ASHLAND, Ky. — Joe Tackett sought out his first spoonful of heroin after shooting a woman in Vietnam.
“I was really bothered by it. I got back and got off the helicopter and went to where I knew all the dopers were ... I just asked, ‘Get me like you are right now,’” said Tackett, 60, of South Ashland, as he discussed the day he fired upon a female Viet Cong combatant. “I joined the Army two days after I turned 17.”
He wasn’t addicted after he first stuck a heroin-filled needle in his arm, and said he was considered an excellent soldier with high evaluations who advanced to the rank of staff sergeant before he had turned 22. It was after he came home and re-enlisted he discovered heroin was readily available on base.
“It was abundant. It was everywhere,” he said, before adding it didn’t take long for him to realize, “I was a functioning addict.”
After leaving the military, Tackett said he went to work at the VA Hospital in Huntington, where he “slowly moved up the ladder” despite his escalating heroin consumption.
“This was before the tattoos. I wore a suit,” he said, a grin quickly flashing across his face before explaining he eventually put himself into treatment. “My boss asked me, ‘Why couldn’t you just be an alcoholic?’ I told him I probably would have been dead If I was an alcoholic. I went through 13 different programs. I wanted to quit, but I kept making the mistake of going home.
“A heroin addict starts out getting high. Then it becomes a maintenance program. I was in my maintenance program for 41 years,” he said, admitting his addiction caused him to do “everything” except offering himself for sexual acts to get the drug. “My habit got so big, I had to start selling it.”
In the early 1970s, Tackett said heroin was not as widespread and easy to find as it is now.
“In the beginning it was very underground. You had to go to the black side of town to get it, but there was a large amount of white people who were buying it. All my customers were white. I had a judge, doctors, lawyers .... from government workers to the average Joe on the street ... whores and strippers. I knew a lot of people, brother,” he said.
“My golden rule was — number one, never turn nobody on (get them started on heroin). And, number two, never sell to a child ... only to fools, just like I was.”
“I liked my dope as well as the next person did. With me there was no middle man. I went to New York, D.C., Philly, Jersey ... Detroit, and got it myself. I dealt with the Bloods and the Crips,” he said.
A typical heroin purchase at that level required Tackett to carry a bag of cash and a pistol, then strip all clothing to allow someone to inspect his most private areas to make sure he wasn’t concealing any type of recording device or “wire” for the police. For those purchases, Tackett said he commonly carried anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000.
Tackett said he sold heroin, as well as powder and rock cocaine. At the peak of his dealing days, he rented the entire fifth floor of a well-known Huntington apartment building, where he kept the landlord happy with a quarter-ounce of cocaine per month, in addition to a hefty rental rate. The spare rooms on that floor were occupied by people who served as his security, as well as prostitutes and other dealers who worked under him for a 10 percent commission. During that time, he says he witnessed many episodes that illustrate the desperation that comes with addiction.
“I saw a man take off his shoes and coat, in the dead of winter, and trade them for a bag of dope,” he said, listing other times when addicts would bring their televisions to him to pawn or trade for drugs, as well as customers who would trade their food stamp cards at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar, and those who offered to leave the room while their wives performed sexual acts in exchange for heroin.
As bad as not having money for drugs, Tackett said, is “an addict’s nightmare” of having money when the drug supply has dried up and a dose can’t be purchased, as they feel “dope sickness,” or withdrawal symptoms, setting in. While some might laugh at the concept, Tackett said he often had to console prostitutes who had been raped while trying to earn drug money.
Tackett said his customers were men and women alike, although there seemed to be a gender gap regarding their addictive behaviors.
“For a woman, it will cause her to sell her soul and her body, and take a chance of being killed going out to make that money,” he said, adding some might laugh at the idea of a prostitute in tears and telling her heroin dealer she had just been raped, although it was a fairly common experience for him at that time. Men who are addicts, “will take the money for food for their family” to buy drugs, he said.
Tackett said he sometimes bought shoes for the children of his addicted customers, “because I felt like a louse for taking their money.
“Drugs rape you of everything ... mind, soul and heart. It takes everything. The addiction is so overpowering there’s nothing you can do but feed it,” he said. ”The average addict, in my book, is the most miserable person in the world. They are never happy, always on the move, chasing it and thinking about what they have to do to get the money.
“What’s so bad is, an addict is aware of all this.?Willpower is such a phony word in my vocabulary. It takes more than willpower to quit,” he continued. “And, what’s so sad is addicts are some of the smartest people that ever lived. They can have a job and maintain a home and an addiction. Not all addicts are homeless people living in a cardboard box or a dumpster.”
Withdrawal symptoms, or “dope sickness,” is something all addicts try to avoid at any cost, Tackett said. “It starts with sweats, gags, diarrhea, high temperature (fever) ... like the worst flu you could possibly ever have. No sleep — you can’t sleep. Legs and arms twitching. You feel so bad you pray to die.”
The idea that dope sickness gets easier after three days is obviously offensive to Tackett. “Definitely BS. It took me a year to feel right. Dope sickness does not go away in 72 hours. No way,” he said, chuckling as he joked that whoever did the study concluding such a three-day-withdrawal syndrome may have actually been working with dead people.
Tackett said he was not immune to the ups and downs experienced by every addict. “I can’t count the times I’ve woken up with a needle hanging out of my arm. There were times when I wanted to overdose because I was so sick of living that way. I felt like I was in a casket with a plexiglass top and seeing the world going by me,” he said, explaining his vision of the future and growing old involved himself and an old woman sitting in rocking chairs and injecting heroin with insulin needles.
“I lost everything. There were days when I had a Craftsman toolbox so full of cash, my sister had to stand on it to get it locked. Then there were days when I didn’t have two pennies to rub together. People would rip me off and I would rip off the people who ripped me off,” he said, noting he carried a mattock handle when seeking retaliation. “Yeah. I lost a lot ... most of all, my soul.”
His drug use brought no happiness, Tackett said, and ultimately failed to insulate him from his real-world problems.
“I would cry when I would shoot. That’s not supposed to be happening,” he said, noting his criminal activity resulted in his serving six years of a 50 year prison sentence for drug charges.
“I used to stay mad at God and Jesus. I stayed mad at them for years. I blamed them for letting this happen to me,” Tackett said, barely blinking as he explains he eventually realized, “It was my fault for the stupid choices I made,”?and adding “When I did get down on my hands and knees and asked for help, God helped.”
If he did gain anything from his years under the influence, Tackett says it may be perspective.
“I now value honesty, because drugs make you a liar. I don’t know how many times my mother died,” he said, citing his own hard-luck tales when he was low of drugs or cash. “I regret that she (his mother) did not live to see me get clean.”
“The day I quit dope, I was 51 years old, married to a 22-year-old. She was on dope when we met; I didn’t turn her on. But I woke up that morning and started crying. I looked at her and cried even harder and said, ‘I’m killing her. I’m killing myself.’ I had a thick piece of dope, plus I had coke and crack. I?had no reason to quit, so I asked God for help,” he said. “I had finally hit my bottom. It was not the first time I had hit bottom, but I couldn’t get any lower than I felt ... other than death. I was tired of it. I was not myself.”
Despite his motivation, Tackett said getting clean and sober was no walk in the park. “It was rough. It was rough,” he said, explaining he turned to the VA for help and was placed in the mental hygiene ward before going through detox on a regular floor.
“The doctor asked me what I wanted instead of heroin,” he said, noting he was given a choice between methadone and Dilaudid. He chose Dilaudid (a semi-synthetic form of morphine often given to people with terminal cancer or other extremely painful conditions), but the doses were too small to satisfy his cravings and he asked the doctor to stop giving it to him. More than a week later, he went to Lexington for a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) program.
“I did well for a few months, but then I started chipping (using) again,” he said, noting he believes PTSD was more of an excuse than a reason for his own drug use.
Tackett, who now relies on a sassafras walking cane to steady his steps, and curses the dark spots in his own memory banks, is a client in recovery at Hand of Hope, and credits founder Paul Vernier for saving his life. He has several years of sobriety behind him and sometimes encounters other recovering addicts who used to get their dope from him. Shaking his head, he said many who knew him during his dealing days have complimented him for being “a nice drug dealer,” although he has nothing but regret for the way drugs caused him to fail as a parent and a person.
“Getting clean is like literally being reborn again. There’s nothing glorious about using,” Tackett said. “Now, I appreciate everything. I hurt every day, but I never have a bad day. Every day I get up clean is a good day. I?try not to worry about next week. I worry about today.
“I had almost 41 years using and I never thought I could be clean. I thought I was doomed for the rest of my life with this addiction. There is light at the end of the tunnel and it awaits if you want it. Anyone can ... it’s not impossible. I’m living proof. I just wish I had those years I pissed away back. That’s why I try so hard here.”