story by Noor Hindi; photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
The walls are painted the color of sand. Seashells, plants and framed photographs of the beach line the room. There’s a beige recliner in the corner next to a brown, square lampshade. It is calm in here. The lighting is just right. The hardwood floors are squeaky clean.
Katie, wearing a black shirt and shoulder-length brown hair, smiles warmly. For a moment, this is pleasant. Then you see the wall-mounted blood pressure monitor and remember where you are. The adolescent detox room at Community Health Center, where hundreds of people in Summit County, this 17-year-old included, seek help overcoming their opioid addiction.
Two years ago, she was “happy and innocent,” a young woman who enjoyed her small group of close friends and kept up with her schoolwork.
Katie started using heroin when a boyfriend shot her up for the first time. A month later, she experienced her first withdrawal. She couldn’t stop vomiting, she felt like her skin was ripping, and she couldn’t sit still. That’s what it took for her to realize she was addicted to heroin.
“I literally thought I was dying,” she says.
Tiffanie Ferguson, adolescent director at the Community Health Center, says that most teens don’t know what they’re walking into when they take their first hit.
“You know, none of the teens I’ve worked with have said ‘Great, I’m going to get myself addicted to heroin.’ It’s all been a sort of an unintentional thing, and then after it’s happened, they are like ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’,” she says.
For the next year, Katie’s life on heroin was about getting high and finding money to get high. Everything she did, she did with her boyfriend. He would set up who to rob, she would do the robbing. She shot him up everyday.
“There wasn’t like 10 minutes that went by that didn’t revolve around ‘How am I going to get my next shot?’,” she says.
With six months of sobriety, her life now centers around Alcoholics Anonymous and Heroin Anonymous. She goes to meetings every single day. She volunteers her time in local homeless shelters. She visits high schools around Ohio to talk about coming back from the other side of the heroin epidemic.
Putting two and two together
It had been two years since Katie’s dad spoke to his ex-wife. But when he noticed that Katie was asking for more and more money, he texted her mother for answers.
“He started to tell me about all of the times he had given her money. And I know all of the times I had given her money. And other people had given her money. And she had nothing to show for it in the last month,” says Dawn, Katie’s mother.
Katie and her parents live outside of Akron. After having a GPS installed on her daughter’s phone to track where Katie was going, Dawn started to notice suspicious behavior.
“When we discovered the money, I looked at the GPS history and she would go from [her father’s house] straight into Akron,” Dawn says.
When they took Katie to get drug tested, the results came back positive for morphine. They were devastated. They knew nothing about heroin. And their initial reaction was to yell.
“Not realizing, I thought it was more of a get[-ting] high type of thing. I didn’t know she was addicted,” Dawn says.
Ferguson says Dawn isn’t alone. Many parents don’t understand addiction and fail to get their kids into treatment because they don’t know how powerful it is. Living in a wealthier neighborhood, where parents can feel protected from problems like addiction, often feeds into that misunderstanding. Even for those who realize what’s happening, they may hesitate on treatment out of fear their child will be judged harshly for getting help with their addiction.
“And you know, I always say, it’d be better to get your child treatment even if they’re angry, even if you’re embarrassing them,” says Ferguson. “If they’re deceased, then everyone is going to know.”
The Road to Recovery
For Katie, kicking her addiction meant giving up her old lifestyle. She stayed at New Directions in Chagrin Falls for 53 days and says she wouldn’t have made it without them. But that was only the beginning. The longer she was in recovery, the more Katie leaned on reading, writing, listening to music and keeping up with meetings to cope with the difficult emotions that began to surface after she’d been numb to them so long.
“Adolescents recover all the time,” says Ferguson.
(Pictured above: Tiffany Ferguson, Adolescent Director at Community Health Center)
Overcoming an addiction requires tapping into what motivates the person, what gives her purpose. With teens, Ferguson says it can be easier because they have hope that many of the things they want to accomplish in life are still possible. At the same time, teens face roadblocks that don’t challenge adults the same way.
“Teenagers already think that they are invincible [and] that nothing applies to them,” says Ferguson. “They think that if they stop using, nothing will happen. Or ‘I’ll just get the flu, I’m fine.’”
Coupled with the way opioids alter brain chemistry, that bravado can be especially deadly. To counter that combination, teens in recovery can receive chemical assistance. Katie was first prescribed Subutex and then Suboxone as alternatives to Methadone, but neither worked. She found lasting help with Vivitrol, which she took without any side effects. She describes it as “insurance for relapse,” since it prevents the person taking it from getting high.
Ferguson says patients also favor Vivitrol because they only have to have a shot once a month, instead of taking a pill every day. Even that isn’t enough to guarantee success. Like many people in recovery, Katie needed family support to get through medically-assisted treatment. In fact, while in rehab, Katie says her parents were oftentimes smothering her with love.
Her mother, Dawn, took on a measure of responsibility for her daughter’s recovery.
“I make sure she goes to her meetings,” Dawn says. “I still go through all her stuff. I listen. She loves to come home and talk about meetings, and I just listen.”
Threat of Relapse
The threat of relapse is so real that Ferguson tells people she’s helping through treatment to view it as a normal part of recovery. She doesn’t want them to give up on themselves, just as she wants to keep parents from giving up on their children.
“A lot of times, by the time we start working with the kids, the parents feel really burned out, and they just want us to fix their kids.”
Ferguson says high blood pressure and diabetes have virtually the same relapse rate and the same recovery rate as addiction. These diseases are both behavioral and environmental.
“If their high blood pressure flared up, or they sprinkled extra salt on their food, or they ate sugar when they weren’t supposed to, [you would never say] ‘Oh. I give up. It’s not working. It’s not treatable.’ You would get them help,’” says Ferguson. “So if addiction had the same education and awareness, I think people would be a lot more willing to get help, stick with it, and realize the ups and downs are part of the recovery.”
People who haven’t experienced addiction first-hand or through their support of a loved one don’t often realize the impact their understanding of addiction has. Katie says it’s frustrating that people “would rather focus on the bad stuff” — the number of overdoses, for instance — instead of what it takes to get into and stay in recovery.
Dawn takes it a step further. “I think they view a second recovery as a waste of time.”
The danger this mentality poses for people struggling with sobriety is that they may adapt it as their own. It’s hard enough to handle the everyday stresses of life, let alone those on top of — and often complicated by — addiction, but if you begin to think it isn’t worth it because that’s what everyone around you seems to think, how would you stay motivated to persevere?
“I think most people are compassionate, but not sure what to do,” Ferguson says. “So I think it’s easier for them to just not think about it than to actually seek out treatment, support somebody’s treatment, take them to meetings, take them to counseling, all of the day-in and day-out things that need done.”
But it isn’t hard to find proof that getting involved and being supportive works. It’s right there in the growing number of lives that have been turned around through recovery. You can count Katie among them. A high school graduate with a full-time job, she’s now doing for others what was done for her by sponsoring four girls at New Directions, where Katie first found her fresh start. Why? She knows first-hand how important it is to the person she’s helping.
“I’m thankful to wake up and not have to go get high to feel normal,” Katie says.
Through storytelling, Noor Hindi hopes to start a wider conversation about recovery.