It gave me the confidence that I didn't have.”
From then on, opioids became the center of his life. The drug use and the dealing he did to support it became a lifestyle in the span of a few years. “It escalated from like, you know, flipping Oxycontin when I was 26 to get my fix to like full on selling drugs.” By 29 years old, he was making serious money moving drugs for the Latin Kings in New York City.
“I had everything that I wanted to,” he said, “I had a nice car. I had a really big apartment down in New York. I had as much heroin as I could ever want. And it was...it was horrible. I hated myself.” The comfort he found in opioids had long since evaporated. Instead, he felt enslaved by heroin and the threat of withdrawal that haunted him constantly. “I'd be crying, like, shooting up,” he recalled.
Corey’s journey from those very dark days in New York City—where he was shooting up every two hours, up to 40 bags of heroin laced with fentanyl a day—to the long-term recovery he enjoys now, took many years. According to him, a few key things made the difference. First, he had to acknowledge that he had a real problem. Then he had to learn to ask for help. He also had to find healthy coping mechanisms for the everyday task of life, plus dealing with the trauma he had endured. And the lynchpin of his success, in the end, was getting stabilized on Suboxone. “It saved my life,” he told me, “like, literally saved my life.”
The first step, of realizing his dependence on opioids was a serious problem, was easier than the others. After testing out a batch of pure, uncut heroin for his boss and realizing that it didn’t even touch him, he left New York and checked himself into rehab. But the process of realizing he needed maintenance medication to stay well took a lot of trial and error from there.
Over the next several years he went to rehab three more times. He had a couple brief periods of being clean after getting out, but sooner or later he would relapse even though he wanted to quit for good. At one point, he was arrested and spent months in prison. The final time that he relapsed, while he was at his then-girlfriend’s house, he had a realization.
“I was in her bathroom with a needle and some drugs,” he told me, “I came out and told her that I relapsed. I guess I was learning how to ask for help, for the first time, even though it took years. And that’s when I knew that I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed to be on medication.” Initially for Scmick he was just looking for a way to prevent himself from relapsing. He knew that taking buprenorphine would block the effects of other opioids if he tried to get high.
“I always viewed Suboxone as like a cop out,” he said. “I always viewed it like you were giving up, you know?” It took the desperation of relapsing again and again for Corey to accept that he needed ongoing medical help. “There's a huge stigma with being on medication in general, I think,” he told me. “And even when I was in rehab, I would hear people say like, “Oh, when I get out of rehab, as soon as I get out, I'm just going to get on Suboxone. It's so much easier.” And I'd always think like, Oh, that's just ridiculous. You know what I mean?” He had been telling himself that it was a crutch, that you couldn’t count yourself as clean while taking medication. “But I was young and I was dumb and I didn't really understand,” he added. “Once I got over that, I kind of surrendered.
He found a doctor that he liked and began treatment. “She was like a godsend,” he said. “I started taking Suboxone and I was able to focus on getting my life back together.” Corey was stable on the same dose for three years. He got a job, and then another one, and was able to pay off some debts that he owed. He began to develop new, healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the issues he had tried to escape throughout his twenties.
At times he still wrestled with a doubtful voice in his head telling him that medication-assisted treatment is not “true” recovery. Through developing a self-defined spiritual practice, he realized that medication and the labels placed on him don’t define him. “I had to transcend all of that,” he said. “What if you would get off the Suboxone? You'd be risking everything that you've built so far, you know, how does that fit into a spiritual life or whatnot? I had to look at it in a completely different way to enable myself to move forward with my life.”
If he could give himself a word of advice at the beginning of his journey in recovery, he said it would be to see Suboxone as an opportunity, not as a ball and chain. “If this is gonna enable you to live a normal life,” he said, “then, like, take the pill. It’s as simple as that. Like who cares if you're going to be on Suboxone? Nobody knows what you've been through except you.”