OCEAN CITY — Like many other communities throughout the country, the coastal region is battling a very real and dangerous proliferation of heroin usage.
All of it is shocking and heartbreaking, and the community is rife with concern and fear. The statistical data is alarming, like the fact that in 2014, more people died of heroin overdoses in the state of Maryland than people who died in car crashes or homicides. Equally alarming and closer to home, is the fact that almost all of the people who walk in the doors at the Worcester County Health Department are there seeking help for heroin addiction. The heartbreaking headlines of young people with bright futures being found dead with needles sticking out of their arms are being written more often and families who live in local neighborhoods are quietly struggling to save their loved ones from a drug that doesn’t discriminate between race, class, age or gender.
The epidemic is here and in this community and The Dispatch is dedicated to bringing readers an in-depth and ongoing series that will analyze all facets of the region’s problem and the battle to combat that it.
‘The Call Every Parent Fears’
Marie Allen spends most of her time talking to young kids these days. She says those talks are all a part of her own long and seemingly never-ending healing process.
Allen lost her daughter Erin to heroin addiction in 1997. She was just 21 years old.
She remembers the call that changed her life like it was yesterday. It as June 23 and she was cutting a client’s hair in her Delaware salon.
“I was cutting hair at my shop and the phone rang,” she remembered, “They said, Mrs. Allen, this is the Philadelphia Coroner’s office. I just screamed, ‘oh God no,’ and fell to the floor in tears and hung up.”
Allen pulled herself up from the floor and dialed the number back, hoping that it wasn’t true or that there had been some sort of mistake.
“They answered, Philadelphia Coroner’s office, and it all just hit me even harder than the first time”, said Allen. “They said, ‘I’m sorry Mrs. Allen, but it is Erin, and we need you to get her as soon as possible.’”
Allen locked the doors of the salon and never opened them again. She has since dedicated her life to talking to kids about the dangers of the drug that took her daughter’s life.
This week, she found herself in front of a group of eerily quiet, yet fidgety students at Pittsville Middle school. Allen went through slides, speaking to them about Erin’s journey toward heroin. She told the kids that it’s a pretty common tale.
“No one wants to get addicted to this drug, but it’s more powerful than you can ever imagine,” Allen told the children. “She started with drinking, then marijuana, and by 19, she used heroin for the first time. Within two years, she was dead and this was the last picture I have of my daughter.”
At that moment, a picture of her daughter, lying dead on the coroner’s table, flashed on the screen.
Many students noticeably jumped in their seats, while others sat in quiet horror.
Afterward, students took turns talking to Allen and thanking her for sharing the story. Some pulled her aside and asked advice about people in their own lives who are addicted to the drug.
“It used to be the path to get to heroin used to be a very long one compared to pot or booze,” said Allen, “but now, since the rise of prescription pill usage, and the fact that heroin has become so cheap and readily available, that path to heroin from the gateway drugs is just a step away. You could go to any street corner and get it within five minutes. The drugs are in every school. It’s terrifying.”
Allen says that mentality of “it takes a village to raise a child” needs to be amended a bit to, “it takes a village to save a child” from the harsh realities of this heroin epidemic.
“There’s no easy answer, but I think education has a lot to do with it, and schools should have a life skills program about this subject,” she said.
Most schools are trying to provide that education to students, but Allen believes schools need to do more. Wicomico County has begun to integrate opiate education like Allen’s speaking engagement and gave a copy of her book, “Dope Help,” a book she wrote after her daughter’s death from the perspective of her daughter, to each student who attended.
The book is a powerful account of how a young life can be destroyed by heroin.
What The Kids See
Cassie and Haley were two of those students in the audience. As 13-year-olds, you might think that they don’t have much exposure to heroin. When asked if they knew anyone their age that had ever done the drug, they both quietly nodded yes.
They both said that kids are turning to drugs at young ages because some are incredibly stressed out and depressed.
“The generation is terrible,” said Cassie. “Kids are really stressed out. There are parents who don’t care what their kids do anymore. There are kids who stay out all night and come to school drunk or on drugs, and their parents don’t care.”
Haley added that some kids seek the escape that drugs provide because they feel immense stress from the many different facets of life that they manage every day such as social media, cyber bullying, intensive school workloads and over-scheduling of their lives.
“Some kids just want to be kids,” said Haley, “and they think it’s too hard and they just find anyway to escape. The thing that was so powerful about Erin’s story is that she tried so hard to beat her addiction and she couldn’t. I don’t think kids realize the consequences.”
Cassie says the part that she struggles with the most in regards to the people in her life that she knows that are addicted to the drug is that heroin changes them fundamentally.
“They lie, they manipulate, and they steal,” she said. “You love this person and you want them to be okay, but you realize that they aren’t the person that you love anymore because of that drug. You just have to hope that they are in there still somewhere.”
The First Step Through The Doors
Kutresa Lankford is the Clinical Director of Addictions in Worcester County. She says historically, the people who came through the doors of the Worcester County Health Department would come seeking help for alcohol, marijuana, or maybe cocaine. That all changed in 2012, when a massive uptick in prescription pill addiction started to occur in the county. By 2014, it was almost all heroin.
“Heroin is what drives the numbers now,” said Lankford. “Almost everyone that comes in the door is there for full blown heroin addiction. You can’t put this drug in a box. It impacts everyone, and there is a shameful stigma that is attached to this drug, when you are in a small community, everyone tries to fight it in secret, and it’s too powerful of a drug for that.”
Lankford says while the drug doesn’t discriminate, the proliferation of the heroin in Worcester County is mainly happening in the northern end of the county, while the southern end of the county’s primary issues are still with alcohol and marijuana.
If you keep in mind the old adage “the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one,” Lankford believes that while the region is aware that it faces a real problem with heroin addiction, it may not fully understand the entire scope of the issue.
“It’s a very complicated problem, and we are finding that people who get involved in one of our treatment programs are not coming back through the revolving door of addiction,” she said. “Many are maintaining their sobriety, but there are just more and more addicted people that we are seeing every day. It is an epidemic.”
In And Out Of Sobriety
Marie Allen says while most kids will remember the way she found out about her daughter’s death, she says they may not remember the part about the two years’ worth of pain that Erin’s addiction caused her family. The rampant lying, and the senseless stealing, and the crippling worry that her addiction inflicted on her parents. At one point, Erin stole her mother’s car and sold it for $200 to get heroin.
“This drug took away her whole identity,” said Allen. “She described it as an abusive lover that she wanted to leave but would always go back to. It became her full-time job to get drugs. She was in and out of rehab and prison, and she was clean for about nine months when she relapsed. That was June 23, 1997. Writing this book is what really helped me, and I was in therapy for years. Ironically, my daughter wrote to me in prison and said she wanted to be a writer and she wanted to talk to kids about her addictions. I wish it was her doing this and not me.”