It’s five minutes to closing time at Berlin’s methadone clinic, and Jeff Drown is waiting to feel better.
Panes of glass separate the clinic’s visitors from its staff. Drown presents an ID and is granted access to the next enclosed area, where signs prohibit talking and limit one person at a time.
A nurse dispenses cherry red liquid in a plastic medicine cup, and a small line forms outside the door. A toddler squirms in his young mother’s arms as she waits her turn to dose.
“You have to do this every day,” Drown said. “If you’re lucky.”
Indeed, it took Drown, who’s used heroin for at least a decade, six months to get his spot in the clinic, he said. In July, the state reported 3,148 people accessed its few geographically striated “hubs,” and 110 people were still waiting.
“Now I’m not tired, and I actually feel like I could do something,” Drown said outside the clinic.
That motivation is critical, as Drown has his work cut out for him: He’s looking for a job, trying not to use and fighting four felony charges.
Milton police arrested Drown on September 30, accusing him of regularly tripping out-of-state to buy heroin in bulk and bringing it back to Milton to sell at an inflated price. They found 890 bags containing nearly 23 grams of heroin in his car upon his arrest, court documents show.
Drown is fighting his case, but he’s resigned himself to the likelihood of impending jail time. The 36-year-old husband and father of three says he’s lost everything; his family, friends and home top the list. Castigated by neighbors and relegated to sleeping in his car, Drown hangs around his father’s house and punctuates his days at the clinic.
With nothing left to lose, he wants to tell his story.
Public enemy No. 1
When it comes to his family, Drown is unwavering: They were oblivious to his indiscretions and deserve none of the scorn he says is rightfully his.
“There’s an innocent family that just got destroyed by this, and they had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Drown said his wife knew he struggled with drugs but thought he was making progress after getting into the clinic. By his account, he worked hard to ensure his family never knew the true extent of his addiction or his crimes.
“Addicts are really good liars – like, the best,” Drown said. “It was like the best kept secret … I did it that way intentionally.”
He built treehouses, rode bikes, went apple picking and put his kids on the school bus every day, the picture of fatherly involvement.
“I do everything dads do,” he said. “Our family was so normal. Nobody would have known – nobody – and nobody did.”
But they found out, and the same shame Drown said prevented him from confiding in his family for help is now felt tenfold.
His wife is “irate,” he said, and he’s been home just twice since his arrest – once to get his stuff, and once for dinner with his kids.
“My dying would have been better than this happening,” Drown said. “When you die, people feel sorry for your family, they feel remorse, they show their support. This – the exact opposite. You get shunned, people turn away; no one wants to help.”
That includes the family of his 6-year-old daughter’s best friend – a new reality his wife struggles to explain to their child, Drown said.
“Now I’m public enemy No. 1, and I’m fine with that, but it’s not fair to judge my kids or judge my wife,” he said. “It can happen to anybody … some of these people that are hating so bad, it’s probably going on in their homes right now and they’re just unaware of it. It’s an epidemic.”
Drown never wanted to be a drug dealer, but in the throes of addiction, he said it’s easy to lose control.
Childhood abuse, financial insecurity and a history of depression united in the perfect storm, so when friends put heroin in front of him, “it was like, why not?” he recalled.
“Doing drugs does make you forget … it’s only for that one day, but at least for that one day, you’re kind of free,” he said, almost wistfully. “Some people’s lives are that bad, they just want to get away for an hour or a day.”
Though he repeats a familiar refrain that he turned to drugs to escape unresolved trauma, Drown is adamant that’s “not an excuse.”
Substance use disorder is a diagnosable condition, recognized by the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but Drown insists he never fell back on that reasoning.
“I’ve always looked at it as my problem,” he said.
Jail time for drug-related offenses in 2003 compounded that problem, as did a core group of friends who all used.
Soon, chasing a high was replaced with fending off merciless withdrawals. Ten years of drug use gradually dulled the opioid receptors in Drown’s brain, and heroin didn’t make him euphoric anymore – it made him “normal.”
Avoiding brutal symptoms triggered by the absence of opiates quickly became Drown’s priority, as being dopesick is “the worst feeling in the world – a thousand times worse than the flu,” he called it.
The Mayo Clinic classifies heroin withdrawal as “very common,” with more than 3 million cases each year in the U.S. Symptoms include anxiety, fatigue, sweating, vomiting, seizures, hallucination, muscle spasms, disorientation, insomnia, depression, tremors and delirium. They begin six to 12 hours after last use, peak within two to three days and can last up to 10.
“You just want to die,” Drown said. “But the reality is, what’s a week for the rest of your life?”
He didn’t reach that conclusion before, though. Instead, he spiraled into a “vicious cycle” of using heroin just to get out of bed in the morning.
“It’s an awful existence,” he said. “Every person wishes that they could quit, and they might not say that out loud, but they’re at least thinking it behind closed doors.”
Drown couldn’t get clean for more than a few days, and his growing habit was reaching epic proportions. Ashamed, he hid the extent of his problem from his family, and leaving his wife alone with three kids and their bills for in-patient rehab was out of the question.
It’s easy to get massive amounts of heroin for a fraction of the price in places like Holyoke, Mass. or Hartford, Conn., Drown said, so he turned down that road – not for profit, he said, but to manage his own $600-a-day habit and keep his friends from getting sick.
“It just grows,” he said, “and before you know it, it’s out of control.”
In retrospect, Drown knows he wasn’t actually helping his friends, but it felt like it at the time. Plus, he came to crave the “fake sense of importance and need.”
He disputes the claim he ever sold fentanyl and scoffs at public perception that he “ran the streets.” Drug dealing is nothing like in the movies, and there’s no pile of cash buried in his yard, he said.
He maintains he only dealt with a small group of people – friends he used with – and kept tabs on them, even getting one into a methadone clinic before himself. He tried to keep a low profile. His family believed his income came from carpentry jobs.
“I’m not a saint, but I’m just not what [people] think,” he said. “I’m not a monster. I’m a real person. I’m a real father.”
Drown also says he tried to get straight, even finishing a degree in business administration from Johnson State College last summer. But job prospects came with background checks, and he was a felon and an addict.
After months of waiting, he got into the methadone clinic three weeks before his arrest. He’d like to think that could have turned his life around, but he’s not naïve: Addicts either die or go to jail, the saying goes.
“You don’t think about the damage you’re doing until it’s too late,” Drown said. “And now, obviously, it’s too late.”
Drown said the prospect of repairing the relationship with his family is his sole motivation for getting clean and making amends, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes – including working with the cops.
In fact, he’s been in regular contact with the detective who arrested him.
“This is a first for me,” Detective Cpl. Frank Scalise said.
Drown is partnering with Milton PD to plan an upcoming community forum to offer first-hand insight on addiction – including recognizing warning signs – and repay a debt to the town where his kids are growing up.
“At this point, I feel that someone like him does owe something back to the community,” Scalise said.
Drown wants people to understand “this could happen to any family.” Addiction strikes with equal opportunity, and shame and stigma preclude many from reaching out for help. Families, then, must take and sustain the initiative if they suspect a loved one is in trouble.
For Scalise, the best-case scenario for an offender like Drown is “just a complete turnaround,” he said. “To be a member of our community – to at least be at that status quo.”
Drown wants to surpass status quo – march in the parade, even – and pledges to do better once he serves his time.
In the meantime, he’s telling his story, admittedly uncertain of how it will be received. But if it resonates with even one person, he said, it will be worth it.
“If that one person was me,” he added, “it could have saved my whole family.”