Jonathan Calderon woke up on a hot June morning, wrapped in a wrinkled red and black blanket, soaked in cold sweat. It was his fourth night and fourth day crashing on his friend’s small couch without heroin. He had no money and no strength to go back to the street.
That’s when he logged onto Facebook on his friend’s phone. On the top of the news feed was a photo of his 7-month-old daughter, tilting her head in a smile. “Why am I here instead of being at her side?” Calderon thought to himself.
In his 24 years, Calderon, a Mott Haven native, had spent 14 years using and selling drugs, and the last four years doing heroin. Drugs, he said, once relieved his loneliness. Selling drugs even lifted him out of poverty, temporarily. But now, all he had was two knife-slash scars in his arm and leg, four tattoos and a broken down body. Calderon realized that he was about to condemn his young daughter to a life with an absent father on drugs. But he wanted to be able to participate in her childhood. He decided that he had to stop letting heroin control his life.
Calderon’s problem was not unique. Many of the city’s drug users and their families had endured even worse. Last year, 782 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses. Of those, 420 deaths involved heroin. In the past four years, the city had seen a steady growth in the death toll of drug poisoning, according to a study released this August by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
More than a quarter of those deaths occurred in the Bronx. During 2012, among every 100,000 residents in the Bronx, 8.8 died of drug poisoning involving heroin. From 2012 to 2013, 16.6 percent of the deaths happened in Hunts Point and Mott Haven, the neighborhood with the most heroin-related deaths in New York City since 2010.
In the country, an increasing number of young people started using heroin in the beginning of their adult life. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2012, 18 to 25 year olds accounted for 43.6 percent of illicit drug use. In 2012 alone, 156,000 persons started to use heroin, with the average age of initial use at 23.
Grow Up Fast, Smoking Weed
Growing up in Mott Haven to drug-addicted parents, Calderon had only met his father once and did not see his mother much before he was 12. He was shuffled between his relatives’ houses, feeling unwelcome everywhere. School wasn’t any better. He said he was bullied through elementary school to junior high, and dropped out of high school after only a few months.
He didn’t remember having a toy, or going to the zoo, or holding his parents’ hands. He promised not to let this happen to his own child.
“I had to grow up fast to defend myself in the street,” he said.
He smoked his first hit of marijuana at the age of 11. “Gimme some of that or I’ll tell your mom,” he remembered telling his 14-year-old cousin.
On his 12th birthday, he smoked his second joint with friends in a park near Westchester Avenue. The weed slowed him down and made him laugh. He liked it.
By 13, he was smoking several times a day and selling it. Street-smart and an early developer, he was pulled in by a gang in the neighborhood. Surrounded by 18 to 20 year-olds who gave him money and taught him how to sell drugs and to put down street fights, for the first time in his life, Calderon felt embraced and thought that it was love.
From a Pothead to a Pill-head
One thing led to another, and at 17, Jonathan discovered “Opana,” a prescription painkiller that was able to freeze everything out for him. After taking the orange-colored pill, he liked to run around while the surroundings faded out. In this blurry world, he felt relieved from the pain and stress of loneliness.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that “crushing, chewing or dissolving” pills such as Opana ER “will result in uncontrolled delivery of active opioid and can lead to overdose or death,” and ordered the manufacturers to change the package labels, directing prescriptions only be given for “severe pain” instead of the formerly “moderate-to-severe pain.”
For this reason, in 2012, Opana ER, the long-acting analgesic, adopted a new formulation that resists being dissolved.
But back in 2006, when Opana ER first came on the market, Calderon didn’t know he could open up the pills and snort them. He only took “Opana” in pill form.
The same year, his street business went to a new level. He started to sell heroin in small bags with a star stamped on it.
At that time, Calderon said, all the heroin sold by local gangs had brand images stamped on the bags. The names were derived from a large range of things -“Blue Spider,” “Daddy Yankee,” “MySpace” and “Walking Dead,” to name a few.
His left hand still bears a tattoo of a star and a dollar sign.
In 2007, a bag of heroin cost around $10. A bundle of 10 bags cost $50 to $ 80. Sometimes, Calderon was able to sell about 15 bundles to up to 30 people in a day. A daily revenue of $500 was commonplace. On a good day, he could make $1000.
The money flipped his whole life around, from a street kid with no regular home to an 18 year old with his own place. He paid monthly rent of $500 for a basement studio in a three-story building on Cypress Avenue.
It wasn’t just the housing situation that changed. In a neighborhood where 41 percent of the population lived below poverty level, he often spent $150 on a pair of Levi’s jeans and $300 on Jordan sneakers. In fact, he had so many sneakers that he used to wear different shoes everyday for a month.
By 19, Calderon had saved up $10,000. Not able to put the street money into a bank account, he dug a hole in the wall in his closet to store his fortune behind his True Religion jeans and Polo shirts.
But the $10,000 saving was just a small token of what he had made. He spent most of them on clothes, liquor, cab fare. Some nights, with friends, he would spent $100 at nightclubs. He once squandered $1000 at Sin City Cabaret.
Every morning when he turned on his phone at 6 or 7 a.m., it would ring non-stop because addicts in the neighborhood had been craving heroin all night long. After taking care of the business, he would swing by a store to get cigarettes, rolling papers and marijuana in the street. Then he went back home, put on some music, usually Rap or R&B. He liked Meek Mill’s “I Am a Boss” and Trey Songz “Already Taken” the most. And then he would start to smoke.
Before noon he would have showered and put on some cologne and had his waist-length hair braided. He’d put on his dashing new clothes and sneakers, ready to show up on the street where he hung out with other gang members till midnight. Calderon enjoyed looking nice and being respected on the street. But sometimes his mind strayed from the non-stop chatter between gangsters about who had been beaten up or who had been killed.
“I wish I was born in another country where there was no drugs or violence, living a normal life with my parents,” Calderon said.
Live to Dose, Dose to Live
In 2009, a girlfriend showed Calderon a new way of taking “Opana.” He started to crush it into powder and snorted it. This could create “legal high,” the same as heroin, but via prescription narcotics.
From 2003 to 2012 in New York State, drug-poisoning deaths involving opioid analgesic increased from 186 to 914, reaching a peak of 940 in 2010, according to a study released by the state Department of Health. Most of the victims aged 45 to 64, the age group 20 to 44 being the second large. From 2003 to 2012, death toll of the later group grew almost five folds.
Like many other drug users who started with opiod analgesic but then switched to heroin, the more accessible, less expensive substitute, at 21, Calderon started to use the heroin he had for sale, after he and his girlfriend ran out of “Opana.”
One snort of heroin always brought him a rush of energy in his body and he would start to scratch– “the good itch” –all over his body. He could feel the excitement breaking through his normal shyness. After the burst of happiness, Calderon would go into to a deep sleep that he would try to fight away. On a given day, he would snort up to ten bags of heroin. He followed the voice in his head, “Go get it. Go get it.”
In about a year and a half, he used up all his savings. But the voice didn’t stop chanting.
He started to sell things, like his jewelry and AirJordan sneakers, until he was down to one outfit, and one pair of shoes.
Calderon began to cash in on his scrappy reputation on the street. Other heroin dealers loaned him 10 or 20 bundles. One person loaned him 50, expecting him to pay back $2,500. Instead, he snorted it all.
That was the beginning of his trouble on the street. Once he was slashed in one arm and leg. The wound opening didn’t heal for two weeks. He was 23.
By the end of 2013, Calderon was emotionally repulsed by heroin, tired of all the chasing, hunting and disappointing his family. But his body couldn’t handle withdrawal. In addition to the chills and the sweats, the fevers, compulsive vomiting and sometimes incontinence could drag on for days.
He had to get high to feel normal. He was sick of it.
“I don’t need my life back. I need a new life.”
Calderon knocked on his mother’s door, after four days this June at his friend’s.
“I need help, mom,” he said.
Having always blamed herself for Calderon’s addiction, the mother instantly broke into tears and hugged him.
The day after, she sent Calderon to detox at St. Barnabas Hospital, where he rested for about a week, getting health checks until all the remnants of heroin were removed from his system. Methadone was used to curb his cravings.
At the end of the treatment, Calderon was referred to a six to nine months residence treatment program at VIP Services where he participated in group discussions and various therapy sessions during the daytime.
Having stayed clean for more than three months, he started to go to classes at Eagle Academy to prepare for GED test. Beyond the test, he plans to be trained for a Primary Care Paramedic License with which he hopes to become a phlebotomist.
“I think by handling people’s blood and urine samples, I could help people dealing with their problems,” Calderon said that he had wanted to become a phlebotomist since he was 17 or 18.
His daughter is turning one in less than a month. Calderon is counting days – she may be one and a half year old when he finishes Primary Care Paramedic training, is out of the treatment center and on track for his new life.
“In a couple of years, when she’s grown up a little bit, I want to get a half sleeve tattoo with her name and face on it,” Calderon said, by then he would have removed the star and dollar tattoo on his hand.
He has his mother and grandmother’s name tattooed on his arm and neck.
On his other arm was a tattoo from long ago that says “Dreams and Nightmares.”