Horror and Hope: Heroin Addiction

Here in Delaware as everywhere, heroin is a scourge that either changes lives or ends them. Those who survive addiction often triumph in ways they had once thought impossible. Others are not so fortunate.

Heroin use in Delaware has reached almost epidemic proportions since 2010, according to the state, with trafficking and use spread almost evenly between New Castle County and downstate. The drug is purer and cheaper than ever, which makes it more dangerous than ever. Though many users are 21 to 34 years old, those who die most frequently from an overdose are white males in their early 40s. The state sees, on average, 15 fatal overdoses a month. In New Castle County alone, paramedics responded to about 700 heroin overdose calls in a 12-month period. Police make bust after bust, at times seizing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of heroin. Yet it continues to flow into the state. In response, activist organizations and support groups such as Attack Addiction have formed to support those aggrieved by the overdoses of loved ones and to help spread the word about the dangers of drug abuse. State officials predict that heroin use will level off. The rest of us can only hope that it does.

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Photographs by Dave Norbut

In July 2012, John Dooling died of a heroin overdose for seven minutes. A shot of Narcan brought him back. “I’d had my battle,” he says. “That was the final sign I needed.”

“I still view myself as a miracle,” says recovery worker James Harrison. “If I leave here anytime soon, I know I made a dent in improving somebody’s life.”

The Miracle

James Harrison lost his father to a heroin overdose when he was just 9 years old. As the eldest boy in a family of seven kids, he became the provider—and he provided capably by dealing. While still in high school, Harrison made more than $1,000 a day. “I felt like Tony Montana [from the film ‘Scarface’],” he recalls. “We didn’t have a care in the world.” But it wasn’t long before he started using, dropped out and started a family of his own. To support everyone, he forged checks, he shoplifted and he continued to deal. Busted in 1985, Harrison went to prison for three years, where, after more than a decade of addiction and two close shaves with overdose, he finally got clean. “Prison saved my life,” he says, “though I didn’t see that at the time.” Inspired by a fellow inmate, Harrison, now 58, found freedom through faith. Upon his release in 1989, he faced a choice: Go back to his old life or start a new one. He chose the latter, landing a job as an outreach worker and earning a master’s degree in human services. He’s worked in substance abuse counseling and treatment ever since, creating a national model for process improvement and helping thousands of drug users. He and his wife have also completed two missions in Africa, supplying food and clothing to the poor while warning people about the dangers of addiction. Harrison rolls up his shirtsleeves and pulls down his collar to reveal dark fissures on his arms and neck. “These scars,” he says, “every morning, when I wash and shave, I’m reminded of that life I lived. I still view myself as a miracle. If I leave here anytime soon, I know I made a dent in improving somebody’s life.”

“Other people have built me into the person I am today,” says Chris Anderson. He lives now to serve others.

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“Daddy, You’re Beautiful”

“As far back as I can remember, I’d always been somewhat timid—not comfortable in my own skin,” says Chris Anderson, 39, of Wilmington. Drinking a 22-ounce Olde English 800 before school helped him overcome his shyness. So did weed. Then cocaine. In his working-class New Castle neighborhood, that sort of thing was accepted, Anderson says. But when he was kicked out of pipe-fitting school for failing a drug test, he skidded out of control. Known as “Chris Rock” among friends, he’d spend days holed up with a crack pipe. Then a friend gave him some heroin to sniff to help him come down from his crack mania. Anderson didn’t touch it again for a few years, but he never forgot how quickly the heroin balanced the crack high. When he again found himself needing to come down quickly, he let a friend shoot him up. “I felt a rush I was in love with,” he says. “From then on, there was no other drug for me.” Anderson became a “tornado in other people’s lives,” a homeless petty criminal who stole from his family and repeatedly ran afoul of police. And though he once lost the will to live, he never lost his desire for drugs. At his lowest point, he joined a 12-step recovery fellowship. For a while, life improved. Anderson started to learn about himself and about the nature of addiction—things he’d never learned during his many stays in detox: “Internal change is more important than anything else.” Anderson got a job, a place to live and a car. He put some money in the bank. Still, he relapsed. On the run from a probation officer and facing serious jail time, he turned himself in at the urging of his parents. “I was 30, 31,” Anderson says. “It was the first time in my life I listened to my mom.” Now clean for nine years, Anderson works as a community specialist for Project Engage, a nationally recognized Christiana Care program that helps addicts get the services they need to recover. “Other people have built me into the person I am today, and I’m so grateful for them,” says Anderson. “Imagine getting to spend my life in the service of others.” Now, when his 4-year-old daughter tells him, “Daddy, you’re beautiful,” he believes it.

Christine Eby lives surrounded by mementos of her only child, who overdosed in 2013. She is raising his 11-year-old daughter.

New Life Lessons

When Christine Eby finally realized that her 35-year-old son, Dan, wasn’t going to open the locked bathroom door, she didn’t think to call 911 right away. The two had faced similar situations several times before, Dan’s 10-year-old daughter nearby as he verged on fatal overdose. Somehow, he had always pulled out of it. Until that Friday evening in Newark— Oct. 4, 2013. By then, Dan had been using heroin for 15 years, Chris guesses, along with crack cocaine and alcohol. Over the years, he stole thousands of dollars from his mother to support his habit, yet she could never quite throw him out, allowing him to live in the garage attic for a few years. “Tough love didn’t work for me,” Eby says. “You hate what they’re doing and you hate what they’re becoming, but you never stop loving them.” Just before Dan died, he had started looking toward the future. “He was very open about it,” Christine says. “He couldn’t get a job. He couldn’t get a girlfriend. Who wanted to be with a guy who lived with his daughter and mother? So he started to work more. He wasn’t getting drunk.” Dan bought the cocaine-laced heroin that killed him as a stopgap, Eby says. It was supposed to be just enough to get him through the weekend, until he could get a dose of the anti-opiate medication Suboxone. She now lives surrounded by mementos of her only child’s life—a football trophy, quilts she made from his clothes, a Cabbage Patch doll he played with as a toddler, an urn with his ashes. She also takes care of his 11-year-old daughter, Danielle. “It’s hard to say he’s not coming back,” Eby says. “You have to learn how to live a different life.”

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In small towns, addicts and police are often well acquainted. Chief Ken McLaughlin says policing in Ocean View is about saving the lives of neighbors.

It’s Personal

The population of Sussex County may be a third of New Castle County’s, but Ocean View police chief Kenneth M. McLaughlin says heroin is just as readily available. One indication of its prevalence is a growing number of fatal overdoses. McLaughlin’s department responded to four last year. In Ocean View, some police and addicts know each other well. Some users went to school with the chief’s kids, or were coached by McLaughlin in organized sports. One well-known user lives across the road from the police station. So enforcement is only part of the equation. Saving the life of an acquaintance—and sparing friends and family the grief of unnecessary loss—is also important. To that end, Ocean View recently became the first police department in the state authorized to use Narcan. Narcan is the common name for the drug naloxone hydrochloride, which shuts down opiate receptors in the brain. Ocean View officers are trained to inject the medication into the nostrils of non-breathing overdose victims. If administered in time, it “literally brings people back from the dead,” McLaughlin says. The kits and training are prohibitively expensive, yet McLaughlin expects Narcan will eventually become as common as the defibrillators used to treat heart-attack victims. “Our No. 1 priority is to save lives—period,” he says. “We haven’t had to use the kits yet, and hopefully we won’t have to. But this is an awesome lifesaving tool. We’re happy to have it.”

 The “Beautiful Solution”

John Dooling was a year old when his parents, both struggling with addiction, divorced. At 13, he tried to kill himself. The state took custody and moved him to a group home. After he was released back to his mother, a prostitute at the time, he was raped by her boyfriend. After that, his behavior spun out of control. “I didn’t respect my mother at all,” says Dooling, now 37. Already an experienced drinker and pot smoker, Dooling took to the streets—and to heroin. He lived as an addict from age 16 until he robbed a bank at age 25. Dooling was clean when he left prison, but his sobriety didn’t last long. Prescribed an opiate painkiller for an injured knee, he soon relapsed, then went back to jail for failing his weekly urine tests. Upon his release, there was a tax-refund check waiting for him. “I got high the day I got out,” he says. “I had no intention of getting straight.” Several more years of addiction led to an overdose. In July of 2012, he died for seven minutes. A shot of the counteracting drug Narcan saved him. He woke up in Wilmington Hospital. “[I was] ashamed of myself for the first time in my life,” he says. “I’d had my battle. That was the final sign I needed.” He moved into a group home with other recovering addicts, started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and working earnestly at its 12-step recovery process. “Step work saved my life,” he says. Dooling has since worked as a wellness advocate at Brandywine Counseling in Wilmington, helping others succeed in their recovery. Even after a year that brought the deaths of 11 friends, an uncle and his mother, Dooling is “in a good place,” he says. “I’m at peace. I’m working on my bachelor’s degree. I help people. To take a kid in crisis and see that light turn on, man. They have to know there’s a solution—there’s a beautiful solution.”

“I have to know there’s a reason I’m alive, because I should be dead,” says Erin Goldner. “I need to have a spiritual relationship.”

Spiritual Healing

In high school, Erin Goldner served on student council and played four sports. When she took her first drink at 15, “something happened,” she says. Later, as a student at the University of Delaware, she began drinking daily, going to any party she could find—and losing lots of old friends. She found new ones in the local music scene, and fell in love with a guitarist. It proved to be an abusive, but enduring relationship. When Goldner discovered he had a heroin habit, she pleaded with him to let her try it. “I wasn’t fazed,” Goldner recalls. “I was a real bad drunk. I wanted to know what it was like.” She quickly became a heavy user. After she lost her job, she stayed home all day, watching TV alone. “I went from being a fun-loving girl who’d drink and smoke to a girl who couldn’t face the world anymore,” Goldner says. She didn’t care if her needles were sterile. She watched the ants in her bedroom without bothering to clean up. “I lived in filth, and it didn’t bother me,” Goldner says. “I wasn’t willing to change anything I was doing. I didn’t have any real friends. I didn’t have any goals. I didn’t have a conscience. I did whatever I wanted. And I lied, lied, lied, lied.” After her third DUI arrest in 2009, Goldner reached bottom. “I was just on my knees, saying, ‘Please, God, I can’t do this anymore,’” Goldner says. “Something happened spiritually. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t me, but it was my voice, my conscience saying, ‘Are you done?’ I knew I had to ask someone for help.” Goldner weaned off the methadone she’d been using, left her boyfriend, earned an associate’s degree and landed a good job at a law firm. Now 32, she works as an administrative assistant at Argo Institute, a substance-abuse treatment program for young adults. “I have to know there’s a reason I’m alive, because I should be dead,” says Goldner. “I need to have a spiritual relationship. The most spiritual thing you can do is help someone else.”

Marie Allen explains the signs and symptoms of heroin use in the Heroin Alert program she has presented in schools since 1998. She also tells the story of her daughter’s overdose.

So Others Might Live

Ever since Marie Allen’s 21-year-old daughter Erin died of an overdose in 1997, it’s been her mission to educate others about the evils of heroin. “It’s the devil,” she says. Under the auspices of the New Castle County Police, Allen has presented the Heroin Alert program to community groups and local schools since May 1998. Up to three or four times a week, she tells people about the signs of heroin use. She shows graphic photos of local overdose victims, a teenage suicide by shotgun blast and addicts who peel the scabs off their track-marked limbs to find blood vessels to puncture. Allen describes the horrifying local births—and subsequent deaths—of heroin-addicted infants. She tells the stories of a baby who overdosed on her addicted mother’s breast milk and of a mom who tried to sell her infant for drug money. Allen even shows what various types of heroin look like, and the packages in which they’re sold. She explains the signs and symptoms of heroin use and overdose, displaying body bags and toe tags. All the while, she encourages those who are struggling with substance abuse or emotional issues to seek help. Her presentation begins with a 911 call from a local man whose 17-year-old son was overdosing, and it ends with a photo of Erin Allen’s face as she lies on a slab in the morgue. Every presentation forces Allen to relive the pain of Erin’s last day minute by minute. After almost 17 years, she has yet to reach every middle school and high school in the state. But as the heroin epidemic grows, she continues to reach out. “I believe Erin died so that others may live,” says Allen. “If these kids got the facts, maybe we wouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing today.”


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