Interview with Tracey Helton Mitchell

This week Liv interviewed Tracey Helton Mitchell. Tracey is a person in long-term recovery. After completing rehab in 1998, she dedicated her life to the care and treatment of heroin users. Tracey entered school through an ex-offender’s program where she earned a bachelors of business administration and masters of public administration. In addition, she is a certified addiction specialist and supervisor. She was featured in the movie Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street. She has also been featured by CNN, Anderson Cooper, Vice, Huffington Post, and the The New York Times in addition to freelance work as a writer. Tracey lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children.

Tracy Helton Mitchell

Interview with Tracy Helton Mitchell

Liv: First off, what have you had for breakfast today?

I had 1/2 an avocado on whole grain toast with cracked pepper and salt for breakfast.

Black Tar Heroin

Liv: You first came into view as a young addict in the documentary (see clip at the bottom of interview) Black Tar Heroin (1999), which was described, by Newsweek, as:

"Crushing… makes 'Trainspotting' look like an after school special and it hits all the harder because it takes pains to introduce its subjects as human beings. There's no moralizing. Here the unfiltered facts make the point, and make it devastatingly well."— NEWSWEEK

The film is described as showing ‘the brutality and degradation of the drug life, but also depicts the addicts' pain and raw yearning — to get clean, to hold relationships together, to re-connect with their families, to simply get their lives back.’ - that’s pretty powerful. Tell me about that yearning and what was it like for you?

HBO's Black Tar Heroin

Tracey: I think I was always looking for something outside myself to fix me. Food, relationships, then eventually drugs and alcohol. I was never comfortable in my own skin. 

Liv: You survived nearly a decade of heroin abuse and hard living on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin District. You then decided to get clean. Why? How did the documentary impact that decision?Tracey: Well, I was dying. I decided I wanted to live. I was relatively sure I was going to overdose or be murdered as many of my friends died that way back then. The documentary had no influence on that decision. I was already contemplating getting off drugs long before I agreed to do the film. I was off drugs for over a year before it was even released. 

The Big Fix, Hope After Heroin I have completely remade myself...Drugs and alcohol abuse are just symptoms of deeper emotional issues"

The Big Fix, Hope After Heroin

Liv: You have written a raw and poignant account of your journey getting clean, and life after heroin; The Big Fix - what were some of the major challenges you faced in that journey?

Tracey: The book discusses how to navigate the world when you are in the middle of a huge transformation. I have completely remade myself. That included rebuilding my family relationship, recovering after periods of guilt and shame, getting an education, and starting a family of my own. Drugs and alcohol abuse are just symptoms of deeper emotional issues I was attempting to escape. Soon, my solution became my problem.

Life Today

Liv: Contrasting with your life today, one as a wife, mother, and dedicated to the care and treatment of heroin users. That is some transformation! How does it feel to compare and contrast your life now and back then?Tracey: My life before was completely dictated by fear, as well as the search for the absence of pain. Today, I feel a full range of emotions. I have a life. I am not just existing.

Tracey: My life before was completely dictated by fear, as well as the search for the absence of pain. Today, I feel a full range of emotions. I have a life. I am not just existing.

Getting Clean Isn't the Finish Line

Liv: In your memoir, you emphasise that getting clean isn’t the finish line - what do you mean by that? And have there been underlying issues that have become apparent?


Getting off drugs is just the start. Then, there is the process of learning how to live without the numbness. There are so many highs and lows, so many changes. Depression and anxiety were the big ones for me. I see many of my

poor decisions were based around my own attempts at self medication.

Blog ~ Tracey415

Liv: I love your blog post The Other in which you write:

In a room full of people, I often feel alone.

When a person is sleeping next to me, I am a world away. When the bus gets full, I get off at the next stop. It isn't that I don't want to be around people. I just don't know how. I always have a nagging feeling. I am a broken piece. I am a shard of shattered glass. I am the other.

There is this nagging feeling inside me. It makes no sense. No one told me I was wrong. No one forced me to the side. The words are choking me. I have a knot in my throat. All the things I would say to you. If I only spoke your language. Communicating with swollen fingers. Seeing the world through blood shot eyes.

No one made me feel this way. I was born feeling like the other. No one made me an addict. I was born feeling unsatisfied. If only I could feel like a "normal" person. Spinning in my own mind. Watching the world pass me by.

Liv: To me, that describes the mind of someone with addiction—the need for a different lens, a new voice, an interpreter. How do you live with that mind? And what does a ‘normal person’ look like?

Tracey: I have no idea if anyone is truly normal. I just know that addiction is the constant ache, that feeling of being different. Addiction is the constant state of want.

Interview with The Fix

Liv: You previously said in your interview  with The Fix that "There's no real education on long-term recovery about what really happens over time,” - how have you navigated over 18 years recovery?

Tracey: I have really opened up my world. I try to be flexible, use tools that work, replace those that don't. I am of service to others. I find goals. I am kind to myself. I try to move beyond shame and into solutions.

Relationship with Food in Recovery

"I forgive myself. I focus on my overall health as opposed to having my self esteem be attached to a scale."

Liv: What has been your relationship with food in recovery? Have you noticed any transference of addictive tendencies in your approach to food?

Tracey: I have always had food issues. It is the constant of my life. I had an emotional trauma at 8, picked up food as a fix. I am always in some sort of struggle with my weight, although not always my body image.

Liv: Leading on from your answer, how do you cope with that struggle?

Tracey: I try to be accepting of myself no matter what is going on with my weight. I eat pretty healthy. I forgive myself. I focus on my overall health as opposed to having my self esteem be attached to a scale. I also try to plan meals ahead to stay away from binges

Liv: What is your favourite meal?

Tracey: My favorite meal would probably be butternut squash risotto. I make it seasonally and remove chicken stock and replaced with vegetable stock.

Tracey Speaking to CNN

Liv: In your post for CNNyou wrote that beating heroin is more than 12 steps; it's 18 years and going. You said:

‘Recovery is a process. It isn't a place; it is a journey. It isn't a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a lifelong commitment to taking care of yourself’ -

what does self-care look like to you?


Rest, taking time for myself, spending time in nature. Having animal friends are also important.

Failings in the US Drug Rehabilitation System - How We can Shape Change

"We criminalize a medical issue here. It is frightening."

Liv: In your book you’ve highlighted some of the failings of the US drug rehabilitation system, what broadly speaking, would you say they are?

Tracey: We criminalize a medical issue here. It is frightening. There is also a huge focus on 12 step which isn't successful for a segment of the population. We need individualized treatment on a larger scale.

Liv: You have set out to lay a path for change in that system - what does that change pathway look like?

Tracey: I think change needs to be based around the individual as opposed to a cookie cutter approach like we have now. We need to tap into people's strengths and goals to help them in their journey out of addiction.

Liv: How can others in recovery help shape those changes?

Tracey: By being an empathetic listener can go a long way in assisting someone who is suffering.

Tracey's Top 5 Recovery Tools

Liv: Last, I ask of all the wonderful people I interview - what are your top 5 recovery tools?

Tracey: My personal tools? Being with people who love me, meditation, going in nature, educating myself, remaining flexible and open minded.