The message is hitting home: dancing with the dragon comes with the highest price possible.
With 44 confirmed overdoses in 2015, heroin-related deaths in Madison County almost doubled from the 26 recorded in 2014.
The epidemic spans the entire county. Six of the county’s nine major cities experienced overdoses in 2015, and Collinsville (ten deaths) and Granite City (nine deaths) were hit the hardest.
Alton and Pontoon Beach saw six deadly heroin overdoses each.
Once seen as an underground drug favored by hardcore abusers, today’s victims come from all walks of life, with varying degrees of substance abuse … all playing the same deadly game of Russian roulette.
Shannon’s story: ‘There is a way out of this’
Shannon Green represents one of the two lives claimed by heroin in Godfrey last year. After it seemed he had kicked the habit, the 36-year-old father and husband lost his life on March 8, the day after finishing his first night on a new job.
“I’m not sure if he was stressed out about his new job or if he was excited about it, but he relapsed on March 8 and overdosed,” his widow, Jana Green, said. “The paramedics shot him with Narcan and literally brought him back to life. He stood up and even walked around. They got him on the stretcher and into the ambulance, but he had a massive heart attack in the ambulance and couldn’t be revived.”
Even though she and her husband had used other drugs in the past, Jana said they had finally gotten their lives together before Shannon suffered kidney failure in 2011.
On his road to recovery, he was prescribed opioid pain pills, and when he quit using them he went through severe withdrawals and later was prescribed the pain pills yet again.
“We talked to the doctor about it, and he assured us there would be no issues like before; but the only thing the doctor did differently was prescribe the meds for a longer period of time post-operation,” Jana said. “Thinking back on all of this, after knowing everything about addiction that I know now, I feel like the biggest idiot that ever lived. My husband was addicted to opiates and neither one of us knew it, and the doctors completely failed us with pain management and medication management.”
Like four out of five heroin users, Shannon transitioned to the drug from prescription medication.
“He tried it and he loved it,” Jana said. “He thought of it as saving money at the time, and he felt like he could save his family like that and be able to get back to work. He did get back to work, and I had no clue he was doing heroin, especially since he wasn’t taking money like before and we were getting along better than ever.”
Shannon’s experience was not unique. According to a survey conducted in 2014 by Washington University in St. Louis and Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities, 94 percent of respondents in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were more expensive and harder to obtain.
“I really thought for a while I had my husband back again until he made a bad deal, got ripped off a lot of money, and we couldn’t pay our rent or even afford food,” Jana said. “At that point he told me everything that was going on, and I lost it. I was so devastated I had no idea what to do.”
In between surgeries, periods of sobriety battled with periods of addiction.
“Our relationship was up and down and I was always threatening to leave him because I didn’t know what else to do since he refused to get help,” Jana said. “His whole family shut him out, and most of my family shut me out as long as I was with him. We split up several times, and I finally filed for divorce in October of 2014.”
A reconciliation followed, and Jana co-founded a local recovery group with her best friend, Brandie West.
“I got involved with Life Support to learn how to better support my husband in his recovery, and he had agreed to be a part of the group as well,” Jana said. “He had a desire to help other addicts because he had been at the very bottom of addiction and came back.”
After Shannon’s death, Jana continued to work with the recovery group. She also set up an intervention to help her brother-in-law, Gary.
Gary followed his brother to the grave six months later.
“In the midst of all of this addiction and death, I found out another close family member of mine was struggling with a heroin addiction and still is now,” Jana said. “I just want people to know that there is a way out of this, and it’s much more than a three-day detox or a 30-day rehab. It’s not more medication or even jail time. Long-term, faith-based programs are the only drug rehabilitation programs that even attempt to get the root of your issues, in my opinion.”
Enjoy Recovery has picked up Life Support’s torch, functioning out of Enjoy Church, 3303 Homer M. Adams Parkway in Alton.
More information is available at (618) 465-5433.
“I was a broken shell of a person for so long, and God allowed me to go through all of these trials not as punishment but to change me and ultimately to bring me closer to Him,” Jana said. “I am so thankful for my past and so thankful for my husband, because if it wasn’t for him, I would not truly know the love of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
McKenzi’s story: ‘I didn’t even think I deserved to be clean’
Not all users suffer the same fate as Shannon. McKenzi recently marked two years of sobriety.
“The hardest thing about being sober is that a lot of the friends I made while getting sober, I have lost,” McKenzi said. “Not everybody makes it. That’s the reality of it. You never meet a 70-year-old heroin addict. They go to jail or they die.”
McKenzi said her heroin use started rather innocently while hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” where she unknowingly tried heroin for the first time.
“I didn’t even know what it was the first time I did it, but I loved it,” she said. “I trusted these people. I didn’t shoot up my first time. I snorted it, then I asked what it was. When I found out, I freaked out. Heroin wasn’t me. I associated it with homelessness and bums. I was from a good family, raised Catholic.”
But there was no denying the high, and the occasional user eventually became an everyday one.
“The more you do it, the more guilt you have, and the more you want to do it,” McKenzi said. “It doesn’t make sense, but before long I was stealing, lying.”
McKenzi’s family became aware of her problem and tried to help.
“When you love an addict, you want to help, and you tell them that they can get better,” she said. “But, as an addict, it is like you’re in a forest, and it’s a pitch-black night. You can’t see, and you can barely hear the people. You don’t understand that there is a way out because it’s so dark, and you can’t see. I thought suicide was the only way out.
“I didn’t even think I deserved to be clean.”
(According to Society for the Study of Addiction (SAA), the suicide rate among heroin users is around 35 percent.)
“My family quit talking to me, and I can’t blame them,” McKenzi said. “That was the right thing to do. They basically said, ‘You have to be clean or you can’t be in our lives.’ Losing them opened my eyes.”
A first stint in rehab lasted 30 days — not long enough, McKenzi said. Her first time using following rehab was almost deadly when she flipped her car.
“I had been numb for a couple of years,” she said. “It’s a process, and mentally, for a long time I wasn’t right. Mentally, you have to get used to being sober, come back into society and become a normal, functioning person again. You have to get used to feeling feelings again. Like this is sadness, and this is anger. After rehab, I went home to my family and went right back to using.”
After another stay in rehab, she listened to the advice of professionals and transitioned to a sober living environment.
“I didn’t think I needed it,” she said. “My ego is what got me.”
This time, she stayed clean.
During her recovery, McKenzi was also diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. She now says she probably suffered from the mental illnesses before she began using drugs.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports there is a connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances.
Today, McKenzi is a 24-year-old homemaker who loves spending time with her boyfriend, children and other family members. She is grateful for all they have done.
“My family, they are my rock, but it took a long time to regain the trust back that I have with them now,” she said. “My kids keep me sober. The person that I used to be, I don’t ever want to see again. I don’t want to hurt the ones I love. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go to jail. What I gained from getting sober was the greatest gain in my entire life, and I don’t want to lose that.”
McKenzi also has some words of advice for those suffering from heroin addiction.
“It is possible to get clean,” she said. “It is 100 percent possible to turn your life around. You can become a better person than you were before you used drugs. You have to want it, but you can do it. It is a long process.”
Chad’s message: ‘These kids need help, not judgment’
Co-founder of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery Chad Sabora also encourages users to keep fighting. Chad, a former Cook County prosecutor, personally struggled with heroin addiction before becoming an advocate for addicts. He is a source of treatment referrals, public education and legislative activism.
He encourages anyone using heroin to give him a call at (314) 717-3472, have a cup of coffee with him and talk.
“Let me show you how to survive an active addiction and give you the tools you need for when you are ready to get into rehab,” he said.
Chad sees several steps on the path to curbing heroin-related deaths. First, he recommends concentrating on those at most risk for overdosing.
“My first priority is to stop the deaths,” he said. “We know who is most at risk; those people getting out of jail and short-term treatment facilities. Anyone with a history of opiate use should get a Narcan kit when they are released from jail or treatment, because this is a time when the user is vulnerable to relapsing and their tolerance is down. This triggers overdoses.”
Chad also believes a societal shift in attitudes toward heroin users is needed.
“Have empathy,” he said. “These kids are sick, and they need help. It is a disorder. These kids are dying, and people are passing judgment. Users already feel guilty, and the more we beat them up on the news and in social media, the worse they feel.”
Another obstacle on the road to recovery is finding adequate treatment, as resources for addicts in Illinois are scarce.
“We are not being proactive enough with access to treatment,” Chad said. “It can be a two- to six-week wait to get into treatment, even though Illinois expanded Medicaid. The budget crisis makes things more difficult.
“We simply do not have enough treatment centers in Illinois. Getting people placed in treatment is nearly impossible.”
Where can you turn?
In fact, in-patient care is unavailable in Madison County. Centerstone, 2615 Edwards St. in Alton, provides community-based, out-patient behavioral treatment for those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse.
“There are not enough clinics in Illinois,” Centerstone Clinical Services Director Tina Kampwerth said. “In Madison County, we are it. Our clinic is full almost all of the time. We have people on a waiting list.”
Kampwerth said treatment is a balancing act. Methadone is used to treat opioid addiction. It helps reduce an addict’s cravings as well as the feelings and symptoms associated with withdrawal, which can include restlessness, aching bones, diarrhea, vomiting and severe discomfort.
The amount of methadone needed depends on each individual and is decided on by a doctor. Methadone must be taken every day to combat both the cravings of an addict, as well as the effect of withdrawal symptoms, which often lead addicts back to using to prevent suffering the effects of withdrawal. Even when someone gets clean, overdose is still a danger.
“People are more prone to use at different times,” Kampwerth said. “Sometimes, when they first get out of detox, they try the amount of heroin they were once used to, but their bodies can’t handle it. This causes overdoses.
“We try to incorporate family and include anyone who is in the person’s life. There is a wrap effect, and the support system is really important. We make sure they have a support system outside of our services.”
Education is the key
Another main component to treatment at Centerstone is education. Patients are taught necessary life skills: everything from budgeting to recognizing a relapse. Detective Chris Coyne of the Troy Police Department says information is the key to preventing addictions in the first place.
Coyne, along with Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons, Madison County Coroner’s Office Chief Investigator Kelly Rogers, Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn and Collinsville High School Assistant Principal Kari Karidis, has been holding assemblies at area high schools.
The team has warned approximately 25,000 students of the dangerous drug.
“Education is one of the keys,” Coyne said. “These kids need to know what the consequences of heroin are, and you should see the number of students who approach us afterward. I had a big, tall student crying, sobbing, practically falling on top of me. He said he lost his mom and his aunt to overdoses. He said he didn’t think anyone cared.
“That is a profound statement. People need to know that.”
Coyne attributes the spike in heroin-related deaths to the increasing purity of the drug. When heroin first became popular in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, the purity levels were around 15 percent. Now, the heroin being sold can be as pure as 92 percent and cut with other drugs, poisons or pesticides.
“We as parents have to be very diligent because our new friends in the drug-dealing world are diligent and proactive in making everything bigger and better,” Coyne said. “We are in scramble mode trying to get this out of our communities. In my precinct, we had 10 overdoses in the last two years. But one is too many. Six of the people that passed away in Troy, I knew personally.”
Like Chad, Coyne believes a fundamental change in the handling of the epidemic is needed, and he said the TPD has received Narcan nasal kits, which will be carried by its officers, once policies and procedures are developed.
“We are never going to arrest our way out of this problem. Never.
“Our job is obviously to arrest the bad guys and put them in jail,” Coyne said. “However, there also comes a time when you have to restructure the way you operate, the way we are handling this issue as a society. We need legislation and laws to change, so that when people do reach out for help they can get it.”
In the end, it is up to parents and loved ones to stay alert.
“Watch what your kids are doing,” Coyne advised. “Snoop. Do everything and anything you can for your children. Meet their friends. Be active. Check their rooms. Especially if they have a friend they do not want you to meet; make it happen.
“Parents cannot become complacent. When you are complacent, denial follows, and denial always brings its best friend, which is death.”
• Cheap and available
• A single-dose button, sometimes referred to as a bean, costs $5 to $10
• Can be snorted, eaten or injected. Spoons are used to heat the drug before injection, and shoe strings are often used to create a tourniquet, providing easier access to veins.
Narcan: a medicine used to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose by restoring breathing.
Opioids: a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as the legal prescription pain pills oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
SIGNS OF HEROIN USE
• Missing or misplaced spoons
• Missing shoe strings and burnt cans
• Constricted pupils
• Withdrawal from social activity
• Excessively nodding off at inappropriate times
• New secret friends
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