An issue of impact; Drug forum highlights the city’s drug issues

Published 10:22 am Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Editors note: Some people mentioned in in this story were identified only by first names.

When a young man named Isaac was “deep into it” — and “it” was a heroin-driven lifestyle — he woke each morning wondering where he would get his next fix.

“And I did not care who I hurt to get it,” he told an audience during a community forum on drugs Monday at Austin High School’s Knowlton Auditorium. He said he once even stole money from a 13-year-old. “I was a monster,” she said.

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Isaac’s story and those of other addicts comprised the centerpiece of the forum entitled, “Wake Up Austin,” one of a series of roundtable discussions that look at the different impacts of drug use, especially prescription drugs.

On hand were members of law enforcement, the judicial system, and recovery centers. The organizer was Chris Lukes, the founder of Circle of Hope, a support group for relatives of those who struggle with addiction.

Bill Spitzer, the planning and implementation coordinator of a $1million grant to prevent alcohol and drug use spoke, along with probation officer Deb Schmitt, Fountain Centers counselor Angie Bance, Austin High School teacher and former REACH advisor Thor Bergland, and Capt. Dave McKichan of the Austin Police Department.

All those in recovery who spoke Monday were identified by only their first names.

Isaac overdosed, did jail time and, finally, just wanted to die.

“You have to hit rock bottom to get clean; when you load up a needle and hope you don’t wake up from it, that’s messed up.”

Tiffany was hooked when she was prescribed painkillers along with antibiotics in the three years she was being treated for a kidney problem. When the drugs were no longer prescribed following surgery, “I felt I needed them to survive.” Soon, she was addicted to heroin, a cheaper alternative, and she was stealing from her family to help pay for her habit.

The fear of withdrawal kept her from completing treatment, but once she found the right program — one that used methadone, an opioid used to help off-set the impact of detoxification from heroin — she was able to continue and remain clean.

“I am thankful to be here,” she said.

Sarah, a mother and grandmother, went through treatment 10 times before finding a life free from methamphetamine and alcohol. Her life had been filled with guilt, hopelessness and “an out-of-control cycle of great loss.”

She called her addiction a spiritual disease that began to dissipate once she began to follow a Christian belief. Isaac also turned to a Christian lifestyle to help him deal with his addiction.

“I was broken for so long,” Sarah said, adding she had to change her belief system before anything else worked toward getting clean.

For all of the sad stories told, there was hope for a healthier community.

Spitzer said the recently-awarded grant would first focus on fighting alcohol use then drug use in Austin. Success would only come from the entire community participating and his plan was to emphasize “positive community norms” — a fancy phrase that really meant that accent on the positive was the order of the day.

“How about instead of saying 20 percent of our kids use alcohol, we say, 80 percent of our kids don’t use alcohol? Positivity breeds positivity,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer said he had first-hand knowledge of the willingness of doctors to over-prescribe painkillers. A dentist prescribed 30 days of Vicodin when he had a root canal.

“You can guess I did not take it for anywhere near 30 days,” he said.

Bance said those in her profession are “very aware” of the tendency of some doctors to over-prescribe, but she added “things are changing. We don’t have a lot of control (of the issue) in my area, but I am happy to see they are changing.”

She also agreed with Berglund that self-advocacy is effective.

When someone said a doctor had prescribed Vicodin even though he knew the patient was in treatment, Bergland said quizzing the doctor, giving him a history and discussing the issue spreads the responsibility of the issue.

“We go to the dentist, the doctor, the veterinarian,” he said. “We have things we need to do and addressing the issue with our doctors is huge.”

Tiffany earlier in the evening noted how huge the problem really is: In 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.

“Look how much our drug culture has changed in the last 15 years,” Bergland urged. “We as citizens need to educate ourselves” on its new profile.

The next forum will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 14 at the Annex Auditorium, featuring the FBI/DEA produced film, “Chasing the Dragon,” which will be moderated by an FBI agent from Rochester, said Lukes.