It’s been 56 hours since Grace Bergere’s last shot of heroin—too long.
Curled into a fetal position on an outdoor, candle-lit matt in Costa Rica, the 18-year-old trembles in fear. A petrified grimace wrinkles the white clay adorning her face. Her rail thin body, wrapped in a ceremonial red sheet, looks paralyzed at points—then, without warning, her limbs thrash in revolt, as she tries to keep the demons haunting her at bay. But it’s too late. The demons are just getting started.
Twenty people surround Grace, all of them intently studying her trance state. Neighbors, friends, and locals from San Jose: tonight, they’ve become a tribe.
Clothed in animal skin, paint, and feathers, they move with rapid footsteps before twirling—their African skirts fluttering like laundry in the wind. The pulsing sound from their tsokais (African rattles) and bells join the African beat blasting from a nearby silver MacBook. The noise is so loud it nearly drowns out a horrified howl from Grace.
It’s the leader of the ceremony, Dimitri Mugianis, who hears her struggle. He stops, bends down and leads her through the darkness.
“You’re okay Grace—you’re safe, you’re loved,” Mugianis says, turning her lifeless face towards his. “You’re okay. You’re here.”
Three days ago Grace entered this ceremony looking as sick as she felt—a junkie, hooked on heroin for the last two and a half years. Now she’s been given an arguably more potent drug—ibogaine. If successful, the three-day waking trance will eliminate her chemical dependence on heroin.
In the meantime, there is excruciating, unspeakable pain.
Named after the Greek word heros (allegedly for the hero-like feeling it inspires), heroin is a depressant with a withdrawal so excruciating it can be fatal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the morphine derivative is both the most abused and addictive drug in its class. Once in the system, it binds with opioid receptor cells that send endorphins shooting through the body. A lifetime of physical pain or severe anxiety vanishes in an instant.
Heroin users describe the high as a feeling of all-encompassing well being. It’s a sensation that the 23 percent of those who become dependent after trying it know all too well. In the last decade, heroin abuse in the U.S. has soared.
According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of heroin users more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, to 669,000. In 2012, an estimated 467,000 people reported being dependent on the drug, a number on the rise after a crackdown on prescription drugs.
Most of those using are trying to get help. In 2012, 450,000 people reported receiving treatment for heroin. But the typical plan, rehab and detox, rarely works. According to a 2010 study, over 90 percent of those with opioid addiction relapse in the first year. In 59 percent of those cases, the relapse occurred within the first week. Many blame this high recidivism rate on heroin’s infamous withdrawal. Diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, nausea, fever, severe muscle pain, chills, cramps, watery eyes, runny nose, and involuntary spasms are just some of the ailments that plague those detoxing. Going “cold turkey” is barely possible—and can be life-threatening.
Alternative options are not cures as much as management systems. An acyclic analog of morphine called methadone can prevent withdrawal symptoms. But many users get addicted to that, too, forcing them to take it daily for the rest of their lives. Suboxone, a prescription painkiller used to treat opiates, isn’t much better. With its high cost, low availability, and a long-lasting withdrawal, it’s considered by many to be trading one bad addiction for another (this one legal, and more expensive).
Read More: Here