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Addicts: Understanding addiction is key to fixing the problem

Two recovering addicts share their stories with News 6

ORLANDO, Fla. – The opioid epidemic is a problem that's slowly infiltrated our communities, our schools and our families. It's easy to look the other way, and stay blind to addiction, but turning a blind eye won't make the problem go away.

Sometimes, addiction starts with something that seems innocent-- a doctor's prescription. Other times, it's the pressure to fit in.

But many addicts say what's clear is that non-addicts don't understand addiction. Addicts say if you can't understand it, you can't fight it and you can't help someone you love.

That's why two addicts in recovery sat down with News 6 because they said they wanted to help people understand.

KEVIN

Kevin is currently in a recovery program, working to overcome an addiction that's spanned more than a decade.

"I was about 16 when I first started using seriously," Kevin said. "I was prescribed pain medication from a doctor. An older friend of mine told me if I took two or three more than I was prescribed, they would work better, and that's actually how the high started. Once you get that feeling, you kind of feel untouchable. You don't want to use anything else because nothing else really works at that point. Within a year, I was taking 10 to 15 (pain pills) a day, and it then progressed to harder things. I went to OxyContin and eventually to heroin."

Kevin said he always said he would never touch a needle, would never end up using heroin-- but once the addiction set in, that all changed.

"You're chasing that same high that you had that first time you used," Kevin said. "You no longer get high off the pills, the pills are becoming more expensive, you're having to buy more and more of them and heroin is a cheaper route. It's intravenous, so you get the initial effect a lot faster,and it's a lot stronger for a lot less money. Why would I spend $30 on a pill when I can spend $30 on heroin and get twice as high? The heroin was a way for me to get that initial high back, that first-time high back that I hadn't been able to get back since I first started using."

Kevin said once you're hooked, that's when the real problems begin. Because even if you have a moment of clarity, your body becomes trained to need the drug. You can't do anything until you've used. An addict's biggest fear isn't death -- it's the withdrawal.

"A day in the life of an addict, I wake up in the morning, I've got nothing, or I've got enough to cut the withdrawals," Kevin said. "Waking up in the morning means waking up at five in the morning, snapping awake and realizing, 'Oh, crap, I'm sick, I'm going through it.' That in itself is horrible because now I've got to wake up, I've got to get the money somehow, I've got to call the dealer, who knows when he's going to wake up, who knows where I'm going to have to go to get it. I have to do all that dope sick, and dope sick, especially when you're in the middle of the addiction, is like the flu on steroids."

For many heroin addicts, fentanyl is the latest drug to experiment with. But it's something Kevin warns against, despite having tried it himself in the past.

"There was a couple times I did fentanyl in various forms, it's an incredibly powerful drug and you never know how much you’re using," Kevin said. "So people are able to buy a little bit less, get just as high, but the problem is if they use the same amount as they were with just heroin, they're gone, they're dead, it's an accidental overdose and you don't even know you're doing it. A lot of people don't know it's in the heroin, and they initially think, 'Oh, this is just really good.' They want to keep up with people they're shooting up with. It becomes a guessing game at that point, and that's what's so dangerous about the stuff that's on the market right now is that no matter how strong you are, or how tolerant you are to the opiate, it's still a guessing game. You don't know what's in it, there's no way to know what's in it and I've never met an honest drug dealer. So if you can take 8 mg of hydromorphone, which is dilaudid, and it's really pressed fentanyl and you take all 8 mg, it can kill you because of how much fentanyl is actually pressed into that pill, which is terrifying to me. It's one of the reasons I wanted to get help and stop, because you never know what it's in now."

Fentanyl has been credited with a huge spike in overdose deaths. That leaves many non-addicts wondering about the business model--; if you're killing off your clients, you can't be making money. Kevin said that's not the way dealers see it.

"When I dealt it, I didn't care about who I was selling it to, or what happened to them. In my mind, it was their responsibility to handle it responsibly," Kevin said. "If you've got the best stuff, you're going to get the most clients. You're going to get the most money because people don't want to go buy something they're going to have to get more of to get high, they want to spend the least amount of money for the most amount of honey. So if you're known as having the strong stuff, everybody's going to come to you."

He said the overdose deaths are basically collateral damage.

"A dead client isn't a good client," Kevin said. "So we don't intentionally try to kill them, as the dealer perspective. We don't care if they die, though."

Because of the increase in fentanyl deaths, Narcan is being used more and more to help save addicts from fatal overdoses. A debate comes along with the anti-overdose drug, though; some agree with saving addicts as many times as necessary to get them into recovery programs, while others worry about the cost to taxpayers, and then others still say Narcan should not be used to save addicts more than once.

"What's a human life worth? If you're going to put a value on a human life, are you really any better than the dealers that are out there?" Kevin said. "I mean, okay, an addict's not getting it right, they haven't reached their rock bottom yet apparently, there are addicts out there homeless on the street and they're still using. But for somebody to say how many times are we going to save this person, what if it was your child? Your uncle? What if it was your mother? How many times would you save her? You got to think that every human being on the planet has a family, has people that care about them. You can't put a price on a human life, it's not right to put a price on a human's life."

Another argument that has been made against the use of Narcan is the belief that addicts will use it as a crutch; that knowing it's out there and can save their life could enable them, or encourage them to be more reckless with their habit. Kevin said from his experience, most addicts don't think that way at all.

"Narcan is not fun after it's been used. Your body is literally coming back from an overdose, and it's meant for your body to kick back some of those opioids, and the after effects are not fun," Kevin said. "Even $80 is a lot of money for an addict, that's a lot of heroin. You can get right every day for $80, they're not going to want to spend that money on that. The problem is when you're going into an overdose, you really don't know it until it's too late. Most people who die of overdose that I've seen, died while they were passed out, there was a seizure, there was foaming at the mouth, there was no way they could have given themselves a Narcan shot. The people they hang around are probably just as addicted. When you're on heroin, you're either nodding out or you're out of it, there's no realizing that's happening right next to you and there's definitely no thinking, "Oh'Oh, she's got a Narcan shot in her purse.' That's not how it works."

Kevin does encourage parents of addicts to have Narcan on hand in the event something happens around the house. He stresses one of the best ways to help addicts is to stop being blind to the problem. Thinking it can never affect you isn't true at all.

"I've known addicts from the hood, from the bottom all the way up to upper middle class, million-dollar-a-year family, and they all have the same behavior," Kevin said. "Some of them may not have to go to the same extremes to get the money to get what they want, but they all wake up in the morning sick, wondering how they're going to get their high that day. It doesn’t matter what your background is, or where you're from. I've met people, kids who've grown up in church, families that loved them, didn't have a single addict in their family, and they're just as bad off or worse than I was. And if you are one of those families that are sitting there thinking, 'Oh, I've never seen it, addiction has never affected me,'-- you need to take a closer look."

Kevin said the good news, though--, is no matter how deep into addiction you are, no matter what you've done--, there is always hope -- and there's always help,. You just need to be willing to work for it, Kevin said.

"For me, it was hitting rock bottom, losing my family, losing touch with everybody that I cared about, almost losing the girl that I'm with now, my fiancéée, losing my kids, it took all of that and going to jail for me to say, 'Enough is enough, I'm not doing this anymore, I refuse to lose anything else in my life,'" Kevin said."And since I've gotten myself right, I've been able to re-establish the relationships and heal a lot of the damage I've caused. Now, with a clear mind, I can see that damage,and I'm at a point where I don’t ever want to cause that damage again. My kids are still young, they can still forgive me and I can still be a good father,; some people may not get that chance."

"You have to have your mindset around it, it's not impossible. For me, it was my faith. I decided that I was going to cling to my faith more than I was going to cling to the drug that I was on.
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"I can look back and say, 'Wow, I managed every day to get high, no matter how expensive it was.' I mean, I was fueling at least a $300-a-day addiction. Every day I got that money and got high. I use that now in my sobriety. Addicts are not worthless. They have trained themselves to do whatever it takes to get what they need. If you can put half that motivation into something productive and positive for your life, you'll make it. It's not hopeless, it's not the end, just make that chapter better than the rest of the book."

TRAVIS

For Travis, addiction began in a completely different way. Rather than starting with painkillers like many do, he said he started right with heroin at the age of 13.

"It started (when I was) trying to fit in, trying to be cool, I guess. Not knowing the consequences, not knowing where it would take me, what it would lead me into. I mean, it started young, 13 years old," Travis said. "It was put in front of me and it was like, 'Here, do this.'"

That moment would set Travis on a path of drug addiction that ran his life for about 14 years.

"For a long time, I'm sure there were people that questioned what I did, but for the most part, I had it under control," Travis said. "Because I still woke up in the morning, I went to work, I kept a job. How else would I support my habit?"

Travis said eventually, though, his habit outgrew the money he was making legally. That's how he said he started getting into trouble.

"I'd steal anything, anything and everything from people I loved, from people that gave me jobs," Travis said. "But I justified everything I stole, like, 'Hey, if I steal something from Home Depot, they got plenty of money.,' 'They can buy a new one', or, 'He don't really use that', you know what I mean? So, like, I didn't really want to take anything I thought could hurt you, but really it did. It didn't matter, I didn't care about myself, so why am I going to care about anybody else?"

Like Kevin, Travis also tried fentanyl. He's another lucky one, in that he's still alive to talk about the experience.

"When my grandfather passed away, I found a bag full of fentanyl patches. My grandfather had a broken back and was in a lot of pain, and due to his injuries he went through 35, 40 years ago, he fell like four stories, doctors said he wouldn't walk again-type thing, so they gave him every type of medicine there was. I said, 'Okay, well, let's put them here, here, and here,' so here I am walking around with four of these things for a month. It got to the point with me where I was able to get fentanyl patches and I would cut them open and eat the gel or shoot the gel, it didn't matter, chew on them."

But still, it wasn't until Travis was about 27 that he realized he had a real problem.

"Doing heroin in the bathroom at my buddy's funeral who overdosed from heroin, that's when I was like, 'Uh, there's a problem here,'" Travis said."

It didn't mean that's when it finally stopped, though. Part of the reason why he kept going, he said, is that it's just too easy to find drugs if you want them.

"Walk through town," Travis said. "I'm in the store one day and I hear a pill bottle in somebody's pocket, so I look at him, next thing you know, he's my new hook up. It's that easy. It's not a treasure hunt, it's there, it's around."

Finally, Travis said a blessing in disguise came when he was arrested and sent to jail and then prison. He said that's where he went through withdrawals.

"I shot up heroin, and then let's see, three hours later, I was put in handcuffs. I was due for more in another hour or two, I was on my way to get some and I got intercepted, thank God," Travis said.

Many people say they believe in rehabilitation, not incarceration, but Travis said he believes in order for an addict to fully recover, he or she needs both.

"I believed I needed a program right away, take me to rehab, I'll be good, nope!" Travis said.
"Because I watch guys come from jail straight to rehab, and I'd say 90 percent of them do not make it,because they got a get-out-of-jail-free card. They get to come to a program, there's all this great stuff ,but they never suffered the real consequence of their actions, and I did,. I went to prison."

Travis said he believes incarceration is important because a lot of the time, he said the addict is just not ready yet to make a change.

"I sat in prison for almost 18 months before I took a step forward in changing something," Travis said. "It started getting to the point where I was like, 'I'm getting out soon, I still want to go get high, I'm going to wind up back in here and I do not want to be back in here.' So that's what woke me up, you know, realizing that there's guys sitting there for 15, 20, 30 years that had that chance when they were given two years and got out and did okay for a little bit, and then messed up and went right back."

He said when you finally make the decision to make a change, you have to remember it is possible -- and you have to do it for yourself.

"In my head, I believed for so long that I couldn't do it, but you can do it, you can do it," said Travis. "You have to do it for yourself and nobody else. Guys from over there are like, 'I'm here because it's the right thing to do for my kids.' Wrong. You have to do what's right for you and believe that you're doing it for yourself, because the right thing for yourself is more than likely going to be the right thing that needs to be done for your kid. 'Oh, I just want to get my wife back.' If your wife loves you and you're doing the right thing, she's probably going to come back. So it's just doing it for yourself and nobody else, don't do it because your mom is asking you to do it, or the judge is making you do it, you have to want it for yourself openly and freely."

Travis said in order to help their loved ones, for the families of those struggling with addiction, education and tough love is key.

"You need to understand it, you need to be involved in it, you need to go to an AA meeting or NA meeting or whatever," Travis said. "Even though you don't have the problem, that’s my first advice to anybody, 'Well, my son's going through this.' Well, then go to meetings so you can understand addiction. We lie, we cheat, manipulate, use, because we know they're going to be codependent. 'Oh, Mom, I lost $20.' Mom's going to give you $20, ain't she? Don't be so blind to it, know that it's out there."

If an addict you love gets arrested, Travis said to let them deal with their problems and consequences head-on.

"You got to let them sit in prison for a little well, let them sober up and then come get help," Travissaid. "You have to put your feelings and thoughts aside. Don't bond him out, let him sit there, because you know what, he ain't going to die in there, he's got a better chance of surviving in there than he does on the street. If you love them, you'll kick them to the curb, you will not let them in your house, things like that. It's tough love, we can all say that, but it really takes tough love. Listen, I was sitting in jail and my boss was going to bond me out, but he wasn't signing for me. 'Well, call my mom, she'll come.' No, she didn't. And I was mad. you know, for about 16 months. and then I said, 'Oh, thanks, appreciate it, you did, you saved my life, thank you.'"