Lives Lost: One story of opioid recovery

Lisa is alive today because of new tactics in the fight against opioid addiction.

CANTON, OH Every morning, Lisa dissolves a pill under her tongue. She doesn’t mind the flavor: chalky, like children’s aspirin, with a hint of orange.

The pill is Suboxone, a medication that helps Lisa control her cravings for opioids. After years of abusing prescription pills and heroin, and surviving more than a dozen overdoses, she has been sober four months and counting.

Her bills are paid. There is food in the refrigerator. She spends time with her children.

“I’m happy, actually,” Lisa said. “This is the best things have been in a long, long time.”

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But her story is about more than a pill. Lisa is alive and in recovery because Stark County embraced new techniques to fight an opioid epidemic that has killed hundreds locally and thousands across the state.

Medication-assisted treatment, outreach by police officers, the wide-spread use of overdose-reversing naloxone and peer support all played a role in Lisa’s story.

Lisa is 51 years old and lives in Canton. She agreed to speak with The Canton Repository on the condition her last name not be used because of concerns regarding her past associates.

Lisa almost didn’t make it to this point. By her own count, she overdosed at least nine times that landed her in a hospital. That number doesn’t include the dozen or so times her teenage son waited anxiously at her side to blast overdose-reversing naloxone up her nose.

“He saved my life more times than I know,” she said.

Lisa started smoking marijuana when she was 13 years old. In her 20s, she started using methamphetamine, cocaine and prescription pills. Vicodin was the first opioid she tried. Her mother gave her the pill to ease a headache.

“That was the miracle cure for hangovers after that,” Lisa said.

Sometime later, a pain management doctor prescribed Lisa opioids such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin for migraines and pain related to scar tissue. The doctor didn’t ask about her past drug use, she said.

Lisa had a medicine cabinet full of opioids, but she would blow through a month’s worth of pills in a few weeks. The first pain management doctor ultimately dropped Lisa after she got an opioid prescription from a dentist. She found another clinic, but authorities shut it down.

Drugs such as heroin, cocaine or opioid painkillers flood the brain with dopamine, causing a feeling of pleasure. Food, sex and exercise also release dopamine, but can’t compete with surge from the drugs.

Over time, drug use depletes the amount of dopamine in the brain. Addiction takes hold and the brain’s structure changes.

“They have to seek substances to fill that gap,” said Dr. Jamesetta Lewis, of Mercy Medical Center’s Pain Management Center. “That’s when an addiction develops. They have to get more and more substances to bridge that dopamine gap the brain can’t fill itself.”

Unable to get pills, Lisa used heroin. That was about eight years ago. Heroin was cheaper than pills and stronger. She used every day. When she heard about someone overdosing, she’d try to buy the same stuff.

“I never cared if I died,” Lisa said. “I never cared. I just didn’t care. And if I was going to die, that was the way to do it because it was completely painless. You just go to sleep.”

Addiction consumed her life and hurt those closest to her. Her adult daughter started using opioids. Lisa’s teenage son worried every time he left the house or went to school that he’d return to find her dead or in jail. At night he skipped sleep to make sure she didn’t die.

“Growing up seeing your family do that, it does something to you,” he said.

Ready for help

Two Canton Police narcotics officers knocked on Lisa’s door one day this winter.

Detective Mike Rastetter and a supervisor were checking complaints about drug activity at Lisa’s home. They knew Lisa from all the times she had overdosed.

“She looked skin and bones,” Rastetter said. “She looked really bad.”

Lisa was sick from withdrawal and desperate when they knocked. What she didn’t know at the time was that the department had told officers to look for ways to help people addicted to drugs get treatment.

Lisa told the detectives she was going to die if she didn’t get help. They started making calls. About four hours later, Lisa was in a detox bed at the Crisis Intervention & Recovery Center.

“We were fortunate enough that day that it was available,” Rastetter said.

Medication-assisted treatment

Addiction treatment can take different forms. After a week of detox, Lisa went to CommQuest Services’ Regional Center For Opiate Recovery in Massillon, which opened in 2015 specifically to treat opioid addiction. Since then, it has received 2,500 unduplicated referrals from more than 20 counties.

“We talk about recovery being a process of learning to enjoy life and repairing the damage you did while you were using and improving the overall quality of your life,” said CommQuest President and CEO Keith Hochadel.

Lisa’s treatment plan combined counseling and 12-step meetings with daily doses of Suboxone, a combination of naloxone and buprenorphine, an opioid. Suboxone reduces the euphoria and cravings associated with opioids so a patient can focus on recovery.

The thought of getting high is always in her mind, Lisa said, but she counts to 20 and thinks about something else and the craving passes.

“I can function every day,” Lisa said. “I function.”

Starting this month, Stark Mental Health and Addiction Recovery will use two-thirds of a $741,000 federal and local funding package to expand treatment with Suboxone and Vivitrol, a medication that blocks an opioid from making the user high.

But the local treatment community has realized that treating addiction involves more than medication and counseling sessions. Men and women in recovery need help to rebuild their lives and the best guide can be a person who has walked the same road.

Rebuilding lives

When Lisa started at ReCOR, she had to go to Massillon every day to get her dose of Suboxone. She couldn’t drive and everyone she knew who had a car was using drugs. She was able to get a ride with a peer supporter from Stark County TASC.

Peer supporters are individuals in recovery who are trained to help others addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“You actually know what they’re talking about,” said Nicole Osborne, who oversees TASC’s peer supporters. “You actually know where they’re coming from. You didn’t just read it in a book in school.”

Three times a week peer supporters from TASC visit individuals detoxing at the Crisis Center. Rides to treatment appointments are just some of the help they offer.

People addicted to alcohol or drugs put everything else in their lives on hold, Osborne said.

When she meets a new client, she asks the woman about her “life to-do list,” the things she’s avoided or ignored for months or years. That can be getting a driver’s license, finding a home, clearing up arrest warrants or getting a job.

“You need the basics of life,” Osborne said. “You need to know where you’re going to sleep that night. It’s hard to even think about being sober or not using drugs if you don’t have a place to live or no food.”

Peer supporters also link clients to others who can help them stay sober.

Lisa said teaming with a peer supporter removed any excuses she might have had for not going to treatment.

“You don’t have a reason to say, ‘I can’t do it,’” she said.

Police outreach

Lisa is drug-tested regularly in the ReCOR program and said she goes to 12-step meetings almost daily.

Rastetter stops and checks on Lisa and her family about once a month. Right now he’s trying to find her a job.

The 11-year Canton police veteran said he never thought his job would include navigating the maze of addiction services, insurance and housing assistance. Finding local resources on the fly is a challenge, he said, but it’s getting better.

“It’s worth a chance,” Rastetter said. “If we save two or three people’s lives and they get off heroin, then it’s worth it. It really is.”

Lisa is one of about five people the police have helped get into detox, and the department is trying to assist more.

Taking a cue from communities such as Mansfield, Akron and Green, Canton police started a Recovery Response Team in late June. The team includes police, a caseworker from TASC and a Crisis Center nurse. Every week, the team visits individuals who recently overdosed.

“The jails are not equipped to deal with addiction recovery, and I think that looking at this from a health care standpoint and as a health care crisis is very important,” said Lt. John Gabbard, who oversees the initiative.

The police will still pursue drug dealers, but Gabbard asked for patience from residents who might not understand the new approach toward individuals using drugs.

“Give us a chance to convince you that taking the long-term approach of getting them help will be more beneficial to the neighborhood than trying to evict them into someone else’s neighborhood and not dealing with that problem,” Gabbard said.

Looking forward

Now that Lisa’s life isn’t ruled by a daily hustle for drugs, she has a lot of things she wants to do.

She wants to get a job and more furniture for her home. She wants to drive again. She wants to spend time with her family, including her daughter who is now in recovery.

Her plan is to “do things and make memories,” Lisa said. “Ones that I can remember and ones where everybody’s happy.

Relapse is always a risk, and with opioids, the consequence of one slip can be fatal.

Her kids were proud of her recovery.

“Not everyone is as lucky as her to where you can OD as many times as she did and be alive to this day,” her son said.

Article written by: Shane Hoover, Cantonrep.com staff writer

Link to original article here: Lives Lost: One story of opioid recovery