One statistic demonstrates how heroin has exploded in abuse in Wisconsin.
According to state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Jim Pertzborn, 199 people died of a heroin overdose in Wisconsin in 2012 — up 50 percent from the previous year.
Between 2000 and 2007, 29 people died in Wisconsin of a heroin overdose.
If that statistic wasn’t enough to grab the attendees’ attention at the beginning of “Not Just a Big City Problem” at Platteville High School Feb. 18, perhaps Pertzborn’s next statistic was:
The number of children ages 12 to 17 who have tried heroin is up more than 300 percent since 1995.
Pertzborn called heroin use “self-perpetuating once someone gets hooked. This problem is not going to go away quickly. … There are not many degrees of separation where you don’t know somebody who hasn’t been affected by heroin or opiate usage.”
The presentation by the S.A.F.E. Grant County Coalition, the Grant County Sheriff’s Department and the Platteville Police Department was the second held in Grant County this month. The first was at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore Feb. 6.
The presentation started with statistics — S.A.F.E. Grant County projects director Kathy Marty said 75 percent of first-time heroin users use again — before moving to personal examples.
One is Mike Fernette, an AODA counselor for Unified Community Services of Lancaster, who last used heroin in May 1990. Fernette missed a recovery group meeting for the first time in more than 20 years to attend the session.
“Ten years ago, I rarely got a call from anyone on heroin,” said Fernette, who now gets one or two calls per week. “Once you do heroin for a short period of time and you try to stop using heroin, you get violently ill. Your bones inside you hurt, and it feels like you want to rip the skin off yourself.”
Fernette described heroin as “like a warm blanket nobody can take fron you.”
Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman mentioned Todd Stenner, Boscobel’s police chief, whose godson is addicted to heroin. Stenner spoke about his godson at the SWTC session.
Stephanie Soat, 23, of Dubuque, spoke of her 6½-year-long experience with heroin, which started with her getting drunk every day for six months while she was living with her father and his girlfriend.
Soat told the story of living with her father in Iowa and her mother in California, getting on and off heroin, starting with smoking a black tar bead of heroin. She once spent $5,000 in two months on heroin, and once got drunk to get through the withdrawal from depression.
“In that moment in time, I felt completely happy,” she said. “The safety net is what you get addicted to. … Heroin consumed my life; it was the only thing I did.”
Soat tried to commit suicide with a bottle of Tylenol. After one rehabilitation attempt, she took intravenous painkillers, then returned to heroin. Her addiction continued through pregnancy, the birth of her daughter, marriage, getting and losing jobs, and multiple overdoses. She lost custody of her daughter twice.
“There was a time heroin was so potent that I overdosed three days in a row,” she said.
The loved ones
Another speaker with firsthand experience of the effects of heroin is Vicki Allendorf, of Dubuque, whose three sons are addicted to heroin. She started the I Hate Heroin Facebook page, which has more than 60,000 Likes. Allendorf was Soat’s former roommate’s mother.
Allendorf’s oldest son began by borrowing his mother’s prescription painkillers from her back surgery for what he said was shoulder pain.
“Sometimes, he was hyper; sometimes, he was tired,” she said, adding that he rapidly lost weight, the result, he said, of not eating junk food. “What was it? We didn’t know.”
Allendorf found out from a friend of her oldest son that he was using heroin. Then, her other two sons and one of their girlfriends started using.
Allendorf said she got no help from her ex-husband, who she said was an alcoholic. She started the Facebook page to get help and support. “They were part of my solution,” she said.
She first heard from addicts’ parents, then started hearing from addicts themselves. “Their answers came, and with their answers I gained a window into my sons’ addiction,” she said.
In two years, Allendorf’s sons went through seven overdoses, multiple rehabilitations, mental hospital stays, suicide attempts — one son tried to hang himself so he wouldn’t go out the next day to find heroin, she said — and appearances in courthouses, “begging for help, begging for help, begging for help,” she said. “As I stand here today, my three boys are alive — barely — and that makes me a lucky one.”
Allendorf said that because of Sam Harris of Dubuque, who was robbed and killed in a drug deal in Fitchburg in June 2012. Harris was a friend of Allendorf’s sons.
“One thing that will take addicts down is the complete empty feeling,” said Soat. “It was so hard to tell heroin — my friend, my companion — no. There isn’t a day that goes by without missing the feeling of the comfort of the needle. I have to remember I could be the next person who dies.”
“Parents need to come together and help solve it and not be so judgmental,” said Allendorf. “Heroin addiction requires long-term treatment. You cannot treat heroin in 30 days; you cannot treat heroin [as an] outpatient. There is a small, small window of time an addict is lucid and wants help.
“Heroin addicts are not bad people trying to be good; they’re sick people trying to be well.”
Allendorf got trained to administer Naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of a heroin overdose, which saved her son’s life one month later.
“The more angry I got, the more they spiraled,” she said. She learned to ask “how can I help you … understanding and compassion instead of anger.”
Allendorf said Good Samaritan laws — similar to one proposed by state Rep. John Nygren (R–Marinette), whose daughter is a heroin addict — need to be enacted because “many, many kids die alone, even if they were with someone when they used.”
Law and treatment
Prescription drugs lead some abusers to heroin, including, Richland–Iowa–Grant Drug Task Force detective Brian Monahan said, Ritalin.
The task force had 16 heroin-related arrests out of its 128 2013 arrests.
“Every one of them told me it started with tobacco and alcohol, and it went to marijuana and other drugs,” said Monahan. “They wanted to get a bigger high.”
Monahan said many parents are too embarrassed to report their children to law enforcement because they don’t want their friends and neighbors to think of their children as junkies.
Monahan said burglaries and thefts are increased in the area because “they’re pawning stuff to get their fix. … By the time it comes to me, they’re in jail and they want to help themselves.”
Monahan said one way to tell if a property may be a site of drug distribution is “short-term traffic … car traffic and foot traffic” — for instance, a rental property where someone stays less than five minutes before another person arrives. Another sign is a property where the occupants are up all night.
Fernette said the area’s culture enables addiction.
“Everything around here leads to drink,” he said. “I don’t want to say drinking leads to heroin addition, but our society is about escape.”
Fernette said neither Grant County nor Iowa County have a methadone program. This area has “only outpatient available here, and you will have to wait six to eight weeks to get into my office.” The nearest residential treatment facility, in Prairie du Chien, is closing this month.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and wants to be a junkie,” he said. “And once you are one, your whole focus is on getting high.”
Dreckman admitted law enforcement is more about enforcing the law than treating addicts.
“Our instinctive goal is always enforcement,” he said. “What we need to realize is that our problem is a little bigger than that.”
“Please don’t judge us,” said Soat. “As long as we’re breathing, there is hope.”
Dreckman considers heroin to be worse than methamphetamine, because the latter “doesn’t kill like heroin does.”
Dreckman said two heroin deaths have occurred in Grant County, including one in Platteville July 4, 2012, and “we don’t want any more.”