COMMENTARY

Toledo woman struggles to escape heroin's lethal grip

3/9/2014
BY JEFF GERRITT
DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
Jeff Gerritt
Jeff Gerritt

At 39, Lori Bryant is tired of the hell of heroin, and she doesn’t want to die.

For the last 10 years, a relentless hunger for the drug has driven the Toledo woman’s life and, at least three times, almost ended it. Every day, Ms. Bryant has shot as much as a half-gram of heroin — worth about $85 on the street.

The drug’s rush into her veins brings a warm, comforting euphoria. But in six hours or so, the floating bliss fades. In 12 hours, she starts to feel a sick torpor, as withdrawal triggers sweats, body aches, chills, sniffles, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

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A shot of heroin can also bring death. Ms. Bryant knows five or six people who have overdosed in the last year. She doesn’t want to be next.

A month ago, in her east-side apartment, she felt herself slipping into darkness before she was jolted back to consciousness. Her cousin, who lived with her, dragged her into a bathtub and revived her.

“My cousin told me that my face turned blue,” Ms. Bryant told me. “I wasn’t breathing. She threw cold water on me and slapped me a few times.

“Every time I’ve fallen out, I’ve made it. I’m still here, but I know I need to quit or I’m going to die.”

In northwest Ohio, 80 people died of heroin-related overdoses last year, more than double the number in 2012. An opioid epidemic has gripped thousands of people here, pushing some into theft or prostitution.

Lori Bryant is part of the epidemic. Her story shows why it’s so hard to quit. It also reflects the state’s failure to treat widespread addiction effectively and why Ohio must do much more to help the more than 200,000 people in the state who are addicted to opioids, including heroin.

Like Ms. Bryant, many of them were addicted long before the state started taking major education, preventive, and interdiction measures two or three years ago. They will remain addicted until they die or, through treatment, get clean.

Still, Ohio has the means to treat only a fraction of those who need it — possibly 1 in 10. Others face waiting lists and delays that just discourage them.

The state especially needs far more effective medication-assisted treatment for opioid dependence — treatment that eases withdrawal pains with drugs such as Suboxone. Unabated, the physical and psychological distress of opioid withdrawal usually overcomes people.

 

Seeking help

Five to six years ago, Ms. Bryant entered treatment programs run by Compass, a Toledo-based recovery services company, on three occasions. Each time, she left before she completed three days of detoxification.

“They just left me in a room, sick,” she said. “All they gave you was aspirin and Benadryl. There was really nothing to help you with withdrawal. I just wanted it [heroin] too much.”

Today, Compass treatment programs offer Suboxone and methadone to ease withdrawal symptoms, said Jennifer Moses, the chief executive officer of Zepf Center, which governs Compass. They did not, however, provide medication-assisted treatment back when Ms. Bryant was there.

As recently as last month, Ms. Bryant contacted several other local treatment programs. But waiting lists and delays of as long as a month discouraged her from pursuing treatment.

Scott Sylak, executive director of Lucas County’s Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, said his board’s goal for the 20 agencies it funds is getting people in treatment within seven days. He acknowledged that doesn’t always happen, though, partly because the system lacks capacity.

 

Getting hooked

As with many other heroin addicts, Ms. Bryant’s road to addiction went through prescription painkillers, which have a similar effect on the brain as heroin.

A 1992 graduate of Start High School, Ms. Bryant has worked as a bar waitress and nursing home aide. She also receives Social Security disability benefits.

In 1999, a motorcycle accident on Alexis Road tore up her back, hips, and legs. Undergoing four surgeries, she was prescribed large doses of OxyContin for pain and became addicted. When she could no longer get OxyContin, she developed a heavy heroin habit.

Ms. Bryant’s boyfriend, Ken McKay, told her she would have to get clean. The couple have been together, on and off, for two years. They plan to get married.

I first met Ms. Bryant three weeks ago. With heavy lids, she sometimes nodded as she talked, frequently breaking out in tears. The light seemed to have gone out of her eyes.

Ten days ago, using her Medicaid insurance, Ms. Bryant entered an outpatient treatment program in Toledo run by Dr. Kettlie Daniels. On Feb. 27, she spent two hours in group therapy, saw a physician, and got her first prescription for Suboxone.

The orange strip dissolves under the tongue in seconds. Unfortunately, in Toledo and elsewhere, an increasing amount of this medication is diverted onto the streets.

I saw Ms. Bryant again the day she started treatment. The night before, Mr. McKay, a bail bond agency manager, had bought her a pair of diamond earrings to go with her engagement ring. She looked much better.

Suboxone had removed most of her withdrawal symptoms, but the drug couldn’t erase her fears. She wanted a new life — desperately — but she feared stepping into the unknown, wondering whether she could cope without heroin.

Battling a stigma

Earlier, Ms. Bryant talked about the stigma and shame of drug abuse — how people didn’t see her, only her addiction. “Some people treat us like we’re not human — like we’re a piece of trash,” she said. “I’m as human as anyone.”

We talked about how telling her story could help ease the stigma. I had arranged for her to be photographed, but on the day she went into treatment, she refused.

I wasn’t surprised. Talking openly while in the grip of addiction is extraordinary, but at times Ms. Bryant appeared unsure, perhaps afraid to really own her recovery or make commitments, even to herself, that she might not be able to keep.

“It’s scary, very scary,” she told me, her 5-foot, 3-inch, 112-pound frame engulfed by a large dark hoodie. “I haven’t been normal for so long that I forgot how.

“I’m not going to lie. I like how it [heroin] makes me feel. I like to be high, but it’s ruining my body. I have [track] marks on me. Now that I’m giving that up, I have to find something else to make me feel good.”

In every way, leaving heroin will mean a new life. Except for her boyfriend, Ms. Bryant knows practically no one who doesn’t sell or use drugs.

“I can’t even walk to the store without people yelling: ‘Hey, Lori, I got that fire [potent drug],’ ” she said. “All the dealers know me. Someone’s always in your face.

“I’m so tired of living like this. I could cry when I think of how much [money] I’ve put in my arms. Every morning, I thought about how I could get some heroin. It’s a fast life. Now I have to slow down, and I don’t know how.”

To get away from the drug dealers and users, Ms. Bryant moved into Mr. McKay’s house two days after she entered treatment. He said he would clean out her mobile phone, deleting numbers that tie her to the past.

Mr. McKay, 55, worries constantly about where she is, what she’s doing — and whether she’s alive. He’s also worried about her exposure to heroin cut with fentanyl or other dangerous additives. Still, he’s not going to bail on her.

“I made a commitment to her, and I’m keeping it,” he told me.

I have my own fears for Ms. Bryant. Given her history and habit, she should have started treatment with 30 days of inpatient care, but Medicaid doesn’t reimburse that.

Still, she has Mr. McKay.

 

Fear factor

If she is successful, Ms. Bryant probably will need Suboxone for at least two years before she is weaned off the medication, while continuing to attend two-hour group sessions twice a week. She knows it will be the hardest thing she has done.

“I’m scared to death, but I want my life back,” she told me.

Treatment — including medication-assisted treatment — doesn’t always work. But it’s far better than the alternatives: death, prison, or a harrowing life of addiction often laced with crime and violence.

Beating an opiate addiction takes guts and will, and it has to be the most important thing in your life. It’s up to you, but even the most determined need help, including accessible and effective treatment that the state must do more to provide.

Lori Bryant, and so many others like her, deserve a chance to live again.

Jeff Gerritt is The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor.

Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com, 419-724-6467, or follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt.