“Well when you’re sitting back
in your rose-pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day
I’ll be in my basement room
with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away.”
– Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, “Dead Flowers”
In the following personal stories, names have been changed for the sake of protecting those who have already had their lives disrupted enough by the harsh realities of opiate addiction.
STEVEN WAS IN THE BACK SEAT when he noticed Amir, riding shotgun, opening his backpack and beginning to assemble his gear. Andy was driving. The three, all around 22, were heading out toward Nelson’s Ledges, getting high on sour diesel, with no destination in mind. “Pull up over here,” Amir told Andy.
“Dude,” said Andy. “You’re not doing that right now.”
“Duuuuude,” mimicked Amir. “Pull up over here.”
Andy finally did so as Amir proceeded with an air of ritual, one which Steven had never seen in person. Amir did his thing—the alcohol swab, the cook, the vein reconnaissance, the tie-off, the spike, the injection. When Amir finished up, he lit a cigarette and Andy continued driving. “He didn’t look any more high than we did,” says Steven. “There was no nodding out. He was alert. He was funny.”
Steven says Amir was a smart, genuine, and generous. He says Amir insisted on burying his used needle a few feet deep in the ground of the Ledges so no kids would happen upon it. “It was the first time I ever saw anyone do heroin,” says Steven. “It didn’t seem like any big deal.”
Four days later, Amir’s mom found her son dead on his bed in his room, a casualty of the fentanyl-laced batches that have made the rounds throughout the region this year.
THERE ARE NO FRESH TAKES on the “heroin thing.” The clinical forensics, the cryptic obituaries of young folks, the Facebook elegies of death and loss, the sad stories told of snuffed-out promise and broken lives—they are all well-documented. Google “Cuyahoga County heroin overdoses” and the headlines tell the tale:
“Seven dead from heroin, fentanyl overdoses in one day in Cuyahoga County”
“Cuyahoga County sees 47 heroin overdose deaths in July”
“August is the deadliest month for heroin, fentanyl overdoses in Cuyahoga County.”
It all becomes another sort of white noise abstraction, the daily dose of everything that processes and filters and is expelled without much connection. Oh, another someone passed? God, that’s sad—What time’s the game?
But then one day, you see a Facebook post from a bartender you know, 27 turning 28, who has seen some 15 cohorts disappear from her middle school and high school class pictures. Young people in their prime, all relatively healthy and happening. These aren’t Iggy Pop protégés. These are kids with game and stride. Her post laments the loss of so many in a small community in so short a time. And the post is met with dozens of comments echoing the cry while listing further names of neighborhood friends who’ve OD’d, a Jim Carroll-esque litany of the people who’ve died. And it becomes clear that nearly everyone in this metropolitan inner-suburb knows someone who has lost someone to heroin or fentanyl or opioid use and addiction. Everyone has a sadness.
JACKIE HASN’T SPOKEN TO HER OLDER SISTER JENNY since around 2012, the last time Jenny OD’d and the people she was hanging with left her at the MetroHealth Medical Center ER and took off.
“It’s been so awful for so long,” says Jackie. “I haven’t seen my niece in four years, and my nephew is a mess.” He was delayed as a child, she says, speculating that it’s likely due to Jenny’s methadone addiction at his birth.
Jackie says her sister has been using opiates for about 14 years, seesawing between heroin addiction and methadone treatment, though she qualifies that Jenny was blowing lines and popping pills to augment her alcohol use long before that. “She’s been in trouble since she was eleven,” says Jackie. When the Lakewood Police Department’s Drug Task Force busted Jenny for possession with intent to distribute and child endangerment a couple years back, she ended up doing six months in county.
Jackie’s family formally learned of Jenny’s latest phase of use when Jenny was living next door to the sisters’ grandmother. One day, Jenny’s boyfriend, a heroin user himself, called to say Jenny needed help. He’d found bloody blankets strewn about the upstairs of their Clifton double, the result of Jenny missing veins and bleeding everywhere. Jenny’s son had just been born. That was in 2010, when Jackie called social services on her sister. The relationship has been pretty much asunder since.
“She hit my grandma and stole five hundred dollars,” says Jackie. “My grandmother had dropped her off at a gas station and my sister walked around to the driver’s side as though she was going to hug her goodbye. Instead, she punched my grandma and stole her purse, knowing that her Social Security check had come.
“It sucks. And she blames us. It’s all our fault. She uses because of my parents’ divorce. She uses because of my step-dad. She uses because we don’t understand. She uses because we got her in trouble.” Jackie shrugs with resignation, any sign of sadness long subsided. “Do I think that it is a disease? Yes. Do I think that it is a choice? Yes. It’s a choice to start using drugs. And whether or not you get addicted, it’s hit or miss.”
STEPHANIE AND LUKE WERE IN LOVE. At ages 38 and 34 respectively, they moved in together after three months, inking matching tattoos and finishing each other’s sentences. They partied a little bit together, smoking pot, some blow now and then, some X. But no opioids.
Then, right after they moved in, Luke injured himself at work as a roofer, and started taking percocets for the back pain.
“Then one day,” says Stephanie, “a week after moving in together, Luke went MIA and his mom and I went looking for him in our usual haunts. When we got back home, we found him lying in the dining room, unconscious. He was sweating so bad he left sweat stains on the hardwood floor.”
When they revived him, he was pissed off, lashing out, saying they were blowing things out of proportion.
For about a month thereafter and up through the holidays, everything was cool. Then, following the first of the year, Stephanie noticed Luke’s moods start to pendulum considerably. “He always seemed to be itching for a battle over trivial things,” she says.
Luke then had another accident at work, trying to catch a table saw as it fumbled out of his hand, slicing off his little finger. “His mood after that just plummeted.”
A week or two later, they decided to have a date night together, an effort to rekindle their initial rapport. “Then, out of nowhere, he needed to use my car,” says Stephanie. “He said he had to go down to Tremont to pick up a friend who lived in Tremont to take him to work—which was in Tremont.” Red flags went up for Stephanie. Nevertheless, she gave him the keys.
True to his word, Luke did return in 20 minutes. The two sat on the sofa, he rolling a joint, both still ready to go out, all dressed up for date night.
Then, he nodded off.
Stephanie video recorded him as he was nodding off, her yelling at him to wake up. An intervention of sorts so she could show him how he was. To no avail.
A week after that, Stephanie awoke at three in the morning and found Luke dead on the living room floor, blood and vomit seeping from his mouth.
Having had nursing training, she applied CPR while calling 911. Four cans of Narcan later, Luke was pronounced dead. There were no needles, no spike marks, no way to determine the specifics in Luke’s death. The autopsy eventually showed fentanyl in his system with trace amounts of cocaine.
That was nearly two years ago, Jan. 31, 2014. It was the day after her son‘s eleventh birthday and the party they had for him at Dave and Buster’s. As a result of Luke’s overdose and death, and the trace drugs found in the home, Stephanie lost custody of her son. She also lost the house in which they were living and eventually her job. “I lost my entire life over someone else’s bad decision,” she says. “And all I was left with were all the doubts about what could I have done to save him, to avoid all this. Should I have not have loved him? The residue ruins those left behind.”
The video of him nodding out is the last photo Stephanie has of Luke.
STILL, YOU HAVEN’T BEEN TOUCHED by the scourge. Not personally. No one you know is addicted, much less has overdosed. Some peripheral families from the old parish days, maybe. But you’ve pretty much been buffered.
Then one day, you’re sitting at the bar and a guy in a Carhartt jacket and knit hat is sitting a couple seats down. You start chatting about nothing over happy hour shots. You find out about his gig, a contractor who has succeeded in his own business. He has made it through various tough times.
At some point he references working with his son. His voice quiets a bit when speaking about him. You don’t press on anything, but actively listen, bear witness. His son was his partner in the business. Was learning the trade. Was doing really well, all set to be the heir apparent. Was married. 30 years old.
Died of an overdose.
The guy—this dad—looks past you as he speaks, over your shoulder and out the window behind you. He doesn’t know you, though for some reason you are an itinerant afternoon confidant. It feels like a story he rarely tells, if ever. He continues talking, his voice nearing a whisper at times, telling about what a wonderful kid, what bond they were developing. His voice descending lower into the swamp of sadness he has been hip-deep in ever since. No mawkish or maudlin; simple Raymond Carver sentences. He had a son. Who had a problem. His son overdosed. He died. They were just growing close.
You see this guy occasionally thereafter, and you say hello. You try to pay tribute to that hour spent, the conversation shared. But there’s a distance. He’s not looking to relive it. Not looking for any further bonding. And you respect that. It’s his. Don’t trample on it with whatever you might be feeling or wondering. It’s not yours to wonder, not yours to feel. You are “Hi-Bye” friends. Acknowledgements. Awareness. Neighborliness. But that’s it. Good fences, after all, make good neighbors.
Yet, you still feel the loss whenever you see him down the bar.
And you realize. You do indeed know someone. And this heroin thing, it has touched you, too.