The face of addiction in N.J. is sometimes young, handsome and haunted
By Spencer Kent
Mike eyes me suspiciously, a smoldering cigarette in hand.
I’m pretty sure he’s high. His eyelids are heavy. His speech is often slurred. And he admits, sitting at a picnic table outside a Jersey Shore pizzeria, that he’s been addicted to heroin since he was 15.
He’s not sure he wants to talk with me.
“Nobody wants me to do this,” he says with a little laugh.
Mike, a pseudonym NJ Advance Media is using to protect his identity, has just returned from a lucrative commercial fishing job dozens of miles off the coast.
But now the twentysomething is back on land. And trouble always seems to find him here.
Like his crippling anxiety. His ongoing legal problems. A close family member also addicted to heroin. The police, who seem to pounce on the smallest of his driving infractions knowing he’s probably got something on him. And of course, his own burning ache to use.
Most of the time Mike numbs himself with heroin and isolates at home in South Jersey, he says, waiting for the phone to ring, for the next job out on the ocean. To a world of endless horizons where he can breathe.
A world without heroin.
“I was in love with it all the way until I turned probably 19,” he says. “And then I realized that I hated it, and it was ruining my life.
“And it ruined my life pretty much.”
As the opioid epidemic nears its 30th year, Mike personifies the complex reality of addiction in New Jersey. The spectrum of the addicted is vast and defies easy categorization. Mike is young, handsome and functional with a well-paying job, yet he is among the 3 million Americans suffering from opioid use disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 180,000 of them live in New Jersey.
But in other ways, Mike is a prototypical example of addiction. His path was almost predetermined, carved out from an early age: a working-class product of a broken relationship, a nervous and sensitive kid who started with weed and pills and graduated to heroin, following in the footsteps of an addicted family member.
“I was in love with heroin until I turned 19. And then I realized it was ruining my life.”Mike
Mike is also a commercial fisherman, working in a distinctly Jersey industry that has disproportionately high rates of opioid addiction, as do workers in health care, construction and hospitality.
“Commercial fishing industry workers are at high risk of opioid use disorders as a result of the physical and psychosocial hazards that typify the fishing occupation,” according to a 2018 study supported by the NIH.
Commercial fishermen were four times more likely to die from opioids than non-fishermen living in the same area, according to another study in the Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.
Mike, a broad-shouldered young man with boyish good looks and a warm smile, started using heroin to quell his angst and the curse of feeling uncomfortable in his own skin.
On a normal day, he spends $40 to $50 on heroin, he says.
He knows the next fix might be his last. Could it be a hot shot filled with fentanyl? Or could it carry xylazine, an alarming and potent horse tranquilizer — also known as tranq — increasingly found in heroin supplies throughout the state?
Even as the opioid epidemic again fades from the front pages, replaced by war in Israel and Ukraine and the latest mass shooting, its toll continues to exact a chilling price in New Jersey.
Mike has lost five friends to addiction. They are among the 27,424 in the state who have died since 2012.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends,” he says, “but (last year) I lost my childhood best friend.”
The late afternoon sun blazed as we talked. Mike oscillated from paranoid to guarded to baring his soul.
He has been trying to get clean for years, he confesses. But every attempt has failed. The money from fishing has been enough to support his habit, he admits.
But for how long?
“I spend it faster than I get it, that’s for damn sure.”
A tortured life
Mike has been searching for something his whole life.
He’s desperate to quiet an anxious mind and a restless soul. To feel comfortable around others. To find peace.
Even as a boy, he was wary of the world.
“I like being away,” he says. “I don’t like being around people.”
A little laugh escaped him. “I don’t like people.”
Just talking leaves Mike in knots. But details emerge in tortured spurts, revealing a boiling cauldron of inner turmoil.
“I think part of me was self-medicating ever since I was a kid,” he says.
He prefers to be fishing on the Atlantic, he tells me. Lately, he’s spent three-quarters of his time on the ocean.
When back on land, he is usually alone, or with his new girlfriend, who is trying to help him get clean.
“It started out as fun, but I was also numbing the feelings and the uncomfortableness I had. I feel comfortable when I get high.”Mike
Mike’s love of the sea began with his grandfather, a man who tried to shield him from trouble. He taught him how to fish.
“If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be alive,” he says.
But the anxiety was always there. Mike began experimenting with marijuana when he was 10 or 11, he says. Then came Xanax. Then he found heroin at 15.
When he was still a teenager, Mike stuck a needle in his arm for the first time and found the serenity he had been searching for. It silenced the angst and those chaotic emotions haunting him since childhood.
“It started out as fun,” he says, “but I was also numbing the feelings and the uncomfortableness I had. I feel comfortable when I get high. When I’m sober, I’m not comfortable. I felt like I was myself when I was using.”
He thought he found that elusive peace.
The reality hit only after he was hooked.
“I’ve been trying (to get clean) ever since,” he says.
Mike didn’t want to share his story at first. He needed time to think after I was introduced to him by Elizabeth Burke Beaty, founder and CEO of Sea Change, a nonprofit recovery community organization based in southern Ocean County.
When he finally agreed, he seemed to be fighting himself. Do I share? Do I flee?
It wasn’t all about his anxiety. Fishing and the ocean have always been his sanctuary. He didn’t want to risk his only refuge.
NJ Advance Media agreed to use a pseudonym and leave out other identifying information because Mike fears losing work if his employers learn of his addiction, even if drug abuse is often an open secret in the industry, according to experts.
“The fishing industry is one of the most dangerous industries in this country,” said Mitchel Rosen, an associate professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Urban and Global Public Health. He’s also director of the university’s Center for Public Health Workforce Development. “It has high rates of fatalities and high rates of injuries, and these include things like musculoskeletal injuries and repetitive motion injuries, amputations and crushed extremities.”
In fact, fishing is probably the most dangerous job in America. Fishing and hunting rank as the livelihoods with the most fatalities, with 117.4 work-related deaths per 100,000 full-time workers from 2019-2021 — easily outpacing logging, roofing and construction — according to a recent analysis by The Washington Post using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“So there’s that link between the work that they do, the injuries that they have, and then the getting prescriptions to treat those injuries … and treating the pain that they’re in,” Rosen says.
Not surprisingly, fishing also tops the list of deaths from drug overdoses, The Post found.
“There’s a lot of stress in that industry — both from the work (and) the long days,” Rosen says. “Fishermen are out on the boats for extended periods of time. There’s the mental stress of that.”
But the Atlantic offers the only serenity Mike knows.
“The water’s like home,” he says. “I could say no to drugs when I’m out there.”
He claims it would be impossible to handle the arduous physical labor necessary to fish while high. But how can someone addicted to heroin avoid withdrawal when spending days on the water?
It’s a question he never fully addresses.
I wonder if admitting he uses while working would be the ultimate display of disrespect. Mike reveres everything about fishing. The ocean, the boat — they’re sacred to him. Maybe the only sacred things left in a life that feels so tarnished and tenuous.
Fishing is his profession. His safe place. His link to his grandfather.
“Everything on the boat can kill you.”Mike
He speaks of fishing like an artist or athlete talks about their vocation, describing the freedom he experiences only on those days at sea. It is spiritual for him.
“I always want to go back out,” he says. “But I want to be here too.”
Mike cannot imagine giving up his work on the water. He wouldn’t know who he was anymore. It would be a kind of death.
And where else could a working class kid make $100,000 a year without a college degree?
Mike was recently part of a crew that caught thousands of pounds of tuna in five days, he tells me, pocketing thousands in pay. Another trip in the early spring netted him $12,000 for only a few days of work, he says.
But it’s a taxing life.
Mike was on an 85-foot dragger fishing for fluke about 120 miles out to sea during the spring trip. Winds howled. Waves crashed over the rail. The men ran around the deck, slipping, chasing the fish baskets.
“It was hailing at some points,” he says. “We were working pretty much around the clock.”
The captain knew bad weather was coming, working the crew hard before they ran into the teeth of the storm. But it pounded them for 18 straight hours on “the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” he says.
It’s dangerous work in the best of times. A cable could break. A man could fall overboard. A boat could sink.
“Everything on the boat can kill you,” he says.
He still prefers it to land.
Coming home from that brutal adventure, he says his first thought was crawling into bed. Instead he got into a fight with his girlfriend because she sensed he wanted to get high.
She was right, he admits.
“I was trying to and she knew it and was trying to stop me,” he says.
‘Keep you alive’
A woman pulls up in her car and parks in front of the pizzeria as Mike and I speak.
“Hey buddy,” she says, smiling.
Beaty, the harm reduction advocate, had met Mike about two years ago. She checks in on him frequently, making sure he’s OK and providing him with Narcan and test strips as needed.
The two hugged and caught up for a few minutes, talking fishing and Mike’s new girlfriend.
“We gotta just keep you alive,” Beaty said.
Before she left, she gave him a blue nylon bag filled with Narcan, the nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose, along with fentanyl and xylazine test strips.
Her group had just received the sought-after xylazine strips as the horse tranquilizer continues to pour into New Jersey communities. The sedative is being mixed into batches of heroin, meth and other street drugs to extend the high, but with devastating effect. Tranq not only causes festering sores and ulcers, but it resists standard opioid overdose reversal treatments like Narcan.
Mike worries about fentanyl. He worries about tranq bleeding into heroin supplies.
He’s never overdosed, he says.
“It’s scary,” he says. “I just do a small amount first. It’s probably the reason I’m still alive. You always test it first. If you don’t have a test strip, then you do a little tiny amount.”
I’d been with Beaty that afternoon, following her and other volunteers as they canvased a nearby Jersey Shore neighborhood known as a hotspot for overdoses. Most of the outreach workers were recovering addicts or had family members with a problem. They wanted to give back.
They work to keep users alive until they’re ready for treatment and to combat the stigma of addiction, pushing for more harm reduction strategies.
To that end, the number of approved harm reduction centers in the state has doubled since July to 14, according to the Department of Health. In 2021, the last year data is available, New Jersey saw 87,745 treatment admissions — 45% due to heroin and other opioids.
While fatal overdoses are on pace to decline for the second straight year, they remain well above historic norms in the state as the opioid epidemic continues to rage.
Mike, meanwhile, has many regrets. Among them, he wishes he had seen a doctor years ago. Maybe if he had faced his anxiety he wouldn’t need to mask it, to self-medicate. Maybe he would have a normal life.
“I probably could have solved this problem with a simple doctor visit and (an) antidepressant (or) anti-anxiety medication or something,” he says. “But I basically used hard drugs … that left me with this serious problem of addiction.”
“Because I wasn’t looking for addiction,” he adds.
Mike just wanted to feel better.
“We gotta just keep you alive.”Elizabeth Burke Beaty, founder and CEO of Sea Change
We seem to hit a breakthrough in our conversation when Mike mentions a close family member also dependent on heroin. His troubles seem inexorably tied to the relative. Mike didn’t spend much time with him as a kid, which seemed to only fuel his curiosity.
“There were times I saw him, but he was a drug addict so you never knew what he was doing,” he says.
But there was an allure, a mystery to him. And from afar, the man seemed, well, cool.
“I always wanted to be with him,” he says.
Mike got to know the relative as he got older.
“It wasn’t all what it turned out to be,” he says. “It was not as cool as I thought.”
Mike turns angry. Resentful, even. The relative is “way worse than I am,” he says. The man cares about nothing but his next score.
“If I listen to him, he’ll bring me down…” he says. “I wouldn’t have anything if I listen to him.”
But Mike sees him often, just the same, he admits.
Meanwhile, he keeps trying to kick his habit. He’s never been to rehab, but he’s endured withdrawal sickness numerous times — on his own and in jail, he says.
He stays clean for a month. Three months even.
But he always returns to heroin.
“It just sucks because when you make it through the sickness, then I go back to it anyway,” he says.
“It’s just a constant battle,” he adds.
Emptiness consumed Mike through the spring and summer, and he began suffering panic attacks.
He’s young enough to break free of this life. Young enough to start over. But that possibility still feels ethereal, even during his hard-won stretches of sobriety.
As our conversation continues, we retreat inside the pizzeria and sit at a back table. By now, Mike’s speech has grown even more slurred. He returns to his favorite topic, the escape hatch for his soul:
“I just know I need to go fishing,” he says.
“It keeps me out of trouble.”
Need help? Call ReachNJ, New Jersey’s 24/7 addiction helpline, at 1-844-732-2465. Each call to ReachNJ is answered by a live person in the first 30 seconds.
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Spencer Kent may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.