by Michael Adams
Long Island, NY – Chris is 28 years old, and has spent most of his life living in the small town of Kings Park. Now, more than a year removed from a crippling heroin addiction, the memories of the suffering he and so many on Long Island have gone through are still fresh in his head.
His pathway to addiction bears all the familiar trademarks of the downward spiral of an addict, his story could be switched out almost seamlessly with hundreds of thousands of others. “It all started for me with drinking,” he said, “I killed half a bottle of tequila my first time. I got sick; I threw up everywhere, and liked all of it. Within a couple years I was smoking weed and drinking every day. One day I was with my girlfriend at the doctor’s, and I saw her walk out with a prescription full of oxies. I took one and that was it for me.”
Chris’ opiate addiction lasted nearly a decade. Before becoming one of the rare few to crawl out of the abyss, he progressed from popping pills to heroin, first shooting up about two months after he initially tried the drug. He was nervous around needles so he had a friend inject him the first time with one bag. After the initial rush subsided, he grabbed the needle from him and did two more.
To fund his habit in the depths of addiction, he sold drugs, robbed his friends and parents, and had his girlfriend prostitute herself. After waking up in the hospital following an overdose, he immediately got a girl he knew to give him Xanax. By the end of the road, he was suicidal, consumed by self hatred, and willing to do anything to get a fix. He literally had to have a gun put to his head before he got serious about getting help. Chris is one of the lucky ones; he has lost at least 14 immediate friends to heroin overdoses.
He is by no means the only one.
The names of the dead have long since grown too large to count. An epidemic that would’ve been a secret decades ago, now catapulted into a position of almost unfathomably common knowledge. Long Island is in the throes of a crippling battle with heroin, and we’re losing, badly.
Nassau County reported a record number of overdoses in 2015, while the annual total in Suffolk County exceeded 100 for the third straight year. In Suffolk County, from 2009 to 2013, more than 300 people died of heroin overdoses, more than Brooklyn and The Bronx combined, and the most of any county in the state. From high school students to veterans, no one demographic of the population has been spared in this epidemic of addiction. The numbers may be even greater than that, as many people who find their loved ones have overdosed choose to report it as something less taboo.
These numbers are astonishing when put into their proper historical context. Opium abuse predates written history. Heroin, also known as Diamorphine, was first synthesized by C.R. Alder Wright in 1874. Nothing came of this initial discovery, but twenty-four years later Diamorphine was independently rediscovered by German chemist Felix Hoffmann, while working for Bayer Pharmaceutical. At the turn of the 20th century, heroin was being sold in cough syrup and headache medication, marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. When the addictive potential of the drug was finally discovered, Congress banned its sale in 1924. Afterwards, it gained notoriety as the narcotic of choice for jazz musicians, most notably saxophonist Charlie Parker.
For decades, heroin abuse was a problem that was almost exclusively contained to urban areas. Recently, however, as the drug floods middle class suburban neighborhoods, rates of both usage and overdoses have skyrocketed.
Jeff Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, tried to put the habits of today’s heroin addict in perspective. “Ten years ago,” he said, “if you used two to three bags of heroin a day, you were considered a chronic heavy user. For kids these days, that’s breakfast.”
That word, kids, underscores what might be the most shocking part of this epidemic. The face of a heroin overdose isn’t Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died at 46 after decades of sobriety. Most addicts who fail to recover aren’t so lucky. The people heroin kills are teenagers and twenty year olds; people who barely fail to qualify as kids, and hadn’t even begun to figure out their lives yet.
Road Sign Leading Into Kings Park, One of Many Small Towns Battling the Heroin Epidemic
One of the reasons overdose deaths have grown so dramatically in recent years is due to the prescription painkiller Fentanyl. Now in the news after Prince’s autopsy attributed his death to an overdose of the drug, Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1960 by Paul Janssen, and has seen use as an intravenous painkiller administered in hospitals. Fentanyl is more potent and fast-acting than heroin, and due to its cheap price what is sold as heroin is often cut with large quantities of the drug by dealers looking to eek extra money out of their supply. The nature of the adulterant means heroin potency and purity is highly irregular, and that alone leads to a huge number of deaths. One bag of 90% potent heroin can be as powerful as nine 10% bags. Testing kits are available to find the purity of a user’s drugs, but at $47, many suffering addicts are prone to considering the investment too steep.
The problem has grown so large that local pharmacies have now started selling the overdose-reversing drug Narcan over the counter. It’s been badly needed; Suffolk County reported that Narcan had been administered 234 times in 2015. New York State has one of the highest rates of heroin usage in the country, and Long Island accounts for the majority of that use.
Source: SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2002-2013.
Jeff, a longtime Northport resident who lost a son to an overdose last year, warned of unintended consequences stemming from the widespread availability of Narcan. “I don’t want to be overly negative about it,” he said, “I mean obviously it’s a great thing to have. But I think a lot of times if you take these kids who are sixteen, seventeen years old and tell them there’s a way to save them from overdosing it just contributes to their feeling invincible. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just heroin but with the Fentanyl too you have to give them the stuff right away, or else there’s no chance.”
Chris, who has himself been hit with a dose of Narcan, rejected that opinion outright. “Once you’re hit with Narcan, you never want to go through that again. Its instant hell, instant withdrawal.”
The best efforts of all levels of government have failed to make a significant impact on the problem at hand. As of 2010, 80% of heroin users originally started by abusing prescription pills. Systems have been put in place to monitor both drug prescription and the doctors who give them out, in an effort to prevent the “doctor shopping” that so often accompanies opiate abuse.
Sarah, a recovering addict living in Northport, is a member of the minority whose opiate addiction kicked off immediately with heroin. “I tried pills a few times but I never stuck with them,” she said, “I tried heroin because it was put in front of me. I had nothing to lose. Right when I tried it I decided I would do it every day for as long as I could. It wasn’t a weekend thing for me.”
Sarah’s addiction put her family through hell. “My family was destroyed. My mom couldn’t sleep because she was afraid of what could happen to me. My brother grew up in chaos because I was always the center of attention. My parents were always arguing because of my behavior. My family was in a constant war.”
The toll the disease of addiction takes on the family of an addict is just as harrowing as the toll it takes on the addict themselves. The emotional hell of watching a loved one descend into darkness and having absolutely no power to stop them compares to few other tragedies on this Earth. For the ones that make it out, the wounds inflicted on the family can take years to fully heal. For the dead there are endless tears and anger.
John and Mary, Huntington residents who recently watched their beloved son—also named John—lose his war with heroin after years of battling, paint a powerful portrait of a family coping with the darkest of all pains. All they and their daughter, Sarah, hope for now is that their story might reach those who need to hear it, that some good might finally come out of all this rage and agony:
“Our son passed on May 5, 2016 from an opiate overdose. So sadly I was not home and unable to save my son. I was trained to use Narcan, however was not at home that day. This is an Epidemic on Long Island and my family wants to reach out to our community and schools and would like to ask for your assistance and support. We need to save as many as we can and speak out to the community. Everyone wants to hide it under the rug. My son John got injured on the job, had several surgeries and was given opiate pain killers for years. He held a good job and was very knowledgeable about his field of work. He struggled with the opiate addiction for so many years in and out of many detox/rehab programs. CMR Charlie Murphy’s Recovery Residence in Ft. Salonga NY helped him stay alive. It is a private residence, cost efficient, the people there were his family. John would say to me ‘it’s time, I have to get help’. As parents we never questioned him getting the help, and he spent his thousands as we did, just to keep him alive. If it wasn’t for these wonderful people, John would have left this earth many years ago. As I sit here crying and writing, our hearts broken, I know he suffered with this addiction for way too long. It’s a mental illness, and the stigma of a criminal or bad person has to be lifted in this society. We need our politicians and government to acknowledge Opiate addiction and really start the War against these drugs flooding our communities and the pharmaceutical companies putting opiates on the market for doctors to hand out like candy. How can a human survive taking 180 Oxycontin every 2-3 weeks and not become an addict? The pharmaceutical companies put this stuff out in the 1980’s, prescribing it every 12 hours. People taking it felt the withdrawals in 8 hours. Doesn’t this indicate it’s addictive!?”
Their daughter Sara had her own chapter to add to the story, echoing the same outrage at the systems put in place for recovery that many in her position have experienced:
“I lost my brother yesterday from an opiate overdose… And my cousin a year ago… And my uncle a few years ago. This is an epidemic and we’re not talking about it enough, so I will. Any decent private rehab wants upwards of $30,000 a month (money making businesses taking advantage of the mentally ill), the other option is a state facility. It’s easier to get drugs in a state facility than it is on the streets. Most insurance companies now only cover 3-14 days in a state facility. Most of the time that is not understood and the “addicts” stay longer and walk away with more problems and an outrageous bill. 3-14 days isn’t even enough time to detox. There’s nowhere for these people to go. The problem is that OUR country views “addicts” as worthless humans or criminals, so they are swept under the rug. My brother was not worthless, nor was he a criminal. He had a heart of gold, but his demons got the best of him. He tried, I tried, and my family tried to help him, but he just couldn’t help himself. The EMT’s said they have about 15-20 overdoses everyday on Long Island, most of them being high school children. Why isn’t our health care system offering proper assistance for the mentally ill? Why is no one talking about this?”
John was a good and honorable man, an unfortunate victim of a debilitating disease taken from this world too soon. He will be missed by everyone who ever knew him.
Not My Child: Suffolk County’s Drug Epidemic PSA
Finding and funding a stint in rehab are issues that plague many of Long Island’s addicts. Outpatient facilities are flooded beyond capacity, detox centers often require an admitted patient to have just left the hospital, and beds in inpatient facilities are as scarce as they’ve ever been. As of the time this article was written, there are around 300 open beds in inpatient facilities on the whole of Long Island. Far less than the total needed to accommodate even a decent portion of the active addicts.
An employee from a local inpatient rehab center, who chose to remain anonymous, spoke on the scope of the problem. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, “it’s bad, it’s really bad. A lot of the people we have staying here are in because of heroin.” Adding to his comments, he echoed a sentiment common among his fellows, of how health insurance companies could be doing more for their clients suffering from addiction. “The problem for a lot of people is that rehab is expensive. Health insurance is willing to pay something, but a lot of times it’s only for so many days. This isn’t a problem people beat in a week or two. On top of that, they only pay for one stint in rehab, and a lot of these guys wind up coming back three, four, five times.”
A misunderstanding of the disease of addiction on the part of the whole nation has long contributed to the problem at hand, and every manifestation of it prior to the present day. As both Long Island and the world at large come to grips with the severity of the heroin epidemic, which has for some time now been shoved in the face of a horrified public, faint glimmers of hope are emerging. It is naïve, however, to think removing heroin from the equation will end the epidemic of addiction in the area. That sort of thinking stems from a lack of knowledge about drug-seeking behavior. As Chris explains, the problem with the heroin epidemic is not the heroin. “It has to do with us. We’re the problem. It’s impossible to take it out. You get rid of heroin and people will just do something else. The best we can do is work to prevent it in the first place.”
As bleak as the situation may seem, people really do get better, and the resources for recovery are available not just throughout Long Island, but the entire country. Both Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous deal with huge amounts of drug addicts, many of whom do recover through the 12-step program. For those who are apprehensive about the implications of such a route to recovery, there are alternatives that have also been proven effective, such as Women for Sobriety and SMART Recovery, throughout both the US and Canada.
Ultimately, the recovery of an addict is a very uncertain thing, but a greater understanding and sympathy for this stigmatized group is crucial if we truly want to see the epidemic on Long Island get any better. As Chris implores the outsiders to this issue, “don’t be ignorant, don’t be quick to judge. Do your research on addiction; people who overdose aren’t bad people, they’re just sick.”
Sarah had similar advice for both addicts and those looking to better inform themselves. This disease does not discriminate. “Addiction doesn’t care how old you are, where you’re from, how much money you do or do not have—addiction affects everyone, whether it’s apparent or not. But there is hope. Take it from someone who was in such a hopeless state. There is hope and you never have to feel like this again.”
There is a road back to the light open to anyone who can take the first step. All that remains is to try to understand, lend a helping hand, and hope people really do take it.
For anyone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or knows a drug addict or alcoholic:
Featured Image Credit Source: Livescience