Clear-Eyed Return to the Scene

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Louis Iacona left, of Long Island, founded LI Helps to assist drug addicts into treatment. Logan McDermott, a friend from sober living houses, helped launch it.

When Lou Iacona was six and selling blow pops at recess, he had no ambition to be selling marijuana at 13, which he did.  He had simply failed to earn the blow pops as a reward for being good, so he stole them and sold them. He loved attention, and as the third of four children of a Massapequa, Long Island, insurance adjuster and stay-at-home mom, he felt unnoticed at home. So when he sought attention elsewhere with mischief, that seemed to go unnoticed too.

 Nor did anyone call attention to these events as early steps toward heroin addiction. Iacona was an able athlete with a girlfriend at ten, whose name he carved in a school desk.

In his affluent family, he said, “I got what I wanted. I was spoiled.”

Massapequa, a hamlet of four square miles, has a median family income of $116,000.

 At twelve, when Iacona first smoked marijuana, he was nonplussed. He smoked with friends in a gathering at a South Massapequa catering hall.

“I felt funny, paranoid. I didn’t really like it,” he said.

He continued to smoke marijuana because his older sister’s ex-boyfriend kept supplying him with generous quantities to sell. At 13, he would peddle his pot at handball courts where his friends hung out after school.

“I liked the sense of control, and having people seek me out for marijuana and to be with me,” he said.

He saw that he could manipulate others to give him rides by plying them with dope, money, and food, he said. But he found what really suited him while partying with friends at a backyard pool. He bought two Vicodins for five dollars each.

“I got an itchy nose, because it messes with your histamines,” he said. “But then I was calm and relaxed. It was doing what it was supposed to do.”

He was 15. He thinks now that maybe he had an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and opiates slowed those racing thoughts. He kept taking them and selling them. His outlaw lifestyle retained its romantic appeal for a while, as he went in and out of school and adolescent jail programs. He was kicked out of school during his sophomore, junior, and senior years for fighting, drug possession and sales, and chronic insubordination—doing and saying what he pleased.

“I wanted to be known as a badass,” he said.

 In jail, the adolescent dorms were more turbulent than the adult ones, he found. Although he was relatively small and light, he protected himself with karate skills he learned in classes he began in elementary school. He would encounter the same people over and over.

“Some of them are probably still criminals,” he said.

Although that juvenile program failed to extricate him from his addict lifestyle, it left an important impression. For the couple of months that the Outreach bus took him to school and picked him up, he had a glimpse of himself as a sober, successful student. 

But one day during the summer Iacona turned 18, an older “friend,” whom he often manipulated for rides, said he could find no pills, but could get heroin.

“I said I would never do heroin, but ‘yes’ rolled off my tongue. I’d use it to not be sick,” he said.

They met a dealer at a KFC on Sunrise Highway two towns away from Massapequa, but they bought no fried chicken.

 “Heroin worked like 80 mg of oxycontin, but faster,” said Iacona. “It’s no party drug. We just drove with the music on and the dopamine dumping.”

That day he sniffed the heroin, but within a year he was shooting it. Meanwhile, his parents kicked him out. He lived in motels for seven months.

“I felt like, ‘Look at me. I’m out on my own,’” he recalled.

His parents begged him to come home. He finally did when he was arrested and needed their help.

Between the ages of 18 and 25, he was frequently arrested, and consequently started inpatient and outpatient treatment 40 times, overdosing eight times along the way.

“Detectives harassed me, waiting around the block to catch me,” he said. They would sometimes search his house. “I wanted to stop being an addict and just sell drugs, but I wasn’t just doing drugs. They were doing me. Secretly, I liked being in shape and doing well, but I didn’t think it was cool.”

But at 25, he had no friends, “no free rides or couches.”

“I only knew how to go to treatment, a refuge on insurance,” he said. “I had no idea what I would do sober.”

 He was just a depressed addict. He would wake up in mid-afternoon and eat whatever cereal was in the house, if he could keep it down. Even if not sick from withdrawal, his stomach was often upset. Then he would seek out drugs, contributing a ride or money to get where he needed to go.

He would come home and watch “Law and Order,” and go to sleep, “thinking about nothing,” he said. “The lifestyle I was in love with beat me down. I thought this was what life would be. I was an empty shell.”

At one point, he came out of treatment in South Florida and shot cocaine that kept him awake for several days. He met someone who had also been in treatment and relapsed, and they were in a train bathroom in adjacent stalls, when, Iacona fell and hit his head.

“My brain short-circuited. I had a seizure,” he said. His companion slapped him awake, but when he regained consciousness, he said, “My legs weren’t there.”

“Transit police detained them, and Iacona was taken to a hospital, where the EMT who had accompanied him visited later.

“She was sympathetic but didn’t sugarcoat the situation,” Iacona recalled. “She said, ‘You’ve been doing this a long time. Maybe you’ll do it forever. Did any of your friends succeed? You’re intelligent, but you’ll let them pass you by.’ After almost dying again, that kicked recovery into gear.”

At that point, he surrendered to family, friends, a 12-step program, and medications to stave off cravings.

“I grasped for help and listened better,” Iacona says. “My best thinking failed me. I had no idea how to be an adult and pay bills and shop for food.”

He went back to Florida for treatment and a sober living transitional home. Then, at 25, he took a place with a roommate and a job as waiter at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza in Aventura. After two years, he transferred to an Anthony’s in Long Island, ready to return.

He aimed to put the same energy into sober living that he put into serving his addiction, he said. He woke up at 5am to write in a journal to work out his thoughts and path. He decided he wanted to help addicts get sober by filling in the gaps in assistance for them.

So he and a friend who had also put drugs behind him started a Facebook page to announce their intent, and they began visiting treatment centers.

“As our presence grew, treatment centers reached out to us,” said Iacona.

On January 26, 2016, they formed what became L.I. Helps, to guide addicts into treatment and staying sober. Iacona and four colleagues now advise addicts and their families, aided by training and their own experience to do interventions and counseling. Several treatment centers pay them for this work, though Iacona says they have no quotas, and their interventions are free. His cohorts are some of the same people with whom he had previously gotten high, now sober.

They get eight to 15 calls per day seeking help, Iacona says. Most commonly, an addict’s mother calls. Iacona recalls his discomfort on his first visit. A mother had called about her son, who was 21, using heroin, and living at home. The father was a union worker; the mother had a small business.

“It was similar to my home,” said Iacona. “The kid didn’t know I was coming. I said, ‘I’m Louis. I hear you’re using heroin. I’m not a counselor, but I’ve lived that lifestyle. Don’t be mad. Your parents are terrified. I want to help you to the best of my ability.”

Iacona says he guided him into a Florida treatment center.

“I talked to him in treatment. He said he felt like leaving and not going to a sober living house, but I gave advice that he took. I’ve kept in touch,” Iacona says. “We’ve touched about 1000 families, but not all go to treatment, and some go in New York.”

Other stories take different turns. There was Joe, from West Islip, and his girlfriend, who went to separate facilities in California.

“I said, ‘Stay out there,’ but they came home and overdosed together,” said Iacona. The girlfriend died the next day, but Joe lived and stayed in the hospital for two months for surgery on his legs, to which he had lost circulation. “He went to Florida for treatment, and we talk every day. Getting out of your environment won’t keep you sober, but it’s better, with the right treatment and follow-up,” said Iacona.

He also remembered a call he got from a woman whose daughter, about 19, had been using heroin. Iacona was out for dinner with his girlfriend, but he offered to come right away. The mother told him to wait until the next day, but the daughter died of an overdose that night.

Jobs, spouses and partners are the most often cited obstacles to getting treatment, Iacona says. Still, he estimates that about 80% of addicts that he and his partners advise end up in treatment. He encourages families to refuse financial support to addicts in their midst, instead giving them the option of getting treatment or leaving.

Jessica Cohen is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. She most recently reported on health issues related to fracking for Utne Reader.

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