But Michelle had become frighteningly thin -- she dropped to slightly more than 100 pounds -- and a family friend flew Michelle's mother, who worked as a nurse in New England, to Florida just to observe her daughter's condition and to see the dangers Michelle faced. Michelle didn't even bother to wash her scraggly hair on the day she met her mother in a Miami Beach hotel room -- but she remembers her mother's immaculate appearance. "That's the point I started to grow up," she says tearfully. "I saw my mother weeping and weeping when she saw me. She was wearing a gray wool dress and she had her hair done and everything. When I saw her face, it was like a precious Chinese vase shattering in slow motion before my eyes. She hugged me. She said, 'Honey, oh, honey, it's okay, don't worry, honey, it's going to be okay.'"
Her mother's visit hounded Michelle's conscience, but it would be several more years before she could surrender the daily high of her drug cocktails. Her first jail stint in 1986 made no impression on her. One time, after her release, she injected heroin cut with meat tenderizer; it caused a burning sensation in her veins and left a star-shaped scar on her hand. She was rushed to the emergency room. But the incident changed nothing. Her family friend began to telephone Michelle each morning to make certain she hadn't overdosed the previous night.
Michelle's mother and sister also called frequently, and her mother mailed her scientific studies detailing the dangers of the drugs she was using. In 1985 Michelle broke up with her dealer boyfriend, and her use declined from a $400 daily habit to what she could afford on her own: 100 milligrams of Dilaudid, which cost $100. She finally stopped using illegal opiates in 1989. She had been high on Dilaudid, cocaine, or heroin nearly every day for the previous decade. Finding money for her next injection had preoccupied her life. "You go for years and you're doing something illegal and addictive and kind of immoral," she muses. "You lose your self-respect, you lose your dignity. It would have ended up with death for me. There wasn't any jail or any institution about it. It would have been death.
"I just kept thinking, 'What do I have that's so bad in life?' and I started counting the good things, and the good outweighed the bad, and I was like, 'Why do I want to continue on like that?'"
Ruiz's NW 183rd Street clinic occupies a portion of an unprepossessing one-story office building. No external sign indicates its presence. The interior is drab and virtually windowless. A dull brown rug covers the waiting room floor; a row of plastic chairs lines the walls. Patients rarely dawdle here. It smells of dust and disinfectant. This is where Michelle comes six days a week (no Sundays) to get her methadone.
According to Dave Delesdernier, a former addict who used to be a client at the Comprehensive Psychiatric Center but is now under treatment at the Village, Ruiz discourages patients from lingering anywhere near the clinic, his reasoning being that it can be a magnet for the sale of illegal drugs. "You can score anything in the parking lot," Delesdernier contends.
A receptionist sits at a desk behind bulletproof Plexiglas near the entrance. She determines if Michelle has paid her current bill (it costs her ten dollars per day). Signs on the walls of all Ruiz's clinics issue the stern warning "Clients Behind in Their Payments Will Be Detoxed." Other signs provide a schedule for gradual weaning from the drug. If Michelle doesn't owe any money -- and today she doesn't -- the receptionist hands her a tiny paper ticket stamped with a number.