A hidden horror: Heroin deaths rise across state
March 26, 2017
FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Rebecca Waechter doesn't need to listen to people talk about heroin and prescription opioid addiction to understand its far-reaching effects. She need only remember the night she almost died of an overdose in a friend's Fort Collins bathroom.
Nine years after that near-death experience, the 35-year-old Loveland resident remains painfully acquainted with addiction's deadly toll. As she sifts through a small binder stuffed with wrinkled letters and old photos of friends and lovers alike, she utters a phrase no amount of practice makes easier: "No longer with us."
She's lost track of the toll, though she estimates losing more than a dozen friends and loved ones to the deadly grip of opioid addiction.
"It's terrifying to me," Waechter said, her voice tinged with frustration over the ignorance in places like Fort Collins of the prevalence of opioid and narcotic abuse. "It is next door. It's everywhere. It's here.
"You don't need to travel anywhere to get it. It is everywhere. And it's cheap and just readily accessible. And people aren't aware."
The number of people who die each year from a heroin or opioid prescription painkiller overdose in Colorado quadrupled between 1999 and 2016, when 442 overdose deaths were reported. That trend follows a similar quadrupling of opioid prescriptions issued nationwide between 1999-2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Politicians and public health experts across the nation have called this "epidemic" cause for greater access to treatment and restricted access to drugs. In Colorado, legislative proposals seek to establish a center for research of opioid prevention and treatment, and to create a medication-assisted treatment pilot program for opioid-dependent patients in Pueblo and Routt counties.
The Larimer County coroner noted eight fentanyl, nine heroin and 14 prescription opiate deaths in 2016. Records from area health care providers show the number of people hooked on heroin has skyrocketed, and regional first responders now administer naloxone, an anti-overdose drug known by its trade name Narcan, hundreds of times annually.
"In the past, you had a picture in your mind of who a heroin addict was. Now we're getting teenage children that are doing it," said Fort Collins Police Services Lt. David Pearson, who heads the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force. "You're seeing the demographics of the heroin abuse change."
Residents like Waechter are becoming hooked on prescription pain pills, often after otherwise routine procedures or treatments. What follows for those who become opioid dependent is an increased tolerance and then, left in a desperate state of withdrawal, buying pills on the black market. From there, heroin — cheaper and less regulated — is just a step away.
Health care workers are frustrated about how we got here.
Criminal justice experts are bewildered.
Community advocates are bothered about the stigma that accompanies heroin's rise in Fort Collins.
"There's an opioid epidemic in the country," said Larimer County Chief Deputy District Attorney Daniel McDonald. "I think it has definitely hit here. And it definitely goes beyond what your average person thinks about when they think about drug addiction."
For some, like Ryan Patterson, addiction was too much, leading to his death in August.
For others, like Piper Harris, the future isn't the priority. Getting through the day-to-day Methadone treatments is all she can think about.
And for those like Waechter, the story continues to unfold with continued reminders of those "no longer with us."
'NO LONGER ON THE FRINGES'
Summer Alameel will never shake the day she found the syringe.
A Colorado State University master's student at the time, Alameel knew her boyfriend, Ryan Patterson, was struggling after the death of his father. He loved art and music and worked as a botanist after attending the Brussels American School in Belgium. He could always find the good in those he met, Alameel said.
But in the depths of his despair, Patterson began experimenting with the leftover painkillers that had helped his terminally ill father dull the pain.
"Before we knew it, those occasional escapes became our day-to-day reality," Alameel said, speaking to a crowd during a recent Coloradoan Storytellers event in Fort Collins.
Soon Patterson couldn't do chores, hold down work or engage socially, Alameel said. And then one day, she looked under the mattress and in cupboards and on top of bookshelves.
"Room by room, piece by piece, I discovered what I had been too scared to see. Ryan was using heroin. I was in such disbelief as I stood there looking at the syringe that I actually took a picture and sent it to a friend for confirmation," Alameel said. "This couldn't be heroin."
It was. And it was destroying her life and that of her loving, educated boyfriend.
Rehab and relapse followed. So did hospitalization for an antibiotic-resistant infection brought on by Patterson's heroin use. Alameel talked with him often, all the way to the end, and would tell him she believed in him, that she loved him.
She visited him in the hospital, too.
"I held his hand and I kissed his forehead and I told him how much I loved him. I hate that love wasn't enough to pull him through it. But the truth about heroin is it's bigger than love, it's bigger than willpower, it's bigger than anything," Alameel said.
"Heroin is no longer on the fringes. It can happen to anyone."
ALONE AND IN NEED
Piper Harris enjoyed the escape the pills promised.
Ever the outcast just trying to fit in with her Fort Collins neighbors, she dabbled with other substances early on. She swore off alcohol after it nearly poisoned her to death when she was in eighth grade — she said she blew a 0.4 blood alcohol content after she started drinking with the high school kids.
She ended up in Turning Point, a program for youth struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, and graduated from Rocky Mountain High School in 2010. But she soon got closer with her brother who had begun using heroin and methamphetamine. They were best friends, and the substance use was "just a phase," she said.
She used with other people. That meant she didn't have a problem — the people who shot up alone were the ones with issues, she thought.
Piper's brother died of an OxyContin overdose in 2010.
It was the first significant loss she experienced. And then her dad died of cancer in 2012.
Her spiral ensued.
She started stealing money from her mom to sustain her habit and ended up with charges for theft and forgery on her criminal record.
"What I hated the most is no matter how much pain I knew I was causing, I couldn't stop. It's indescribable, the feeling. No one chooses to go and lose everything and have to lie, cheat and steal to get your fix," Harris said.
To Harris, addiction is a form of cancer. It takes years to work through and sometimes never releases its grasp.
After losing her job at Wal-Mart, Harris started treatment. She would make the trek to a Longmont Methadone clinic daily, where she'd pay $82 each week for treatments that wean addicts off of heroin. Other clinics exist, including one now in Fort Collins, but even with Medicaid, getting treatment was a challenge.
While making her trips to Longmont, Harris completed a deferred sentence for the theft and forgery charges, which were dismissed earlier this month.
Now 25, she wants to reduce her Methadone dosage. Methadone is still an opiate and she wants to be completely clean. Otherwise, she has been clean for almost six months and hopes one day to return to school, possibly to pursue a career in addiction therapy.
The word "future" is returning to her vocabulary.
"I barely know who I am anymore," Harris said. "It's a whole discovery all over again, and that's the piece that can get really hard. It's a huge process. It's not just about go get clean and then everything's dandy. You need those supports."
SPIRALING INTO ADDICTION
Rebecca Waechter, who nearly died after overdosing in a friend's bathroom, struggles to choose the starting point for a journey with addiction that spanned more than two decades and recently culminated with news she only could have dreamed of.
Born and raised in northern Colorado, Waechter grew up in Loveland and graduated from Ferguson High School, which serves children at risk of dropping out of school. Childhood was rough, she admits, and included a teen pregnancy, an eventual emancipation and occasional experimentation with different substances.
She grew up fast, found work and lived an otherwise normal life.
The pain began shortly after she had her second child in 2005.
It was a tough pregnancy, and she was prescribed opioid-based painkillers OxyContin and Dilaudid to fight the effects of a painful inflammatory disease. Alternative pain treatments were rare and costly due to insurance limitations, and Waechter soon became a functioning opioid addict, holding a job as a branch manager's assistant at a heating and cooling company.
So began the trips to a mall in Denver — a pilgrimage recalled by multiple recovering addicts interviewed for this story. It was a long drive for a fix, but it was the only alternative to the deathly illness and debilitating pain of opioid withdrawal.
Heroin dealers would seek Waechter out as she wandered the mall. An eight-ball of heroin — one-eighth of an ounce — cost roughly $200 and would be enough to last a few days. The drug was far cheaper and more euphoric than pain pills, but carried with it a stigma Waechter still describes as "disgusting."
"I was very private in my addiction. There were only a few of my good friends that knew about it," she said. "I wasn't proud of it."
She knew what she was doing wasn't logical.
"It temporarily made me happy, and it got rid of my pain. I didn't feel pain," she said. "I didn't feel pain emotionally. I didn't feel pain physically. And mentally, it numbed me."
Drugs came easy — her doctor prescribed them, she says, without adequate consultation or follow-up.
As her tolerance for the drugs increased so did their cost, so Waechter sought out pills from friends of friends. Criminal charges weren't far off.
Driving while ability impaired in 2006.
Possession of a controlled substance in 2007.
She lost custody of her daughter when child protective services got involved, questioning her fitness to look after youngsters amid her increasingly apparent prescription addiction.
That was the truly devastating blow, she said.
"I opted out of doctors and went straight to heroin," she said, adding, "It was like a string of events that just took a quick downward spiral."
Waechter was staying with a friend March 12, 2008, at small house. They were having a small get-together and, in an effort to keep her addiction as private as possible, she went in to the bathroom to get her fix.
She remembers standing up before the world went dark.
"I was dead for seven minutes," she said.
A friend gave her CPR. Someone called 911.
When first responders arrived, they slid a needle into her vein to dose her with naloxone. Waechter awoke strapped to a backboard and surrounded by EMTs.
"I was freezing. I mean, I was white and blue and I was so cold," she said. "But I was fine. Right as I came to, it was like, 'Get off of me! I'm fine. Leave me alone.'"
She was whisked away to the hospital. The next day, she was arrested and booked into the Larimer County Jail, facing a felony charge for possession of a controlled substance. She spent several months in jail — a forced and debilitating detox — and was ultimately placed on an intensive supervised probation that lasted about four years.
In the months that followed Waechter picked up odd jobs in Denver and was treated with Suboxone to ease off of her opioid dependency. The 2008 heroin overdose was the last time she used the drug, and she has been clean for about a year and a half.
"It's stories like Becky's that make you want to be an addictions counselor," said Brooke Badberg, a program supervisor with SummitStone Health Partners who has worked with Waechter since her 2008 overdose and arrest.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Alameel hopes people take time to consider the various ways addiction destroys lives — it's not something reserved for those who live in the shadows. The love of her life couldn't survive its grasp.
Harris continues to grapple with the concept of a future, stuck instead in the present of routine Methadone dosages and coping with isolation. Her dog, Tizzy, helps keep her company. But she's unsure when she'll get a degree and move on with life.
And Waechter, now years removed from her near-death overdose, has watched as the nation's opioid issue takes its toll among her friends and family in northern Colorado. But her story is unfolding in ways she could only dream of weeks, months or years ago.
She's optimistic she'll be able to use her past as a tool to help others — especially kids — by showing them that life can go on after even the roughest of starts.
"A lot of it is just telling somebody that you love them and that you care about (them)," she said. "That's enough. They need that positive reinforcement. They need to feel needed. And a lot of kids don't get that. I didn't get that."
Waechter learned this month that SummitStone Health Partners, where she has received counseling over the years, is taking steps that might result in her getting hired, trained and certified to be a peer services counselor. Once credentialed, she plans to return to work with the health care provider doing family counseling. She also expects she'll be able to work with teens at Ferguson High School.
"That is my desire is to be a voice and to give back and contribute and to make it so they don't have to experience and live through what I did," she said. "And thankfully, I did live through it."
Story from Fort Collins Coloradoan, Coloradoan.com