Editor’s Note: Heroin use has exploded in the Upper Ohio Valley over the past year, and with it has come overdoses, devastated families and community ruin. The epidemic led U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld, Circuit Judge David Sims and many others to last week present the Ohio Valley Addiction Action Plan, which calls for better treatment options and more education to deal with the problem – a problem that one county sheriff said claims two lives in Brooke County each week. But, in reality, only those who have become addicted to heroin – and those who treat them – can tell the true story. Today, we present “Donald’s” story below, along with stories on page C1 from those who deal with heroin addiction and overdoses each day.
WHEELING – Donald started taking pain pills after he injured his back, but by the time his prescription ran out, he was addicted to the narcotic.
Soon thereafter he became addicted to heroin, which is cheaper and more available than pills. His addiction quickly consumed his life, and when he wasn’t high, Donald would go into withdrawal, a feeling he calls “dope sick.”
“It feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. … Your whole body aches. You’re hypersensitive to touch. You vomit and have diarrhea and cold sweats,” he said. “It’s like having a super bad hangover but it lasts for a week.
“The driving force is not to be sick. You’re not really taking the (drugs) to get high, just to be normal. You’re taking it not to be sick.”
Donald’s also seen 15 friends and fellow users die from drug overdoses in the past few years. It’s helped him better understand the need to get clean.
The alternative, he knows, is death.
A patient of the Recovery-Based Outpatient Opioid Treatment Services clinic of Wheeling, Donald – who is being referred to by first name only to protect his identity – said he dabbled with pills in high school and college, but it wasn’t until he started having back pain that he became hooked on prescription narcotics.
After his doctor cut off the pain medication, Donald starting buying on the street. First it was pills, then heroin.
About a year ago, the pills cost about $45 apiece. When the pills became too expensive, he started buying stamps of heroin to snort that cost much less – $15 to $20 each. He said he purchased pills and heroin in both Wheeling and Martins Ferry, and he believes both drugs are widely available throughout the Upper Ohio Valley.
“People would be surprised how many in the valley are hooked on” heroin and painkillers, he said.
Earlier this month, Donald said he had been clean for 303 consecutive days, thanks to a drug called Suboxone and the help he’s received from the ROOTS clinic, run by psychiatrists Drs. Jeffrey Richmond, Ryan Wakim and Scott Gilchrist.
But his battle is far from over.
Donald became addicted to pills when he was about 28 years old. He also did heroin for about eight months.
“I got tired of all the running around and all the money wasted on it. … I wanted to stop, and was actually buying Suboxone on the street to try and stop. I didn’t know about it in clinics,” he said.
“I was tired of the threat of getting arrested for having (Suboxone) without a prescription even though I was trying to get clean. When you’re in the middle of that, your whole life is consumed by it. You’re trying to get it, to find the money to get it, using it. … You can’t do anything with your life.”
Donald said he tries not to recall how he was when he was high – or even worse, when he was trying to find money and drugs to get high. That’s a chapter of his life that he’s trying to forget.
In his quest to get clean, Donald said he tried many outpatient clinics in the area, but they didn’t work for him. He searched for Suboxone clinics in Wheeling and found ROOTS.
What he likes best about ROOTS is that the staff there doesn’t just help him with his “fix” of Suboxone – they hold him to becoming a better person, or he’s out.
“It wasn’t just the Suboxone, the clinic really helped. You’re held accountable for what you do every week. They do a urine screen every week,” he said. “They’re really trying to help people. They’re trying to get people off of drugs and on with their lives. They really seem like they care. Dr. Wakim – he’s very fair and understanding, but he doesn’t like being lied to. He’s not dumb. If you try to lie, you will get caught eventually. If people are honest with him, he doesn’t just throw them out. He takes your clean time away and you start over.”
Donald said attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings also has been very helpful. Talking to other recovering addicts is therapeutic because they understand what he is going through.
He said the hardest aspect of recovery, though, has been changing his way of thinking, admitting he was wrong.
Donald, who has had 15 friends die from overdose, has some advice for anyone using or thinking about using drugs:
“If you’re using a needle, put it down. If you’re not using a needle, never pick one up. If you want help, it’s out there. Life is more important than what your friends think and what your family thinks of you,” he said. “A lot of people are ashamed and scared to tell their family they need help, but I think most parents would want to check their child into rehab than bury them in the ground or visit them in prison.
“Help is out there if you just find it. Getting clean isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s worth it.”
Donald believes one of the reasons teenagers are using pills and heroin is because alcohol is more difficult for them to purchase than in years past.
“They cracked down on alcohol for teenagers, but there’s no ID to buy painkillers. You don’t need an ID to get in grandma’s medicine cabinet,” he said.
“It’s real bad. Everybody I know is on them. They’re getting it from a doctor legitimately because they have pain or they buy them on the street.”
Donald said he’s also struggled in the past with alcohol. He first began drinking at 9 years old at a friend’s grandparents’ house. The grandparents had a liquor cabinet and did not pay attention to what the children were doing, he said.
ROOTS of the Epidemic
The first ROOTS clinic opened in Weston, W.Va., two years ago and the Wheeling clinic opened Sept. 1, 2013. The new clinic in Wheeling is trying to help people addicted to opiates and heroin lead new, clean lives.
Situated in the former Horne’s department store building in the downtown, the clinic treats people addicted to opioids, including narcotic pain pills and heroin. In addition to group therapy sessions, patients receive Suboxone prescriptions, which they fill at a pharmacy.
“Opioids basically hijack the system in the brain that is meant to protect us when we get injured,” Dr. Richmond said. That releases chemicals in the brain to provide a high, or feeling of euphoria, which is what makes heroin and pills so highly addictive.
Some clinic patients walk in off the street, while others are referred to ROOTS via detox programs or their family doctor. Still others find the clinic via an online database for such facilities.
Patients sit down with one of the doctors and talk about their addiction: how they got started and what they have been taking. Group therapy sessions are conducted once a week and last about 90 minutes. Frequent drug screenings also are held, including testing of urine and saliva. But patients are asked to monitor themselves and keep track of their “clean time,” or the time they have been drug free.
While most people have heard of methadone, Suboxone is one of the newer drugs used to treat opioid addiction. The drug, which can be prescribed in pill form or a film that melts under the tongue, itself is highly addictive, but is nearly impossible to overdose on, Richmond said. It is formulated not to work if a person tries to snort it or inject it. The drug is approved for treatment of people 18 years old and older, but the clinic’s youngest patient has been 17 years old, to date.
When people think of drug addicts, they often picture people who are partying and having a good time – but in reality, the addicts are not.
“People think they are having fun when they try it in the beginning. They very quickly move to a place where they’re physically fighting for survival. … When the addiction takes over, they have severe stomach upset and severe muscle pain from head to toe,” he said.
Instead of getting high, now the person is taking the drug just to keep from feeling deathly ill.
Richmond said, according to many studies, trying to quickly wean people off a drug usually proves ineffective.
“Our goal is to get them to break their lifestyle habits they had during the addiction. … When we give Suboxone, they take it once a day. They don’t have to worry about dosing at all. They don’t have to deal with a dealer. They don’t have to worry about getting sick. It gives them time to establish a normal life and routine,” he said. “Once they have been on the medication for a couple years and their life is much different, at that point we can slowly wean them off of it.”
The majority of ROOTS’ patients are hooked on heroin or pain pills, although people have addictions to other drugs as well. Use of alcohol during treatment is prohibited. Patients must also attend either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week, in addition to doing a 12-step program.
Richmond said many people get addicted after receiving a prescription for pain after surgeries or an injury. If they can no longer receive a prescription from their doctor, they seek the drug on the street. Once they can no longer afford the pills, they switch to heroin, which is usually cheaper but provides the same impact – both are opiate-based. The street drugs can cost between $100 and $400 a day. Meanwhile, Suboxone costs between $9 and $11 per pill out of pocket. The clinic takes most health insurance plans.
Dr. Wakim, a Wheeling native, said during the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a rash of people who got hooked on prescription narcotics because of an injury or they started taking it on purpose to get high at parties. During this same time period, doctors freely prescribed the medicines because the common belief was that people’s pain could not be left untreated.
Often, he said, people would be prescribed too many pills.
“Until recently it was easy to get more than was needed. A lot of it was diverted and sold off. Because of recent crackdowns, it’s been more difficult to get pain pills. … The drug dealers noticed and started pedaling heroin in the area. The big-city cartels, they sell it at a cheaper rate,” Wakim said. “This is not an Ohio Valley problem, it’s a nationwide pandemic.”
It’s a pandemic that Donald and others like him understand all too well.