‘I was consumed by getting pills’: On the frontline of America’s opiate epidemic

Samuel studied at one of America’s top colleges before slipping into addiction


At the lowest ebb of Samuel’s addiction, he was arrested in a Walmart for trying to huff a can of air cleaner.

He spent years as an addict, first experimenting with OxyContin in his senior year. From there by his own admission, he spiraled out of control, becoming dependent on Percocet, Ambien and Dust-Off – a can of air used to blow the dirt out of computers.

Samuel (not his real name), who studied at top schools in Washington, D.C. and New York City, is just one of the many young people who have become ensnared in the East Coast opiate crisis.

By all accounts it’s an epidemic, says Gloria Anderson, the head of the Hazelden Betty Ford Addiction Treatment Center, which treated Samuel.

“We are seeing trends in the increase in the number of young people who have opiates as the primary, secondary, or tertiary substance abuse diagnosis,” she explains. “They’re experimenting with opiates more and getting introduced to them earlier, progressing to heroin later on.”

Every case in the epidemic is different. Samuel, who now works in New York City, began as a high schooler taking his parents’ Ambien, snorting it on long haul flights for fun, and experimenting with MDMA, acid and mushrooms at concerts.

He tells me his story in the communal area of his apartment building. His dog plays at his feet, and the leather on Samuel’s chair squeaks as he shifts in it. Then he launches into how he abused drugs for the best part of a decade.

Posed by model

Posed by model

“Senior year, I’d become a pretty big cokehead,” he says. “I wound up doing coke with my friends all the time. One night, I was sick and my friends were going out somewhere, so they said: ‘here’s some money, the coke dealer is coming, can you grab me an eight-ball since you’re home?'”

The dealer arrived, and saw Samuel was unwell. So he offered him a pill.

“He said: ‘Why don’t you try one of these?’ It was an OxyContin, an 80 milligram – a big one. I’d always heard of it, I was interested. So I snorted it that night and I was so fuckin’ high.”

I ask him how he remembers that high. What made it so special? He responds, not smiling, almost in awe of the drug:

“OxyContin was an earth-shattering high. It is the pill, the real shit. That night, I didn’t think about anything. It was pure relaxation. You’re in a completely different world. I felt so good that I started buying them from him, kind of regularly.”

That’s how it started.

“Three nights a week, I’d take Xanax and drink some wine and hang out, one night I’d go out and do coke and party, and another I’d buy one of these Oxys, and just close the doors and put on a movie. I notice it was an issue, now that I look back.”

Samuel finished his degree, and moved to New York to work in finance. By this point, his use began in earnest.

“I was doing three grams of coke a day. At work, at home. I started using it a lot. That was when the addiction really became hardcore.”

Describing a typical day, Samuel said: “The dealers in the city don’t really start delivering until 1pm, so I would be completely unable to function from 9 till 1. Then I would meet the dealer outside at 1, pick up my stuff, and work from 1.30 till 7, make my money, go home, and do drugs for the rest of the night.”

Then Samuel moved on to Ambien – “a walking blackout” of a drug – picking up prescriptions through multiple doctors, traveling across the city to find pharmacies where he could score. Percocet followed shortly after through a pill dealer he met.

“They call ’em blues, which is what so many kids are addicted to, because they’re great,” he says. “They can be injected, snorted, eaten, they’re pure… The whole allure of pills is that you know exactly what you’re getting. As long as you’re not taking more than you should, it’s a regulated dose. It’s similar in effect to heroin. Honestly, for me, I don’t think it was about getting high. I was addicted to snorting pills. I never ate a pill to get high in my life.”

Posed by model

Posed by model

This continued into grad school, where Samuel started after a short period at a financial firm. He paid for drugs by selling his Adderall prescription to Wall Street bankers, netting $3600 a month, by his estimate. The money went straight on Ambien and Percocet.

Alone, at home and addicted – this was Samuel’s life “for a good couple of years,” he says. “My mind would be completely consumed by getting pills. 30 Ambien a day, and 10 Percocet.”

His family is remarkably absent from his story until this point – although he admits he “put them through hell” – but they were the driving force behind his agonizing rehabilitation. They packed him off to over a dozen facilities for another two years before it finally stuck.

This period, says Samuel, was “the all-time low.” Coming in and out of rehab with varied tolerances to drugs, his addiction gripped ever tighter on his life.

He reels off a list of miserable anecdotes, which he had to be told on waking by friends, family, and doctors. He fell asleep at dinner with his parents. He was taken off a crowded train for pissing on a seat while high. His mother found him passed out in Central Park. He was booted off a flight for being too high to clip his seat belt together. And he was arrested in a Wisconsin Walmart, looking for air canisters to suck the gas out of.

The Walmart episode, he says, began with a “drug romance” – a toxic relationship he formed in rehab. He spent a summer in Wisconsin with his then-girlfriend, and discovered inhaling Dust-Off through her. He calls it “hillbilly crack.”

“It’s the cheapest way to get high, like huffing paint in a bag. That shit fucks you up so much, but it’s so dirty. A lot of drugs, when you do them, you feel great. With this, you’re completely fucked up for a minute and a half, and then you feel like there’s rust on your brain. It’s extremely, extremely addictive.”

Miming the high from cans of Dust-Off, Samuel stares off into space, eyes vacant, rictus set. “When you see someone doing it, it’s like their brain has frozen, like they hit pause. As you start to come back, it’s a tingling sensation. You’re just completely gone. It’s like having a stroke.”

Posed by model

Posed by model

He was in Walmart looking for more Dust-Off when he was arrested and charged. What happened next is only comprehensible in junkie logic. On returning to Wisconsin for his court date later that month, he decided to get high in his hotel the night before.

As Samuel remembers: “I did some Ambien, and wound up leaving my bed and breakfast, going back to the exact same Walmart trying to find Dust-Off. Somehow I knew where it was. And somewhere in the shuffle, I got arrested again, for the exact same thing I was back there for.”

It’s a story that defies understanding and belief – but we have been able to independently verify it.

I ask if any of these incidents made him question his addiction. Did he suffer from the alcoholic’s hungover remorse on waking to hear these embarrassing stories?

“I was pissed,” he explains. “I wasn’t mad at myself for being a drug addict, it was like, fuck: this is a major inconvenience to me and my life, and it didn’t matter they had to remove me from a Long Island railroad car for pissing on a seat.”

In the end, Samuel was lucky. After almost 10 years of persistently taking drugs, he was ready to stop. He was packed off on a flight to Israel for a six month stint of rehab, where he finally got clean.

“There’s only two things that will get you sober,” he explains. “You have to be ready to get sober, no-one can make you, no matter how hard they try. I was never ready. The other is the 12 steps.”

A year and a half on, and having come out of the Hazelden foundation in Tribeca, he’s sober, sitting in front of me, telling me what he remembers of his addiction. It’s another life away from running into department stores, wasted, looking for cans of Dust-Off.

I ask him how he looks back on his years as an addict.

“It was a waste of fuckin’ time,” he says. “The person I am today is the person I always knew I could be.”

Cover illustration by Bobby Palmer.