“Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Text by Katy McCarthy / Photos by © Djamila Grossman/Standard-Examiner
When photographer Djamila Grossman met Damon Conrow in 2010 he was 26-years-old and had been addicted to heroin for seven years. At that point, he told her he didn’t even get high when he shot up anymore, he just became normal.
“I just get better now. I don’t get high. I feel a rush when I put it in but that’s like three seconds and it’s done, and then I’m just normal, like you are,” he told her.
In a series of incredibly difficult-to-look-at photos and videos, Grossman documented the destruction wrought on Conrow’s life and body by the highly addictive drug. From her home in Berlin she answered some questions about the project, originally created for the Standard-Examiner of Utah.
In many ways the hardest bit was Conrow’s solution to fixing his addiction: when he was charged with drug distribution, he pleaded up from a second to a first-degree felony so he could stay in prison longer than the state asked, in the hopes of finally getting clean for good.
The verdict carried a prison sentence of five years to life.
I don’t know a lot about heroin, but the numbers are startling. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Information, in the last year about 91,000 people over the age of 12 used heroin for the first time.
Grossman wanted to do a story on addiction to pain killers in Utah because at the time the state had one of the highest rates of overdose-related deaths in the country.
“At the same time I saw that opioid painkillers were easily available by prescription and a lot of people “slipped” into an addiction post-surgery or after sports-related injury,” she explained.
“Especially a lot of young people would eventually start using heroin because it is cheaper than pills and readily available.”
The series, “Damon’s Fix,” begins in the basement of Conrow’s father’s home where he spends most of his days. It ends as Conrow enters the Central Utah Correctional Facility.
In the first photos, Conrow is emaciated and desperate, piercings in his nose and lip. To get high he wraps elastic bands around his impossibly thin arms and hunts down veins in his forearms and hands. Inevitably the viable injection points collapse and become useless. In response, Conrow sometimes shoots up into his neck.
Between uses, Damon is seen sitting on a couch in polar-bear print pajama pants. He eats jellybeans and watches TV. The cycle repeats.
His world seems so small and painful that I begin to understand why incarceration seemed like the best option.
“Even the police officer who arrested Damon told me that rehab in prison is one of the only ways for people without the funds to pay for a program and that he could understand Damon’s decision,” said Grossman.
In the last few images, behind prison walls Conrow is transformed and hardly recognizable. His face is fuller and no longer sallow. The piercings have all been removed, tiny circular scars marking where they once were.
January will mark Conrow’s fourth year in prison, and his 30th birthday. Grossman says he may be coming up for parole.
The two have exchanged letters over the years. He completed a rehab program and the last she heard he was taking classes and on very good behavior.
Yet the real challenge will be moving back into the outside world.
“In Ogden, where his family lives, it is extremely difficult for felons to rent an apartment and find a job. Unable to support themselves it’s easy to fall back into the same pattern, hang out with the same people,” lamented Grossman, “the recidivism rate is extremely high for heroin addicts.”
Clean and sober and behind bars, perhaps it seems easy to predict that life on the outside will be different than the last time.