Escaping a Heroin Addiction

Jenni Papanek

As told to Cliff Williams

“I wanted to feel again, laugh again, and love again.”

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Jenni on November 15, 2023. She was in her late forties when we talked. Some of the words she used are marked with an asterisk, and their meanings are listed at the end.

My Best Friend 

Jenni’s heroin addiction started when she was about thirty-four. “Through my entire twenties, I was addicted to every pain killer you could name—morphine, Vicodin, and the all-too-famous OxyContin, a powerful prescription pain killer. Every day I was taking more than the prescribed number of eighty-milligram OxyContin pills, which were the strongest ones they made at that time. I was playing the game with all the doctors, going to each one and collecting scripts,* trading and selling them to buy OxyContin.

“At some point, I began to feel uneasy about taking so many pills. It was making me have stomach issues, among other problems. I was actually taking lethal amounts, and I wanted to get off them. 

“At the time, I was a divorced mom and had three kids. My boys were almost eighteen and had left home to do their own thing, but my daughter was still living with me and was only nine years old. I decided to go to detox to see what it was all about. I thought, ‘What could it hurt?’ Detox ended up changing the rest of my life.

“In detox I met heroin addicts who said to me, ‘Why would you pay fifty dollars a pill, taking all those pills, when you can just buy heroin,* which will do the same thing at a much cheaper price? In fact, you will get an even better high.’ My mindset was, ‘Yes, why would I?’ 

“So I left detox and was introduced to heroin for the first time by people I had met in detox. From that point on I had a new best friend. This friend took away all my troubles and pain. There was nothing I couldn’t get through, because I had her right by my side, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. 

“I am very much a go-getter, and I like going all in with whatever I put my mind to. I never smoked heroin, never snorted it, never took it orally. I went straight to the needle the very first time I tried it, and it wasn’t long before I became addicted to it physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“There wasn’t any special reason behind using heroin except that I wanted to. I didn’t come from a bad home, and I was blessed as a child. I had not yet experienced the trauma that my future had in store for me. I was your typical divorced, single mom working and trying my best to survive.”

Gaining Momentum

Jenni became more absorbed in her heroin addiction and more familiar with “the streets.” She isolated herself from her friends and family. “I realized I couldn’t care for my daughter properly, and I didn’t want her to be around my addiction or end up going to the Arizona Department of Child Safety. So eventually I called my sister and asked her if she could come get my daughter. I also quit my job. I had worked seventeen years in construction and didn’t want to tarnish my name. I tried to get into other industries, but with an addiction, that didn’t happen.

“I met people on the street,* and I became good at surviving on it. I adapted to the lifestyle of what some people called ‘the game.’ Depending on what was going on, I slept in a house or a garage or even in the middle of the desert. One time I had some boosters* steal me a trampoline, and that’s what I slept on. At that time there was no main house or trap house* where I stayed.

 “Being new to the streets, I knew I was going to have to come up with a hustle.* So I did. It didn’t involve a male being in charge or having to be protected by a male. I didn’t have to prostitute or do any type of sexual acts. I did my own hustle, and that’s how I paid for my addiction.

“In the first hustle I came up with, I went into high-end bars and solicited myself as an escort. I observed the males who came into the bars, identified the types of clothes they wore, the kinds of cars they got out of, and whether they paid with cash or credit card. I approached the men and said, ‘Do you want to go to a hotel?’ Of course, they said yes. And when we got to a room there, males who wore bandanas came out from the bathroom and robbed them.

“Once that hustle ran dry, I became a booster from high-end stores, like Victoria’s Secret or Nordstrom, and then sold the merchandise for 50% of whatever the tag said. I was lucky that I didn’t have to turn to prostitution. It was easier back then to be a booster.”

Wolf in Sheep’ s Clothing

Jenni acquired a boyfriend who was in the game on the streets. “I knew he liked me, so I used that to get free heroin. The next thing I know, he started saying things like, ‘That’s my girl.’ I hit him back with, ‘I’m not your girl. I’m nobody’s girl.’ I made it very clear that my priority was with heroin. Even if there was a male in my life, heroin would always be first.

“I didn’t know the extent of this fool’s background, and he turned out to be a true psychopath. He gaslighted* me so much that I got Stockholm Syndrome.* Even though he was hurting me, I thought he was the only one who cared for me.

“He had gone to prison for some number of years and had become a player with some political stance while in there, and he stayed that way after he got out. A lot of people didn’t mess with him because they knew his background and what he was capable of. I didn’t understand the extent of his violence until I experienced it myself.

“Eventually he isolated me by taking my phones. It didn’t matter how many I got. They all went missing.” 

Missing Person

Jenni found out much later that her parents had been looking for her for quite some time. “There were missing person flyers of me that the county sheriff’s department distributed to the agencies in the city I was in. They were posted up on telephone poles and in stores.

“At times, my parents were close to finding me. My mom once thought I was staying at a certain house. The police knocked on the door and asked if I was there, but the people who answered said I wasn’t. Because I was an adult and there was no proof of any crimes, they left. My mom begged the police to go into the house. They explained to her that they couldn’t enter a house just because she thought I was in it. But she knew I was there.

“My boyfriend told me, ‘No, your parents haven’t tried to call’ And then when my parents did call, he told them, ‘I told her to call you,’ or ‘She’s not here. I can’t make her call you.’

“He had me believing that my family had completely written me off. But, for whatever reason, my parents knew that he was not being honest and that there was something wrong. If I had known they were looking for me, I might not have gotten so deep into my heroin addiction. Later, my father asked me, ‘Do you know what it’s like to call the morgues and the hospitals to see if your daughter is lying in them?’ I didn’t understand until much later in my recovery how my parents felt about my being gone.”

 Love Me/Love Me Not

Jenni’s boyfriend, who claimed he loved her, the boyfriend who would never let anyone touch her, once hit her so hard with a clay bowl that he “blew” her eardrum and knocked her out. “I’m now deaf in my left ear because of that. The bowl busted and sliced the upper part of my ear. I had to call a friend to come over and sew that part of my ear up. While she was doing that, I had to bite a pillow, and I had to take a really big shot of heroin to mask the pain. You didn’t go to the police when you were out there on the streets, and I very much feared my boyfriend. Saying I was afraid of him is an understatement.

“One time he slit a dog’s throat in front of me. That, of course, instilled terror in me, which I had never felt before. Another time, when I had mouthed off to him in front of some people, he shoveled so much dirt into my mouth that I almost suffocated. People who saw him do it had to stop him.

“He was so obsessed with me that when other people tried to help me, there were heavy repercussions for them. One time he blew up the car of one of my friends because my friend had found out where I was located and had helped me. He was never going to let me go. When I tried to run, I sometimes surrendered and went right back to him if I heard he was looking for me or I knew he was coming for me.

“His obsession got to be so intense that at one point he locked me in the back of a stationary refrigerator truck and put restrictions on me. I couldn’t go out when I wanted to. I couldn’t take a shower when I wanted to. I couldn’t have any kind of radio or digital device, because he thought I might try to contact my family. I had to use cups from Circle K to pee in.

"I had lost everything. I had pretty much only the clothes I was wearing. I had not had a job for several years. I thought my family had abandoned me, and I had no hope of ever seeing them again. The power of addiction had become so strong and the consequences of it so overbearing that I had given up on ever being saved.  

“At the same time, I had all kinds of high-end stuff in the boxlike truck. He brought back expensive purses, clothes, and other things he had collected from people who could not pay their debts for drugs he had sold them. I got to pick what I wanted, and I put it into my own little area in the truck. That area of the truck was really cute. He never forgot to tell me the reason he brought me all these things was that he loved me so much.

“By this time, I was so far into my addiction, and the Stockholm syndrome was so intense, that I accepted my situation.”

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Jenni lived in the box truck for almost nine months. “Everyone on the streets knew the situation I was in, and they all tried to help me at some point. Friends tried to talk me into leaving and running away forever. His own people asked him one time, ‘What are you doing to this female? This can’t be going on.’ He replied, ‘She’s going to be fine. I’ll figure something out.’

“I had never been suicidal, but it got to the point at which I would be okay doing a big fat shot of heroin and never opening my eyes again. I accepted that death was knocking on my door. Sometimes, even, I prayed that I would finally answer it. 

“I had a friend who died, and I overheard a conversation her kids were having about how their mom had ODed.* They didn’t say anything else about their mom, just that one little phrase, which kept going through my head. I thought, ‘l need to figure out how to stop using and how to get out of the situation I am in.’ I didn’t want to leave a legacy like that for my kids even though I had not talked with them for six and a half years. And what would my parents say? Because my boyfriend was so obsessed with me, I could have contact with only a handful of people. I kept thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to get out?’

“In the world we were in, males and the females who were of any importance were not supposed to be using drugs of the kind we were using. It was highly frowned on. So I thought, ‘Okay. If I get him to take me to detox to get off heroin, he’s going to say yes.’ Then he could go to his people and say, ‘This female is okay. She’s not using heroin anymore.’

“I begged him for a month: ‘Please let me go to detox. I want to stop using heroin. Please let me go and get clean.’ I tried to make it sound as though it was going to benefit him, especially his reputation with other users and dealers.

“One night he came to the box truck, unlocked it, and said, ‘Pack your stuff. You have five minutes.’ It was five minutes to midnight on January 31st of 2021. I said, ‘Okay,’ and packed a few items into a backpack, then left.”

“I Can’t Go Back”

“The whole ride to the detox center I was thinking, ‘This has got to be my way out. This has got to be the way I leave.’ I had learned on the streets that when opportunity presented itself, take it. If you didn’t, that would be on you. He walked me straight to the detox door and said, ‘I will see you in thirty days.’ I said, ‘Okay.’

“I had previously gone through treatment five or six times. But each time I’d do a LAMA—leave against medical advice. Instead of seven days, I’d do only two, saying to myself, ‘I’m out of here.’

“This time, I kept telling myself, ‘I can’t go back. This guy’s going to kill me. I don’t want to suffer anymore.’ I had embraced suffering as a way of life. The feeling of happiness didn’t exist. I knew I had to break the bondage my addiction had become. 

“In nightmares, I replayed scenes from the horrific ordeal I had been living in for so long, such as when my hair had started falling out because he had put hair remover into my shampoo bottles, or when I had heard through the grapevine that he had been putting poison into some of the drinks and food he brought me. I didn’t know whether that was true, but I’d known what he was capable of because of the violence he had already placed upon me and others.

“Everyone on the street knew what he was capable of because of the repercussions they had received for trying to help me. Some of them had been recipients of his wrath, and others had been spared. Those who had been recipients stopped trying to help and accepted my situation, as I had. Those who had been spared stopped by the box truck to make sure I was still alive and brought me something to drink or eat.

“In detox, I made the decision not to use MAT services—medical-assisted treatment. I refused all meds. I didn’t take Suboxone. I didn’t take methadone. I wanted detox to stick. My life truly depended on that, because I knew either I would OD again or my boyfriend would end up killing me. Getting through detox was one of the hardest things I had ever experienced in my life, both physically and mentally. But I did it with the support of the nurses in detox. I got off heroin.

“I opted to go into a residential treatment program straight from detox. While I was going through the program, I was unclear about what exactly I was supposed to be doing about the addiction I had created and the lifestyle that was too familiar to me. It wasn’t until three weeks after I started the program that I realized with some clarity that I wanted a heroin-free lifestyle. I did not want to go back to using drugs and alcohol. I wanted to feel again, laugh again, and love again.

“People have asked me, ‘How did you get that clarity?’ There’s nothing I can come up with to explain it. I don’t know whether it was because of all the trauma I had gone through or because I could actually see leaves on trees clearly when I went outside. Everything was so different, even visually. I just woke up one day with the clear sense that I wanted a different life.”

Embracing Treatment

After graduating from residential treatment, Jenni decided to do a partial hospitalization program—PHP. “That’s where you live in a facility that is supervised by people who also live in it. You can’t leave the facility, and you have to spend a certain amount of hours every day doing a program.

“Things were going well for me, though right away I had to deal with my boyfriend. It was past the thirty days when he was expecting me, and I had not tried to contact him. He knew something was going on. So he came to the facility and attempted to get me. He sent a bunch of people to try to get me. The rehab people themselves had to get involved, and the police had to be called. He contacted my parents and anyone else who knew me on Facebook telling them he was going to hurt me. He told them all kinds of stuff that had happened during my addiction, things that parents didn’t need to know. In the end, the rehab put me into a safe room.

“I had a lot of things I had to come to terms with in addition to the demons I had to slay. One of the biggest challenges was not believing in God. I am not a God-fearing woman. Part of the reason for that is that when I was praying for somebody to save me, in the end there was only me. I was the one who had to figure out how to get myself out of the hell I was living in. I was the one who had to deal with the monster of a boyfriend who had walked into my path. 

“So I was having a hard time in PHP, because the twelve-step programs they used involved believing in God. In Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, you had to give your willpower over to a higher power, even if you thought of the higher power as a doorknob. That was not going to happen with me, because I believed it was my own willpower that had gotten me to where I was, up to that very day. Still, I wondered how I could stay sober without a program or fellowship.

“I started looking for a program that dealt with emotional intelligence because of my Stockholm syndrome and because of the way my mind had become so warped by the gaslighting the boyfriend had done. I thought to myself, ‘There has to be something out there for people like me.’ That is when I found SMART—Self-Management and Recovery Training. It’s about retraining yourself to think differently, taking your negative thinking patterns and redirecting them into positive ones. It changes your emotional intelligence. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll try,’ you say, ‘I will.’ And instead of labeling yourself an addict, you say you are abstaining from drugs and alcohol now. You don’t label yourself in a way the public stigmatizes. I found that I could grasp this type of recovery program. 

“I bugged the PHP facilitators day after day to adopt SMART, but they wouldn’t do it. SMART was fairly new in the rehabs, and I think they just did not want to bother. Dealing with sixty or seventy emotionally unregulated people who were coming off of drugs and alcohol was enough for them, I’m sure.

“ Finally, they gave me the green light and said, ‘Fine, Jenni. If you think you can do the SMART program on your own time in addition to doing the PHP program, you can do it.’ I have always gone against the grain, even as a child. Tell me I can’t do something and watch me prosper. So there I was, researching every aspect of the SMART recovery program and starting a voluntary group to go through it.

“There were three people who started with me, and by the time I graduated from PHP, four months later, there were seventeen of us who had voluntarily done the SMART program. When I graduated from PHP at the rehab, they acknowledged I had taken something they didn’t have and had made it into something people could believe in.”


My Passion Meets My Purpose

Three years later, Jenni works for a behavioral health provider in Tucson, Arizona, where she is a recovery facilitator for the SMART recovery program. She works with individuals who have mental health and substance abuse challenges and gives numerous talks in which she tells her story to people with substance abuse and mental health problems. Her hope is that listeners will become inspired by her story. “It is intoxicating to see the inspiration on people’s faces who are looking at me as I tell my story. That gives me motivation for believing that I have a chance to make an impact on humanity.

“I have also done outreach. I’ve brought people up from the tunnels near Tucson, where I live, and taken them to detox. A lot of the homeless people in Tucson live in the tunnels—the spaces under bridges that go over dried-up river beds, or ‘washes.’

“When I talk to people, I don’t use clinical terms, and I don’t wear business attire. My employers would tell you, ‘We let Jenni be Jenni, because she relates to people well. She is exceptional at her job.’

“Even though I had worked my way up in the seventeen-year stint with construction, I never believed it was my purpose in life. My passion for helping people recover and helping them understand their worth was my true purpose. It was to demonstrate resilience in being a survivor.

“A lot of times I hear people say, ‘I can’t do it. I’m a felon,’ or ‘I did too many drugs.’ My response is, ‘You can do it. You have the ability and strength to overcome your past. If you stopped and gave yourself a minute to think about what you have experienced, you would find your teachable moment. Those challenges make you stronger. They don’t have to define who you are.’

“I don’t say that they can survive because I’m a success story but because people need to realize that they can experience trauma, trials, and tribulations and still recover from them.”

Lost But Now Found

“Prior to recovery,” Jenni says, “I was complacent. I felt dirty. Even though I had morals, the things I had to do to survive—the hustles, the boosting—were wrong. I have a sense of inner peace now, knowing I don’t have to worry about that, because everything I do is with good intent and has meaning. That makes me feel that I am a better person. I am doing good things to help put some good into the world.

“Taking heroin filled a void in my heart. It masked the emotions I was hiding from and gave me a pleasant feeling about the kind of purpose I wanted then. Other drugs I used—fentanayl, cocaine, and meth—masked my emotions too, but my particular drug of choice happened to be heroin. 

“The feeling that keeps me motivated now is the satisfaction I feel when I see other people be inspired. I told my story once to a bunch of prison guys, and afterwards they all stood up and clapped. Some even had tears in their eyes. That keeps me going. It makes me feel that I can never use again.

“I keep things raw and honest in my speeches. I tell people that just because they say they are getting clean doesn’t mean that everyone is going to believe them. They have to prove it by how they live. They were in active addiction for so long, and now they have to make the choice to stay clean. People can say to them, ‘I’m here for you. Call me whenever you like,’ but in the end it comes down to the ones who were addicted and their choices.

“When I was using, I lost my family and friends. I absconded from a court-ordered probation, I ODed a handful of times, and I had to be narcaned.* I even had CPR done on me, which cracked a rib one time. I was taken to the ER. I pulled the IVs out, and when I walked out, the first thing I wanted to do was to go get high.

“I lost my dignity, my self empowerment, my happiness, and was stripped of my spirit. Why? Because of my choices. I didn’t want to sit in a group. I didn’t want to get clean. My choice was to run to the street, even though I had been in and out of jail for boosting. And now that I am not using, it is still a matter of holding myself accountable. 

“Most of the things I lost while in active addiction, I have back in my life again.”

The Reality

Three years ago Jenni met and eventually married someone she had met in the sobriety program. “Three months ago, on August 11, 2023, I experienced the greatest pain my heart and soul have ever experienced, when my husband died from taking half a pill of fentanyl. He had been in prison for a year, and fifteen days after he got out he took that half pill. It cost him his life.

“His death stung. 

“I struggle sometimes with how I can help other people when I couldn’t even help my own husband. Somebody said to me, though, ‘You did help your husband. He just had a moment of weakness, and you can’t control every thought that comes into someone’s head. He impulsively chose to act on that thought.

“He believed in me and always loved the way I helped people in recovery. I know he would never want me to go back to using. He would never want me to go down that road again. Still, it feels as though I have been left alone in this ugly world to try to figure stuff out on my own.

“Losing my husband to the very demons I am slaying everyday is intense and challenging. But I believe that things happen for a reason. I continue to work on choosing to remain sober, rebuilding my self-empowerment. 

“My husband is not with me in physical form, but he is an angel watching over me, guiding me in my journey and protecting me from evil. My husband’s choice was the ultimate sacrifice. Death is permanent and it can’t be undone. He will be forever thirty-seven.”


Boost: steal. 

Gaslighting: “Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves.” Psychology Today, “Gaslighting”:

Heroin: “The standard street price for one bag [of heroin] ranges from $5-$20 based on factors like location and purity.” “How Much Does Heroin Cost? (The Street Prices),” Zinnia Health (September 14, 2023):

OxyContin is an opioid that is highly addictive. When sold legally, an 80 mg tablet of OxyContin costs $6. When sold illegally, the price is $65–$80. “OxyContin Diversion and Abuse,” National Drug Intelligence Center (January, 2001):

Hustle: an activity, especially an underhanded one, designed to secure money 

Living on the street: being homeless, spending days on sidewalks and alleys and spending nights in shelters or other temporary places

Narcaned: Narcan® is the brand name of naloxone, a medicine that is an antidote to overdosing on opioid drugs. Heroin is an opioid drug.

ODed: overdosed

Scripts: prescriptions

Stockholm syndrome: Occurs when people who are held captive “form a psychological connection with their captors and begin sympathizing with them.” It also occurs when “there’s a bond between the abuser and the person being abused.” The “positive feelings toward their abuser . . . [are] a coping mechanism that [the abused] uses to survive the days, weeks, or even years of trauma or abuse.” See “Stockholm Syndrome,” Cleveland Clinic.

Trap house: a house, especially an empty house, where illegal drugs are sold

© 2023 by Cliff Williams


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