Addiction a ‘hard pill to swallow’

GEORGETOWN — At 25, Heather Swank has experienced a lifetime of heartache.

She ingested narcotics when pregnant with her first of two children, beginning with Percocet pills and moving to heroin. It left her homeless and willing to do anything — legal or otherwise — to get her next fix.

She described her descent into addiction as a figurative fall off a steep mountainside. She told a crowd of people gathered in Georgetown last month about her substance abuse and how it put her children in foster care.
“Every day it’s a hard pill to swallow that I’m an addict and not normal,” she said. “If not for my family’s support and the drive to be able to see my kids, there’s just no way I would have made it through the worst parts of my life. It wouldn’t have been possible.”

The Wilmington resident now has a job and nine months of sobriety.
Her story isn’t unusual. In Delaware, many addicts to opioids, and other substance abuse, statewide stay sober every day.
And others struggle with the battle as Delaware’s deadly opioid epidemic continues.

One day in late August, Jimmy Martin watched a user gulp a free meal at the Shepherd’s Office weekly lunch and then quickly step to a vehicle with two others waiting inside.
“He’s on the prowl,” the Shepherd’s Office director said. “I’ve seen it before. He didn’t engage with anyone, kept bouncing around everywhere and was just using this for a quick meal.
“Now he’s headed back out on the hunt.”

The scene unfolded in Georgetown where volunteers scooped lunch onto the plates of 50 or more Shepherd’s visitors, many with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

Mr. Martin said he hoped that the edgy abuser would return the following week for more offerings.
“We’ll never turn him away because tomorrow could be the day he decides to get help,” he said.

Later that day inside the Georgetown Circle, 75 or so recovering addicts, friends, family members and professionals gathered for a candlelight vigil acknowledging International Overdose Awareness Day. One grieving family would bury a loved one two days later.

Explained one recovering addict on the hopelessness associated with the disease, “I didn’t want to live.
“I didn’t necessarily want to off myself, but if I didn’t wake up that was OK.”

Delaware ranks first nationally for high dose and long-acting opioid prescriptions written, and has the sixth highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 37.1 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017, compared to 15.3 deaths in 2012. The number of fatalities rose 144 percent during that stretch from 142 to 345.
Following six suspected overdose deaths over Labor Day weekend, health and public safety officials urged heroin users and their families to seek immediate treatment and acquire naloxone, which counters the effects of an overdose.

As of early September, 194 suspected overdose deaths had been reported in Delaware this year, with pending investigations likely to raise the official total. There were 400 overdose deaths statewide in 2018.

Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay described the current crisis as “devastating.” There were 6,000 residents with opioid use disorder in 2006, 11,000 in 2017.

Additionally, Delaware’s number of babies born drug-dependent (Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome) has tripled in the past decade.
“The cost of addiction is measured not only in terms of human lives lost or in terms of the emotional impact on friends and families,” Dr. Rattay said.

“Combating this epidemic is a priority because behind these data there are real people whose lives are forever changed by addiction. Opioid addiction affects a wide array of individuals, from high school athletes to blue-collar workers and highly educated professionals.

Heather Swank, 25, talks about how addiction affected her life and her struggle to stay clean at an awareness event in Georgetown. Photo by Gary Emeigh

“Without ongoing treatment, lives are turned upside down when substance use disorder leads to joblessness, homelessness, unintended pregnancy, crime, health problems, and the disintegration of family relationships,” she said.

Kevin Stone, 57, knows all about that spiral, from personal experiences and his work as a peer support specialist for Fellowship Services in Georgetown.
He’s been clean since Aug. 28, 2018.

At the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing’s Resource Center this week he talked about the opioid addiction process.

“Obviously pain medication works well in moderation,” he said. “The problem becomes when you believe the more you take, the quicker you’ll get through the pain and then it eventually transitions in using the pills for the pills them self.

“Breaking that addiction is tough because the cycle begins with the pain of an injury and ends with the pain of withdrawal that is extremely horrible in itself. To quit there has to be the acceptance that more pain is coming and that’s hard for some people to make the decision to go there again.”

Out of the shadows
At the annual Overdose Awareness gathering on The Circle in Georgetown, where Ms. Swank shared her story, several abusers also accepted an invitation to take a microphone and share their experiences. Prompted by her recovery counselors in Dover, Danielle Green — then 72 days clean — went public with her struggles for the first time.

“They told me I needed to do this to keep moving ahead,” she said. “I feel I don’t have to hide it anymore. When you’re around people acting like they have no problem when they really do, you follow along with that.

“Being with people like those here tonight brings out a positive, supportive feeling that pulls you the right way.”
Indeed, stepping out from the shadows of addiction isn’t easy.
“One of the greatest challenges for Delaware is to overcome stigma experienced by individuals with opioid use disorder,” Dr. Rattay said.

“The fear of being shamed, ridiculed, ostracized, cast out of housing, or losing a job is a barrier to treatment. We must view addiction as a chronic health disease that affects the brain. Just like asthma or diabetes, if we apply appropriate, evidence-based strategies, addiction is both preventable and treatable.

“My goal right now is to stay off drugs and work,” he said after finishing lunch at Shepherd’s. “My car needs a timing belt and then I plan on moving to Pennsylvania to be with my family.”

“People who are connected to and engaged in long-term treatment can lead happy, productive lives full of promise,” she said.

Reuniting with his 1-year-old son drives Michael Quinones, 31, to avoid another relapse with opioids. He was released from jail on March 6 after completing the Key substance abuse treatment program and resides at the Serenity Place sobriety home in Georgetown.

In his early 20s, a family member introduced Mr. Quinones to Percocet pills. He took too many the first time and vomited, but soon figured out his tolerance.

“They took over my life,” he said. “The Percocets made me not be so lonely because I was focusing on the high instead of anything else.

“A lot of people say they’re like a warm blanket on a cold night and I would agree with that.”

Prescription first, then abuse
Following knee surgery and a sciatic nerve condition in short succession, Brian Moore, 57, of Georgetown, thought he could handle prescribed pills and then some. When a doctor cut off or limited a prescription for pain medication, he switched to another physician who filled the need.

“It was before records became computerized and the tracking became more official,” he said. “I always had a high tolerance. When the prescription said take two, I would take four or then six would be OK.”

Friends and family eventually clued him in. Mr. Moore said he hasn’t swallowed prescription meds since, turns them down when physicians offer them for medical procedures and instead sticks to over-the-counter aspirin for any pain or inflammation that may occur.

“Eventually I got to the point that people around me were noticing how irritable I was, the constant mood swings, everything that I hadn’t been like before,” Mr. Moore said.

“In my own mind I thought that’s just who I was but they were seeing something far different from that person.”

Becca Harris, 46, sipped alcohol at 11, refrained for years and then lost control at age 19. She’s stopped now, but admits to smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee more than she should.

“I never touched (opioids) because I was too scared of leading myself down a road that I would never come back from,” she said.

With her experience, Ms. Harris helps oversee Shepherd’s Office operations, where people in need can find recovery resources, food and fellowship. The center at 408 N. Bedford St. offers almost daily opportunities for people 18 and older to stop by and seek help.

It’s also a place where Ms. Harris sees users get their fixes during 15-minute bathroom visits. “You know what they’re doing in there,” she said. “Certain people won’t admit it and you can’t convince them to kick it.”

“That’s something they must decide on their own and it’s not easy. It can be horribly tough.

“What I do, though, is ask them to consider what their life has become due to using. If they don’t feel comfortable with continuing that I can show them where to get help, but it will never happen unless they choose to do so.”

Getting by working construction jobs in the Georgetown and Rehoboth Beach areas, homeless 30-year-old Jason Chituck resists the never-ending temptation to drink alcohol. Saying he never ingested opioids, Mr. Chituck recently lost four friends to overdoses within a month. The deaths received little to no attention, he said.

“Nobody wants to pay attention, they don’t want it to be their problem,” he said. “If people pretend they don’t see it then they feel like their lives won’t be affected.”

‘A monster almost’
Denise Parker, 52, has had six back surgeries in 20 years. In that time, doctors prescribed a regimen of dilaudid, an opioid pain medication that she took for 12 years, along with other prescription drugs to control mental health issues.
She’s also had her foot amputated.

A recent suicide attempt led to a stay at Delaware Behavioral Health, and Ms. Parker as of early September was homeless, but had been clean for two weeks.
She said her ongoing withdrawal had been “hideous and for the first five days I was very badly sick and begging for anything to make it end.
“I’m still going through it with the shakes, stomach cramps, not eating a lot. The feeling is horrible. Your brain still wants what the meds can’t give anymore.”

Ms. Parker, whose mother is dying of lung cancer, said in September she wanted to continue a life without drugs and hoped to find a methadone program to help her achieve that goal.
Three months ago, a close family member headed to a treatment facility and she hasn’t seen him since, said Ms. Parker.

“He’d take pills, he’d take anything,” she said. “He turned into something I didn’t recognize, kind of a monster almost.
“He didn’t acknowledge me anymore. He was just an absolute mess.”
Now 67 years old and clean for six years, Edward Hack stays focused as a self-employed landscaper in the Georgetown area.
His addiction was ingesting an array of opiates and hallucinogenics.

“Addiction is something else that shows us all that nobody is perfect,” he said. “Some people sleep too much, others eat too much or shop too much.

“Addicts just happen to have something that can put you into the streets and take everything that matters if you let it.”

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