Spiral of addiction: From prescription drugs to heroin

By on December 20, 2015

Hope and hard work brought Jason and Amy Ballance back.

Five years ago, Amie and Jason Ballance of Wanchese were about to lose everything. A successful fisherman, Jason was bringing home more than $100,000 a year, but the couple was blowing through it — on prescription painkillers and eventually heroin.

“No amount of money is ever enough,” Amie says of feeding a heroin addiction. “Once you are on it for long enough, you are no longer trying to get high. You are just trying to stay well enough not to be sick.”

At the time, they were dangerously close to losing custody of their daughter. In time, it happened as they tried to get clean, going in and out of treatment centers with no success.

To an outsider, it may have been hard to tell they were struggling with addiction, at least in the beginning. But their lives were quickly spiraling out of control.

It began with a prescription for pain medication.

Prescription narcotics: Gateway drugs

After a bad bout of back pain in 2010 and a prescription in her hand, Amie and Jason quickly found themselves going through an average of 120 painkillers in a week.

“When I couldn’t get pills from the doctor anymore, we went straight to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get,” said Amie, now 30 and going into her fourth year of recovery. “And you can’t image the ridiculously unsafe predicaments you find yourself in while trying to get drugs. We must have had some sort of guardian angel.”

For the Ballances, it took about a year for everything to completely fall apart.

Amie resigned from her job at the district attorney’s office because she knew she would be fired otherwise. The Ballances had no power in their home, were eventually evicted and the family car was repossessed. “Social Services was called again and that time they took (our child) away.

“Jason was making $130,000 and we had nothing to show for it. I remember falling asleep and not wanting to wake up. I didn’t have a reason to be around. I was trying to get clean and I couldn’t.”

Opiates: A growing epidemic

Painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are the perfect bedfellows for heroin. They are both opiates. Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate extracted from the seedpods of certain varieties of poppy plants.

The other, in form of a pill, is manmade and in some cases, even taken while following a doctor’s orders, can leave a person with a debilitating addiction.

“Pain pills are a synthetic heroin,” says JoAnn Hummers, a licensed clinical addictions specialist based in Nags Head. She has been working with people suffering from addictions in the community since 1996.

It is easy to become hooked on prescription pain medication quickly, Hummers said. “People think that if a doctor gives it to you, it is safe.”

But that’s just not the case.

“You could not be in the party scene, not have a predisposition to addiction and still get hooked,” Hummers says. “And the end result is no different. You are still in dire straits.”

Since she has been in practice, Hummers says, she has seen the growing number of opiate addictions in Dare County. “The use of opiates has exploded,” she said, adding that it is a particularly difficult and painful addiction to beat.

Donnie Varnell can attest to the growing numbers locally. Retired special agent in charge of the State Bureau of Investigation’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit, he now works for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and considers drug abuse prevention somewhat of a life’s calling.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” Varnell says. “If you have an addiction, an arrest isn’t going to stop you from breaking the law again once you get out. We will be arresting that person over and over again until they receive treatment.”

Varnell recalls first seeing prescription painkillers on the streets of Dare County — predominantly on Hatteras Island — in abundance in the mid- to late-1990s.

Law enforcement agencies came down hard, and when it became more difficult for users to get their hands on pills, the next option was heroin, a schedule I narcotic.

“On the street, you are going to pay $30 a pill, so it doesn’t take long for people to realize that heroin is cheap — costing an average of between $7 and $12 a dose,” Varnell said.

This little beach community was quickly becoming a mirror of what was happening nationwide, where the abuse of prescription painkillers had reached epidemic levels.

And heroin users, law enforcement officers say, don’t look like the stereotypical junkie on the street corner.

“We are dealing now with a whole different group of users,” said Capt. Kevin Duprey of the Dare County Sheriff’s Office narcotics unit. “Heroin was once the party drug, but now people who have never gotten into that scene are using it because they are fighting an opiate addiction.”

Duprey said the proximity of the Outer Banks to drug centers like Portsmouth and Virginia Beach makes matters worse. “A deputy could follow someone up there everyday who is buying heroin and bringing it back down here,” he said.

Right out of the gate, he adds, a first-time user has to have it again. “And from where I am sitting right now, there are more heroin cases in Dare County than any other drug,” he said.

Jason Ballance confirms the drug’s highly addictive nature: “I used some coke before my first daughter was born, but was able to quit when I wanted to stop,” he said. “Heroin is a whole different ball game.”

At 35, Jason will have been in recovery for three years this January.

Varnell can rattle off some alarming statistics, one being that according to the North Carolina Department of Health, heroin overdoes are up 200 percent in the state over the past two years. There are an average of 1,300 overdoses due to opiates in this state every year — 1,100 of those unintentional.

And while it used to be that marijuana was the drug of choice for first-time users between the ages of 12 and 18, Varnell says, now it’s opiates in the form of prescription narcotics. “And that is very scary.”

Most people won’t overdose on their first marijuana cigarette, he points out. “But you can overdose and die on that first pill or hit of heroin,” he said. “And counties are reporting that 50 percent of visits by young people under the age of 18 now are from overdose issues.”

According to Dare Coalition Against Substance Abuse (CASA) Director Amber Bodner Griffith, estimates are that 25 percent of Dare County high school students will come into contact with a prescription narcotic by the time they graduate.

“There’s a huge misconception among high school students that using prescription painkillers is somehow different than using illegal drugs,” Varnell said. “These kids don’t realize that not only are they committing a felony but just how dangerous these drugs are.”

Breaking the chain of addiction

“When you are helping someone with a drug addiction, you are helping everyone in that community,” said Varnell.

In Dare County, that help comes in many forms.

That’s where Hummers and about eight other licensed clinical addiction specialists in the county step in, along with Port New Horizons, a partially state-run program to assist residents with addictions and mental health issues. Narcotics Anonymous is another valuable resource in the community.

“Addiction is a disease or illness rather than a moral weakness or lack of willpower,” Hummers stresses. “And it does take a lot of courage to acknowledge that what they are doing and using is detrimental to them. And sometimes people don’t get help because they are afraid they are not going to be able to stop.”

On the preventive side, Hummers is a proponent of using alternatives such as acupuncture, meditation and massage to ease chronic pain and thus greatly reduce the number of prescriptions that are going out the doors of doctor’s offices and hospitals.

From a law enforcement standpoint, Varnell is also a big proponent of alternative methods in the form of programs such as drug courts and syringe exchanges, but prevention and education will always be the first and most effective tools, he says.

The biggest message is for families to get prescription painkillers out of their home or in a secure place, Griffith says. According to Dare CASA statistics, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drugs among 12 to 13 year olds.

“And 70 percent of teenagers get prescription painkillers from a friend or family member,” Griffith said. The coalition partners with law enforcement agencies, schools and the medical community to reduce the points of access to prescription pain medication.

Dare CASA has a federal 10-year Drug Free Community grant to fuel its prevention efforts. It has also recently identified funds to put the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone in the hands of those who need it the most — law enforcement officers.

This month nearly 80 police officers from various agencies in Dare County were given Naloxone kits and trained to administer the drug that halts an opiate overdose for up to 60 minutes. A recent training session for local law enforcement will be followed up with another this spring.

Naloxone kits have been responsible for 1,500 reversals of opiate overdoses in North Carolina over the past year and a half, said Varnell. Forty were administered by police officers.

“That’s 1,500 people who could have died, and when we save a life with Naloxone, we are more likely to get that person into treatment.

“Nobody grew up wanting to be addicted to heroin,” Varnell said. “And no matter who you may think these people are — they are your neighbors, your family members, your local professionals — maybe even a middle-school student.”

In the end, he says, most people suffering from an addiction won’t ask for treatment. “But if they have treatment offered to them, they might accept it. And in a community like ours, where everyone knows everyone’s business, no one wants everyone to know they have a problem.”

The road to recovery

Breaking an opiate addiction can be much more difficult than other addictions, according to Hummers. “A person has to really take that step and want to change — and use all the available resources to get there,” she said.

Amie and Jason were one court date away from permanently losing custody of their daughter. And that is what it took for Amie to take those first steps on the road to recovery.

She spent seven weeks at the Walter B. Jones Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center. “I was at the point where I didn’t want to wake up,” she said. “I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”

Of the treatment, Amie said, “Withdrawal hurts. Every part of your body aches and throbs. You are throwing up and miserable.”

When she returned, she stayed in Kitty Hawk, where she was in a structured housing program. “I didn’t have any place to go and I didn’t have a job,” she said. “But I was a county’s length away from Wanchese, and that was exactly what I needed.”

Jason’s path to recovery was about a year later. It was a spiritual one. “I turned to God,” he said. “I knew if anything would work, it would be that. I remember praying, ‘If you can’t take this from me, let me die.’ ”

Jason went through a 90-day treatment program at the High Point House of Prayer. After leaving, he stayed with his cousin for a year building houses before he returned to fishing.

Eventually, the Ballances were given custody of their daughter again and now have a 1-year-old daughter as well. They both say their faith has played a huge part in why they’ve been able to stay clean.

“I got my wife back and then I got my daughter back,” Jason says. And both he and Amie are ready to share their story with anyone who is willing to listen.

“If I can help people realize they have a chance,” Jason said, “it’s worth it. People get into a situation that feels hopeless, and I want people to know that there is always hope.”

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