Community members packed a room at the Clifton Park–Halfmoon Public Library Wednesday evening to discuss the growing problem of heroin addiction and hear from people who suffered from addiction.
The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council, Shenendehowa Central Schools, CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services and its youth branch, CAPteens, organized the discussion. While many community groups were involved with Wednesday’s discussion, Andy Gilpin, associate executive director of CAPTAIN, said “it was the youth [CAPteens] that designed the program, chose the topics, met with potential speakers and set the agenda.”
Like many places, heroin addiction has been a growing problem in upstate New York. The number of people upstate seeking treatment for heroin addiction increased by 222 percent from 2004 to 2013 — that’s 86 percent higher than the spike in heroin-related treatments statewide in that same time frame, according to James Norton of the Southern Saratoga County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council
The number of heroin-related fatalities in the United States has nearly tripled since 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control. The demographic most at risk for heroin addiction are people ages 18 to 25, said Norton. Heroin use “more than doubled” among that demographic in the last 10 years, according to the CDC.
“You can become addicted just trying it once,” said Norton. He added, “heroin and prescription opiate problems are quite a bit larger in Saratoga County than most people would expect.”
The geographic location of Clifton Park, situated near the Northway and relatively close to the Vermont border, also contributes to the drug’s presence in the community, according to Gilpin. “The prevalence of disposable income and affluence can be another factor,” he said.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, or ASAM, four in five new heroin users start by misusing prescription painkillers.
When someone is prescribed opioid based prescriptions, becomes dependent, and is then cut off by their doctor, the addict may turn to other sources. “Those other sources sometimes end up being opioid prescription drugs obtained illegally, but more often than not, heroin, because currently the drug is so cheap and accessible.”
According to the CAPteens, the overdose rate in Saratoga County tripled from 2012 to 2014.
Technical Sgt. Doug Paquette, who has been a member of the New York State Police since 1986, described some signs of heroin use to be wary of, including constricted pupils and droopy eyelids. He encouraged parents to pay attention to detail with their kids, including changes in friends, mannerisms and in grades.
A mother’s story of loss
A woman named Linda, who would not reveal her last name, recalled being wakened by two state troopers at her door with the news of her son’s death from a heroin overdose. She said there were no indications of drug use beyond alcohol. She said it was fentanyl in the heroin, not the heroin itself, that killed her son.
“Do I think he was an addict? No, I do know he was trusting and he trusted a fellow student,” she said, adding, “he suffered a consequence he never saw coming.”
Her advice, “Take things seriously when it comes to choices you make regarding any type of drug. The student who gave my son those drugs is in jail for five years.”
She called for more thorough education on drug-related issues in the schools and said, “Don’t talk about it. Show them. Show a person being resuscitated from an overdose.”
A recovering heroin addict named Rodney began his story by telling the audience, “I was just like you guys and I’m still like you guys.” All in all, Rodney said he had a pretty normal childhood. He said he grew up in a stable home, played sports and did well in school. He earned a full ride to Clarkson University to study computer programming. “That is where I really started falling off the deep end,” he said. After a year at Clarkson, Rodney had a 0.7 GPA and flunked out. By the time he entered the workforce, Rodney said he was “pretty much a daily user.”
Opiates helped Rodney feel OK with himself, but he realized he couldn’t support his habit financially so he turned to what he referred to as the “street pharmacy.”
After 10 years of heroin addiction, Rodney was forced to re-evaulate his life when he bumped into a college classmate who filled Rodney in on what his classmates had done in the last decade. Rodney realized he hadn’t really been living. “I got high every day for 10 years. Done nothing. Gone nowhere. Dug a giant hole.”
Once he was able to create a life separate from drugs, Rodney said he found a love for nature. “I got into hiking and backpacking. I became an Adirondack 46er.”
He also emphasized the fact that “people do recover and they’re not bad people.” Speaking of the stigma connected to addiction, Rodney said, “I’d like people to open their eyes and extend a little love instead of looking down on people because I think with a little bit of love anyone can recover.”
Another recovering addict named Maegan shared her story. She first began using drugs in seventh grade when her father died of liver cancer. Like Rodney, Maegan said she was raised in a “terrific” household and was a straight-A student.
A car accident left Maegan with fractured vertebrae in her neck and back a month before the homecoming dance during her senior year. She was sent home from the hospital with what she called “a fist full of prescription pain medicine.” She said the prescription drugs took her pain away, both physically and emotionally.
Echoing Rodney’s story, Maegan said, “no amount of money could fuel my habit.” She switched to heroin since it was cheaper and more accessible than pills. “It was a consuming black hole in my life which took me down a very dark path,” she said. Luckily, however, she said she experienced a “divine intervention” when she was arrested. “That saved my life.”
Maegan said she dreamed about becoming president of the United States when she was a little girl. She earned good grades, was active in sports and rarely missed school.
She warned anyone from thinking that what happened to her couldn’t happen to them, “because it could.”
Several local mothers of recovering addicts stood up to share their stories and concerns Wednesday night. The rallying cry was to advocate for better resources and treatments, to not give up hope, and to remember that addiction is a disease, not a moral problem.