ST. GEORGE — St. George has a heroin problem. Despite the outward image of a clean-living city, there lurks a deeper issue. Heroin has had an adverse effect on families, health professionals, law enforcement and the individuals addicted to it.
One St. George mom, whose son is currently recovering from heroin addiction, shared her story with St. George News on the condition of anonymity for her son’s protection in continued recovery.
“My husband and I couldn’t even imagine it,” our St. George mom said. “Our addict was very convincing –they are very convincing. That disease of addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful. Addicts possess all three of those qualities. We were way out of our league.”
Many heroin addicts start by taking pain medication.
“I think that has happened to a lot of our young people,” our St. George mom said. “They have graduated to a cheaper, quicker, more accessible drug, starting from prescription medication.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in three recent studies, half of young people polled who injected heroin said they were abusing legal opioids before turning to heroin. Many of those same users said they switched to heroin because it was easier to purchase and cost less than black market prescription narcotics.
“We are seeing it become a huge issue,” Dean Nixon, co-owner and president of TurningLeaf Wellness Center, said. “It begins with the opioid use. Prescription drugs, especially in the state of Utah, is a huge issue.”
There is a notion in Utah that because prescription drugs are prescribed by doctors, it is somehow morally acceptable, Nixon said. Addiction and dependency often begins with a prescription to Vicodin or oxycodone. When their prescription runs out, people in increasing numbers are turning to heroin. The demographics of those turning to heroin are often surprising.
Statistics provided by Intermountain Healthcare’s Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George show that the incidences of opiate abuse (the medical center does not have separate numbers for heroin) have increased over the years: 150 cases of opiate abuse in 2013, 180 in 2014 and 204 in 2015.
What is also surprising is how quickly prescription drug addicts are switching from swallowing pills to injecting the street drug, Dr. Richard Moody, clinical director and psychologist at TurningLeaf said. It sometimes happens almost overnight. Over the last five years, there has also been an increase in users of methamphetamine switching over to heroin, which is also unusual.
Aaron Ward, clinical director for Steps Recovery Services in St. George, said there has been a progression from the mid-90s when an initiative was undertaken — by patient advocacy groups and The Joint Commission on the accreditation of health care organizations, among others — to ensure that patients had enough access to pain medication.
“They felt it was underaddressed,” Ward said. “There needs to be more pain meds administered, because it was more humane. People were dying of cancer and not having enough pain meds.”
A series of protocols were put in place to address the lack of pain management, and doctors started treating long-term, chronic pain issues with opioids more often and more freely.
“People started having more-readily-available pain medication,” he said. “The average person who was a drug addict was using meth and cocaine and alcohol with a side of marijuana. There weren’t any real serious heroin addicts compared to today. There were, but they were few and far between.”
The affordability of heroin is something Ward also hears from his clients.
“What I hear from everybody nowadays is ‘I did pain pills and I couldn’t afford them any more; they’re expensive, they’re harder to get now, so I switched over to heroin.’ I would say most of the people that I deal with say that,” Ward said.
Our St. George mom said that when she reached the peak of her frustration with her son’s addiction, she questioned every aspect of her life.
“I was such a failure at home,” she said. “I felt so powerless at home. My relationship with my youngest child was a mess, my relationship with my older child was a train wreck. I no longer had any of the things that I thought were solid in my life — as a parent, as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister. My entire foundation had been rattled.”
It was a really exhausting, difficult, gut-wrenching time, our St. George mom said. Eventually, she realized that her son wasn’t the only one who needed help.
“I needed help too,” she said.
A flood of overdoses
Ten years ago methamphetamine was the leading street drug, Nixon said, but since then, heroin has outstripped meth to become the prevalent drug of choice.
There has also been a corresponding increase in overdoses, he said. One of the reasons for the overdoses is that some addicts try to quit opioids, and when they decide to seek out heroin, their bodies cannot handle the stronger effects of the drug.
When addicts relapse, they are seeking a high similar to what they experienced on opioids, Nixon said, but their tolerance has dropped since they attempted to go clean. Often when they attempt to seek that same level of intoxication, they take too much and overdose as a consequence.
Drugs have been a part of the St. George subculture for some time, Moody said, and the volume of heroin in particular has seen an increase. Part of the reason for this is St. George’s location on the Interstate 15 corridor. Drugs pass through the area en route to larger cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado, so it is a convenient stopping point for traffickers.
“We’re right on that distribution route,” Moody said, “We’ve seen a fairly heavy influx of the drugs for a long period of time.”
St. George is also only six hours from the border of Mexico, Nixon said, and a lot the heroin is coming straight through the border and to points across the U.S. Since St. George is part of that distribution network, it takes very little time to arrive.
Dr. Darrell Wilson, an emergency room physician for Dixie Regional Medical Center, said that emergency room personnel see heroin-related emergencies on a regular basis.
“Not a week goes by that you don’t see something like that,” Wilson said. “But we also don’t see the life-threatening ones very commonly. A lot of the ones you see are a ‘by the way’ type of thing: they have this problem — ‘well by the way, yes they did take some heroin’ — but that’s not the main issue you’re dealing with at the moment.”
The main danger of a heroin overdose is the user stops breathing, Wilson said. Often what occurs is the person takes too much and those around him do not notice that the user has stopped breathing. Further complicating matters is that many times the drug user has also been simultaneously using other narcotics.
Once medical personnel have identified what the issue is, medicine that counteracts heroin can be administered to help the patient.
Help is available
Our St. George mom had this advice for those who are concerned their loved one may be an addict:
I think if you suspect you have an issue, then you have an issue. If you’ve come to the point of suspecting there’s a problem in your house, more than likely there is one.
When her son was using heroin, our St. George mom said, there were fewer resources available for recovery. Times have changed, however, and there are more ways to get help than before.
Attending Al-Anon meetings proved helpful to her, even if she was initially resistant.
“It was a family disease,” she said, “it was a family problem and needed to have a family solution.”
There has been a push within St. George to bring awareness to the issue, Ginger Sorensen, general manager and co-owner of TurningLeaf, said.
People feel more safe to talk about it, she said. They are able to express what’s going in their families. When people open up more, it feels like the problem is even more widespread.
Heroin detox is further complicating the addict’s experience because it is so painful, Moody said. Those attempting to get clean often go back to shooting up after a short time rather than face the pain of withdrawal.
“They get sick, they vomit, they have all kinds of difficult aches and pains and a lot of problems when you come off of heroin,” he said. “They don’t want to do that, because a lot of times — it’s not true for everybody — for a lot of people, it’s a painful process.”
Adding to the difficult road to recovery is the fact that many addicts have ruined themselves financially, Nixon said.
People often think that addicts can pay for treatment with the money they would have spent on narcotics. It is commonly the case that those who need help simply have no more money to spend on recovery.
“That’s a myth, a mythology,” he said. “We’ve got to dispel that kind of thinking in sobriety because what they’re doing to get their drugs often times is often really unhealthy behaviors we’re trying to get them away from.”
Our St George Mom said that an important part of her son’s recovery process was allowing him to work through it on his own. She said:
I needed to allow my addict the dignity to write his own story. Maybe he wasn’t living my story, but it was no longer my story to write. When I turned that corner, I began to open my heart to help. It changed my life
Her son admitted himself to a recovery center voluntarily. It took him four years, she said, but he paid back every penny of his recovery bill.
Her son has been clean for approximately five years.
“It feels so different now than it felt then,” she said. “Now I look at my addict with a tremendous amount of pride and respect. I’m not sure I could do what he has done.”
- TurningLeaf Wellness Center
- Steps Recovery Centers
- National Institute on Drug Abuse
- Utah Department of Human Services Web page on drug abuse and mental health
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.