Part II - Inside the opioid epidemic: the faces of addiction

May 5, 2017

West Palm Beach, Fla. - In 2016, one person every 15 hours died of an opioid overdose in Palm Beach County.


Part I of The Beacon investigation into this national opioid epidemic detailed what Palm Beach County is doing to fight it, how prescription opioids such as Vicodin and non-prescription drugs such as heroin affect the brain, and the reasons why opioids have become such a crisis in our country.


But what is life truly like with an opioid addiction?


Emily Johanson, 24, has been clean from opioid prescriptions for three years. Originally struggling with an eating disorder, she began abusing pain medications to help lose weight.


“I was down to 110 pounds, and I couldn’t hide it anymore. I waved the white flag. I reached this point of desperation where I was tired of this consuming my life, so I swallowed my pride, came clean to my parents, and said: ‘I need help.’” Johanson said.


Johanson came to West Palm Beach to receive treatment for both an eating disorder and opioid prescriptions. After successfully completing treatment, an anonymous donor from her church offered to pay for Johanson to get her Masters in Mental Health Counseling.


“That changed everything for me,” Johanson said.


At the same time, Johanson was hired by the Desert Rose Recovery Center in West Palm Beach. Desert Rose is a small, faith-based program that uses a Soul-Centered Treatment approach and aims to “help the hurting, love unconditionally and provide quality care.”


Johanson works as a manager of the partial-hospitalization program, and lives with women in recovery.


“Basically my job is to watch, to do life with them and to be emotionally available when they need it. Ultimately, I make sure they are safe and that they aren’t using,” Johanson said.


According to Johanson, for at least half of the women she works with at the facility, their drug of choice is heroin.


“It’s crazy walking through life with them, because I kid you not, someone in the program loses somebody every week,” Johanson said, “It's all over the place, and people are dropping like flies.”


A major reason there has been an increase in overdoses is because of the introduction of fentanyl into the drug scene.


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Now, heroin is often sold laced with fentanyl and because of the much stronger potency it is easier to unknowingly take a lethal dose.


“When people in recovery have a certain amount of clean time and relapse, they go right back to the amount that they used to use. That's ultimately the killer right there, because they don't know what's in it,” Johanson said.


Fortunately, a drug called naloxone is now available in Florida. Commonly known as Narcan, it works like an EpiPen and quickly reverses the overdose effects, saving lives. But Narcan alone will not fix the opioid epidemic.


Johanson believes that so many people turn to drugs for a simple reason: it’s an easy fix.


“People abuse drugs because it works. It numbs you. I ultimately abused drugs to lose weight but, it also felt really good. All of my needs were fulfilled in my head. I didn't have to eat, I didn't have to be anxious, it took care of everything,” Johanson said, “But as you keep abusing heroin, it’s mainly just to provide relief for withdrawal symptoms. They’re always chasing after that first time experience.”


The toll is high for the relief that heroin claims to bring. One of Johanson’s friends who has been clean for a year from heroin has lost 18 people to the drug since high school.


“That's a lot of people. I mean I honestly don't blame him for his drug use, because losing people left and right, that is so much to deal with,” Johanson said.


Another major problem comes in the area of relapsing. When a treatment plan does not include an individual’s entire community, Johanson says the chances are high they may fail.


“Enabling is an epidemic problem….so many people go to treatment and then go back home to their system, and nothing has changed there so they fall right back into it. The support system outside of treatment, needs to be included in treatment,” Johanson said.


“Lots of people send their kids to treatment and believe they're going to be fixed and will come back and everything will be fine. No it's not fine, it's not that simple.”


Craig, 31, who did not wish to use a last name, is also a recovering addict who has been clean from heroin for two years.


“I did heroin for probably eleven years of my life. I saw it all. People dying in front of me, coming back to life. I started doing drugs from just partying and having a good time, at first. One thing led to another and by the time I knew what I was doing, I was doing heroin every day,” Craig said.


It didn't matter what Craig had to do to get the powerful drug, he did it.


"That’s the problem with it, you'll do whatever it takes to chase that high.”


Now on his third attempt at staying clean, both Craig and Johanson agree that a major issue with relapsing comes from going back home.


“The first time I went to treatment I was 26," Craig said. "I went straight home afterwards, right back into the environment. I was clean for about 2 weeks and started using again. The second time I went to treatment and I went home, I stayed clean for about 8 months... As soon as you go back home, you know where you can go to find it. The third time, I couldn't go back home. I didn't even have anywhere to go back home. I've been here almost 3 years."


Another major wall in preventing addicts from getting help is insurance. According to Craig, a lot of people in Florida don’t have insurance or a way to get into treatment.


"I mean who has $100,000 for treatment? It’s so expensive,” Craig said.


Craig and Johansen also agree that people need to realize addicts encompass people from all ages and walks of life, and that it can be easy to hide.


“There are literally two fifteen year old kids that show up at meetings every week, and they're in treatment. You know you've got those people, and also these sweet older ladies that look like all they do is knit and play bridge on the weekends. You've also got these rough motorcycle looking men. Everybody shows up,” Johanson said, “It doesn't matter your race, gender or religious affiliation. Anyone could be an addict.”


For addicts in recovery, Craig gave some of his own advice.


“Take it one day at a time. Thats a big one...Using prayer, meditation, and belief in a higher power, it’s really important. For people who are just starting to use now; get away from it as quickly as possible,” Craig said.


Finally, one of the hardest steps towards recovery is initially asking for help. Part of the process is dealing with personal emotions that have deep psychological roots. Learning how to handle one's own thought processes and being mindful of it in a healthy way helps at the onset.


“It’s the difference between getting stuck in a river rapids, or standing on a bank and watching the thoughts go by. Be open, honest, and learn how to get what’s going on inside, out,” Craig said.


Johanson also said both the support system and the addict in recovery need to have grace when it comes to progress.


“When you're running a race of life and you fall down, you don't get back up at the starting line. You get back up right where you are...All of that work you did doesn't just go away. If anything, that experience can be a tool, it can have redemptive value and that it can influence somebody else who's going through the same thing,” Johanson



Johanson also encouraged people to start looking at the strangers they encounter in daily life in a different light.


“We pass people by on the street every day like they're part of the scenery, and we have absolutely no idea what they've been through, their passions or fears, or how they grew up. We're so quick to judge,” Johanson said. “But drug abuse is everywhere, eating disorders are everywhere, broken homes are everywhere. We need to go at it with an open mind, with grace. People are people.”









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