Dane County heroin deaths up from 15 years ago
Editor’s Note: This story previously had a headline stating that heroin deaths had increased 100 times over 15 years. This headlines was incorrect.
As Wisconsin’s heroin epidemic took hold of Dane County, and made it one of the most problematic areas in the state, the number of overdose deaths increased dramatically.
That 1,233 percent surge in heroin killing mostly young men in their teens and 20s can be seen by looking at what has happened since the turn of the millennium. Public Health Madison and Dane County numbers show Dane County heroin deaths increasing from three in 2000 to 40 in 2013. Numbers for 2014 have not yet been finalized.
To understand the reason behind the increase, Skye Tikkanen, assistant director of Connections Counseling, said you have to look at the nationwide prescription drug abuse crackdown directly impacting a hooked millennium generation.
“We took really good steps to reduce prescription opiate addictions. When we did that people who were already addicted to the prescription medications, but could no longer get them, they could get into recovery. Or they could start to use heroin,” Tikkanen said.
The struggle is rooted in those prescription drugs already changing the brain’s chemical wiring. Many addicts, fearing withdrawal, think they can not function without their next hit.
“There wasn’t anything else as a nation we could’ve done in that situation,” Tikkanen said. “But it has also had this really terrible impact into people using heroin.”
Every Wednesday night Tikkanen, herself a recovering heroin addict, helps lead an opiate support group inside the West Madison outpatient alcohol, drug and mental health clinic.
“I was anxious all the time. And if I made a mistake it was the end of the world,” Tikkanen recalled as she started telling her story. “But then a boyfriend got me to do it with him, in kind of a sneaky way. It made me feel no anxiety for the first time I could remember. And then after that it was a way I feel I could breathe. And then it stopped working. And then it destroyed my life. This is all of our stories. This is how it goes.”
Inside the session on a February night an 18-year-old farmer; 25-year-old Allie, a chef; and 27-year-old Allen, an information technology specialist, all told stories of turning to pills to numb their pain.
“Going off to college, and what I should do,” the young farmer remembered. “Just like loneliness and boredom. Just being out there in the world alone, the drugs really accompanied me, I guess you could say. Your friend for a while. It takes up your time. I was alone when I used all through the pill section. But when I got to heroin I couldn’t find it as easily, you know? So I’d go through other people to find it.”
“I didn’t really fit in with that many people in my school. I just started smoking. I clicked up with the stoners,” Allie said. “In the beginning just started out recreational. But then I started having the money to buy my own. And that’s when things got really out of control. I started using every day. Prescription pain killers became the first thing I really struggled with, I struggled with stimulants as well. And I had tried heroin a couple times.”
“I was probably 16 years old,” said Allen, who has been in recovery for almost 14 years. “For many years I used opiates and other prescription pain killers occasionally. I didn’t see it as a big deal. Then by 21, 22 (years old) it became an everyday thing. I used pretty hard for a couple of years.”
The only thing Allen said stopped him from trying heroin was getting arrested.
“The high’s more important than anything else. So, I wouldn’t have hesitated,” Allen said. “I lost quite a few people over the years. And I have to say almost all of them were due to heroin.”
In July, the State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse released an Analysis and Recommendations for Reducing Heroin Abuse in Wisconsin showing that heroin deaths doubled between 2008 and 2011. During that same time period heroin cases the state crime lab was processing more than doubled from 270 in 2008 to 648 by 2012. But one year later that number had jumped 62 percent to 1,056 cases. And they keep growing. Last year the lab processed 1,130 heroin cases.
Those now in recovery consistently talk about finding heroin through knowing someone who knows a heroin dealer.
“When you’re using drugs on a regular basis, you’re in contact with a lot of people that know a lot of people that may or may not be actively using heroin,” Allen said.
“When I got to heroin I suppose I couldn’t find it as easily. So I’d go through other people to find it,” the farmer added.
Madison police say supporting the habit is expensive. Between $150 and $200 will buy users five to 15 hits, depending on how heavy their habit is.
For addicts there is usually a common promise: They will never do heroin. But that self-assurance usually comes before drugs change their brain’s chemistry. Before the next hit starts consuming all of their thoughts.
“There was a lot of drugs I thought I would never do. But a year or two later I found myself doing them,” Allie said. “At that time I was so far into it I forgot about those promises. When your inhibitions are down you don’t really think about a lot of the things you’re doing. If I’ve already done this, and I like this, I might as well try it then and see how that feels.”
Allie’s heroin journey lasted until an ex-girlfriend overdosed and survived in front of her.
“So that scared me away from it. I had never been so close to death. I remember that day,” Allie said. “I wish that it could say to me it scared me enough to stop. But I went back to prescription pills after that.”
Until her own overdose. Allie’s mom discovered her and woke her up.
“I just remember sitting at home one day. And she told me that I was wasting my talent,” Allie said.
The 18-year-old farmer considers his heroin addiction karma.
“In high school I tried to live my life so perfect. No smoking. Like people who do drugs are worthless pieces of crap. And then I end up getting into one of the hardest drugs ever. I do heroin. And it’s like ‘What?'” he said.
Heroin’s new normal continues shattering stereotypes. For a lucky few they are now in recovery.
“When people think drug addicts are lazy, and then they meet us — a hardworking farmer, and smart IT guy and future star chef — it changes their minds,” Tikkanen said.
But just outside that recovery room, Connection’s remembrance wall shows the young faces of heroin’s other devastating reality.
“It’s the absolute worst part of this work. And when we lose somebody it’s like losing a family member. It hits us all real hard,” Tikkanen said holding back tears. “Addiction really comes from people’s pain. And if we can reduce people’s pain, we can reduce addiction.”
Inside the support group three young people embrace sobriety. Dealing with the pain that drove them to drugs has enabled them to turn their lives around and accept recovery.
“I feel like because of my past thoughts I was put through this to understand drug addicts aren’t worthless pieces of crap,” the farmer said. “I don’t consider myself a worthless piece of crap. I consider myself one of the best farmers around.”
“I’ve found a great job. I’m paying my bills. I’m doing all these things I would’ve never been able to do if I was still using,” Allie said.
“My sobriety date is April 17 of 2011. So it took me almost two years to get a grasp on recovery,” Allen said. “Currently I’m a field technician at a technologies company in town. I’ve held that job for three years, which is how long I’ve been sober. So there’s something to be said about that.”
When new Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel was sworn in last month, he won that election in part by putting drug dealers on notice, and promising to stop Wisconsin’s heroin epidemic. While recovering addicts say dealers are part of the problem, they consistently mention insurance issues as creating treatment barriers as the No. 1 problem they would like to see addressed.