This is the first of a four-part series on heroin and opiate addiction in Iron County. The first installment tells the story of the addict.
The two portraits contained in this story are composites of several actual individuals. All information included in these portraits was culled from interviews by the Reporter. Names, places and certain characteristics have been changed to protect the anonymity of the sources. However, there is nothing fictional in this report.
IRON RIVER—Brooke, then 22 years old, looked around at the disgusting apartment she walked into. It was a hellhole, covered in trash and inhabited by addicts who reeked of body odor and who looked like they hadn’t left their dwelling in weeks.
Brooke and her boyfriend had made the trip from Iron River to Milwaukee to score Oxycontin, a powerful narcotic opioid painkiller that was fast becoming a scourge around the country.
They had $300 in their possession and were looking to purchase about 30 40-milligram pills, a bargain since Oxycontin usually sold for at least $1 per milligram.
Brooke had abused alcohol and drugs for much of her young life, a life filled with the deaths of several relatives and a restlessness of mind and spirit she couldn’t contain.
She had long suffered from depression and severe anxiety and was about to embark on a fast lane toward destruction.
While at this dump in Milwaukee, Brooke decided to get high. So she crushed up one of the pills and snorted it, craving the quick, euphoric rush that eventually grabbed her like a vise.
The impact was immediate and would change her life.
“Here I was in this hovel, and within 20 minutes, it turned into a palace,” Brooke recalled. “Everything just started shining. Right then, I knew what the Buddha was talking about when he talked about enlightenment.”
That vivid experience hit Brooke like a bulldozer. There was no turning back …
James never felt like he fit in here in Iron County. He existed on the margins. He wasn’t an athlete, and he wasn’t an outdoorsman, either.
When he did show up at school, he was uninterested and unmotivated. He came from an abusive background and never felt comfortable in his own skin.
His life was a day-to-day ordeal, and he sought release. He found it in drugs. First it was alcohol and marijuana. Then James moved on to prescription drugs like Adderall (used to treat ADHD) and Vicodin (a narcotic painkiller).
He eventually graduated but had little desire to begin building a functioning life. He was caught in the never-ending pursuit of getting high.
In a short time, his appetite for more powerful drugs grew. First it was Oxycontin, and then it was morphine. He learned to crave the warm rush of morphine spreading throughout his body. He even loved the feeling of a needle in his arm.
Eventually, James ended up in a dark and dangerous place, one from which many never come back. He ended up face-to-face with a packet of heroin.
He was sitting around listening to music one night with a group of people who were IV drug users. The decision to put some of the light brown powder onto a spoon and mix it with a bit of water in order to shoot up was almost a foregone conclusion by that point.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the ultimate high,’” James, now in his late-20s, said. “It wasn’t an energetic high like some of the other drugs I did. It was mellow. You just want to sit back and be high.”
And he did. Within months, that’s all he wanted to do. Not clean his house, not cook meals, certainly not go to work. He barely had the motivation to take a shower.
“I lost ambition for everything. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to sit in my dark house and get high.”
It is easy to feel disgust at these stories and for these people. While alcohol use and even abuse is widely accepted in our society, junkies talking of needles and snorting crushed pills is not. We’re fearful of these people. We want them in jail or at least out of our community. We don’t want to deal with them or their problems.
The difficulty, however, is that these people are now among us. They’re our fathers and mothers, our sisters and
brothers, our sons and daughters. They’re often our friends.
“People have this perception of addiction that it doesn’t happen to them or it doesn’t happen around here,” said Jennifer Rajala of DHS in Iron County. “But with prescription drugs, it can happen to anybody.”
“It’s not socially acceptable at the same level (as alcohol),” said GiGi Polich-Van Doren, administrative director for Samaritan Counseling Center of the Western U.P. in Iron River. “So it creates a level of deceit from the very beginning.
“This is not, ‘Oh, I really only had two drinks.’ That’s socially acceptable. This is much more than that.”
The stories of Brooke and James are not unique. They are the stories of heroin and prescription opiate addicts. In previous decades, small communities could hide from such insidiousness. Addicts existed in Chicago, in Detroit and in Milwaukee, after all.
Mostly what was in Iron County was alcohol, some marijuana and even some speed.
This is no longer the case. The beginning of this departure took place within the legitimate world of doctor’s offices, hospital rooms and pain clinics.
“I once had a surgery done and afterward they put me on morphine,” Brooke said. “One morning I woke up and I was craving it. I called my nurse and freaked out. I asked, ‘Is it possible to become addicted in two weeks?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’”
Opiates have long been prescribed to patients suffering from mild or moderate to severe pain. A teenager with an ear infection gets prescribed Tylenol with codeine. A patient with a back injury is prescribed Vicodin. A person suffering from migraine headaches is given Percocet.
The more potent painkillers like morphine help alleviate the suffering of those in intense pain, like cancer patients.
There was always the risk of dependency with these meds.
One such warning for Vicodin, from the PDRHealth website, reads, “Vicodin has the potential for dependence and abuse and should be taken in the dose prescribed and only for the length of time your doctor recommends it.”
Talk to someone who is dependent on a drug like Vicodin and that generic statement becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.
“The last guy I arrested, we had a long talk on the way to the jail,” said Iron River Police Chief Laura Frizzo. “He said he had an accident a few years back and he was put on pain meds.
“After a year and a half, they took them away from him. And he said, ‘After that I just went for what I could find, and heroin was my choice.’”
The legitimate use of pain medications began to go off the rails largely within the last 20 years. Pharmaceutical companies flooded the market with new versions of highly addictive and more potent narcotics like Oyxcontin, which hit the market in 1996.
Some doctors began to prescribe these medications in large dosages with a number of refills. Some patients got hooked and began to abuse them, shopping for doctors to keep a supply around to meet what was becoming an incessant psychological and physical urge.
Truth is, these addictive medications were not hard to get. And what once started quite innocently ends in the desperate search to stave off the excruciating pain of withdrawal.
With the ever-increasing availability of these narcotic painkillers, it wasn’t long before they became a drug of choice for people who were not pain patients. That quickly included teenagers and young adults, who would steal from their parents’ prescriptions or even mimic symptoms to obtain their own from doctors.
The drugs began to appear on the streets, being sold for completely illegitimate reasons.
“It came to a point fairly quickly, probably within a year, that I could not function without drugs,” James said. “But I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just always have drugs.’ But of course, you can’t always have drugs. You run out.”
And that’s where James became a criminal. He committed several robberies in search of the drugs themselves or money to buy drugs. Mostly, he robbed people in the drug life because he said there was little chance they’d go to the police.
Brooke, whose opiate addiction eventually progressed to heroin use, would house a drug addict from Chicago for days at a time.
“I got rid of so much heroin for him that he just supplied me with free stuff,” she said, describing her dealing and using. “It got me extra money and free drugs.”
“At that point, I wasn’t proud of myself. I’m a good kind-hearted person, a caring person. But at that point, I didn’t care about you unless you had drugs or you could do something for me.”
This loss of moral decency is a consequence of many desperate heroin addicts. It’s not just people with a criminal bent who end up in jail, as both James and Brooke did.
Clearly, there are people in the drug culture who are dangerous criminals that need to be taken out of society.
“The most dangerous person I knew in that life was a girl,” James said. ‘I’m glad that she’s in prison. She was the kind of person who would kill you.”
Still, opiate addicts come from a large swath of society. There are the elderly men who are chronic pain-sufferers. There are the middle-aged women who were first prescribed Vicodin after a surgery and who later became as hopelessly addicted as any heroin user.
Maybe most startling, there is the young person, the recent high-school graduate from an upstanding family, who gets sucked into the muck of heroin addiction.
And there are Brooke and James, who are presently clean and sober and struggling to rebuild their lives from the depths of despair and near-death.
The problem of opiate and heroin addiction is here in Iron County. It’s all across the Upper Peninsula, and it’s becoming rampant across the country at large. The stories of people like Brooke and James tell us so.
The legal and health consequences of this problem and what can be done for the addicts, their families and the community as a whole will be covered in the next installments of this series.