The Playwickian

Opioid epidemic: While country struggles, Neshaminy family recovers

Opium products are made from poppy plants, like the one shown here.

photo via google under creative commons

Opium products are made from poppy plants, like the one shown here.

Grace Marion, Editor-in-Chief

The names of subjects within this story have been changed for their safety. No other details have been edited.
“I am in no way a good pitcher, but I can throw a rock in any direction and hit a house that has heroin in it.”
Jessica thought about these words, sprung from the mouth of a Middletown Township police officer in an attempt to comfort her following her husband’s death, as she picked up her four-year-old daughter’s toys, strewn across the floor of her living room. Although this occured in 2014 in many communities across the country, this police officer’s words still ring true.
Jessica, mother of four, was 35 when she had a stroke, leading to a prescription of percocet by her pain specialist. Her husband and their childhood friend partook in her prescriptions with her, that is, until they ran out.
“[Unprescribed pills get] very expensive very fast,” said Jessica in an interview with the Playwickian last winter. “Heroin is a lot cheaper, it’s a lot easier to obtain… I could take five 30 milligram percocet and function. That’s 180 bucks, where I could take two bags of heroin… and get the same. And 30 bucks versus 180 bucks, you’re gonna go for 30 bucks without a doubt.” In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid-based medication, enough for every single adult in the United States to have their own bottle of pills, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
For many, addiction to heroin and other opioid drugs develops in the same way that it did for Jessica and her family, via the prescription of opioid painkillers, according to Narcotics Anonymous. Pennsylvania, due to the struggles of its residents with such issues, has earned its place as the state among the highest rate of opioid overdoses in the country, in a nation which, according to the CDC, has seen overdose deaths more than triple from 1990 to 2015. Four of five new heroin users had previously misused prescription painkillers, as found in studies by the CDC.
Although the use of the drug Narcan by emergency crews and police officers has saved many lives from overdoses due to opioid use, such was rarely available at the time of the death of Jessica’s husband. In his case, Narcan would have been ineffective due to the extended period of time between his overdose, which occurred shortly after wishing his second-youngest daughter a good day at school as she left for her bus, and when he was found by his wife on their bathroom floor.
“He was without oxygen for about 35 minutes, at least, before I found him,and brain death occurs after four,” said Jessica. “For 31 minutes [first responders] did CPR on the floor and he retained a heartbeat but by then his brain was already gone,” Jessica’s second-oldest daughter was also in the house at the time.
The death of Jessica’s husband occurred during a time in which his regular supplier of heroin was in jail, and as a result, he was forced to seek out a new heroin dealer. Although this was his second time receiving heroin from this new supplier, since it occurred during the period of time in which fentanyl– an extremely potent and deadly opioid– was first seen laced into heroin in the area– originally covered by the Courier Times less than a week after Jessica’s husband became brain dead– it may be likely that fentanyl was involved in his overdose, as an experienced user of the drug by this time, Jessica’s husband was familiar with the proper proportions for regular use.
Jessica met her husband in eighth grade through mutual friends at their high school in New Jersey. Although they had just a friendship in school, when they met again by chance in a local bar in the spring of 1997, after the end of Jessica’s first marriage, they fell for each other and began dating after just four days. They were engaged by the end of that summer.
“He was my first addiction…,” Jessica explained. “I would still get butterflies when I would hear the car pull in the driveway, [even when we were already married]..every person has their own scent but for me, personally, his scent was safety…I would just stick my head up under his shirt, just to be enveloped in [the smell of] safety was better than going to the moon,” she went on.
“We always slept holding some part of eachother. Either our feet were entwined, our hands were entwined, or we were spooning. That’s how I slept for 18 years and I still search for his hand in bed. I did two days ago, subconsciously just kept reaching for [him].”
Jessica’s youngest daughter, now eight, recalls apple picking and cartoon watching sessions with her father fondly. Jessica’s second-youngest daughter is currently completing her senior year of High School, though she no longer lives with Jessica.
For children like Jessica’s daughters Middletown Police Chief, Joseph Bartorilla, believes that schools should educate students on the effects of drugs like heroin on people and communities. “School is such a huge part of a developing child’s life, and those years are where the foundation is built for all future decisions,” said Bartorilla. “ There are so many great and diverse programs available for schools and school districts to take advantage of.”
Bartorilla went on to describe programs that he believes would help students to understand drug use. “There is always the DARE program, which has become much more progressive and has changed its delivery in recent years to better reach elementary and middle school students,” says Bartorilla. “There are also several other programs available as well. Pennsylvania has an excellent program called TEAM (Teaching, Educating, and Mentoring) which focuses on building good life skills for students, and making good, informed choices and decisions. These types of programs are much better than a ‘just say no to drugs’ program.”
Jessica’s two oldest daughters, now in their 20s, still suffer from opioid addiction, fueling their use through employment as exotic dancers, ignoring their mother’s turn away from drug use following her husband’s death and her encouragement for them to do the same.
Bartorilla suggests mothers like Jessica who are attempting to turn family members away from opioid use attend seminars and information session on the subject, saying that “…many of these sessions train the attendees in how to administer Narcan and provide [family members] with the free [sic] dose of Narcan.”
In addition to this Bartorilla added that “the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol commission is an excellent organization that has done its best to be proactive about the opioid addiction crisis. Their executive director, Diane Rosati, is a great advocate for those needing treatment for their addiction…,” in an attempt to provide resources to those attempting to fight addiction.
Despite the commonality of opioid use in the United States, stigma still remains, making life for those who have lost loved ones or struggle with addiction themselves even harder. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 21.5 Americans above age 12 had substance abuse problems in the year prior but only 2.5 million received treatment for such as a result of stigma.
“…the stigma still, to this day, follows the ‘he’s an addict.’ Everything after that word [, addict ,] doesn’t exist. It just falls off, it’s just ‘he’s an addict’. It doesn’t matter if it’s crack cocaine or heroin or ecstasy or, it doesn’t matter it is everything after that word, it just, it falls off. No one hears anything else… It’s that word that holds so much power to everyone else who is not [addicted] and it holds you captive forever, no matter what you do, no matter how much progress you make everyone always goes back to ‘oh well, she’s an addict.’… It doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve been through or what you’ve seen, it is [just] that six letter word. It defines you, it is your defining and you can’t get out of it you can’t get above it you can’t get under it you can’t get out…,” said Jessica.
She went on to explain how she had lost many friends as a result of the circumstances of her husband’s death, noting a break in one 30 year long bond as resulting from both stigma and misunderstanding.
“[My friend,] she doesn’t get it, she doesn’t come from a family of addiction. She thinks I’m a bad mother. I make mistakes, I’m not great, I didn’t have a great person to learn from, but I never gave up on my kids,” said Jessica, noting that her kids likely aren’t able to remember many of the sacrifices she made for them due to both their young age at the time and later drug use.
“If it was a car accident, I’d still have all my friends,” said Jessica, commenting that only one person, in the months following her husband’s death, brought dinner to her home, as is often custom after a death of a friend or neighbor.
Beyond the social consequences of being labeled an addict and of having a loved one die of addiction, Jessica and her family likely would still have Jessica’s husband as a living member if it had not been for the stigma surrounding drug addiction.
“He actually…did the intake interview with Livengrin [, a Bensalem rehabilitation center,] on Wednesday and they had a bed available and he could’ve checked in. He came home, we all discussed it, but [our second youngest daughter]’s birthday was Friday and his parents were coming on Sunday. He wouldn’t have been home in time for his parents,” said Jessica.
She expressed that her husband was a “very proud” person who strived to please his parents, despite their preference for his sister and perceived view of him as “second rate” compared to her. He hid his addiction from them, and continued to do so in his decision to put off rehabilitation until after their visit.
This decision, following his discussion with his family proved fatal, as he was found “dead 12 hours later”.
As a result of the timing of these events, Jessica’s second-youngest daughter has developed a sense of guilt for her father’s death. “She felt guilty that he didn’t go to rehab when he did on that Wednesday because of her birthday,” said Jessica, noting the misunderstanding. “It had nothing to do with her birthday,” she said, adding that the only reason he did not enter rehabilitation on that Wednesday was for the sake of his parents’ view of him.
Despite this, Jessica’s husband’s family blames her for his passing. Jessica has recently moved out-of-state with her youngest daughter to be with friends and family, although she admits this was not in her plans for the future.
“When [my husband] died, my future, as I knew it, died with him. I’ve buried children, I buried my daughter, I lost my son [to adoption], the only son I’ve ever had– and this was worse. This was so much worse…,” concluded Jessica.

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Opioid epidemic: While country struggles, Neshaminy family recovers