You can say that drug addiction could happen to anyone’s child, because it could. You can say that it happens in every community, because it does. But what happens when it’s your neighborhood? The residents of Campbell County, Kentucky know.
When you mention Matthew W. to some of the people who knew him, when he was in high school, even if you don’t use his name at first, they’ll know who you’re talking about. “Of course,” they’ll say. “I figured you meant Matt.” And then the teacher or the counselor or whomever will smile a smile that is genuinely warm and thoughtful, and you will naturally figure that their memories of Matthew are unclouded.
And you can imagine why. His skin is pink gold, the kind of color Norman Rockwell mixed for his cherubs, and his hair has the sort of soft, nape-of-the-neck curl that mothers love to snip and save in baby books. Matthew W., Campbell County High School Class of 2002, is every kid who ever sacked your groceries or lugged an instrument across the field at halftime.
The year since Matt graduated from high school has been a hard one in Northern Kentucky’s Campbell County. This past Friday there was a dramatic community meeting held in the Alexandria fire station. The police chief called it an intervention, employing the word that therapists use when they talk about confronting a person who is an alcoholic. But it was heroin, not alcohol, that prompted the meeting. Nineteen-year-old Mark D. and eighteen-year-old Adam M. had died of drug overdoses within weeks of one another, within months of their high school graduation. The death of Casey W., 23, from Kenton County, raised the local toll.
Both the Cincinnati Enquirer and The Post wrote about the growing threat of heroin among teenagers and young adults. Reporters were careful to talk about heroin use by kids all over Greater Cincinnati, but it was pretty hard to miss the fact that the deaths of these three in Northern Kentucky had prompted their attention. Their high school graduation pictures formed a gallery of heartache. Matthew W.’s picture could have been among them. He knows that now.
When Matt tells his story, he’s still trying to make sense of it himself. Sometimes it seems like a whirlpool of events, snapshots and memories that trail off to nowhere. The part that seems clearest is the part that’s the furthest away. Growing up Catholic in an Alexandria subdivision, going to St. Mary’s School and then Campbell County High School with his friends. The same crowd that signed up for AP classes, played together in the band, and spent weekends going to movies or playing cards.
It was in the ninth grade that Matt’s depression began. He told his mother he was sad, but it was more than that. He felt like he was living in darkness, that everything he did was a chore. His family doctor dismissed it as a phase. Routine adolescent doldrums. But as the months plodded on, the shadows never lifted. By the time he was 16, he was “self-medicating” with alcohol. He partied at the homes of a few like-minded friends whose parents were absent, and arranged weekend sleepovers so he could sober up before facing his parents. The drinking alleviated the depression, but as a depressant itself, alcohol became a double-edged sword. Downing a whole bottle of Jim Beam in the span of two hours became almost commonplace.
In October of his senior year, Matt’s depression was deep. His grades suffered, and music became less of a passion. On a particularly miserable fall afternoon, he made not one but two suicide attempts. First, he shut himself inside the garage and ran his dad’s ’84 Thunderbird until he passed out from the fumes. The car ran out of gas and he woke up. Then, he went inside and dug through the family medicine cabinet, collecting old pills and the painkillers he’d saved from foot surgery. He arrived at a friend’s party, pockets bulging with pills, and proceeded to wash them down with swigs of Jim Beam. Then he stumbled outside and passed out near U.S. Route 27. People from the party had to drag him back to the house, tearing his clothes and scraping his head along the pavement.
When he returned home the next morning, Matt had a black eye and his clothes were in shambles. This time he didn’t use the sleepover excuse. He told his parents what he’d done. They hadn’t known about the drinking. Hadn’t the doctor said not to worry? This was “just a phase.” Matt’s parents got help immediately, taking him to a therapist who specialized in adolescents. The therapist prescribed Zoloft for Matt’s depression, and insisted he start attending AA meetings. Matt took the Zoloft and went to therapy, but continued to drink. Only after four months did he start attending AA meetings.
In January 2002, after binge drinking, Matt tried heroin for the first time with a classmate named Chad. Chad was on the fringes of Matt’s circle at high school, a brilliant guy in Matt’s estimation, who could come to class stoned and still perform well enough to rank in the top five percent of the class. Chad had been using heroin for about a year and was happy to show Matt the way. Within seconds of shooting up, Matt felt like he was saved. He was on a high that cast daily life as a mere caption to his new picture of health. Twenty milligrams, $20, one fix, and Matt had never felt better. Today, it’s hard for him to recreate the precise rationale that got him there. Only that, at the time, “putting a needle in my arm made sense.”
In the 1990s, when cocaine began to lose its cachet, Columbian drug traffickers needed to diversify, so they added heroin to their product line. Once they got into the business, they refined it, producing a purer heroin that was also cheaper. The higher-quality, more affordable powder could be snorted, which actually helped people become users. It’s one reason that heroin use rose in the United States during the ’90s. A survey by the Department of Health and Human Services found that between 1993 and 1999, overall admissions for heroin treatment at public hospitals increased by 11 percent. But that’s an average. Some parts of the country (especially the Seattle grunge scene) were especially hard-hit.
Things always seem to happen later in our part of the world, and heroin has been no exception. Police and drug rehab professionals speculate that when Northern Kentucky law enforcement started clamping down on illegal OxyContin distribution, the local Oxy traffickers phased in heroin to serve their customers’ habits. “We saw OxyContin users, and when that was being controlled there was the swing to heroin,” says Dr. Mike Kalfas, medical director of the St. Luke Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. “I can’t prove it, but it’s sure a logical conclusion.”
Heroin changed Matt’s life instantly. Before, he had been sleeping 14 hours a day, but once he started using, he was happy and life became manageable. He took every opportunity to get high, in his room, in the garage, at Chad’s house. Once, during an AA meeting in a church basement, he shot up in the restroom. He convinced his mother that he was in control because he only used twice a week. If he forced himself to maintain some sort of schedule to his using, he reasoned, he wouldn’t become an addict.
By the first week in February 2002, Matt had spent all his savings on heroin. Stuck for cash, he asked his mother for money to get his girlfriend a Valentine’s Day gift. She gave him two twenties and asked for the change. Matt was gone for ages, and when he returned he had a card and a box of chocolates. Change from the $40? He insisted his mother had only given him two tens. The next day, Matt’s mom walked into his room when he wasn’t around and saw a cup of rubbing alcohol sitting out. Suddenly, the whole picture fell into place. She knew he was injecting heroin.
In early February of the following year, 12 months from the day Matt’s family faced his heroin addiction, 400 or so citizens of Campbell County crammed into the meeting room of the Alexandria fire house. The meeting had been called a couple of weeks after eighteen-year-old Adam M. died of an overdose. The idea was put together by law enforcement officers from several agencies, the county coroner, and the Commonwealth’s attorney, but it was Alexandria’s Chief of Police, Mike Ward, who organized it. He was sticking his neck out by hosting the meeting. Insiders said community leaders were worried about how it would make Alexandria look. But in the face of the tragedies, keeping up appearances didn’t seem so important to Chief Ward.
The conventional method of cleaning up a community drug problem, using informants to make controlled buys, then arrest dealers, wasn’t working. There was significant drug-fighting expertise on the south side of the Ohio River. Officers were prepared to deal with kilos of cocaine coming into the area, or an enterprising farmer harvesting marijuana. But keeping a kid from overdosing on a hit of heroin he bought five minutes before in another state seemed impossible. Unless you could keep him from using drugs in the first place. This was the intention of the intervention meeting at the fire house.
On April 2, 2003, Matt W. was one year clean. He was a freshman at a local university. During his first year of college, he attended NA meetings in Lexington, which was a two-hour round trip from campus. He continued to read books he purchased at an AA meeting. He kept busy, playing in the marching band, did tutoring for the math department, and carried 18 credit hours in the fall. In the winter, he started going home on weekends, and began rehearsing again with the band he’d put together in high school. It had fallen apart when he started using heroin.
One night he went with friends to a party where people were drinking and smoking hash. He turned on his heels and went back to his dorm. The same kind of struggle can be set off by the simplest of things. “I’ll wake up and I think it’s a gorgeous day, and I say ‘What a great day to be high!'” When that happens, he counters it with something equally simple. He simply remembers his mother crying one year ago on that February night before he went into treatment. When you talk to Matt now, he still doesn’t know everything there is to know about his addiction, or why he chose to do what he did. Nor does he know why he chose to stop when he did. But he’s learning about himself, which is one of the great gifts of recovery. He’s not afraid to go home again. After all, he comes from a good place.
Mandrell, L. and Vaccariello, L. (2003). Anywhere U.S.A., Cincinnati Magazine, 36(10), 62.