One Hartford Man Braves Recovery After Nearly 60 Years of Addiction
Sherwood Taylor lives in defiance of statistics. The average life expectancy of a drug addict is 15 to 20 years after they start using. Taylor, 75, has been using heroin since he was 19. This summer, he’s taking another swing at recovery.
“Everyone that speak to me, that know me -- you’re here for a reason,” Taylor said. “Everybody that talk to me: you must be here for something.”
On a hot day in his Hartford apartment, Taylor peeled off his shirt, turned on the AC, and sat on the couch. On the living room table was an ashtray and a bible. On the floor was a large portrait of an African Muslim prince from the days when he practiced Islam. He lit a cigarette. There aren’t too many people like him left in Hartford, he said.
“All of them dead. Seriously. All of them are dead,” he said. “And if they’re clean, they’re not as old as me. You won’t find too many guys that use heroin for 55 years around here.”
Life for Taylor isn’t too different than your average Hartford retiree. He listens to music on his laptop, calls his friends up to talk about the NBA playoffs, and plays chess at the rec center.
But Taylor’s scars tell a different story. One on his shoulder was an abscess that formed a few months ago as a result of shooting up. Years of heroin use left him with no veins to inject in, so now when he gets high, he skin pops, leaving him prone to infection.
The mark of his addiction disappears when he puts his shirt back on. It’s not that he lives a double life; he’s pretty open about the fact that for a while he made his money hustling and gambling. In Hartford alone, he was arrested seven times in the past 30 years. But Taylor said he always took care of himself.
“Unless you really knew me, you didn’t know I was messing with drugs,” Taylor said. “I was always clean. I kept my three-piece suits, the bell-bottoms, whatever the style was. I don’t be greasy. I’ve never been that kind of drugs. I always say I abuse drugs -- I’m not a dope fiend. I’m not no junkie.”
Taylor credited his longevity to this mentality. Another key to survival as a heroin user, he said: don’t share needles.
Dr. J. Craig Allen, Medical Director of Hartford Healthcare’s Rushford addiction treatment program said there’s research to back this.
“If someone is very focused on their health, but happens to have a substance use disorder -- but beyond that is trying to maintain good nutrition, and physical health in other ways -- all of those things would be positive, and possibly protective,” Allen said.
But Allen said Taylor’s situation is still remarkable. In his experience, he’s never encountered someone that age who’s been using that long.
“It is unusual to see someone who has had a heroin addiction for 50 years, because there are so many different things that can lead to their early demise,” Allen said.
Even careful users can experience serious health problems, which run the gamut from malnutrition to infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B or HIV -- along with the risk of overdose.
Taylor has overdosed before, but he said he hadn’t encountered any serious complications from his heroin use until the abscess formed on his shoulder this past winter. And the process of removing it was so painful that Taylor vowed to quit using when he got an infection in his hand that he thought was another abscess. It wasn’t, but by the time he was headed home from the emergency room this May, he was already a week and a half clean.
“You can’t do nothing in this world for anyone until you take care of you first,” Taylor said the day he went to the hospital.
Six weeks into recovery, the infection still bothered Taylor. But he said kicking the habit this time is going easier than it has before.
Part of the reason, he said, is the withdrawal mitigation drug he’s using this time -- Suboxone. He said it’s a lot easier to manage because it doesn’t require daily clinic check-ins that a methadone recovery program would.
Taylor recalled the first time he had extreme withdrawal symptoms. He said it was when he served prison time in the late ’60s for selling drugs.
“When I got sick, they gave me all-purpose aspirin. And that’s it,” Taylor said. “They didn’t give a damn about a drug addict. When I got real sick, they put me in segregation in the hole. And the hole had a marble floor and a hole in the floor with the toilet. When I was sick, they sprayed me down with a water hose and turned on the AC. The stuff I went through, the withdrawals -- it was two months before I could eat and do sports.”
Fifty years older, Taylor is in a more supportive climate for recovery, and coping with symptoms of withdrawal is a little easier. He’s working out with small dumbbells, and started to put back on some of the weight he lost when he was sick with his infections.
Taylor is pulling himself out of addiction as a heroin crisis rages in Connecticut. He saw first-hand the effects on users of the introduction of fentanyl to the heroin supply -- a major contributor to overdoses today.
“I don’t want to talk about the drugs I was getting back in the day compared to this here, this is all chemicals and shit,” Taylor said. “At least it was 12 percent heroin, or ten percent heroin. There here is only about one percent heroin. Add fentanyl and make it stronger -- they don’t know how to mix it, they put too much in it. That’s what they’re dying from. They’re not dying from heroin itself.”
He grew somber as he recalled a wave of fatal overdoses in his neighborhood that took place years before Connecticut’s heroin epidemic gained media attention. One of the deaths, he said, was in his apartment.
“It only become a crisis when white kids start dying,” Taylor said.
More recently, he reversed an overdose using a naloxone kit.
Taylor admitted he’s been lucky getting this far. But he’s still taking recovery one day at a time.
“I’m a survivor, that’s the best I can say. I do what’s needed,” he said. “Whatever I feel I have to do to get to the next day. But now I’m not looking at drugs to do it. Now it’s life. Whatever I’ve been putting into drugs, I’m putting into life.”
While feeding the birds around the block from his apartment, Taylor sang an Alessia Cara song that’s been stuck in his head for a while.
He mumbled most of the words -- it’s a song about escaping the party scene and being comfortable as an introvert -- but it seems fitting to Taylor, who’s now watching from the outside.
“I’ll be here,” he sang softly, tossing some bread onto the sidewalk.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Sherwood Taylor was 76. He was 75.
Mark Jenkins drove his van through Hartford’s North End. He saw a familiar face at a street corner, pulled to the side, and honked his horn.
“Hey, what’s happening?” Jenkins said, rolling down his window.
“Not much. Trying to survive,” said the man on the corner, sidling up to the van.
That’s probably not an exaggeration. As a surge of overdose deaths continues to sweep through Connecticut, the man on the corner -- a heroin addict -- is one of the countless people Jenkins keeps tabs on to make sure they’re armed with overdose kits, clean syringes, and the right contacts if they decide to come clean.
Jenkins runs the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition. Its primary function is connecting drug users to social services, operating on what’s known as “harm reduction” principles in the drug policy world. One of those foundational principles -- and perhaps the most visible as Jenkins made his rounds through the North End’s neighborhoods, is that drug users shouldn’t be condemned or ignored.
Only about 60 seconds after he pulled away from his conversation at the intersection, Jenkins saw another client and again flagged him down. This time, they set up a time to meet up later at his office.
As the heroin epidemic rages on, Jenkins’s phone doesn’t stop ringing. Appropriately, his ringtone is a blaring emergency alarm. Drug users come to him for counseling and support. Health care workers call him to see if they can connect patients with him who they discharge.
Jenkins has been in recovery for 19 years now, and he knows where the gaps need to be filled between users and services. His organization’s motto is “standing in the gap.” He said another saying used in the harm reduction community is “any positive change.”
His current crusade is getting naloxone -- commonly known as Narcan -- a drug designed to reverse a heroin overdose, into the hands of as many heroin users as possible.
“We have to approach this like a vaccine -- we really have to flood to get it out there,” Jenkins said. “Our reach is only so far. Through the use of social networks, secondary networks, we can expand our reach.”
New Connecticut laws make it easier to get naloxone from a doctor or a pharmacist. But Jenkins said that drug users -- dug to stigma and social isolation -- often don’t make it there.
Jenkins, who offers naloxone training sessions free to the public, said social services staff often have access to naloxone training, but that doesn’t help the user who’s shooting up at home -- or in restaurant bathroom.
“I’m not worried about training staff. Nothing against, it’s good information, they need it,” Jenkins said. “But the information dies along with the medication on the shelf when you’re giving medication to staff. I’d rather train at a McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts. Those are public consumption spaces. They’re more apt to come across someone overdosing in their bathroom than the organizations that get trained in the state.”
One way Jenkins reaches users where social services can’t is by engaging them outside of business hours.
“For those who are functioning addicts, they work during traditional hours,” Jenkins said. “The illicit activity takes place during non-traditional hours.”
Jenkins tells the people he gives naloxone to that they should pass it on to other heroin users they know. And to come back to him for more if they run out.
But the coalition’s supply of naloxone is running low. The Connecticut Department of Public Health pilot program it’s a part of is coming to an end, and now, Jenkins is pulling from a donation of naloxone kits he received from a pharmaceutical company.
Marianne Buchelli oversees the state’s community naloxone distribution pilot program. She said that demand has exceeded the state’s supplies.
“We continue to get calls from law enforcement,” Buchelli said. “I just received a call from an emergency room out in the Danbury area -- other community providers. Friends and family members affected by prescription and injection drug uses.”
Buchelli said she’s working to get funding for programs like Jenkins’s on the agenda for next year’s legislative session.
“If this were anything else -- I mean, look at Ebola. How they sprang to action,” he said. “Look now at Zika, and how they spring to action -- and an open wallet. But still isn’t the case with addiction.”
When funding doesn’t come through, Jenkins pulls from his own pockets. With weekly naloxone training sessions continuing through the summer, the day he runs out of kits could come soon.
At the same time, Jenkins is looking to expand. His next target is recently released inmates, who are extremely vulnerable to overdose death.
As the battle against heroin has shifted to white, suburban communities, Jenkins said that the state shouldn’t forget programs like his that serve urban, often minority drug users. But he said another major issue is that recovered users like him aren’t being consulted by policymakers because of stigma around addiction.
“Even with something like HIV that has stigma around it, they realize they have consumers at the table when they talk about policy,” Jenkins said. “But not with drug users. They just can’t get past that stigma.”
Sitting in his office, Jenkins watched a video interview he recorded in May with a heroin user named Lauren who he said is part of his “underground network” of people he trained to reverse overdoses.
In the video, Lauren, who lives in Enfield, recalled a recent situation where she used a naloxone kit that Jenkins gave her to reverse an overdose.
“Probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Lauren said in the video, recapping the overdose reversal. “I just saved a stranger’s life. He knew it, and I knew it.”
Not long after, she was called to another overdose scene to use the kit again on a heroin user who was having a seizure.
“I don’t think he would have survived either. But he’s alive now. And that’s because of me, and that’s become of the work that you do,” Lauren said.
Jenkins cut in over the video. “It wasn’t me, it was you,” he said.
He then repeated himself, trailing off, “Yeah, I told her, it wasn’t me, it was you.”
The whole time the video was playing, though, Jenkins was beaming.
WNPR’s Opioid Addiction Crisis Reporting Initiative is supported by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network’s MATCH Program.