May 17, 2016
|By Sarah King|
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Scraps of newspaper obituaries, photographs of the departed and handwritten notes in memory of loved ones collage the bottom third of a sectioned-off piece of the wall at the McShin Foundation’s intake office.
The delicate ensemble pays homage to lives lost to addiction – a tangible mnemonic indicative of a statewide epidemic. Inches to the right, the rest of the wall is covered with photos of smiling faces, separated from the deceased only by a faint line of demarcation.
“This is how we keep track of people when they leave housing,” said Michael Quinn, the intake specialist at the foundation, a local nonprofit recovery community organization. “If they’re doing well they’re above the line. People will come in all the time and kind of shift things around so we can keep better track of how people are doing.”
Unfortunately, not everyone’s face remains above the halfway mark – a reflection of a wave of deaths in Virginia due to fatal opiate overdoses.
Opioids – both prescription pain medications and heroin – account for most of the spike in fatalities. The number of fatal opioid overdoses increased 86 percent, from 475 deaths in 2010 to more than 880 last year, a CNS analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Health found. Opioids made up more than 90 percent of the state’s drug deaths in 2015.
Quinn attributes the sharp rise in drug abuse partially to the availability of more potent heroin.
“A lot of dealers are cutting the heroin with phenobarbital, which is a deadly combination,” he said. “And the other thing is, heroin’s become more of a popular drug in suburban and upper-class neighborhoods, so it’s becoming more acceptable.”
In Richmond, the number of heroin deaths jumped from five in 2010 to 38 last year. Over the same period in Henrico County, the number rose from four to 27. In Virginia Beach, it went from three to 18. And in Fairfax County, it increased from two to 32.
Nick, a Fairfax County native who asked that his last name not be used, knows firsthand about the addiction that drives those statistics.
“It was like when I was high, I could live in this fantasy all the time that was, ‘I’m gonna go to school tomorrow, and fold my laundry, and start working out, and cook dinner,’” he said. “But as soon as I came down, my only concern was getting back to that place of contemplative productivity by getting another hit.”
Now 22 and almost a year into a treatment program in Florida, Nick tried prescription painkillers for the first time at 16.
“It progressed from whenever I could get them, to raiding medicine cabinets, to finding my own dealers for the next three years,” Nick said. “I started using every day at 19, and that continued until about 20, and then I was injecting.”
Nick said his parents were unaware of his growing addiction until his father had to cover a $500 drug debt about nine months before he went to treatment.
“It was when I started using heroin in addition to the pills, and the unmanageability during the times when I had no drugs was too much to bear, that I decided to get help or I was going to die. So I checked into treatment,” Nick said. “My parents didn’t know I was IV’ing until we got to the ER the day I asked for help.”
Quinn said he hears stories like this all too often. The McShin Foundation works to erase the stigma associated with addiction and getting help.
“When somebody says they’re an addict, people think of them as this nasty junkie person you don’t want to be with,” Quinn said. “The media always portrays the problem – the arrests and drug dealers – but they never show the solution, which is people recovering and living regular lives.”
Quinn, like all other administrators at the foundation, went through McShin’s peer-to-peer program personally. He has been clean from opioids for more than a year. The foundation’s CEO has been sober for nine; the director of operations, five; and the founder, John Shinholser, more than 30.
“It’s an everyday battle still,” Quinn said. “I have a sponsor, I go to meetings – it’s working. And people can relate to us and can’t use the excuse of ‘Oh well, you haven’t been there, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ because yeah, I have been there, and I do know.”
The McShin Foundation is now in its 12th year. About 60 percent of its clients are addicted to opioids. Quinn said the rate of recovery is higher than at most treatment centers.
He said traditional centers typically have an 18 to 20 percent success rate – which is determined by a year of sobriety – whereas success rates at McShin are closer to 50 percent.
Because the nonprofit McShin Foundation does not receive any government funding and insurance companies don’t recognize the program, Quinn said treatment must come out of pocket for individuals and families. But clients say it’s well worth the cost.
“You’re investing in someone’s life,” Quinn said. “My parents tell me all the time the best investment they ever made was getting their son back – and that’s priceless.”
For the past two years, the opioid epidemic has claimed, on average, more than two Virginians’ lives a day for the last two years. The toll has spurred state officials into action. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in particular is taking strides to address the rise in fatalities and opioid abuse.
Last month, Herring was awarded the Bronze Key, a national recognition presented for outstanding contributions, from the McShin Foundation at the organization’s 12th Annual Spring Awards Banquet.
“So many families across Virginia have been touched by addiction to heroin and prescription opioids, and too many have already lost a loved one to a fatal overdose,” Herring said. “In many cases, this is a problem that has its roots in the medicine cabinet, not in the streets, and that the medical community has to be part of the solution.”
Herring’s office created a documentary “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” which features Virginians, including some from the McShin Foundation, sharing their personal stories of grappling with addiction and recovery, as well as the stories of people who died from overdoses.
Herring has also worked with local and federal authorities to prosecute more than 28 cases against dealers and traffickers involving more than 95 kilograms of heroin – which equates to 238,500 daily doses and a street value of more than $19 million.
“So often, shame, stigma or fear forces families and those with substance abuse disorders to suffer in silence,” Herring said. “But we cannot and will not let ourselves become hopeless or discouraged. We have to make sure that people who are struggling know you can beat addiction. There is life after addiction, and there is hope in recovery.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state lawmakers across party lines agree have joined forces to address the problem. During the 2015 legislative session, the General Assembly made naloxone – a potentially life-saving opioid-antagonist administered in the event of an overdose – more widely accessible to law enforcement and health-care providers.
Last October, McAuliffe’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse released its recommendations, and state officials are implementing some of them. They include developing a website as an informational hub on prescription pill and heroin abuse, creating an opioid educational curriculum for law enforcement, reducing the stigma associated with addiction and increasing the availability of peer-support services.
According to a recent policy brief by the VCU School of Medicine, untreated substance abuse costs the state and local governments more than $600 million annually.
“Virginia’s opioid epidemic and untreated substance abuse are killing hundreds of Virginians and costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars each year,” said Andrew Barnes, the brief’s lead author and an assistant professor at VCU.
For young adults like Nick and families across the state, there are emotional costs as well.
“A close friend of mine relapsed and overdosed on Dec. 18. It’s hard seeing someone give up on themselves and go back to their old ways,” Nick said. “I’m a fear-based person, but my fear of dying from this disease is the reason I keep doing what I need to in order to stay sober.”
Richmond native William “Billy” Derr, 24, passed away from a fatal overdose last month. Derr’s mother, Jenny, wrote in her son’s obituary, “As those who struggle with addiction know, it is a daily fight, hour by hour, and is ever constant. Billy had some extended periods of sobriety; those were the times when his true genuine heart shined through.”
In the obituary, Deer stated:
“To the people who don't understand addiction, he may be just another kid who made a ‘bad choice.’ For those who do understand the disease, this was our oldest child, a brother, a friend and as his mother, my children are my everything. The disease of addiction is non-discriminatory and without mercy. It is up to us to open our minds and hearts to those suffering from the disease. We will continue to fight the fight.”
So will the McShin Foundation. It provides a rapid detox program, which tapers the individual off opioids over five to seven days. Quinn said what separates McShin from other treatment centers is that there’s no waiting list.
“If someone calls me, they can come in today, see the doctor and get put in a bed that day,” Quinn said. “If someone needs help, there’s always a bed available.”