Escaping the Killer High: Recovering heroin addicts talk about the road to sobriety

Escaping the Killer High: Recovering heroin addicts talk about the road to sobriety

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - In desperation, a woman called 911 when her husband overdosed on heroin in their Covington home.

"You hear the frantic in this woman's voice, and you hear the children crying in the background. For me, I could almost feel this man dying on the phone," says Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz.

Lentz says this emergency call is a prime example of how heroin affects entire communities.

"Years back you might see one or two of them a year. That's a lot, but now it's almost daily. It's an epidemic, and it's taking over not just my community but the country as a whole," says Lentz.

In the U.S. heroin overdose deaths nearly tripled since 2010.

The number of heroin deaths in places like Orleans Parish reflects the national trend.

"Essentially, the first half of the year, we've gone over by at least 150 percent by looking at the numbers last year," says New Orleans Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rousse.

From January through July of this year, 90 people died of an opioid overdose. That's far more than the 60 people who died in all of last year.

"In New Orleans, we are actually for the first time seeing numbers of overdoses that parallel the murder rate," says Rousse.

Rouse says there's a disturbing trend in heroin overdoses. Dealers are now mixing heroin with an extremely potent synthetic drug called fentanyl. It's a Scheduled II narcotic manufactured in a lab and can easily kill.

"Heroin dealers are cutting the fentanyl into the heroin and users may not be used to it. So if you look at the number of deaths with that drug alone, it's on an exponential curve," says Rouse.

In 2014, three people died with fentanyl in their system. In 2015, the death toll rose to 12, and so far this year, close to 30 people died with fentanyl in their blood.

"We could be looking at three to 400 percent increase in the number of persons dying from this cousin of heroin," says Rouse.

"I've had friends dying around me doing that. They were just dropping like flies after Katrina, doing too much and mixing things with them," says Michael Breaux.

Breaux is a recovering addict and lives at Bridge House. The 37-year-old started using painkillers after a sports injury when he was 19.

"Eventually the pills ran out. Everything ran out, and the heroin came in. It's a different feeling. It's a feeling that it gives you. It gives you confidence and energy. It gives you anything that you want to do, you have the ability to do it," says Breaux.

Breaux says he felt, at first, like Superman, but that feeling didn't last and he found himself chasing a high. Eventually, he knew he needed help.

"I ended up waking in jail. I had no clue how I got there. I ended up getting transferred to a psych ward because I couldn't tell them what happened. They didn't know what was going on. Then, I came to Bridge House after that," says Breaux.

Ashley Fowlkes says she suffered from an alcohol addiction for years, but she wanted more. At 32, Fowlkes made the decision on Mardi Gras night to shoot up heroin.

"I really thought that I could control the situation easily because everything else in my life was normal. I had a job, a car, an apartment. My family loves me. I come from a good background, so everything was fine and functioning. I just felt like it was something I could do on the side as my own little secret," says Fowlkes.

Fowlkes says her life quickly began to spiral downward.

"I was up to five or six times a day. It was about $200 a day to just maintain," says Fowlkes.

On July 29 of 2014, Fowlkes' heroin use took its' toll.

"I was driving in a blackout and I didn't know it. I crashed my car on Magazine Street, and when I came to they were pulling me out of the car. The pedestrians had called my mom, and my mom had showed up. I didn't know what to do. All of a sudden, I was hit with what was going to be some serious consequences. I had just come out of this blackout. I had no shoes on. I didn't know where I was, and I looked at my mom and in a huge panic, I said, 'I need help. I've been an IV drug user for almost two years.' Her eyes got huge," says Fowlkes.

Fowlkes' family helped her detox, and she entered Grace House seven days after the crash.

"It's very very hard coming into a treatment program, especially one like Grace House or Bridge House, because we ask for a long-term commitment," says Michelle Gaiennie.

The average length of stay is six to eight months. Recovering addicts receive treatment for free.

"Most of our clients have lost everything. They don't have a job. They don't have health insurance. They don't have family support. They've lost housing, and that is the client we've here for," says Gaiennie.

Recovering addicts at Bridge House meet several times a day with counselors. Many of them admit, it isn't the first time they've been through a treatment program, but becoming clean and sober after heroin use can be extremely difficult.

"I ended up homeless in the French Quarter after 23 years of drinking and doing drugs. I almost finished college. I was an LPN for a couple of years. I had all of these opportunities, and I just squandered them," says a recovering addict at Bridge House.

Gaiennie is the executive director of clinical services at Bridge House. She says the long-term program offers a lot more than just treatment.

"Our clients throughout the course of their treatment, they're in therapy for their substance abuse. We have a vocational counselor they work with. We have resume writing and job skills," says Gaiennie.

The heroin epidemic is even affecting places like Bridge House, where 50 percent of the clients are opioid addicts and there's a waiting list to get in.

"Prior to the heroin epidemic, there was not a waiting list. We do have a waiting list now, but I don't want people to lose hope," says Gaiennie.

She says getting treatment is key, and few people can detox on their own.

"I'm three-and-a-half months sober, and I've never had that full sobriety," says Breaux.

Breaux is looking forward to the future with his wife and young son.

"You just have to have the right mindset and never give up hope," says Breaux.

Fowlkes' been clean now for a few years, and she's nine months pregnant.

"I actively work with other women who go through the same struggle because it helps me to help them stay clean and sober," says Fowlkes.

Experts say heroin's deadly influence is rooted in our community, and solutions are few and far between.

"This is not a situation in which we can arrest our way out of this problem. This is a public health crisis," says Rouse.

Counselors say if you or a loved one have gone down this potentially fatal path, the only road back is professional help before there's no way out.

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