Finding Her ‘Big Fix’

Tracey Helton Mitchell’s memoir dispenses no guff, heaping doses of hope for
heroin addicts

Tracey Helton Mitchell holds beer bottle cap that reads: &quote;Try again&quote;

In a scene from a 1999 documentary about heroin addicts, above, Tracey Helton Mitchell has just been released from jail when she opens a beer bottle with a cap that reads: “Try again.” Photo: Michael Kerner, Courtesy of Steven Okazaki.

AS A YOUNG ADDICT, Tracey Helton Mitchell figured she was more likely to die on the streets than collect a college diploma, making her SF State graduation with a master’s degree in 2007 seem not just a crowning educational and personal achievement, but a miracle.

“That graduation felt like the culmination of my getting clean,” says Mitchell (B.S., ’05; M.P.A., ’07), who celebrated the day with her mother, new husband and baby girl.

A decade earlier, Mitchell had been filmed pulling down her soiled pants on Market Street and injecting herself in the thigh for “Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street,” a brutally revealing 1999 HBO documentary about San Francisco heroin addicts. At the time, Mitchell says she agreed to be in the movie because she believed she would soon overdose or be murdered, so she might as well show others that heroin use was not glamorous. But instead of memorializing her tragic end, the footage — easy to find on YouTube — became prime evidence to addicts across the country that they can stop using. Because today, Mitchell runs peer recovery groups for San Francisco County, serves as PTA treasurer at her children’s school and travels the country reading from her bold new memoir, “The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin.”

The book, published in March by Seal Press, flips the typical addiction narrative, moving briskly through the blunt details of Mitchell’s drug use. That bleak chapter of her life began at 17 when she was prescribed Vicodin for a tooth extraction, proceeded through her stealing friends’ parents’ opioid prescriptions and getting a buddy to give her a first injection of “Lady H,” and culminated with her sitting alone in a dirty hotel bathroom, trying to find a vein in the sole of her foot because the rest of her body was too bloated or scarred to shoot up. At that moment in 1999, Mitchell decided that the next time she got arrested, she would choose rehab. She was 27 years old.

As a memoirist, Mitchell, now 45, doesn’t hide any of that, but she didn’t want to dwell on it, either. What she wanted to write was the story of how she stopped using and has stayed in recovery, for more than 18 years — the story that has drawn hundreds of heroin users to email her weekly since 2013 when she began writing a startlingly frank blog about her life.

Tracey Helton Mitchell

Tracey Helton Mitchell

“I don’t hide the fact that I’m overweight now and have scars all over me,” Mitchell said during a lunch break from her county program coordinator job, a few weeks after discussing her book on the NPR talk show “Fresh Air.” “I think that’s what people respect. We’re so used to a carefully cultivated image. I’ll admit that I’d love to eat a whole chocolate cake now, pretty much every day of my life. It’s not roses and happiness every day now, being clean. It’s a struggle.”

Every user has a different motivation for quitting, Mitchell says. A former bookworm and University of Cincinnati dropout, her biggest motivator was college. “I remember one night I had my shopping cart under the streetlights, and I thought, ‘One of these days I can go back to school,’” she said. “I was living outside, my brain tripped out on heroin, I didn’t know when I could take a shower — but I’d always think, ‘If I could just finish school.’”

She entered SF State in 1999 through Project Rebound, an exoffenders program, commuting from a small room in a Tenderloin recovery home. “Being at State made me feel like a human being that was valued,” she remembers. “My intellect and opinions mattered and I liked the debates that could occur.”

Her teachers valued the debates, too. “I was struck by her strength, her preparedness, and her willingness to ask challenging questions, her ability to think beyond the conventional,” said Robert Glavin, a consultant who taught courses on nonprofit organizations at SF State.

“When she told me her story, I realized this woman had taken what happened to her and made it into a motivating force, for herself and through herself, and it was exactly what she was qualified to do [professionally].” Glavin watched Mitchell excel as a counselor and manager at the nonprofit SAGE Project, which works to end human trafficking; and, at her request, came to speak with her team about effective leadership.

Today, Mitchell uses the knowledge gained in SF State’s business and public administration programs not just in her county work but as the founder of a program that sends free doses of the overdosereversing drug Narcan to users who reach out to her via “Opiates Recovery” sections of social media site Reddit. She counts at least 171 “saves” — users who wrote letting her know the Narcan she sent saved them from dying. She also advocates for new forms of clean-needle exchanges and reduced prescription of medical opioids. In her downtime, she plays with her children, walks the dog and writes back to more users who desperately want to believe they can follow her example.

And most of all, she puts forth unconditional compassion. “There’s so much stigma attached to heroin,” she says. “But there’s a lifetime of things that happen to people to get them in the place where heroin seems a viable option. And you never know when someone’s going to quit.”