According to the Maine Drug Enforcement Administration, there are two major paths that lead to heroin addiction. One is the user who tries the drug and becomes hooked, and the other is the person who becomes addicted to prescription opiate pain killers as a result of legally prescribed medication for pain and becomes addicted, turning to heroin as a substitute for the medication.
Recovering addict Mark Foreman said his avenue into addiction was a combination of both of those.
“It all started with taking pills after an accident,” he said. “Then I met a girl that did dope. I tried it, and from that day on I didn’t stop.”
Kennebunk police Officer Steve Borst, who also serves as the town’s drug agent, said some experiment with the drug for the first time, thinking he or she won’t get addicted.
“[The user] will try it for the first time because it is offered for free or at a very low cost, and one try is all it takes to become addicted,” he said.
Lori Heseltine is a registered nurse with extensive experience in a methadone treatment program. She described what she saw time and time again from heroin addicts who started out on pain medications.
“When someone is injured or hospitalized, their doctor will usually write a prescription for a pain medication like OxyContin or Oxycodone,” she said. “Unfortunately, due to the makeup of some people’s brains, they can become addicted to opiates very quickly. Furthermore, it isn’t always easy for a health care provider to tell when a patient is genuinely in pain or if it is the addiction talking, so doctors will often keep writing prescriptions when it is no longer necessary and the patient should be tapered off.
“Another major problem is when a doctor will decide that a patient doesn’t need pain medication any longer and cuts them off cold turkey, this is when a person can really get into trouble and is at great risk for becoming a heroin addict,” Heseltine said. “Heroin is readily available and much cheaper than pain medications.”
Borst agreed with Heseltine.
“A $40 bag of heroin in Maine is about half the cost of oxy pills for the same effect, and it’s easier to get,” he added.
Perhaps the hardest concept for those not suffering from addiction to understand is the powerful grasp the disease has on addicts.
Christine Zannella Fecko is a mental health practitioner and a surviving sister of a sibling who died from an overdose.
“I can speak both personally and professionally to the complexities involved with addiction,” she said. “Mental illness — it is a major issue when it comes to addiction. Many with mental illness begin self-medicating with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to address the underlying symptoms of mental illness, often times these are undiagnosed and treatable conditions.
“I don’t believe anyone thinks they will become an addict,” Fecko said. “There is a lot to learn about addiction and addictive behaviors, including treatment and therapies. It is a hugely complex issue, requiring interventions on many levels, and not simply from a medical or behavioral model.”
Roland Daggett, clean and sober himself for over two years, added, “The hardest part about of addiction is withdrawal. To effectively help someone with addiction you must help them through the withdrawal — that process feels worse than the addiction for the addict.”
Foreman, also clean for years, agreed with Daggett.
“I battled the ‘getting clean’ part for years,” he said.
One recovering addict described heroin withdrawal this way: “It is living death: pain, stomach cramps, vomiting, restlessness, depression, fits of anger, sleeplessness, shakes, body aches, unable to comprehend simple things, sweats, heat, chills, fever, hallucinations, you name it — and it happens all at once, like a neverending rollercoaster. And there is no easy way to get through it.”
To avoid this feeling of “living death” caused by withdrawals, addicts will do almost anything to maintain the fix they need in order to avoid getting sick.
Kennebunk Police Chief Bob MacKenzie explained some of the lengths he has seen addicts go through for that next fix.
“What I have seen is unbelievable,” he said. “Theft, coercing, burglaries, human trafficking, prostitution, child endangerment, abuse of all sorts — there are no boundaries when it comes to this. People need to know that this disease takes over the individual and strikes in all socioeconomic levels.”
Debbie Freeman, a registered nurse, certified, family nurse practicioner with 30 plus years experience in the medical field, agreed with MacKenzie. She feels that education and dialogue are the key to understanding and combating the nationwide heroin epidemic.
“It is the most insidious and painful disease we as a society face today, and one of the big hurdles to overcome is educating ourselves as to the roots of the illness, the process of the life you are left with and the forever recovery,” she said.