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New London — He's years removed from his addiction to heroin, but for John DeRosa of Waterford the painful memories of his struggles to get clean are not easy to shake.
"I have potholes in my brain that can't be filled," DeRosa, 50, said half-jokingly in a recent interview at his office at the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency detox center on Coit Street.
DeRosa now uses his experiences to others' benefit. He is in his eighth year clean of the powerfully addictive opiate and in his fifth year as a case manager working with SCADD.
"When I asked for help, I got it," he said. "Now I'm in a position to help."
On any given day DeRosa may be tracking down an addict who is homeless in Norwich or chatting with a man in Willimantic who he thinks might be ready to give rehab a try.
His goal is to get help for those who need it, the ones he says "are in a bad way." And these days, he said, there are plenty who need it.
"Normally I get the crusty ones, the salty ones. ... I don't promise anything I can't deliver," DeRosa said. "I'll go see them wherever they are. I give them hope."
DeRosa said he has a certain knack for spotting the look in the eyes of someone using heroin. He knows which ones are ready to get clean and others who have yet to emerge from the fog of addiction. Either way he will try his best to get them help.
The people coming into the 20-bed SCADD detox facility in New London are a mix of alcoholics and addicts. The latter are almost exclusively heroin addicts who have nowhere else to turn. Staff will make an assessment: Is the person ready for detox or in such bad shape that medical attention is needed first? Most are indigent.
"This is not glamorous. This is not Betty Ford, but it's clean and safe," said SCADD Executive Director Jack Malone of the detox facility.
Most of the heroin addicts stay for about five days under constant medical supervision, enough time to get through the painful withdrawals but still a long way from full recovery. Without follow-up care, Malone said, most are doomed to start using again.
"It is always the goal to get them into a longer level of care," Malone said.
Where they wind up may depend on insurance or how much treatment they need. Some go to 30-day treatment programs such as the one offered locally at Stonington Institute or a 90-day program at Lebanon Pines, which is also run by SCADD and where DeRosa said he turned his life around.
Painkillers led to addiction
DeRosa comes from a stable family, has a good education and had a well-paying job with a production company film crew when he lived in New Haven.
Addiction to heroin started for DeRosa where it starts for many these days - prescribed painkillers. In 2000 he had surgery to remove his thyroid gland after he was diagnosed with Graves' disease, which leads to an overactive thyroid. Morphine at the hospital led to Percocets and other prescribed opiates once he left the hospital. When the prescriptions ran out he turned to the street for the pills, sometimes paying $80 for four pills.
"Once I got a taste for morphine, that was it," he said.
Until then, DeRosa said, he had never done drugs and rarely drank.
Then he tried heroin, which gave a similar high to the painkillers he had grown accustomed to taking. He liked it.
"There was nothing like shooting my first bag of dope. It was like kissing God. Wrapped in a warm blanket. It delivers everything it promises," he said.
As is the habit of dealers looking to make a name for their own brand of heroin, his bag was stamped with a pair of Terminator sunglasses and the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger slogan, "I'll Be Back."
He did go back, again and again. Once the addiction takes hold there is nothing that will stand in the way of the next fix, he said.
DeRosa said that is why heroin users are always looking for a better bag, trying to find something as powerful as the first rush. Many will gravitate toward the batch used by someone who overdosed, guessing that it happened because of the high purity level.
He started buying heroin from runners on the street. He later cut out the middle man and started buying directly from the dealers, even getting heroin to sell to others to support his own habit.
For about a year he called his addiction "manageable."
But as it progressed, he said, it became two years of hell, as he tried but was never quite able to kick the habit. The low of not having heroin in his system, he said, is like "the worst flu you've ever had in your life, and you'll do anything for the cure."
Once he got his fix, he said, it only took about 30 seconds for the "flu" to subside.
He was working only intermittently at that time.
"Everything else takes a back seat," he said. "You just want to feed the beast. This far removed, you see the insanity of it."
He was getting high mostly by himself at that point and recalls installing pools - essentially working for heroin.
"Getting paid, buying drugs," he said. "If I had a pack of cigarettes at the end of the week I'd consider it a winner."
By the end of 2005 he kept telling himself he had to "get right."
"It's just a vicious cycle. I couldn't make my own decisions. I knew I just had had enough," he said.
He ended up at Stonington Institute,where he spent 28 days clean before leaving and getting high again. He finally went to Lebanon Pines, to the 90-day program that he compared to "getting deprogrammed from a cult." A year and a half at a halfway house in Norwich followed, and then two years at Oxford House in New London. The craving subsided. He went to countless meetings and was mentored by those who had been clean longer.
He has managed to turn the story of his own downward spiral into a cautionary tale for others. The success he had in crawling back into the world of the non-addict is now a source of hope for others still caught in the grip of addiction.
"John DeRosa is the consummate case manager … someone who's walked down that path and can now use his life experiences to help others," Malone said. "He can talk to someone for five minutes and know where they are, what they need. He has strong feelings that he needs to give back. Others helped him when he needed it."
And while there are certain triggers that will make his mouth water because of his past addiction, DeRosa said the only cravings he listens to these days are the urges to get home to his wife and two young kids.