Stephanie stood in a Tampa, Florida, convenience store parking lot, watching her friend convulse in the midst of a cocaine-induced seizure.
Her friend had been feeling strange all day, but Stephanie felt good - the effects of the drug had treated her well.
“We had done so much, and my body almost couldn’t hold any more,” said Stephanie, who questioned if the drugs had been manipulated, cut with a foreign substance. “I had never been so high, and I have never been that high since.”
A dealer stepping on drugs isn’t uncommon – a fact Stephanie certainly knew - but as she questioned herself, and her dealer, she took a step only the deepest addict would find logical.
Almost immediately, Stephanie was handed another gram of the cocaine, promptly snorting it before her shift at a Tampa strip club that same evening. The drug wasn’t toxic, she realized; it was simply uncommonly pure. Her friend had merely overdosed.
"When you’re young you think you are 10 feet tall and bulletproof."
What stuck with Stephanie, now a mother of two, in the years following her experience wasn’t the purity of the drug or even her friend’s reaction to it; it’s her past refusal to step away from cocaine even after watching her friend nearly die.
“The addiction didn’t feel bad, because when you’re young you think you are 10 feet tall and bulletproof, and that nothing is going to happen to you,” said Stephanie, now a Kokomo resident. “Here is my friend on the ground flailing like a fish, and even that wasn’t going to stop me.”
Gilead House Executive Director Reba Harris discusses the frustration of trying to reach someone suffering from addiction.
Addiction in Indiana and Howard County
While Stephanie’s addiction started in Florida, her story is one that an increasing number of Hoosiers and Howard County residents know well.
A growing problem throughout the state, addiction – specifically with heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs – has been the main culprit behind the quadrupling of Indiana’s drug overdose deaths since 1999, according to an October 2013 report released by Washington, D.C. – based nonprofit organization Trust for America’s Health.
According to the report, Indiana has the 17th highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States, with 14.4 people per 100,000 dying from overdose fatalities. In 1999, that rate sat at 3.2 per 100,000. Since then, Indiana is one of four states to have seen that figure quadruple.
While the Trust for America’s Health report largely credits prescription drug abuse for the ballooning figures, the presence of “street drugs” in the state has played a significant role in Indiana’s growing drug abuse problem.
According to a report published in April 2014 by the Indiana State Epidemiology and Outcomes Workgroup, treatment admissions for heroin usage in Indiana have more than tripled since 2001. Within those numbers, the percentage of youth younger than 18-years-old abusing the drug saw an increase from 1.1 percent in 2010 to 9.1 percent in 2011.
Adding to the growing problem is the prevalence of meth in Indiana. According to the ISEOW report, the percentage of treatment admissions relating to meth dependence increased from 1.5 percent in 2000 to 5.8 percent in 2011.
The trends surrounding both illegal and prescription drug abuse have stretched into Howard County, where the drug poisoning death count reached 115 from 2009 to 2013, the eighth-highest total in the state, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
In addition, between 2002 and 2013, 23.4 percent of drug overdoses in Howard County were fatal, according to the Indiana University Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention. That was the fifth highest percentage among Indiana’s 92 counties during that time frame.
"It’s like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later, you’re going to come see me."
"There’s a lot of cocaine and heroin in Kokomo," Howard County coroner Jay Price told the Kokomo Tribune in May. "I would like to see these people get their lives straightened out. It’s like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later, you’re going to come see me."
The Start of an Addiction
To put the recent local rarity of Stephanie’s cocaine addiction into perspective, the ISDH reported that cocaine contributed to only 45 of the 1,049 total drug overdoses in Indiana in 2013.
Unfortunately for Stephanie, her addiction started in early 1980s Florida – a part of the country known then for its rampant cocaine usage and easy availability. Add into the equation her job as a stripper, and the desire to “fit in and maintain the lifestyle,” and Stephanie was primed for life as an addict.
A look even further back, though, reveals where the real seed was planted, she said.
“When I was seven years old, the man I always thought of as my real dad got divorced from my mom,” said Stephanie, whose biological father lived in Kokomo and was reunited with her in 2000. “My mom then introduced this new man into our lives, and he was not a pleasant person.
"He abused my sister, and he beat the crap out of me. We weren’t allowed to have any friends, but we had dogs. And one day, they put a fence up. We thought the fence was to keep the dogs from running away, but it was to keep us in."
“He abused my sister, and he beat the crap out of me. We weren’t allowed to have any friends, but we had dogs. And one day, they put a fence up. We thought the fence was to keep the dogs from running away, but it was to keep us in.”
Stephanie’s journey from child abuse to addiction is an oft-traveled road, one that begins with sexual and physical abuse and ends most often with death or incarceration.
Gilead House Executive Director Reba Harris explains abuse is a major cause of addiction in those she has helped.
In fact, as many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused during childhood, according to research done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In a NIDA-funded review done by the Harvard Medical School, researchers found that anywhere from 30 to 59 percent of women in drug abuse treatment also have post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition often found in the victims of child abuse.
After a childhood full of both physical and mental abuse, Stephanie was eager to escape her home.
“When you are in an abusive environment, the words people say to you, that they say over and over again, kind of stick in your DNA,” said Stephanie. “When you are told thousands of times that you’re never going to amount to anything, that you’re going to be worthless your whole life, you truly begin to believe that.”
At just 15, she started to hang out in the neighborhood, stay out late and began drinking with friends. As each day passed, Stephanie became more entrenched in a world that would eventually engulf her personal life.
By the age of 18, halfway through her junior year, Stephanie dropped out of high school and got a job as a cocktail waitress. By 19, she was the mother to a baby girl, and had become an exotic dancer.
"When you are told thousands of times that you’re never going to amount to anything, that you’re going to be worthless your whole life, you truly begin to believe that."
“I thought the only way I was going to make money was to become a stripper, so I did that,” she said. “I made pretty good money, and that’s when cocaine was introduced into my life … It made me invincible. If I got drunk, it sobered me up, and I could go do it all over again.”
Those feelings, said Joe Wesche, outpatient therapist at Community Howard Regional Health, are common for a cocaine user, and can become the catalyst for a life threatened by addiction.
“The effect of cocaine is mainly euphoria. It energizes them and makes them more alert,” he said. “It is a very pleasurable high, but it can be very difficult to stop. The negative effect is the depression and lack of energy that occurs when you do stop using. The drug minimizes the dopamine in the brain, which is what helps to cause pleasure. It’s the period of low energy and depression that they don’t like.”
To battle such unpleasant feelings, Stephanie had a simple plan: keep snorting cocaine. To feed that habit, she would spend roughly $180 on an eight-ball, or 3.5 grams, which she expected to last her a week.
“I would stay up, party all night, go home and sleep for a couple hours, and then get up to do it all over again,” she said.
It didn’t take long, however, before someone introduced her to free basing, allowing her to heat cocaine and smoke the fumes. Almost immediately, this became Stephanie’s preferred method of getting high, largely because it “didn’t burn.”
Another reason for the switch: her newfound method cost much less than snorting large amounts of cocaine.
“I remember I read an article once that said cocaine was the rich man’s high,” she said. “I thought, well none of us poor people are going to be able to keep affording it. And then when they started making crack, it became easier to get than cocaine.”
A Marriage of Addicts
By the time Stephanie was 26, she had given birth to a second daughter, and married a man her sister said would be the biggest mistake she ever made. Not heeding her sister’s advice, Stephanie joined into the sacred union.
“I was doing cocaine like almost every day during that time,” said Stephanie, nothing that her husband could have “filled up two computers” with his arrest record. “The only day I ever took off was Sunday, when I would take my daughter to the zoo, shopping and stuff like that.”
In addition to her husband’s law enforcement issues, he also suffered from a severe cocaine addiction.
After an uneventful and healthy start to the marriage, which included Stephanie finding work outside the strip club, the drug made its inevitable descent into the couple’s daily routine.
“After I went back to the [club], he started buying drugs with my tips, so I decided to have as much fun as he was having,” said Stephanie. “I like to hide things, and he would do all his cocaine at one time. I would do mine in small amounts. He would tell me he knew I had some and ask where it was. I would have to tell him, you’ve already done yours. It was a fight.”
Following roughly a year-and-a-half of marriage, much of which was spent thinking about and battling over the constant presence of cocaine, the relationship hit its nadir.
It wasn’t an unusual night, Stephanie said. The two were at the bars, drinking and abusing cocaine as they were wont to do. After her husband flew into a typically jealous, drunken rage, Stephanie was left alone at the bar.
"I didn’t know until the next day that he had stabbed me in the arm and hit me with a bag of trash. A girl I knew took me to the hospital to get sewn up."
Accustomed to the routine, Stephanie caught a ride home with a bouncer, which her husband, still drunk and angry, strongly disliked. After assaulting the bouncer, the husband took Stephanie into the house, pushing over the refrigerator and destroying cabinets.
It was then that the husband stabbed Stephanie – a wound the cocaine numbed her to until the following day.
“I didn’t know until the next day that he had stabbed me in the arm and hit me with a bag of trash. A girl I knew took me to the hospital to get sewn up,” said Stephanie. “A couple days later, the sheriff came and arrested him for domestic violence. Soon after that, he went back to prison for violating parole.”
The First Relapse
Shortly after her husband went to jail, Stephanie moved to Virginia, taking her two daughters with her. At first the move was healthy – she stopped drinking, stopped using and got a job in the nursing field.
“Everything was good. I was good at my job, my daughters were playing sports and they got everything they wanted,” she said.
For nearly six years, Stephanie lived a clean life, enjoying her time as a soccer mom and healthy, contributing member of society.
Within three days, her new life had ended.
Stephanie was distressed. Her husband, to whom she was still married, had told her he wouldn’t move to Virginia to rekindle their relationship. It was all she needed, Stephanie admits, to hop off the proverbial wagon and back into cocaine’s familiar embrace.
Almost immediately, Stephanie found herself behind the wheel, navigating her way through Virginia’s “nooks and crannies” while her daughters sat at home.
Her destination? An old, decrepit home with a stranded school bus in the front yard and groups of dogs chained throughout the property. It was a crack house, she admits, and was populated by roughly 20 addicts looking for a fix.
As she opened the house’s decaying front door, she was told by its dealers to either pay for her drugs or be fed to their hogs. And thus began Stephanie’s most dangerous bender.
The Presence of Cocaine
Would Stephanie have become a cocaine addict growing up in Kokomo? It’s impossible to tell, but one thing is nearly certain: spending her formative years in Florida sealed her fate.
By 1980, federal authorities estimated that 70 percent of all cocaine and marijuana entering the country passed through South Florida, creating a $12 billion industry and a hot spot for both future and current addicts like Stephanie.
The drug itself wasn’t the only danger faced by users and dealers, however. By 1981, drug murders in South Florida had climbed to 621, up from 349 only two years earlier, according to research done by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Even President Ronald Reagan chimed in on the issue, saying that “massive immigration, rampant crime, and epidemic drug smuggling have created a serious problem,” in Florida.
Considering the data, the journey of a 1980s cocaine addict from Florida to present-day Howard County seems quite unlikely. That’s not to say, though, that the state or Howard County have rid themselves completely of the powdery substance.
In fact, the number of overdose drugs involving cocaine in Indiana increased from 17 in 1999 to 45 in 2013. The highest recorded total during that time span was 54 in 2004, with the lowest at 14 in 2000.
Other statistics show cocaine in Indiana to be a less pervasive problem. According to the State Epidemiology and Outcomes Workgroup, only 3 people per 10,000 population were arrested in 2011 for possession of cocaine. The arrest rate in the nation during that time was nearly triple Indiana’s total.
In Howard County, treatment therapists still encounter cocaine addicts, said Wesche, but the drug has lately been overshadowed by other substance abuse.
“Cocaine is still a significant problem. However, it has been surpassed by a lot of other drugs. Heroin, meth, opiates, alcohol and pot are more commonly used than cocaine,” he said. “The two primary reasons for that are availability and cost. The effects of meth are similar to cocaine, and it lasts longer.”
The Long Road to Recovery
For three days, Stephanie resided in the Virginia crack house, abusing crack and cocaine, and leaving her family to wonder “if I had driven my car off a mountain.”
While Stephanie says nothing “really bad” went on at the house, she also admits it was one of the lowest points of her addiction. She had left her two girls at home to temporarily bunk with 20 addicts, sharing meals and counting on a group of murderous dealers to supply her next high.
Finally, after a roughly 72-hour long bender, and after hearing more comments about hog feeding, she decided to head home.
“I took that as a threat, so I got in my car and left. There are people that like to feed their stuff to hogs,” she said. “I believe in that stuff, because where I’m from you won’t find the bodies because of the gators.”
For the next decade-and-a-half, Stephanie split her time between Kokomo and Virginia, reuniting with her biological father, and alternating between stretches of health and all-consuming addiction.
For years at time, Stephanie would be clean, but would always one day find herself yearning for the feeling of that first high.
“After being sober for four years, getting back into it is like a rush,” she said. “They say that when you do crack for the first time, it’s like this unobtainable high you’ll never get again. And they’re right. But when you’re off for a long time, and then you do it, it can get close to that first time all over again.”
"When I sat in that jail cell, that was when I knew I had a problem ... It all hit home."
It was in 2014, after three years of using, that Stephanie’s world crashed down and her addiction came to a screeching halt.
The end for Stephanie came in the same way it does for many addicts: through a haze of guilt and realization while sitting on the cold, hard floor of a jail cell.
“When I sat in that jail cell, that was when I knew I had a problem,” she said. “It all hit home.”
Gilead House Executive Director Reba Harris explains the importance of consequences in the addiction recovery process.
As had become the norm, Stephanie went to visit a friend shortly after leaving work on pay day. With fresh cash on hand, Stephanie and her friend were eager to feed their addictions. Soon, they were smoking crack on the friend’s couch, reveling in their highs.
Later, Stephanie traveled home to sleep, but soon realized the drugs weren’t ready for her night to end. Before she knew it, Stephanie and her friend were on the road, driving to a new dealer’s house to score some cocaine.
While Stephanie was concerned about the number of cops driving through the night, they never thought of turning back. And after Stephanie’s friend – who had left Stephanie parked on the curb as she visited with her dealer - returned with their cocaine, she relaxed, thinking the dangerous part was over.
Only a few minutes later, however, the blue and red lights that changed Stephanie’s life appeared in her rearview mirror.
“After we got pulled over, one of the cops looked at me and told me that it was clear my friend had a problem, but he said he could look at me and tell I didn’t have one,” said Stephanie, who was charged with possession of cocaine and paraphernalia. “I was laughing on the inside, because mine was a bit worse than my friend’s. Her problem was just a bit more external than mine.”
Stephanie’s internal laughter quickly ceased, however, when she was taken to jail, where she quickly realized that, with no bail, she had nowhere to go.
“I didn’t sleep for like the first week. I was in a three-man cell for one,” said Stephanie, who spent 64 days in jail. “And then I got moved, which was a blessing and a half. I started to settle down, and I started to listen to the inner voice. Everything became that much clearer.
“My ‘a-ha’ moment came my second day in jail and [the teacher] asked what we were going to do. I knew I had to do something about it, and I’ve been in recovery ever since.”
Gilead House Executive Director Reba Harris discusses the difficulty of finding employment after an arrest for an addiction-related felony.
Now, 15 months clean and newly married, Stephanie utilizes various treatment opportunities throughout Howard County, relying on her “lifelines” to keep her safe from addictive urges.
“I have tools that are in place, and if I feel I am anxious or something is on my mind, I can call my lifelines – my sister, my pastor. We are held accountable for what we do from this point forward.
“You think you are in control of everything and you’re not. It is bigger than any of us. It’s an ongoing process. I’m not done. I’m not done by any means.”
It is that internal commitment, said Wesche, that all addicts need to embrace. While external pressures can be helpful, their effects are largely temporary. Permanence comes from within.
“Addiction is a relapsing disorder. People with external support can do well in treatment - develop new skills and a recovery plan - and while they’re accountable, they do very well,” he said. “But when those external capacities are taken away, you see relapse.
“True recovery comes from within. The most successful clients are those that have corrective emotional experience. They made an internal commitment to change their lives. People that come with external accountability can do well, but true recovery comes from within.”
George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gpmyerskt.