MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) – As the nation battles the heroin epidemic, a Myrtle Beach man shares perspective on how vicious the drug is and how pervasive it is in the Grand Strand. Matt Zemola spent seven years of his life addicted to prescription drugs and heroin. After his second round of rehab, he has been clean for seven months.
Below are segments of Reporter Katrina Helmer's extended interview with Matt Zemola:
Matt Zemola, former heroin addict: "This is going to sound callous and I know it's not going to make the edit, but I was taught when I very well started – you better get ready to walk over the bodies, because this is deadly."
Katrina Helmer, reporting: "It definitely seems to be a drug that, heroin in particular, doesn't care –"
Zemola: "It doesn't..."
Helmer: "-the person's background, the person's aspirations, nothing. It all seems to be taking into the same end result."
Zemola: "It's absolutely true. It takes dreams and potential and trades them for a buzz. That you have to keep going. Your next door neighbor with the $100,000 a year job and the three cars and the suits and all that fun stuff – like, he could be a heroin addict. You don't know. It's not just big, bushy, bearded guys laying under a bridge with a 'forty' in one hand and a syringe in their other hand. It's everybody. It's not just the dregs, it's not just the people at the homeless shelter. When I was using it and I still had stuff, there would be people who had really good jobs. People that did a lot. People that did things for the community, to a certain extent. And they were heroin addicts, too. I mean, as long as – it's really unfortunate that the only way it's going to get noticed, is if people die."
Helmer: "This is a dirty, dangerous drug. We've seen in so many different ways, for everyone that is trapped by it, having to go to such extremes just to get it. And really pushing the limits on their own safety and everyone else's around them."
Zemola: "It's true. There are certain extremes that I haven't gone to. And there are other extremes that I have personally gone to. I've been robbed a million times. I started out stealing the pills from my mom. I found ways to make money. I stole from people that trusted me. I built 20, 25 years of trust. And shattered everything. And use that as a tool. Just to get more. I've done some things that I'll always be ashamed of. But, I don't blame anybody who doesn't like me for that. Or mistrusts me. I earned that. But the extremes that one goes to, the things that I've seen, the things that I've done, that just lends credence to the idea that it takes over."
Helmer: "From someone who's lived through that, is there any way to describe what it feels like?"
Zemola: "Well, getting it becomes all encompassing. There's no other thought that crosses my mind. I cannot start my day without it. If I have to be at work at 11, and my dealer is not ready until 11:30, I'm going to be late for work. If I have to pick up my niece at eight, but my dealer is not ready until 8:30, my niece is going to wait 30 minutes. Everything becomes secondary. Physically, the withdrawing – 24 hours a day, with maybe an hour of sleep every two or three days. Feeling in the pit of my stomach as though something was not there that needed to be there. Tearing up at literally everything. Vomiting. Feeling just generally dirty. Cold sweats. Your legs don't stop moving no matter what you do. And it's not just 16 hours and then you get to go to sleep. It's all day. Everything emotionally destroys you. I'd take eight, nine, ten showers. Because the only way I could feel good for eight seconds at a time was to be under hot water. The physical symptoms are half of it. And they suck. Yes, vomiting, diarrhea, sleeplessness, restless legs – they're bad. It's the emotional things that most people don't acknowledge. And it's not just a day or two. The worst things I've done to get it were when I was sick. Because I need this. I need this. I used to be happy when I went to go and get it. Like the withdrawals would stop for a little bit, because my brain knew what was about to happen. The last year or so, I cried every time. Whether I was sick or not, I don't want to be doing this anymore. But I don't know how – I need it. I can't not have it."
Helmer: "What's your hope for those who you may know are still struggling? Or you have no idea who they are, but know that there are many people struggling just as you did."
Zemola: "They would all get clean tomorrow and they would not let it get to the point that my life got to. It's not all bad, I've seen friends get clean. And almost universally, they're happier than the ones I know that are still using. Because it's one thing to go to the gates of Hell – I managed to come back. And I want everyone else to come back, too."
If you would like to watch more extended pieces of the hour-long interview, Zemola also explains how he became hooked on heroin and how bad the situation is in the Grand Strand.
View this video below:
To share your story or to ask any questions about heroin, please click here.