Michelle waits for a buzzer that unlocks the door to the treatment area. Once inside she makes her way down a hallway to a room where a nurse breaks three methadone tablets into a small paper cup and places it on a counter. (Michelle started her treatment taking 30 milligrams per day and is now up to 70.) The nurse pours hot water over the methadone. Michelle stirs the mixture and downs the sweet liquid in one gulp. She must speak to the nurse to show that she actually swallowed her "medicine." For the past three years, Michelle's urine tests have been clean, which means she can take her weekend doses home if she wishes. (State law requires that the clinic test a client's urine for six substances: tranquilizers, barbiturates, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and methadone. Tests for marijuana, hallucinogens, and Rohypnol -- the latter a sedative commonly mixed with alcohol -- are not required. A positive test for any of the six above-mentioned substances -- with the exception of methadone, of course -- does not result in a penalty. It means only that CPC clients are not allowed to take their weekend methadone doses home.)
Methadone sells for a dollar a milligram on the streets. Delesdernier says that while he was a patient at Ruiz's clinic he used to earn money to supplement his heroin habit by selling his weekend methadone supply. "Ruiz is easy, very easy," Delesdernier relates. "You can write your own ticket. You get take-home on the weekend -- for every month you have clean urine, they'll give you a day's take-home. After two months I had two bottles. By five months you have a five-day supply. I could sell [the bottles] for $45 each as soon as I walked out the door." (Ruiz says that he has no control over what happens outside his clinics.)
After taking her medication, Michelle heads out for some breakfast; she isn't allowed to eat until after she doses. Over the years a half-dozen of Ruiz's patients, including Michelle, have routinely congregated at a cafeteria in a North Miami strip mall on U.S. 441. There she chain-smokes, sips Cuban coffee, and catches up. Just as her life once gathered its force and purpose from illegal drugs, it now centers on this affable group of users and ex-users who have come to represent a family of sorts. One of them, a stocky man in his forties, often gives her money for the medication and buys her breakfast. Usually she repays him right away.
They gather at the restaurant because Ruiz has forbidden them to chat in the clinic's waiting room or hanging around the parking lot. Michelle won't violate the rules. In fact, during the course of her methadone-maintenance treatment she has acquired an almost religious reverence for the clinic owner and his staff. She consults Ruiz about financial and personal problems and bares her troubles to CPC counselors each week.
Two years ago she quit her job as a topless dancer and married a man who loads freight for a living. Now that she can see past her next injection, she has begun to make plans for the rest of her life. Between jobs, she wants to return to school to develop a skill -- preferably working with computers. She also wants to have at least two children. A voracious reader who dabbles with writing, she dreams of publishing her autobiography.
But above and beyond these goals, Michelle yearns to end her dependency on methadone. "Even though you are an addict in recovery and you may not have touched anything for ten or more years -- you could be an office professional, a bus driver, a lawyer -- you are still drinking that little cup of juice that attaches a stigma to you," she laments. "It is a constant reminder of the past, when you were doing something really wrong.