Karrin started abusing drugs while in junior high school in the 1980s so she would be more social at parties. She started with marijuana and hallucinogens. By age 12, she was accepting cocaine as payment for baby-sitting.
Her drug abuse continued into the late 1990s, yet she refused to acknowledge she had a problem.
“You couldn’t tell me I was addicted,” she said. “I held a job, we had food on the table, our bills were paid.”
In the early 2000s, Karrin, who requested that her last name not be used, entered into a relationship with a man who introduced her to opioids. She said she never liked the high but became physically dependent on the drugs.
Karrin started to focus on sobriety about the time her children were taken from her. Her children were removed three times during her lengthy struggle. Ultimately, she went into rehab and left her addiction behind. Today, she works with police following up on people who have overdosed and makes other outreach efforts to help recovering addicts.
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Joanne Peterson formed Learn to Cope in 2004 to help families affected by opioid addiction. Today, the grass-roots group has 23 chapters in Massachusetts and 9,000 members. She was inspired to create Learn to Cope after her now-sober son was prescribed OxyContin to treat an injury and it quickly turned into a heroin addiction. She said her son was a good kid with solid grades and was raised in a loving family.
The discovery that her son had a heroin problem hit Ms. Peterson so hard that she contemplated suicide.
After his arrest was published in the local newspaper, her family became stigmatized. Ms. Peterson said other families would see her and walk away. Her daughter was bullied because of her brother’s addiction. It became so bad that Ms. Peterson began grocery shopping in another town to avoid people whispering behind her back.
More than a decade later, she doesn’t believe the stigma of addiction has lessened.
“The stigma is alive and well,” she said. “There may be more understanding about addiction, but the stigma is still there. When I started, no one was speaking out about the stigma, and the only reason I spoke out about it is because I needed to get my family’s dignity back.”
Ms. Peterson said families can help overcome the stigma of drug dependence by working together.
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James was born into an upper-middle-class family in the early 1960s. His parents divorced when he was 3, and his mother refused to accept child support or alimony. As a result, his mother moved them into a Boston housing project and tried too hard to make a dollar to keep an eye on her son.
When he was 15, James started sniffing heroin that he obtained from the guys he hung out with in the projects. He had been using for a year before realizing he was physically addicted. One day in high school, he felt terrible. He thought he had the flu until a friend noticed withdrawal symptoms. That was the first time James realized he was addicted.
“The first time I used, it was the greatest feeling I ever experienced,” he said. “All the pain and inferiorities I experienced were gone. I tell anyone the worst thing you can do is try this because it feels so great.”
James entered rehab and worked to stay sober after a few relapses over the course of 25 years and spent six years in prison for armed robbery. At the time of his arrest, he had committed 27 home robberies that the police never knew about. With the help of Narcotics Anonymous, he hasn’t used heroin in 27 years.
Opioid addicts no longer fit any specific profile. People across all age, racial and economic demographics are falling victim to drug addiction.
“Twenty years ago, I could tell you what an opioid addict looked like, but not today,” said Connie Rocha-Mimoso, director of community health services at Seven Hills Behavioral Health in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “Today, I can’t even tell you there’s a concentrated area of the city where more overdoses are happening because they are happening everywhere. I could treat a doctor, lawyer or a member of one of the most prominent families in New Bedford. There is no age.”
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