Commonwealth Journal

Local News

September 28, 2013

Heroin addicts discuss the intense highs — and horrendous lows — of being a user

Somerset — Charli Girdler has been on drugs for most of her life. The 26-year-old Somerset native is lodged in the Pulaski County Detention Center for drug charges. This isn’t her first time behind bars.

And she knows it probably won’t be the last time. Now sober, thanks to what she said were around two weeks of withdrawal symptoms as she came down off of heroin and meth, Charli said she’s positive she’ll fall back into old habits with bad people as soon as she’s released (a date that has yet to be handed down).

“I think if I get out and stay around here, then no, I won’t (get clean),” Charli said, about her chances of getting on the straight path.

Charli has been on some type of drug since she was around 15 years old. When asked why she started abusing substances like opiate pills — OxyContin, hydrocodone, etc. — heroin, and methamphetamine, she said it was in her nature to rebel.

“Just as a kid, I was rebellious,” she said. “I didn’t go to school, and I just always had the mentality of ‘You tell me not to (do something), I will die trying to do it.’”

It wasn’t long before Charli, who preferred to shoot up drugs, discovered heroin. Heroin, now making an appearance back in Somerset as opiate pills and meth-making ingredients get harder to obtain, is an opiate as well. The scientific name for heroin is diacetylmorphine morphine — morphine plus two synthetic substances.

“The best for me to describe it is ... Oxy (a slang term for OxyContin) is just like heroin,” Charli said.

Another young person who has seen the first-hand effects of heroin, who we’ll call “John” for this article, as he wanted to remain anonymous, described the effect of heroin in more specific terms.

“Heroin is just 10 times more intense than painkillers,” said John. “I felt so good (when I did it), I never wanted to feel any different.”

John is 22 years old, and he’s currently homeless. John has tried to survive for years by crashing at friend’s houses and sleeping under overhangs and in shelters. He eats when he can, and gratefully accepts small offerings of food and cigarettes from kind souls.

John said painkillers give the user a sense of extreme happiness, what he describes as euphoria. But he never looked back at painkillers after trying heroin, thanks to its more intense impact — and his ability to access the drug easier than painkillers.

Charli agrees that heroin is the drug of choice for many right now.

“It’s just easier to go to big cities or have it (heroin) delivered in town,” she said.

Heroin, once thought to be a problem of the larger cities, is making its way straight down the pipeline from areas such as Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., and into Somerset. Lexington officials are reporting alarming numbers related to heroin use as well, and detectives here have said Somerset’s location — around 70 miles south of Lexington — has made the trip that much easier for dealers and users.

Charli used heroin for the first time when she was 16 years old.

“It’s taken everything from me ... changed me into something I never thought I would be,” she said.

John has been clean for more than a year. But he’s struggling to get back on his feet. He said he’s fortunate that he hasn’t done time for drug charges, but he said getting a job is nearly impossible for someone who can’t call anywhere home.

“I guess you can call it an escape, like a temporary fix,” said John, about why people use drugs.

Charli, who has three children, all of whom are now with family members, said getting high is always in the back of her mind.

“I pray to God to take away the urge to go out and want to use again,” she said. “It takes complete control of your mind, who you are.”

Charli said she does drugs to escape reality — and to be able to forget what she’s facing outside of jail, like her kids, and any questions they may have about their mother.

“It just helps me escape reality, it just helps me to deal with society,” said Charli. “(I) push things to the back of my mind that I want to forget.

“It’s so much easier to take a shot of heroin than face my kids ... make false promises to them and never show up,” she added.

Charli has been in and out of jail, and she’s served time in state prison once, since she began using drugs. The last time she was released, in April 2012, she said she made an effort to get clean. She said she had her own place, was working again, and was even seeing her children daily.

But she began to slip.

“I started hanging out with the same old people,” she said. She soon began using heroin, meth, OxyContin, and whatever else she could obtain. “I fell back on whatever I could get.”

Soon, she began seeing her children not every day, but once a week, and then she would go even longer without visiting with them. She was eventually arrested on manufacturing meth charges. Her case has yet to be resolved in Pulaski Circuit Court, but she said she’s written a letter to her judge asking for rehabilitation.

“Jail is not a cure for you,” she said. “It’s not a rehab center. Everyone just sits around talking about using again, and how they can’t wait to use again.

“It’s a disease we have, and we’ll always live with it,” Charli continued. “One’s not enough, and a thousand is never too much.

“For me, it’s just pulling that blood back (in the syringe), injecting the heroin,” she said, although she noted that the urge isn’t just for the substance, but for the feel of the needle in her skin. “It was at first the substance that I put in it, now it’s just the ease of the needle going in.

“It (reality) is all pushed away,” Charli continued. “I think that’s why we do it.”

Besides the intensity of the high, heroin also carries with it another characteristic that separates it from pills: A much higher risk of accidental overdose, thanks to its variability in potency.

Painkillers are created in laboratory settings, which means every tablet carries with it the same potency. Addicts know exactly how much they need to get their fix. Heroin, however, starts out in pure form, and is “cut” with each person it passes through. In other words, each person wants a piece of the pie, and so he or she adds some type of substance to it that can pass as heroin, but it also lowers the potency of the product.

John said this is especially common when it comes to a common form of heroin around here, called “khaki,” which is characterized by its light brown color and grainy consistency.

“A lot of times, they’ll put flour in it,” said John.

And if a user shoots up heroin expecting it to be relatively weak, but ends up using the same amount of heroin with purity at around 75  percent instead, an overdose is very likely.

Charli overdosed on “black tar” heroin — known for its sticky consistency and dark brown color — in 2006 for that exact reason.

“I had been getting some heroin, and it wasn’t worth crap,” she said. “I got some other stuff and I didn’t realize it was so much better.”

Luckily, a family member found her, and she eventually recovered.

“That’s why you hear a whole lot more about people dying on this instead of Percs (Percocets),” said Charli.

But Charli didn’t stop. She said the thought of overdosing is never in her mind.

“I never think there’s enough there,” she said. “ ... With heroin, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.”

John said  when he used heroin, overdosing wasn’t a possibility to him.

“It just never really crossed my mind,” he said.

The two have experienced withdrawal symptoms while coming down off heroin, and they have very similar descriptions.

“It’s just hurting all over,” said John. “I went through it for two to three weeks ... my legs hurt, my spine even hurt.”

Charli has gone through withdrawal several times — once for each time she’s been in jail or prison.

“Your body hurts so bad, you can’t eat, and you can’t sleep,” she said. “My legs and arms hurt all the time.”

The symptoms occur after a user is suddenly cut off from the substance. Opiates signal the brain to cut back on producing endorphins — a natural painkiller produced in the body that helps with normal daily aches and pains. The more the user takes opiates, the less and less endorphins are made. Once the substance is removed, the body isn’t naturally producing sufficient endorphins anymore either, and the result is agonizing pain, complete with fever, chills, sweating, bone aches, nausea, and other symptoms reminiscent of an extremely bad case of the flu.

John has stayed off of heroin for over a year. He said he thinks about it every day, but he’s managed to stay clean because he’s ready to move forward with his life.

“I just wasn’t going anywhere,” said John. “I got to a point where I was like ‘I got to do something else, this ain’t working for me.”

Charli doesn’t know what her future holds. She knows that if she continues on the path she’s on, she will spend far more time in jail or prison, or end up “in a pine box.” She said she wants help getting away from her addiction.

“I’m not looking to get out of jail, avoid my sentence, but I want help,” she said. “That’s what we need ... I want to prove people wrong. I feel like I should have that opportunity, that chance.”

But she knows she’s tested everyone’s patience — family, friends, and the court.

“I was so stubborn and hard-headed there was nothing they could do for me,” she said. “I promised them (my family) so many times, ‘I’m done, I’m done, I’m done.’

“But telling obviously isn’t getting them nowhere,” Charli continued. “I have to show them.”

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