Saturday, March 5, 2016
A drug addict will likely wind up in three places – rehab, jail or cemetery
(Editor’s note: What follows is a story – another installment of Danni’s Ripple Effect series – on how one local man started his drug use and eventually started to live drug-free. At his request, we changed his name for privacy reasons. It is not easy to speak out as someone addicted to drugs, but he wanted to share his story in the hopes of helping at least one person. Another stone thrown in the pond known as Danni’s Ripple Effect: Keep the Conversation Going.)
By SANDY RHODES
A drug addict will likely wind up in three places – rehab, jail or cemetery.
Alex George has been to rehab and jail. And it was his incarceration that saved his life. Sadly, that is not always the case with addicts. Seven of George’s friends lost their lives to drugs. Pennsylvania is near the top of the national statistics for drug overdose deaths, according to a report published last year by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
One of those who fell victim was Danielle Fitzsimmons, who died in October of a heroin overdose. Danni’s death and her family’s response was the inspiration for this series. Danni, who died while George was in jail, may be seen as his inspiration to kick his heroin habit.
“Every time I would lose somebody, I’d say it was my time to quit, but drugs have a strong hold on you.”
After years of being addicted to painkillers and heroin, George was sent to jail on a probation violation.
“Thank God. Jail saved my life.”
A Family Affair
George drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, but his foray into hard drug use came at the hands of his father, who one day handed his son an OxyContin, an opioid (narcotic) pain medication.
“Dad had known people all his life who did drugs.” So, it did not seem out of the norm for his dad to offer George an OxyContin.
“It was like turning a friend onto a good drug,” said George, a man in his 40s who has lived in Bradford sporadically throughout his life.
Just as some enjoy a drink at a bar or a smoke of weed behind the bar, for the Georges, taking painkillers was their way of having a good time on weekends. But as George soon realized, painkillers send people down a slippery slope into addiction and more drug use.
“Painkillers. They are everywhere,” he said, adding that people may start innocently enough and do not realize who addictive they are.
“It is everywhere. It is a large problem.”
From Painkillers to Methadone to Heroin
George took painkillers off and on for seven to eight years.
When the mother of his child would threaten to leave if he didn’t stop, he would – for a while.
After a car accident, he needed those same painkillers for medical reasons. And he got them. Three of them. All from the same doctor.
OxyContin, Dilaudid and Vicodin – all strong painkillers and all highly addictive.
George would start each month with the more potent drug, then would slowly work his way to the least potent until it was time to go back to the doctor.
“It was never enough.”
The rug was eventually pulled out from under George when another doctor found marijuana in a urine test. Although his original doctor said it was OK for him to smoke marijuana while on the painkillers, it was not.
“I lost my pills in the middle of my addiction.”
George’s journey into another drug – methadone – included an eight-hour bus trip daily to methadone clinics in State College, Clearfield or Erie. Methadone withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin or other narcotic drugs without causing the "high" associated with the drug addiction. In essence, one drug was used in place of another.
“It kept me away from drugs, but it was non-stop. I was taking a drug every day to feel normal.
George dropped out of the clinic and started to detoxify off of methadone by himself – something he describes as one of the worse experiences of his life.
“It makes you sick to your stomach. You have no energy. And the cold – it cuts through you like a knife to your skin and your bones.”
It took two and a half months for him to feel normal.
“It takes a certain mindset to truly realize that opiates don’t have a place in your life.
“I wanted to control it and not have it control me.”
Then, after his detox from methadone, George jumped from the frying pan into the fire. He started using heroin.
“Before you know it, I was trying to get a fix.”
In the fall of 2014, George started using pills again. That led him to heroin, which, as he found out, was not hard to get.
“Once you are into that kind of thing, you can find friends who are into that,” he said, likening to finding friends with similar interests such as movies, drinking or fast cars.
“If you do opiates, you can find friends who do.”
By the spring of 2015, George was going to jail on a probation violation. He was also in the midst of heavy heroin use, taking at least a bundle of heroin a day – or 10 bags.
According to George, going to jail was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Sentenced to Life
Six months in jail saved George’s life. It wasn’t easy, but he lived through it and beyond it.
“I was six and tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “Enough is enough is enough.”
In jail, one has no choice but to go through detox.
“After the first week in jail, the drug is out of your system.”
Luckily for George, his sentence was six months. For he is certain that if he had gotten out sooner, he would have return to a life of drug use.
But somewhere in those six months “something clicked.
“I wanted my life back. I wanted to stay away from opiates.”
George used his time in the out-of-area jail well. He took any class he was offered to better himself. Between his time in jail, his time away from drugs, his time in class and the loss of a friend, he realized it was time to quit drugs.
“I am not sure what made me change. I can’t put my finger on it.”
A View from the Other Side
Life is pretty good for a recovering addict.
“It’s fairly good,” George said of his life now. “I get up, eat breakfast and not try to find drugs, hunt down money (for drugs) or constantly look over my shoulder.
But having seen both sides – that of an addict and one who conquered his addiction – George knows why addicts don’t always seek the help they need.
“Once you are an addict, everyone looks at you the same,” he said. “Society has a demeaning attitude” toward addicts.
George pointed out that opiate use touches every walk of life - regardless if whether someone is rich or poor, come from a good family or not. Drug use sends a person into a life they never wanted – and all for a high.
“They are no common criminal. The drug grips you and changes the way you think.”
Getting the next high is all that matters and nothing will stand in their way of getting it.
And while jail saved George’s life, he knows it is not necessarily a lifesaver for others.
“They are locking up drug addicts with drug addicts and are making a bigger drug community, a smarter drug community … it doesn’t make sense.”
Advice from an Addict
When someone is thinking about doing drugs or already doing addicted, they are in for fight of their lives.
“If you are thinking about it or are offered drugs, get ready for the biggest fight of your life,” George said. “You will end up dead or completely changed for it.”
The struggle is worse for those already addicted. While the addiction is easy to achieve, recovery takes a lot longer.
“You need to change your mind to change your life,” he said, adding they should be prepared to be in rehab for a while.”
“Not 30 days of rehab. Ninety days or more.”
George theorized that it would be better to offer counseling to drug addicts instead of throwing them in jail. That and changing the way people think about addicts will go a long way in helping curb this addiction epidemic.
And be prepared to lose friends as George lost a friend in Danni.
“She was one of the sweetest, kindest, real friends … she was always smiling and ready to give a hug. She was a delightful girl.”
Another testament that drugs affect people from all walks of life.
But George’s goal in tossing a stone into this series by telling his story is to help people understand drug use and to help those enduring the same struggle he did.
“If I just help one person, I am doing something better than I was a year ago.
Another ripple reaching out to educate and help others.