Steven Okazaki’s Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street was a gripping 1999 HBO documentary that peered into the lives of young heroin addicts on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in the years 1995-98. Every story followed was heartbreaking and arresting, but Tracey Helton definitely stood out brutally candid honesty.

Many of the kids featured in the film unfortunately didn’t survive the next few years, but Tracey has completely turned her life around without losing her connection with those who struggle with addiction. In fact, she’s become a heroine for those grappling with the seductive and destructive allure of opiates.




Tracey, who’s now a wife and the mother of three young children, runs a blog, has penned several enlightening essays around the web, and just published a book, The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin. She’s also a frequenter of the r/opiates subreddit, where she’s saved many lives by mailing out packages of clean needles and Narcan to those who live somewhere it’s impossible or hard to get. Death from an opiate overdose is from the result of respiratory and nervous system depression. Narcan  revives someone who’s overdosing by counteracting those effects.

Tracey doesn’t offer judgement, or pretend to have all the answers; she lovingly contributes to the community, and shares her own recovery journey via her writing. People who struggle with addiction are often labeled addicts or junkies, as if that’s all there is to them, as if they are alien to the rest of us. Some people are more

predisposed to turning to powerful drugs, usually to quell the pain of trauma and mental health issues. Using clean needles and keeping Narcan close by is a form of “harm reduction.” Looking at addiction as an all-or-nothing situation isn’t realistic. Sobriety is a best case scenario, but the world doesn’t operate on ideals. Instead, there are always spectrums, and the closer someone gets toward a healthier life, the better. Tracey’s presence as the subreddit’s “mother” is one of hope through her example. She’s still got her refreshing candor, and she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. She’s just grateful that she gave herself a second chance at life.

Like many, Tracey’s addiction grew from an opiates prescription following a medical procedure. Opiates don’t just relieve physical pain; they relieve emotional pain as well. Our bodies prefer to feel good, and opiates can feel extremely good – at first anyway. They highjack our reward centers and make it seem like a pretty fine idea to throw our life away in pursuit of a blissful numbness. It’s not like the person decides to check out on life, but it’s something that happens while they’re not even noticing. Tracey said in the documentary that she felt like trying heroin would be a good “life experience,” and in an AMA she admitted she had thought it seemed “glamorous.” Of course, she learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t glamorous, or a harmless life experience everyone needs to try, but that didn’t stop her from continuing.

“I think when I REALLY decided I needed to quit was when I was locked in the bathroom of a filthy hotel,” she explains in a recent AMA. “I had blood all over me from trying to get a hit in my feet and ankles. I was switching from one dull syringe to a new one hoping to get the drugs inside of me. Then, I realized close to an hour had passed. It was a metaphor for my life. Everything was passing me by. I made up my mind I was going to do something and really make an attempt to get off drugs before I died in a bathroom like that one.”

It’s easy to get angry at or judgmental of someone addicted to a powerful substance. Someone who’s deeply addicted to an opiate will put it first, above anything and anyone else. They will lie, cheat, steal, and alienate loved ones to keep that opiate in their life. A person who loves someone with a heroin addiction feels the pain of it, the loss of it, but the heroin addict can always chase the feelings away, at least momentarily. The self that is beautiful, that thrives off of loving and giving, and sees opportunity and joy in life; that self gets dulled and buried under the weight of Unquenchable Need. But that self is still there; that self and all the beauty, pain and tediousness of life when it’s unfiltered through a dulling euphoric haze. Sobriety is just you dealing with your brain chemicals as they come, and that’s often a scary proposition. Sobriety is a chance to realize that other people exist, and that your actions affect them, too. It’s easier to forget all that.

In a recent Reddit AMA, Tracey explains that the urge to use never goes away. “Of course I think about using,” she says. “I can’t control my thoughts. I think about all types of crazy shit but what counts is my actions. I think of heroin as the Ike turner of drugs. It beats your ass yet you can’t stop thinking about that beautiful music you made together. Then one day you finally leave for good. You still hear those songs but you have to keep on stepping.”

Black Tar Heroin documentary:


Tracey’s Twitter: @Traceyh415

Tracey’s Book:

Tracey’s Blog:


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