‘Heroin was the only friend I had’: A 21-year-old on life after four years of addiction

‘It was the only thing that made everything better, the only thing that made me smile’

On the day Dominic Tufano overdosed, his heart stopped beating for two minutes. Medically speaking, he was dead.

It was the 4th of July 2016, and he had gone into his family bathroom to shoot up. The last thing he remembered before passing out was taking the hit. He woke up when paramedics sprayed Narcan – an emergency treatment for overdoses – up his nose and put an oxygen mask on his face. His parents had called 911 after hearing him collapse upstairs.

This was his third overdose in four years of heroin addiction, which started when he was just 16. He credits his final overdose as the reason he’s sober today. “I was gonna end up in jail or dead,” the 21-year-old told The Tab. “Those were the only two options. In a way, dying when I had my overdose helped. Otherwise I would have kept going. That overdose smacked me in the face and made me realize how things would end.”

After the EMTs rushed him to hospital, he decided to do everything he could to stay sober. A year on and he hasn’t gone back to heroin, in part thanks to a new implant that blocks opioid receptors in the brain, stopping withdrawal symptoms and the feelings of being high. He’s heading to college in Chicago this fall, back on track after years lost to the drug.

Dominic’s story is typical of the tens of thousands of young people hooked on heroin in this country, which has become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Unlike some former addicts, Dominic was interested in sharing his unexpurgated story of his time on heroin as a deterrent – he believes too many accounts present a glorified view of addiction. “If people hear what actually happens, it would stop them,” he said in one of our many phone calls. “You go through fucked up situations, you see disgusting things, you get arrested and go to jail, you overdose, you live through hell. That’s how the news should put it out there, not just the statistics. If a kid saw what actually happens in a heroin addiction, I think it would deter them from doing it.”

In our conversations, Dominic, who lives in Chicago’s Portage Park, detailed the grim experiences he endured on heroin – and how he claims seven of his friends have died from overdoses.

There are a lot of reasons why someone can be drawn to heroin. For Dominic, it was escaping the depression and nightmares that haunted him ever since he was traumatically sexually assaulted as a child in a vacation resort.

“That’s what I would say was the biggest reason why I started doing drugs. I developed PTSD and kept having nightmares,” Dominic said.

A neighbor – a close childhood friend called Mike – convinced him to take heroin, a drug that would allow him to sleep properly for the first time in years. Dominic was just 16 at the time. “I was willing to do whatever it took to not have nightmares anymore. I wasn’t sleeping, I was scared to go to sleep. And after a week Mike convinced me to take it – he got me to do a bag of heroin. And I never stopped.”

The heroin allowed him to sleep properly for the first time in years, and go about his day without feeling depressed. “Once I did that first bag, the whole day I was fine – I didn’t have a flashback. On heroin, everything was fine,” he said.

It was just a week before he first noticed withdrawal symptoms. That’s how fast he became addicted – that’s how addictive heroin is. Thinking his illness was flu, he went to the doctor – but after a couple of days didn’t feel any better. Mike, his friend and neighbor, explained he was suffering withdrawal sickness – shaking, throwing up – and that only more of the drug would help. So he took it. And he would be taking it again for the next four years, doing whatever it took to get high.

By his own admission, he stole from his family – selling a Playstation 4 his mom bought him for Christmas. “It was something I’d been asking for years. I needed heroin that bad, I sold it. Until this day I regret it.”

Through other addict friends, he learned how he could steal cologne from JC Penney and sell them on to local stores for cash. Italian restaurants would also buy steaks he stole from supermarkets. “You literally go into the store, anywhere that sells steaks,” he explained. “You walk in and grab like three or four. Put them in your pocket and walk out. Call ahead to the Italian restaurant you know buys them, say you’ll be there in 10 minutes, walk to the back door, and get the money.”

A bag of heroin – enough to get high for a day – only cost $10. So to buy the amount of heroin he needed, he would calculate how much he would have to steal.

“If I couldn’t get cologne, I would do the steaks,” Dominic added – cologne was worth more.

The pressure of addiction and the physical symptoms of withdrawal were enough to drive him to extreme lengths. “Your bones feel like someone’s grabbing them and ripping them out of your skin,” he said. “It’s horrible what we have to do – but we have to do it.”

Others he met stole, robbed, sold drugs – and sold their bodies, men and women. “That’s what people do for this drug.”

This led Dominic to see things he would rather forget. He tells me about a painful memory from early on during his addiction. He was with Mike and went to a girl’s apartment to take heroin. She had a friend there who had never tried the drug before.

“Michael and this girl were pressuring her friend to do heroin,” Dominic remembers. “They were all shooting up with needles and at the time I was only snorting – I hadn’t graduated yet to needles. She saw me snorting and said: ‘If he’s doing that, I’ll do it.’ I kept shaking my head to say no but she did it anyway.

“Once she got high, the girl who Mike knew suggested they have a threesome with him, because he had money and heroin. That’s how high she was. And the friend was a virgin, so she lost her virginity like that. So I walked out the door. I’ll never forget that. It’s what I thought about in rehab a lot – if I kept using heroin and people are willing to do that, then at some point I’m going to end up homeless and I might end up robbing a store and end up in jail for the rest of my life.”

I ask Mike why the story has stayed with him above everything else – it’s not the most violent memory he tells me over the time we speak.

“It’s stuck in my head because it’s the most disgusting thing that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I get that girls can prostitute themselves but at that time they’ve usually lost their virginity already. I believe that if you take a girl’s virginity, it shouldn’t be over drugs. She was willing to trade her friend’s virginity for more heroin, and Mike was willing to do it. If that girl was willing to convince her friend to do that, what else was she going to convince her friend to do? In the morning she must have regretted it. I felt so bad because I left and I didn’t stop it. I feel guilty. I saw someone’s addiction start and I don’t know if it ended. I don’t even want to know – I’ll feel responsible if she’s dead. I’m scared if I look this girl up I’m going to see her obituary.”

He was 16 when that happened. In the intervening years, Dom says he lost seven friends to heroin. He tells me their names: Sean, a childhood friend, who hung out with Dominic and Mike, and later died in his bathroom. Pierre, a friend from his photography class. Geno, who he met working on a local radio show. Another Sean, from school. Justin, who he met through friends at a fairground haunted house. Angela and John, friends from a methadone clinic.

“Sean’s death hurt me the most,” he said, referring to his childhood friend. He was a close friend from before heroin, who started around the same time. “Then it was just a downward spiral.”

He has tried to cut out other friends from that period in his life. Dominic now lives at home, focusing on his sobriety, without a cellphone or a car, to avoid the temptation of going out and buying heroin.

After trying different ways of staying clean – Suboxone and methadone – he had an implant of a medication called Probuphine, which curbs cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms. A device the size of a matchstick was in his arm. It was there for six months to help his recovery, along with therapy and counseling.

But the implant is due to come out the day after we speak, and Dominic is nervous he could relapse.

“I’m worried. Once you’re off this implant, you don’t know how you’re going to react. Now I know once it comes out I’ll be able to get high – I don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to ever do it again,” he said. But for four years, Dominic’s coping mechanism when a tough situation came up at home was to take more heroin.

“In a sick way, heroin was the only friend I had. It was the only thing that made everything better, the only thing that made me smile. I was so, so miserable that heroin was the only thing that made me seem right. I’m used to a bad thing happening and then running to go get a bag. Now I don’t do that anymore, I need to find other ways to cope.”

Dominic at home