This article is part of a series of articles examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.
“Instead of saying no, I let someone stick a syringe in my arm.”
That began George Britt’s journey through heroin addiction.
Following more than two decades of drug use, the 62-year-old Fayette County man has witnessed first hand the destruction and desolation left behind by heroin use. Today, he shares his painful mistakes in an attempt to save others from the grim existence caused by heroin and opiate addiction.
Far from his days scoring heroin on the streets, Britt acknowledges the power of the disease.
“I am an addict that is in recovery. At this moment I have the disease arrested, but I am not cured of anything,” said Britt.
As a child of an alcoholic father, Britt began drinking as a young teen; started smoking marijuana at 15; and by 23 he was taking pills and using heroin.
“This was my thought process — being a heroin addict is better than being nobody.”
Although he was addicted early on, Britt said he was able to maintain a job and a somewhat normal existence, but that changed and his life spiraled out of control as is common among heroin addicts.
“Within four to five years it was a full blown addiction where it was a total obsession with drugs. When I got up, I was opiate, or dope sick as they call it. I had to go out and commit crimes to sustain my addiction.”
At that point, Britt was unable to work, so he began “chronic shoplifting and fencing stolen goods” to support his habit.
Britt describes his typical day as a heroin addict as anything but typical.
“My buddy, who recently died from this addiction, and I would get up and it was like a business — we would call a ‘fence’ up and ask what was needed and we would travel outside the county because we got too well known in the stores and malls in this county. We would shoplift what we could get. Sell it. Then purchase heroin.”
His marred, drug addicted life brought Britt heartache in the form of arrests, convictions, prison, loneliness and depression.
He went through the county prison system for 32 various felonies including drug possession and theft and finally, Britt said, a Fayette County judge sentenced him to serve time in the state penitentiary for parole violations and other charges.
“Incrementally I did eight years in prison. I was doing a life sentence on the installment plan,” Britt said.
Britt was served divorce papers in prison, losing his marriage of eight years, along with the devotion of his three children.
“They had given up, and who could blame them?” he said.
It was while in prison that Britt’s life of addiction was altered on Oct. 20, 1995.
“It was that day my obsession and desire to use drugs was lifted by the grace of God,” said Britt. “God lifted the obsession from me, but my case is not normal. This is such a powerful, destructive force.”
Britt, a drug addict who went from receiving Vietnamese heroin in the mail in the 1970s, to later scoring it on the dangerous streets of Clairton, and finally shooting the highly potent and nearly lethal drug into a vein in his neck — was finally on a lifelong road of recovery.
Putting the pieces together
“It took years to gain trust back, but choose this behavior, choose the consequences.”
Putting the pieces of a broken life back together after prison was a puzzle that took time, as Britt said he had lost the trust of so many in his life.
He discovered his criminal record made him unemployable and his past made him untrustworthy. However, Britt found a way to give back.
“I had to erase the negative through God’s help,” he said.
Britt got involved in a 12-step program to continue his sobriety, and he began soul searching to understand the reason he became addicted in the first place.
“I had to make amends to those people that I hurt. I realized my bitterness was the biggest fuel in my addiction,” he said.
Britt said he now recognizes how being the child of an alcoholic led to his own low self-esteem and self-loathing.
Helping others heal has become a large part of Britt’s recovery.
“I work with troubled kids in a group home. I help them eradicate the guilt of coming from a neglectful or alcoholic family by telling them it’s not their fault. They relate to me because I’ve been through it with them.”
For 12 years, Britt has been watching young adults come and go through the Adelphoi Village residential treatment center, operated across the region including a center in Fairchance, and said that although he does see relapses in those he has helped, he’s not willing to stop trying.
“A therapy I use is to tell them to close their eyes, and I ask them who in your life told you that you were worthless,” he said.
Britt also acknowledges overindulgence can have an adverse impact on young people.
“I see it time and time again. Parents say to me, ‘My son’s addicted and I gave him everything he wanted’ and I ask, ‘How’s that working for you?’”
Britt knows well and teaches those in need that sobriety is an ongoing process. He encourages addicts to get involved in a 12-step program and focus their energy on exercise or something to replace the desire to get high.
Addiction’s high cost
“I surrender (every day) on my knees.”
Britt, who has survived two massive heart attacks and a recent bout with colon cancer, said he knows the struggle to overcome addiction is never-ending.
During surgery and treatment for the stage three colon cancer he was diagnosed with last spring, Britt was given narcotics including Fentanyl and Morphine for pain.
“I respected the drugs, I didn’t relapse and I’m thankful. It’s not an excuse, but I’m thankful,” he said.
Britt has restored happy and healthy relationships with his children and is now active in the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He said the toll heroin takes on a community in terms of escalating crime rates, rehabilitation and housing prisoners is staggering, and he added that the toll the drug takes on families is difficult to quantify.
Britt said he mourns the nearly 15 friends and three relatives he has lost to drug addiction, and he fears the lethal levels of heroin on the streets today.
“The potency of heroin now is 50 (percent) to 60 percent and the cutting agents their using are deadly,” he said. “People are dropping left and right, and I see this as a pandemic.”
He calls the killer heroin an irrational obsession that he remembers from his days as a “user.”
“When we heard about someone dying from heroin, we figured it must be good, and we gravitated to that heroin.”
Britt still realizes the temptation that heroin and opiate addicts face. He said he understands why addicts are drawn to stamp bags emblazoned with things like “R.I.P.: and “D.O.A.,” and it’s the reason he reaches out to help.
“A heroin addict is not scared to die. We’re scared to feel.”