Faces of the opioid crisis
More than 27 million people around the world suffer from opioid-use disorders. Behind that staggering number are people — our friends, neighbors, colleagues. Here are three people who climbed out of addiction to lead productive lives.
Chemist, Master's of Public Policy, University of Southern Maine
Road to dependency: Andrew was an all-star Lacrosse and football athlete when a fall on the ice crushed two disks in his lower back. He became hooked on prescription pain killers that led to heroin use. “I found that security could come at the end of a needle. It made me feel physically pain-free and emotionally invincible.” After five years of substance misuse and failed rehabs, Kiezulas agreed to family pleas that he attend a 12-step retreat program. There he learned that "little things matter, and little things add up to big things."
What he’s doing now: Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master's in public policy from the University of Southern Maine and is working as a chemist. With a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, he founded an on-campus residential recovery center while a student. He has been a speaker at several Rotary events and district conferences, and serves on the Rotary District 7780 Recovery Committee.
About stigma and recovery: “To create change we must make recovery less shaming and more appealing. We must grow our circles and be a family for others. I was asked questions and listened to; encouraged to explore action steps and try different things; pushed and empowered, with the occasional kick in the (pants).”
Small business owner
Road to dependency: Katie began using opioids after a college party involving prescription meds. She was able to feed her dependency by going from doctor to doctor to get a prescription for made up pain symptoms. Once the system caught up with her, she turned to heroin. “I was a functioning addict with prescriptions, but with heroin I was a mess. My life fell apart in a matter of months.” She was on the run from a parole violation for shoplifting when a bad batch of heroin cut with rat poison almost killed her. “It was honestly a blessing because I wasn’t going to stop on my own.”
What she’s doing now: Rodrigues and her girlfriend are now running a successful barber shop. After family friends introduced her to Chief Robert Mackenzie, she began sharing her story at his Overdose Recognition and Response seminars and at other Rotary events to raise awareness of opioid misuse.
Advice for parents: “Every time I am in a room with a group of parents, I tell them watch where you put your medication. Parents will say, my kid would never have the audacity to go into my medicine cabinet. But it happens all the time; good kids, straight-A students. I got my first OxyContin from an honor student.”
Rotarian, motivational speaker, counselor
Road to dependency: At age 15, Chris left home to pursue his dream of becoming a rock star in Los Angeles. He tried heroin for the first time at 18. “It was like a warm blanket,” he says. “I was a kid filled with fear and anxiety, and it made everything OK.” After achieving some success as a musician, his use spiraled out of control. His marriage fell apart and he ended up out on the street. Following a brief period of sobriety, he moved to Las Vegas and again began drinking and popping pills. “I had a moment of clarity in 2010 that if I didn’t get out of there, I was going to die.” He drove to San Diego and joined a sobriety group, eventually starting a chapter of Heroin Anonymous.
What he’s doing now: Stewart initially founded a bakery, Buns and Roses, to employ and help at-risk youth. He is now a motivational speaker, and a certified drug and alcohol counselor in the San Diego area. He joined the Rotary Club of Del Mar in 2015, where he took part in founding an Interact Club in a high school for at-risk youth. He is also involved in youth activities.
About addiction and recovery: “The three main characteristics of addiction are stress, shame, and lack of connection. From the time they were five, six, or seven, most addicts experienced some kind of traumatic event that planted a seed that said, 'you are not OK.' Then in high school they try drugs and their young brains say, 'hey, that makes us feel great, keep doing that,' ” Stewart says. “If you can get to at-risk youth in junior high or high school and encourage them to participate in clubs, athletics, etc., it can make all the difference.”
— Arnold R. Grahl