A 38-year old woman who has asked to be referred to as “Sofia” to protect her identity is recovering from a prescription opiate addiction.
She has snorted heroin but primarily consumed drugs such as OxyContin, a popular opiate that is readily available on the streets.
Sofia has a bachelor’s degree; she has held jobs and is a mother of a three-year old child. She could be described as an educated, middle class woman. She is a part of a growing demographic in the United States and the Albemarle region.
“What I am seeing every single day is lots of opiates,” says Angela Osman, an addiction specialist with PORT Human Services in Elizabeth City. “People starting out with prescription opiates. They are using it for valid reasons then moving on to dependence. When that runs out, they are turning to heroin.”
When Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in New York earlier this month of an apparent heroin overdose, the tragic event launched a national dialogue. There is, the conversation goes, a national prescription pill and heroin problem and it’s affecting the middle and upper middle class socioeconomic demographics, as well as the lower socioeconomic classes.
Regionally, Osman says the problem, “doesn’t have any boundaries” where demographics are concerned, at least as far as PORT is concerned.
“Here we see a lot of indigent folks but we have patients who have insurance and the whole nine yards, but it’s pervasive,” said Osman.
For Sofia, the use of OxyContin and even heroin began has a recreational decision. She went through her cocaine “phase,” but found that the opiates would give her, “a buzz that would last for hours.”
“I didn’t know it was going to suck me in and control my every move,” she said.
Opiate addictions are perhaps more heinous than other drugs. Osman says opiate addicts begin to get high to keep from getting “sick.”
“I had to have the drug to get up and out of bed and function,” explained Sofia. “You get muscle cramps and diarrhea. Your whole body hurts.”
Osman explains that heroin and opiate users get to a point where getting high is not the aim, rather it’s maintaining a level that staves off the sickness.
“You’re using it to stop being sick and so you are chasing the drug,” says Osman.
Sofia says she tried heroin, but the drug scared her. She was never certain what was in the drug. The prescription pills, on the other hand, well at least she felt as though she knew what she was getting into.
Sofia says to get her prescription drugs she would go the Outer Banks. There she could find dealers selling the pills.
If it’s heroin you’re looking for, then you head over to Portsmouth, Va., she said.
“I knew a lot of IV drug users,” Sofia said.
That Sofia would journey out of the area to buy her drugs should come as no surprise to law enforcement officials. Elizabeth City Police Department Chief Eddie Buffaloe says his team is not seeing an opiate pill or heroin problem in town.
“We’ve made a few arrests as it relates to it over the last year, but we haven’t seen a large influx of it as far as arresting,” said Buffaloe.
Buffaloe says it’s not uncommon to see an addiction problem and not see criminal activity.
Osman would agree with Buffaloe. She points out that at PORT, they are dealing with the users, the people who would rather kick the addiction. Buffaloe and other law enforcement agencies are looking for the dealers.
As for a statewide problem, there has been a great deal of reporting coming out of Charlotte and Raleigh. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office did not have hard statistics to offer, but a spokeswoman did say that they have been keeping watch on a growing problem in North Carolina.
“The (State Bureau of Investigation) is seeing an increase in heroin trafficking into and within North Carolina in recent years, with several recent cases involving major drug trafficking organizations that deal in heroin in the state,” according to public information officer Alexandra Mendoza. “These are generally cases worked in partnership with federal and local law enforcement.”
According to media reports from across North Carolina, black heroin is finding its way into the Tar Heel state via Mexican drug cartels. However, given the Albemarle’s proximity to the Hampton Roads, Va., metropolitan area, users are more likely to look there for a fix.
Sofia, however, was tired of looking for her next fix. She wasn’t interested in becoming another drug overdose statistic so she began looking for help.
She discovered that she was pregnant from her boyfriend of 18 years. Like Sofia, he was a drug user and he had become abusive as well.
Sofia rationalized that having the baby would help them turn their lives around. But that was only hopeful thinking.
She says that she hated using drugs and she was tired of hiding from her family and friends. With the help of her family, however, she found her way to a detoxification center and eventually to PORT.
PORT offers addicts assistance on several fronts. First, there is drug counseling and screening. Then there are the Narcotics Anonymous meetings offered independent of PORT – Sofia loves attending those, she says – and then there is drug therapy.
Drug therapy assists the addicts in not only withdrawing from the opiates, but in some cases it also inhibits opiate use.
One such drug that is popular in these circumstances is Suboxone. The prescribed medication is essentially an opiate blocker. It keeps the addict from using opiates, something that is akin to a miracle since heroin users have a high rate of relapse.
“I refer to it as a miracle drug,” said Sofia. “It truly, truly changed my life. I don’t have any more cravings.”
Sofia is a success story. However, there are far too many addicts out there. Osman says it’s as bad as she’s seen it in her nearly 40 years in the business.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” says Osman. “I’ve never seen so many people get this bad before they get to treatment. Twenty years ago, somebody would have intervened.”