Matthew Bryce eyed the syringe.
“This isn’t going to kill me, is it?” he asked.
He wasn’t interested in the answer as much as he was the high. Injecting heroin was rumored to produce a faster and stronger rush than snorting the drug.
And it did. Moments after the needle pierced his skin, the high coursed through his body.
“It felt like euphoria,” Bryce said. “Nothing compares to the feeling it gives you.”
Eight years later, Bryce felt a similar rush the first time he held his son. In the visiting room of Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County, Bryce marveled at the soft skin of his 3-month-old baby.
For eight years, the Culpeper resident struggled to break his heroin addiction. Sometimes, he’d stayed clean for months at a time before succumbing to the drug’s siren call.
As he snuggled with baby Colton, Bryce felt hopeful that, this time, he could get clean permanently.
He was in Coffeewood, serving a two-year sentence for larceny.
“I told myself, ‘If I can’t get clean here, I can’t get clean anywhere,’” he said.
Bryce attended the prison’s 12-step program meetings for addicts. He had never been in prison before, and found more substance abuse help there than he had in jail.
Two years ago, Bryce left prison. Two weeks ago, he celebrated four years of sobriety.
“I was high but never happy,” he said. “I was full of fear and always wondering how to get more heroin. Today, I’m so happy with everything I have.”
A GROWING HABIT
Bryce began experimenting with drugs in high school. His habit grew to include opiate pills by the time he enrolled at Radford University, where a friend introduced him to heroin, saying it was like the pills but cheaper.
The friend shared some heroin bought in Baltimore, and Bryce was hooked. He traveled to Washington for a geology class field trip and gave a homeless man dinner and two packs of cigarettes in exchange for an introduction to a drug dealer.
Bryce soon learned the best routes to Washington, the exact amount of gas he’d need for the trip and the names of several drug dealers.
He kept hearing about the benefits of injecting heroin—“sniff it and waste it, shoot it and taste it,” other users told him.
Soon, he was shooting up regularly, spending $300–$500 a day on heroin and crack. He dropped out of college and lost several jobs.
He thought about money constantly, but only as a means for more drugs. He scrounged for change to get a cheeseburger from the McDonald’s dollar menu when he got hungry.
But no couch cushions hid enough change to buy drugs. After friends and family learned not to loan him money, Bryce turned to stealing.
“I’m so ashamed and embarrassed of that now,” he said. “I would never want to steal anything, but that’s what drugs do to you.”
He was in and out of jail, rehabs and hospitals.
He overdosed five times, went to rehab seven times and ended up in jail more times than he can count.
The initial euphoria was gone. Bryce was taking heroin just to stave off withdrawal.
“So many mornings, you wake up and you don’t want to open the curtains, you don’t even want to see the sun,” he said.
Bryce wanted a better life and tried to break his addiction.
“I would go to rehab and I would leave with the best of intentions,” he said. “I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles that I would never get high again.”
Heroin has a high relapse rate; about 90 percent of recovering addicts will go back to the drug. The drug changes the parts of the brain that process pleasure, and those changes remain for years after an addict gets clean.
The brain then has to work harder to feel pleasure, and heroin offers an alluring shortcut to euphoria.
Once, Bryce threw a syringe out his car window, telling himself, “I’m never going to do this again.”
The next day, he went back to the ditch on the side of the road to find the needle.
BUILDING A NEW LIFE
He was clean and on house arrest for stealing when he met Beth through a mutual friend. He couldn’t go anywhere, so he had plenty of time to talk with her.
Bryce had no car, no job, no income.
Beth was a single mother determined to stay away from an improbable relationship.
But the pair fell in love.
They married within months of meeting. Bryce had been clean for five months.
Then he failed a drug screen through the probation office and was sentenced to two years in prison. Beth was just a few months pregnant at the time.
Going through the pregnancy alone was difficult, but she was determined to make the marriage work.
“I knew what he was capable of,” she said recently, gesturing toward 3-year-old Colton playing with a toy kitchen. “I could envision this life.”
Bryce couldn’t. But he wanted a marriage, a home, children and a job.
He left Coffeewood in 2014 determined to build that life with Beth, her daughter Charleigh and Colton.
He avoided his old friends and started a tree-trimming business.
Shortly after getting out of prison, he was shopping at Kohl’s and the cashier asked him to apply for a credit card. Bryce did, assuming he’d be rejected. But his application was accepted.
“I almost cried,” he said. “Someone trusted me.”
He takes things day by day, knowing that heroin addiction is difficult to overcome, but determined to hold on to the life he’s built.
“When I was using, I felt like everyone else’s life was better than mine,” he said. “Now I feel like I have the best life. I couldn’t have imagined all of this would be possible for me. My life is second to none.”
Amy Flowers Umble: 540.735-1973