Mark Feliciano started dabbling with opiates when he was about 15 years old. The moment he decided he would never get high again came five years later. At that point, his drug use was no longer experimental—he was addicted to heroin.
After three arrests and a couple of failed attempts to get clean, Feliciano was on probation. He was standing before a judge and he had just come up dirty on a drug test.
"His exact words were, if you (expletive) up one more time, I'm sending you to prison for two-and-a-half years," Feliciano said of that pivotal court appearance. "It was at that moment, that exact moment, I said, 'I'm done.' Since that day I haven't touched a drug. I just knew it wasn't worth my freedom. I couldn’t spend two-and-a-half years in prison. Jan. 12, 2011, is the last day I got high."
Fast-forward to today and the 23-year-old Mahopac resident is in a good place. He described his life as steady—he works for Southeast-based Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 38, he has a girlfriend, he is saving money and he has renewed the friendships he lost over drugs. He and his mother are closer than ever.
He does not regret a thing. He is confident he will never slip up because he "already knows" what hard drugs do to a person's life.
"I've had really bad days sober, but even my worst day sober was better than my best day high," he said.
Feliciano remembers the first time he tried heroin like it was yesterday. He had just entered his senior year at Mahopac High School. That day, he and a few friends could not get any Oxycodone, which they had been using for months. They were going through withdrawal.
"We were miserable," Feliciano said.
When an acquaintance stopped by and pulled out some "diesel," they thought he meant marijuana. Learning it was actually heroin, the teens hesitated, then gave it some consideration.
"I looked at my buddy, and I was like 'I don't know about that. I don't know. That's the one thing I said I would never touch,'" he recalled. "And at this point I was sick. I really was not feeling good at all ... So we decided to do it. We split a bag."
Once he snorted heroin, Feliciano knew he would not be stopping anytime soon, even though it scared him to think of what the drug could be "cut," or mixed, with.
The high was euphoric and similar to other opiates, except more intense. Plus, it was available and cheap—two beginners could get high off a $15-stash.
Before heroin, he was taking about eight 80-milligram Oxycodone pills, at $50 or $60 a pop, daily.
It all started with Vicodin. At 15, Feliciano was already smoking weed and drinking alcohol. He wasn't bored, per se, just "maybe looking for something more." He spotted the drug in a relative's medicine cabinet, did some research and gave it a try with a few friends.
It was not a good experience. He threw up.
The next time was different. He was alone at home after school, and his mother was at work for a few more hours. Once he swallowed the pills, he felt relaxed and mellow.
Feliciano took three pills to get that high. From there he took more and more, until he hit 15 or 20 a day, and started coughing up blood. His stomach was killing him and he wanted something different. That's when he transitioned to Oxycodone.
As Feliciano moved from one drug to another, he built up a tolerance. And he composed himself well, he said, so family members and school staff didn't notice anything wrong, even though he was getting high right under their noses.
"Once you start getting addicted, it's not so much you're messed up anymore," he said. "You need it to function, you need it to not get sick. Getting high is obviously the bonus, but the main reason you're doing it is you don’t want to get sick."
Getting "sick" is something Feliciano knows all too well.
"You start feeling it in your bones almost. You start getting sweaty. It’s the worst feeling in the world and I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy."
He had that sick feeling at times when he was using in high school and after, but the worst was when he was withdrawing in jail. Feliciano was arrested in 2009 and 2010.
The first arrest came after he knew he had a problem and he tried to get clean. He visited what he described as a "Suboxone doctor," who was "in it for the money," in White Plains.
Suboxone is a prescription drug used to treat opiate dependence. It wasn't enough for Feliciano, and his desire to get off drugs was not yet a match for his addiction. Looking back, Feliciano knows he was not ready to get clean. He liked the ritual of doing drugs, and the lifestyle, too much.
When he was arrested later that year, police had him for selling to a confidential informant. That felony distribution charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and he got out on probation.
"At this point I was too into it," he said. "Nothing really mattered. I wasn’t afraid to die. It didn’t really faze me. The drug was just so much greater than that, that was the big picture ... My job was just to buy and sell, buy and sell, buy and sell. I didn’t need money. I didn't eat. I didn’t shower. I didn’t buy clothes. Every dollar went to it. If I was starving and sick and I had a dollar, it went to drugs."
At his worst, the 5'10 man weighed 140 pounds. He has since gained about 45. He never overdosed, but came "pretty damn close."
In March 2010, Feliciano was arrested again. He had just shot up in his car and was getting ready to deliver the dope to his buyers—mostly young guys, plus a few young women and a couple of middle-aged men living with their families—when he heard, "Hands up! Don't move!" Half a dozen cops surrounded him.
That first night in jail was fine because he was "high as a kite." When he woke up the next morning and remembered where he was, he lost it. He felt withdrawals coming on. He called his mother. She told him she was not bailing him out this time.
The next few days were brutal: Constant vomiting, diarrhea, restless legs and the sweats.
"Your body is
drained, but your mind is wide awake," he said. "You can go four or five days with no sleep
at all. You can't eat at all."
He knew that in jail he would not get any help in the form of medication, so he faked a seizure for a trip to the hospital and the chance of a dose of something that would ease the discomfort.
After about a week and a half, the withdrawal was over, and he was able to get a couple hours of rest nightly. He was scheduled to be released shortly thereafter. But on his way out, he was stopped and arrested again. The felony charge this time was for a deal that occurred about a month and a half earlier.
"I called my mother and told her I'm not leaving," he said. "She thought I was joking. I told her I got rearrested on different charges. She was hysterical."
Lucky for Feliciano, the judge he was arraigned before showed "some compassion" and released him on his own recognizance. A few days later he was at St. Christopher's Inn in Cold Spring, where he stayed in treatment for three months on his own accord. He wanted to get clean, but he was doing it more so it would look good against the charges.
Still, when his time there was up, he felt good.
"I loved it. It took about a month but you
learned you didn’t need it. I really didn’t think about it, I thought that was it.
I thought I found God. After I got out I was going to a sober house on Long Island. I
thought after that I'd come back home and get a job."
The very first night at the sober house, Feliciano learned sobriety was not enforced. It was Halloween, the house manager was nowhere in sight, and a few of the people already living there were drinking.
When Feliciano showed reluctance, they pointed out he was a drug addict, not an alcoholic, so why shouldn't he partake? After a few drinks, someone offered K2, a synthetic that produces an effect similar to marijuana's. He smoked some, and ended up taking half a Suboxone.
"That night turned into a nightmare," he said. "After that I was on a tear again. I was on
the run again."
Feliciano went on existing like that for a few months, scamming people and scoring heroin. He moved back to Mahopac just before Christmas 2010 and was assigned a new probation officer as he proceeded through drug court, which involves therapy treatment and is an alternative to time behind bars.
Still using, Feliciano had gotten around most drug tests at this point. But the new probation officer tested him the first day he walked in. And with that he was back before a judge, hearing about his last chance and headed for a 30-day stint in rehab.
These days, Feliciano does not struggle to stay clean, although some of his friends still do. He never dreamed he would be addicted to drugs, but he has no shame in his story.
Most people are very surprised by it. The general perception, he said, is that heroin addicts are just "the lowest of the low, dirt."
"These kids, they weren't always heroin addicts. They have families that care about them, they used to go to school and they used to have lives, friends, and everything else. But once you get trapped in that cycle, you're done. You're done. And unfortunately, a lot of people don't make it out."
The heroin epidemic has claimed plenty of lives in the region. A 25-year-old Mahopac man died of an overdose in October 2013, after a handful of heroin-related deaths were reported some months earlier. Just last month three Westchester men died of suspected overdoses.
The stories are the same near and far—from Long Island and New York City to Hudson, Wisconsin, a town of 13,000 that has seen seven fatal heroin overdoses in eight months, according to the New York Times.
In Feliciano's experience, parents and family members can only do so much. That means making sure young people are aware of the consequences of drugs, while realizing that some are still going to experiment.
Once a person becomes an addict, things change.
"When they're in that bad of shape, the best thing you can do, I think, in my opinion, is to get them arrested," he said. "You could talk and talk all you want, it's going to go in one ear and right out the other. You could talk until you're blue in the face. You could cry. I've had it done to me. My mom, my dad, my grandfather, everybody. Friends crying, begging me to stop. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, I am, I am.' And you go right back."
Feliciano has reached out to local schools in the hopes of sharing his lesson with young students. He is unable to pinpoint the exact reason he tried opiates, but he wonders whether he would have been less inclined to experiment if he had heard from an addict who was just a few years older.
Today, Feliciano said there is simply "no way to explain" how good he feels.
He knows now addiction is a powerful disease, however, he believes a person's mindset also plays a big role in getting off drugs.
"With everybody, it's different," he said. "Some people, their best friend dies and they get clean. Some people they get arrested, they don't want to face the consequences and they get clean. Some people just wake up one day and get clean. And some people die. It will never stop, it's only getting worse and it'll always be around. It's never going to not be around."