Being in high school and playing in a rock band, Mitch Russo started using heroin at the young age of 16. Getting away from heroin wasn’t easy, but thanks to a miraculous phone call, his family and three and a half years of rehab, Mitch recovered his life from drug addiction. The end game of drug addiction is death. Listen in and find out how to get away from drugs and be a miracle to others.
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The Phases of Getting Away from Heroin with Mitch Russo
I am pleased and honored to be interviewing Mitch Russo. Mitch is a business person with experience in creativity. His career started in electrical engineering and software development, and then moved on to company ownership and sales. Mitch has a specific expertise in turning clients into advocates by certifying the client and developing ways for the certified client to share in the revenue stream of the business. His book entitle The Invisible Organization had helped many people including celebrities such as Tony Robbins. Mitch has achieved great success which is surprising because he has a dark secret. Mitch was addicted to heroin at the age of sixteen. Mitch, it’s great to have you on the show.
My first question to you is how did you become involved with heroin?
It’s a bit of a convoluted story. I don’t think many people start with heroin as their experimenting drug. I started like most of my colleagues at the time, most of my friends. I started with smoking pot. I liked smoking pot and it turned into something that I did on a very regular basis. As I got more and more comfortable with smoking pot and as more and more people around me were getting high, one day a new player was introduced into the mix. This individual suggested that we try something better than pot, and that was heroin. He called it smack at the time. Being tempted like most of us kids were, we did give it a shot. From there, it was all downhill. Ultimately, that decision was completely mine. I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know what I was doing. It was something that I was willing to try. Again, that was the downfall or the beginning of me getting involved with heroin.
Mitch, what age were you when you first smoked weed?
It was probably at the age of fourteen.
You had a couple of years of smoking weed. I’m imagining you smoked the heroin, is that correct?
No, we used needles, what we used to call skin pop. What we would do is basically put the needle into the fleshy part behind the bicep and just basically shoot it into the skin. It was only later that it was suggested that I would get a better high that I decided to try shooting directly into the vein.
How long did you shoot heroin into your veins?
This goes back a while. I’m thinking that between the time I started using and the time I was completely done with it, it was probably on the order of a year and a half.
Can I ask about alcohol use? You started using weed at the age of fourteen. Was there alcohol involved before that point or during? Can you just touch on the subject of alcohol?
No. I never enjoyed drinking. From time to time, there would be some Boone’s Farm apple wine, some cheap stuff. It never appealed to me. I never got involved doing it. I didn’t like it. For the most part, I stayed away from it.
Your experience is a little unusual in that you went from weed straight to heroin and there was no alcohol involved in that transition.
There were other drugs. I didn’t go straight from weed to dope. At that point, once I started smoking weed, it seemed okay to experiment with other things. I did experiment with barbiturates. I did experiment with mushrooms. I experimented with basically hash, which is the same as weed only more concentrated. I had no trouble experimenting with what was out there at the time. I was pretty young. I was in high school. I had a lot of peer pressure. A lot of people around me were getting high regularly. For me, it didn’t seem like a big deal or even dangerous at all.
What part of the country were you in at this time?
I was in the Brooklyn, New York area. I was near the Coney Island area. That’s where my junior high school was.
Tell me how did you come to stop using heroin? What was the process around the stopping point? You used for approximately one and a half years. I’d like to try to zoom in on the process of your usage coming to a stop.
When I was using heroin, I was in high school. I had a rock band. The band was starting to become successful. That provided me with the funding to basically keep a habit active. We had been playing regularly. When the band got started, we played for free. Then we would charge to play. Eventually, we charged a lot for our age and for that era. We were, at one point in 1970, getting about $500 a night. If you can imagine the inflation that’s gone on since 1970 and the fact that we’re four sixteen-year-old kids, this was a small fortune. What would basically happen is that when we first started the band, we would get high because it was fun to play when you’re high. It turns out that once we recorded our music being high, we realized that we were terrible. The music totally sucked. As a result, we made a rule and said, “No getting high during band practice and no getting high when were out performing,” which seemed perfectly reasonable. Basically, we didn’t get high.
In this particular instance, it was a Thursday and I went into the bathroom at high school looking to basically pick up some weed for the weekend, but nobody has anything. There is a guy who has a bag of dope, and I bought for him before. He offered it to me and I bought it again. I slipped it into my wallet. If you know what they look like, they’re usually in little tiny glassine bags. Glassine is a form of cloudy paper, almost wax paper but it’s not waxy. I had this tiny thin little bag in my wallet from Thursday on. The way I knew I was addicted was because it was basically burning a hole in my psyche. All I thought about was that bag in my wallet. I knew that I was saving it for after band practice that day. We went and had our normal band practice. We had lots of guests. We always had the local girls come over for band practice, which frankly was wonderful because that was the only way I knew how to be social. Here we are, waiting for everybody to leave after band practice so I could shoot up.
Finally everybody’s gone and I’m alone in my basement. I remember sitting at this makeshift table and I pulled out my pack of matches and bent two matches and lit them with a third match and put the spoon right over the fire with a ball of cotton in it. I dropped the powder in and then some water in the spoon. I started to draw it up in the needle through the cotton. All of a sudden the phone rang. I put the needle down, I answered the phone, and I said, “Hello? Hello?” There was no answer but I heard clicking so I kept saying, “Hello? Is there anybody there? I hear some clicking.” All I heard was clicking so I hung up. Then I resumed what I was doing. I picked up my syringe that was filled with my newly cooked heroin. I basically was about to plunk it into my arm when I gave it a couple of taps just to get the air out. I realized that the needle had gelled solid. I want to see if I could explain the significance of this. Had I placed that needle in my arm after I had drawn it up through the cotton while it was still hot, I would have put it into my veins and it would have gelled on its way to my heart and it would have killed me, probably between ten and thirteen seconds.
Something happened that day. Some kind of a miracle happened and that phone rang. Do I know who was on the other end of that phone? No. I have an idea who was on the other end of that phone, but it was not anyone in this physical world. For me, that day when that needle gelled and I realized that I had been saved from absolute death, I broke down and cried. That was the end. I know this is hard to believe because I was an addict. I made the decision that I didn’t want to die this way. I didn’t want to live the life of a junkie. This wasn’t me. I wasn’t set out or meant to be this. I put that needle down that day. I have to say, it was an opportune time. My body had degraded even at the age of fifteen and a half, sixteen years old. I had lost an enormous amount of weight. My personal hygiene habits were quite low at the time. I didn’t look very good. I didn’t feel very good. I did manage to do okay in school and always managed to do my job as a lead guitar player in my band. Other than that, my life was nothing but drugs. It was when that happened to me and when I put that needle down and when I realized I had to find a way out, that’s when I stopped doing heroin. I didn’t stop doing drugs, just heroin.
Did you attend any intensive out-patient program or residential recovery center services? Were you able to stop on your own? Did you go to AA meetings or NA meetings?
No. I didn’t know about any of those meetings. I never heard of those terms or things before. All I did was I decided that I wasn’t going to use heroin anymore. Then I put myself through a withdrawal process. The withdrawal process was painful. It was harder than I thought. I locked myself basically in a room for three days and did my best to get through it. I did get through it. I did it not the traditional way, meaning, I didn’t go cold turkey off of all drugs. I just kept using other drugs to get me off of the heroin. I was still smoking pot and hash. I used that to help me feel better while I was withdrawing.
As you know, people who are using heroin, part of the cycle of when people get high, and this is just another element of the disgusting life that it is, you vomit. You throw up. What happens is you shoot up and all of a sudden something happens to the way your stomach feels. All of a sudden you’re nauseous and you vomit. Finally, the vomiting started to stop after the third day. The pain and the chills got less and less. Eventually, I had found a way to get myself off of the worst part of that addiction, but I did not stop using other drugs. I did not go to a program at that time. That came a little bit later.
What other drugs did you use and how long did you use them for? I know you’ve mentioned weed several times and barbiturates.
The answer isn’t any different really. I used barbiturates. I experimented with virtually anything that I can find. At the time, the only thing I truly liked were drugs that would make me down or sleepy or suppress my emotions. I didn’t like speed. I didn’t like uppers. I tried LSD, I tried mushrooms. I liked mushrooms. I didn’t really get much out of LSD. If I could go back to the story, what ended up happening after that is my mom asked me if I wanted to get away out of the city for the summer. I said yes because that was going to be a great way for me to get away from all of this stuff. She enrolled me at a sleep-away camp as a waiter in sleep-away camp. What I did by the way before going upstate to be a waiter is I bought an extra ounce or two of pot and some hash, and I went away with that. I knew I was going to spend the summer, I knew I would have no interaction with heroin, but I would have plenty of pot and hash if I wanted it, and I did. I was having a wonderful summer and enjoying my time off.
Then the camp got a phone call about the second week of August. It was my mom. My mom told the general manager of the camp that she wanted me home immediately, like this minute immediately. The problem for me was that I had just swallowed a big chunk of hash. I had never swallowed hash before so I didn’t even understand what that was all about. I had just done that. The general manager comes to me, basically drives me to the bus station and puts me on a bus. I still don’t know why I have to go home, but I know I do because my mom asked that they send me home. I get on this bus ride. It was two hours, three hours into the bus ride, I’m thinking to myself, “I’m not feeling that high. Actually, it’s a good thing because I’ve got to go home.”
The bus arrives in Penn Station in New York. My step-brother was there to pick me up. As soon as I stood up, I almost fell back down. I had been really smashed as a result of swallowing that hash. I got off that bus and my head was spinning, I could hardly walk. My step-brother took me home. I get home and my mom is standing there at the door. She takes one look at me and she starts to cry. Then she says, “Look, Milton. He’s on it now. He’s on it now.” It turns out that while I was in summer camp, they found my stash back at the house. They found my little steel box with the needles and the spoons and all the paraphernalia. They were calling me home thinking that I was still doing that every day and they were going to save my life. They did. I stayed in the house with them for the next three or four days while they arranged for me to see a psychiatrist in New York City. That’s the beginning of how I stopped using drugs.
I went to see this psychiatrist. I get into the lobby of this place and all I could hear from upstairs is people screaming curse words. They’re screaming, “FU. FU.” I don’t understand what’s going on, it’s a little scary. I finally got in to see the doctor and my mother is with me. The doctor says to my mom, “What’s the problem?” She then said that she found these things in my house. I piped in right away and said, “That’s old stuff. I don’t use that anymore.” This doctor’s name was Dr. Dan Casriel. Dan turned to my mother and said, “Let me just make it clear. Your son is an addict and he’s a liar. All addicts lie. Allow me to demonstrate.” He turns to me and he says, “Mitch, when was the last time you used heroin?” I said, “It wasn’t since last May or June of this year.” He turns to my mother, “See what I mean? He’s lying.”
Right away, this guy knows addicts real well. He felt like I was lying. It turns out I actually wasn’t at that moment in time. I probably was about everything else. I didn’t tell them about the intensity of my use of opiates. At that point, he asks me to leave the room. He and my mom were talking for a while. Finally my mom comes out and she announces to me that I am staying. I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “This is a rehab facility. It’s a residential rehab facility and you’re not leaving. If you decide that you want to leave, because the doors are open you can go anytime you want, just know this, you can’t come home. If you leave, you’re going to be on the street. You have no way of making money and no place to go. Just keep that in mind.” That’s how I ended up recovering.
You do tell an intriguing story. How long were you at that residential center?
It was a three-phase program that took me a year and a half to complete. The first phase of the program is when you are living at the facility and you don’t leave for eight months. I did not go on the streets until the third or fourth month, and then it was for a short walk, supervised. It wasn’t until the seventh or eighth month that I was able to go out with a group of people to a movie and come right back. That’s phase one. When you graduate phase one, you still live there full-time but now you go out every day and find a job or go back to school or whatever your situation is. Phase two could take as long as another six months. It depends on how long it takes for you to get through the program. In that phase, it’s important that you do basically three things. You learn to be responsible through getting a job or going to school and getting good grades. You learn to socialize, which means you need to get a girlfriend or a boyfriend and have a regular type of relationship.
Once you accomplish those things, you then move into phase three. In phase three, you move out of the facility. Some people rent apartments. I moved back home. I enrolled back into high school to finish up and get my high school degree. That’s in phase three. You’re now back three times or four times a week where you’re back into the group meetings. We were doing group primal therapy, as they used to call group therapy. That went on for another six months or so. It was finally after six months of that that I graduated the program.
Once you returned to high school, did you smoke weed again or did you use other drugs again?
No, I didn’t. You’ve got to understand, for me rehab was the greatest blessing and gift of my life. It was also the hardest thing I had ever, ever done. When I emerged from rehab, I was sane. I was focused. I had eliminated most of the emotional baggage I had accumulated as a teenager. I was very clear about what I wanted to do in this world, which is odd and unusual particularly for a teenager. There I was and that’s what I did. It was so powerful feeling. It gave me such confidence because I finally understood what I could do now. I saw that if I could kick heroin, if I could recover, then I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do.
When you returned to high school, you were still relatively young. Did you continue to play your guitar in a band environment?
It became a pivotal issue for me. When I moved into the facility, they had identified my guitar as being identified with drug use. They would not let me play the guitar. They would not let me have my guitar. Their advice was that I stay away from music for years until I was fully stable. I don’t think that that was a good decision on their part but I was in their care following their directions, so that’s exactly what I did. The answer is no, I didn’t. My regret is that I never did go back and pick up guitar again for the rest of my life.
May I ask you, what drugs or mood altering substances do you use today?
The mood altering substances that I use most are meditation tapes. I happen to love meditating. I don’t do it as much as I’d like but I do enjoy it. I use a guided meditation. I find it to be really, really powerful for me. Since those years, I have on occasion and will on occasion, have a glass of wine or a beer. I don’t really like the feeling of alcohol. I never did. I don’t really enjoy drinking. If I’m in a social situation, I will have a glass of wine and maybe finish half. Sometimes, particularly in the summer, I do enjoy a cold beer. I don’t like the sensation of alcohol. I don’t like feeling, in any way, not fully present. Any alteration of my thinking or my consciousness is discerning, is not good, not for me.
I’m going to switch the direction of the questions a little bit and ask you, what is your advice to somebody who’s in addiction right now and perhaps listening to this podcast?
I will say that anyone who is in a place that is already involved in drugs and believes they’re addicted, they know everything I’m about to say because they’ve heard it a hundred times before. What they don’t know is what it feels like to accomplish something incredibly powerful. If you are that person and you are listening now, then understand that kicking drugs, getting off of drugs and recovering your life sets you up for all the other things in life that you think you can’t do. As soon as you recover, you immediately understand that you can do anything. It doesn’t mean that you could go from being a junkie to a billionaire overnight. No. It means that if you’re a junkie and you could recover if you could stop using, then what happens next is you start to build your self-confidence. By building your self-confidence, you start extending yourself and you start changing your behavior. As you watch your behavior change, you feel better. As you feel better, it reinforces the fact that you’re not doing drugs anymore and that feels good.
There are two elements of this that I want to be very clear about. The first element is that you have to decide that the endgame of a junkie is death. You don’t want to go there at this age. That’s the first decision. The second decision to make, and this is an important one, is that you have to understand that you could never do this alone ever. You can’t do it by yourself because the ego itself isn’t strong enough in this state to pull you out. It takes the determination of yourself and another to pull you through this. These days there are lots of options. I didn’t have a lot of options in 1969, 1970, 1971. The only option I had was the option that my mom gave me, which almost bankrupted my family by the way. It was a private program. Back then, we didn’t even know of public programs. Today there are many. The Narconon program is one. There are several.
Here’s the thing, if you know that your life is basically in ruin the way it is, there are only two ways out. One of them is the one where you’re no longer breathing. If you choose that one, then do it already and make it quick. If you’re not going to, stop making yourself miserable and everyone around you miserable, and get busy recovering. The world is waiting for you. Here’s another thing: We all have gifts, every one of us. You have gifts that you are not using. Those gifts are not yours alone. They were not given to you only for you to enjoy. They were given to you to benefit the rest of us, the world. You are depriving the world of your gifts by being a junkie, by being involved in drugs. Your gifts are greater than you ever, ever could realize. Get off drugs. Expose your gifts to yourself and to the world. Feel the power that comes from helping others.
I’m going to ask a slightly different question but it’s in the same realm. What is your opinion of the current opioid epidemic that has invaded America? Clearly that opioid epidemic has been here for quite some time, but it’s certainly at an all-time high right now.
I can, but from a perspective of not having really used drugs at all going on 40 years. My perspective right now is that I would never ever trade my sobriety for any experience that drugs can give me. Why would I ever do that when I have so much to lose? It seems to me that the opiates are a form of release. They were for me back then. I think people use them as a way of escaping. I understand that. I used them as a way of escaping. The question is, when are you going to stop escaping and confront your life? That’s what this is all about. The fact that people now are looking at marijuana and having it legalized and such, realistically there are lots of people who use marijuana responsibly and that’s fine. But there’s always those of us who really can’t use it responsibly, who really are using marijuana as a gateway to something else. You may not even realize that yet but here’s a clue. If you find that you have an addictive personality, then this is like nothing else you’ve ever had before. If you understand that already, you know I’m not telling you anything new. Once you head down this path, it’s a very difficult path to turn around from.
My belief is that nowadays, the strains of cannabis are so powerful that they’re almost overwhelming compared to the quality of the drugs that I used to use back in the 1970s and late 60s. Back then two people could smoke a joint and get high. Nowadays, you could almost overdose from smoking a joint. Some of these things are very, very, very powerful. Another element of this is the fact that it’s legal. Making it legal doesn’t make it right for your particular needs. I’ll give you another pointer here. There are very powerful chemicals inside of cannabis. Some of them are wonderful. Some of them can cure cancer from what I hear. Some of them are great for stress relief. It’s the THC that gets you stoned and gets you addicted, not the CBD element of it. Let’s make sure that we’re separating that because CBD is a valuable contribution to society, particularly for those who are in pain. CBD oils and CBD vapor or ingesting CBD oil in the right form can be very beneficial, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the THC element of cannabis and the destructive psychological qualities that it has on people long-term. You probably know this: Long-term usage does destroy your memory. I don’t know about you but my brain is the most valuable element of my body that I own. It’s the most valuable thing I have. The last thing I want to do is hurt the most valuable thing I have.
Neither of us are in a position where we could make three wishes and have them come true. But if you could make three wishes on the subject of drug use, what would those three wishes be?
We have this thing called the war on drugs. For some reason it seems like, if you want to call it a war, then we’re losing. It’s not a matter of a war. It’s really a matter of understanding why people do this and why people need this. I think people are driven to it. I’m not saying that people are victims, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe anybody is a victim. Certainly, I’m not talking about a person who, God forbid, was run over by a car. I’m talking about people who say, “I am a victim because I grew up in a bad family and now I’m addicted to drugs.” I don’t buy that. The thing that I would change is I would integrate education directly into the school system as children so they understand what to look for and the dangers of it very, very early on, and also are shown the results of it with those that do not heed the warnings. For me, the wish I would make for the future, the change that I would make would be to make sure that people are completely understanding really what this is and truly who it benefits. Believe me, you’re making some very bad people very, very wealthy. Ultimately, that’s not helping you at all.
Mitch, you’ve been a fantastic guest. Thank you very much for coming on. Is there anything that you would like to close off with saying?
If you’re listening to this show and you have a problem with drugs and you know it, get some help. Find someone to talk to. Go online. Basically look up Narconon and see if you can bring yourself to attend a meeting, attend two, attend six. Change your life before it’s too late. There’s no upside to doing drugs.
I think that’s excellent advice. I think you’ve had a very interesting story to tell, to share. I want to assure you that you sharing your story will help other people. It’s a challenge for me to get the story in front of other people, but I feel for the majority of people that I am able to get the story on front of, they will benefit from listening to it.
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