GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — You see them panhandling on the street corner nearly every day. But it’s what you don’t see that reveals the depth of the opioid crisis and the desperation it has wrought.
"The only rest I get is when I go in the bathroom and I’m in there for 20 minutes because I’m smoking crack and shootin’ dope," Tyler Trowbridge told Target 8.
Trowbridge, 33 and homeless in Grand Rapids, let Target 8 document a few hours of his life for a series of stories on the opioid epidemic. It’s a raw and wrenching cautionary tale.
Trowbridge says it’s a story he wishes he had heard before he tried heroin for the first time 15 years ago. The drug has ruled his life since.
ADDICT: PANHANDLING FOR DRUG MONEY 'A FULL-TIME JOB'
"Sorry, I walk fast. I always walk fast," Trowbridge told a Target 8 photographer as he crossed the parking lot at the CenterPoint mall in Grand Rapids on a recent weekday afternoon.
"This is a full-time job. I work 20 hours a day. I never stop. I just have to support my habit," Trowbridge explained. "I have an internal clock that tells me when I have to do everything: 'Oh, I’m going to start feeling sick, I have to make some money.'"
The Grant native says he doesn’t steal to pay for his heroin. Instead, he "spanges," asking strangers for spare change on street corners and sidewalks around Grand Rapids.
Target 8 hung back, watching from a vehicle, as Trowbridge walked up and down the sidewalks at CenterPoint , from T.J. Maxx and Home Goods to World Market and Old Navy.
"Excuse me, ma’am, is there any way you can spare some change or some help?" Trowbridge asked one shopper after another. "I’m trying to get some bus money together. OK, have a good day."
It was slow going at first.
"Excuse me. Excuse me," Trowbridge called out after a man who just kept walking, never looking back.
"Sorry to bother you. I hate being out here," he told another shopper.
"Here I am bragging about how good I am at this, but all I’ve done is scare people," Trowbridge told Target 8.
But then things started looking up. Within 45 minutes, Trowbridge had collected enough cash from shoppers.
"I got $30," he said. "I’m going to call my man."
Trowbridge doesn’t have a phone, but he ducked into a store that sells them because he knows they all have a couple minutes preloaded. He sneaked a call to his dealer, who agreed to meet him at a nearby sandwich shop.
As Trowbridge sat in the restaurant, waiting for his dealer, he fell asleep with his head on the table. It was his dealer who shook him awake.
The two disappeared outside, but Trowbridge soon returned and headed to the restaurant’s bathroom, motioning for Target 8 to follow.
SMOKING CRACK AND SHOOTING UP
Once inside the restroom, he locked the door.
"I’m really f***ed up because he didn’t give me any dope," Trowbridge complained.
His dealer, mad about a previous sale gone bad, would only sell him crack. But after smoking that, Trowbridge was still desperate to shoot up something.
"The needle’s part of it," he explained. "It’s part of the addiction."
Because of that, Trowbridge decided to shoot up part of a dose of Suboxone he’d bought off someone with a legitimate prescription earlier in the day.
Suboxone is used to help people get off heroin by easing withdrawal symptoms and cravings. At appropriate doses, it can also block the effect of other opiates.
Trowbridge had taken part of the Suboxone dose earlier in the day to cure his dopesickness. Now he was going to shoot some of it, too, in part because he’s addicted to the act of injecting drugs.
But shooting up is a struggle now.
"It sucks because I f***ed up most of my veins," he said. "I f***ed up my hands, my arms. I’ve been shooting up in my thighs."
Trowbridge’s hands look dirty, but he says they’re not.
"I got frostbite," he explained. "See, they look like they’re filthy, but I’ve actually scrubbed them many times. My hands are black because the skin’s all dead, and it’s cracking.
There’s a plateau or "ceiling" effect with Suboxone that makes it much harder to get high from using it.
"I wish I had some heroin because this isn’t going to do it for me," Trowbridge said.
"This isn’t the life," Trowbridge said when asked what people might learn from his example. "This is terrible. Heroin’s… you need it. You have to have it. You can’t operate without it. Don’t do it. Don’t even try it. It’ll just take a hold of you."
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IMPROVING ACCESS TO ADDICTION TREATMENT
It was Sara Schade who connected Target 8 with Trowbridge. She runs Unlimited Alternatives in Grand Rapids, a drop-in center for people with mental health issues.
"I worry that people will watch Tyler shooting up drugs in a bathroom and see a person worth less than them for whatever reason," Schade said.
But she hopes that illuminating the bleakest corners of opioid addiction will keep the spotlight shining on a crisis that shows no sign of letting up.
"I wish people would see things that are sad and scary and depraved and think, 'What a horrible thing this person must have gone through.' I hope we can touch people in a way where they felt a string of empathy," Schade said. "These are real people. They don’t become absent of a soul because they are using, and they’re dying every single week. This is happening over and over and over again."
Schade is pushing for better access to medication-assisted treatment when people are ready and willing to seek a path to recovery.
"I can’t fix Tyler," Schade said, "but I can try to help the system that’s around him so he can have more availability to the help he needs."
Medications like methadone and buprenorphine (which is sold under the brand name Suboxone) help stabilize people by restoring balance to brain chemistry that’s been hijacked -- physically altered -- by addiction and repeated drug use.
"It makes sense that when you stop using the drugs your body no longer makes (enough dopamine)," Schade said. "So there’s this medication that replaces what we were doing to ourselves that’s safe and given to us by a doctor so that can work on getting those jobs and becoming what we really can be: good parents, good sisters and brothers and children."
Schade rebukes critics who erroneously believe people are just trading one drug for another.
"People want to go off the one of two bad things they see and say the whole things as a whole is horrible and that these are just a bunch of addicts who are looking for a free buzz," she said. "Well, you’ve got another thing coming. Methadone does not give you a buzz when you’re a hardcore heroin addict. It just stabilizes you.
"When I was on methadone, you wouldn’t have been able to tell any difference in me," she continued. "Once I was stabilized and off everything else and only using methadone, I would’ve looked just like this. You wouldn’t have known."
But there are generally wait times of at least a few days and sometimes longer to get in to programs that provide medication assisted treatment. Schade and other people in the recovery community want to change that.
Trowbridge had some success when he was on methadone maintenance for nearly a year. But he ultimately relapsed, which is often the case for people struggling with opioid addiction, described as a chronic, relapsing brain disease.
Schade herself spent eight years on medication-assisted treatment before achieving long-term recovery. She’s been clean of opioids for 10 years now.
'I DON'T WANT TO DIE'
Trowbridge told Target 8 that he, too, wants to get clean, though he acknowledged heroin still rules his life.
"It’s just that the drug’s got a hold of me," he said. "There’s nothing I can do."
Trowbridge has already overdosed three times. In each case, he was brought back by naloxone, the overdose reversal drug usually sold under the brand name Narcan.
"I don’t want to die," Tyler Trowbridge told Target 8. "It’s messed up because I love life, passion, love, music."
Trowbridge said it’s his work ethic that has allowed him to fund his heroin habit through panhandling.
"Not quitting, figuring out where’s the best spot, getting in a little routine, making sure you’re going at different times, different days so it’s not the same people," he listed.
Still, he’s nearing rock bottom.
"I can’t live like I’m living anymore," he said. "It’s f***ing terrible. I have nowhere to go. I freeze my **s off at night. So I have to find businesses that will tolerate me sitting there."
Schade hopes that by talking to Target 8 Trowbridge was purposely, even if subconsciously, sabotaging his ability to panhandle for drug money.
"The fact that he was willing to be on TV does say a lot," she said. "I think part of him is trying to blow his hustle wide open and make it harder for him, and that’s a good sign. We’ll see if anything happens from it, but it’s a good sign."
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