Five years in recovery from opioid addiction, Kasandra Quednau has an intimate understanding of the depth of a crisis that is ravaging our communities, not just locally but nationwide. Every day 78 people in the US die from heroin and painkiller overdoses, while many more narrowly escape death with the anti-overdose drug Narcan—now a must-have of police officers and emergency workers. After the deaths in 2015 of two young heroin addicts in her hometown of Woodstock, New York, Quednau and her partner Shayna Micuccico founded Rt. 212 Coalition, a community-support and awareness-building group. Quednau shares her story here, along with the stories of Audrey Degondea, a mother and nurse from Kerhonkson, and Paul Arteta, police lieutenant in charge of Orange County’s drug task force.
Kasandra: An Ex-Addict’s Story
I started drinking and smoking weed when I was in seventh grade. By the time I was 16 I was experimenting with ecstasy, acid, anything I could get my hands on—it gave me a purpose, friends, and a distraction from my life. My friends all had access to Vicodin and Percocet out of their parents’ medicine cabinets. The first time I snorted OxyContin it changed my life forever. It took away my friends, family, morals, choices, and any opportunity I had for myself.
It was through drugs that I met my boyfriend, a partner in crime just as in love with opiates as I was. Being addicted was the farthest thing from my mind: I was just a kid thinking I was having fun. When I started getting depressed, even suicidal, I saw a therapist and tried to get off pills. But I felt sick when I didn’t have drugs, and that gave me another excuse to get high. I had to get high so I could go to work. So I could be normal.
There are things in life I said I would never do. I said I would never drop out of college, but I was too high to go to class. I said I would never shoot up. Soon pills got more expensive and harder to get. Instead of pills, the drug dealers started having heroin. So we started buying heroin and snorting it. Then my friends took the only natural progression with opiate addiction: They started shooting up. When you hang around something long enough it becomes acceptable. By the time I was 21 I was shooting heroin every day.
Life spiraled down: My boyfriend and I got kicked out of my apartment, he lost his truck, we had no money. When I was dope sick and throwing up on myself, I’d yell and scream and say I’m done with this life. Finally, I left everything and went to rehab for three days. I moved in with my aunt, started waitressing and rebuilding my life. I stayed away from heroin for six months. Then I talked to my boyfriend again; he told me he was using and I thought I could save him. I got high the next day. Soon after, I overdosed and he had to call 911. I was a slave to heroin all over again.
The desperation you feel when you’re addicted will drive you to make choices you never thought you would make. I burglarized an innocent person’s home just so I could get my next fix. At my sentencing the judge allowed me to attend a shock incarceration program so I could be eligible for an early release. It was a six-month military prison boot camp. I could have only one 10-minute phone call every two weeks, three-minute showers, and four minutes to eat. It was the hardest experience of my life, but I was able to focus on the reasons I ended up there in the first place. I started to forgive myself and others, and that’s when everything changed. My aunt allowed me to move in with her upon my release. She never stopped helping me or believing in me.
I enrolled back in college and received a 4.0 my first semester. I saved up for a downpayment on a new car and finished parole early because of good behavior. A year to the day of my release, I signed the lease for my new apartment. I took a state credentialing course to become a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor, making it my mission to fight addiction for myself and others. I have turned my life around and am greater now than I ever imagined.
Audrey: A Mother’s Story
My son Ean has been gone almost eight years now. I had been trying to reach him all day from work and he didn’t answer his phone. When I got home his truck was there, and I had this really awful feeling. I asked my daughter, where is your brother? She hadn’t seen him. I looked at her and said, he’s dead, he’s dead in his bedroom. I went downstairs and he was dead in his bedroom. He was 20 years old.
From the time my son was a little boy he was the kind of kid who would take chances. He was really smart, almost to the point that he was bored in school. In his teenage years he had two groups of friends. There was a group of really good kids. And then there were these other friends. I think the most disturbing thing to me is that people knew he was hanging out with bad kids and experimenting with drugs, but they didn’t tell me. He was up to something and I felt it. I said to him on the Sunday before he died, what is going on with you? I feel like a train is about to run us all over. I said, tell me, I can help you. He said, Mom, what’s the matter? Everything is fine. On Tuesday he went with his friend and drove to Poughkeepsie. This kid bought heroin and my son was afraid to inject himself, so the kid did it for him. I heard him come home late and I was upset but was going to wait until morning to talk to him. I never got that chance. I don’t know if I could have gone on if I didn’t have his sister. I was paralyzed with grief. For weeks, I just sat.
Ean had already been in rehab one time for 28 days when he was 17; he’d been smoking pot and taking pills. But 28 days wasn’t enough: It was like putting a Band-Aid on a limb that had been blown off. We’d had so many conversations about drugs and alcohol, how they could destroy your life and the lives of the people around you. I told him once that anyone who does heroin is going to be dead. You might as well stand in front of a car. Kids don’t think anything bad can ever happen to them, that they’re super and invincible. Heroin is cheap. They use these little insulin needles that don’t leave track marks; they steal them or get them from diabetics.
Parents who think, that’s not going to happen to my kid—get your head out of the sand. Good kids can do it. If people suspect or know, they need to talk. They need to tell families, moms, a guidance counselor, somebody who can intervene. My son, he had a wonderful personality. Kids loved him, he loved kids. He was fun to be around, he loved to work. He was going to start college in September. Wondering what could’ve been for him, it really hurts. The people who sell drugs, they’re selling death in sweet little paper packages. People just don’t get it. It could be their kid.
Paul: A Police Lieutenant’s Story
We started the drug task force in 2014, and we’re seeing a constant increase in the numbers of heroin arrests and heroin use as well as prescription pill use. There were over 70 drug overdose deaths accounted for in Orange County last year, but the statistics we have are greatly underestimated. The people we are reviving are clinically dead—the Narcan snaps them right out of it. Our police officers have been carrying it for two years, but users may also have Narcan. It’s a crux for them. They think, I’m not going to die because one of my friends has it in my group and they’re going to bring me back. It’s not a cure-all and it doesn’t work for everybody. The heroin is still in the body and needs to be removed, and that takes time. Many of them come out and refuse medical attention. There’s no fear of overdosing because it’s such a euphoric state.
We’re seeing a younger and younger population starting to ingest drugs. Your kid can be a straight-A student and continue to be addicted. The parents just refuse to believe it—it’s someone else’s kid that’s doing it. A lot of the families, since it’s such a disgusting drug, they don’t tell. It’s a very embarrassing thing for them. For the most part the recorded overdose deaths are middle-aged white males. They’ve been using it for so long and the body is just giving out. With the younger generation, the body is so resilient; they bring themselves near death and their bodies are bringing them back to life.
Every drug, no matter what it is, including alcohol, it fills some type of gap in people’s lives. Maybe it relieves a symptom for something else, just like marijuana may relieve a symptom. Heroin may have a positive effect on some type of system while having a negative effect on the rest of the person’s life.
The people who are addicted to heroin aren’t bad people. They do bad things because of the drug. We’re seeing an increase in larcenies, people taking credit cards, stealing out of sheds—anything they can divert to cash to purchase the drug. In the past if you had friends or relatives come over, you’d have everyone throw their coats and pocketbooks on the bed and go and enjoy the party. Now they have to leave their belongings in their locked vehicles.
In many cases, end users are also becoming dealers. They can travel maybe an hour away and purchase the heroin for $5 a bag, then sell it for $10 to $25 a bag here. Most of it is coming from Mexico. Law enforcement is doing as much as we can, but the cartels, they’re relentless. It’s a never-ending pool of money they have. Every day there’s a different manipulation or tactic to bring all the heroin into this country.
To combat it, the public needs to speak out more. We need to put more money into mental health, and there needs to be more funding to help and teach people. A lot of it has to start in schools with their programs. We’ve gotten away from that and kids are missing out. Honestly, these people who get addicted are just like you and me. They’re good people who got caught up with a very bad drug.
This is the first in a two-part series about the opioid epidemic. This story originally appeared in Chronogram magazine.
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