Opiate Addiction in America, Chapter One: A Heroin Story in Ohio
June 12, 2018
by Jerome Sessini
“The heroin doesn’t discriminate… poor, rich, women, men, black or white, for all it’s the same hell.”
I met Kay (not her real name) in the first LGBT “Sober House” in Cleveland. The house, a sanctuary for recovering drug addicts was opened back in July 2017 by Tony Correa, a former user himself. Those who come to the house have to quit using drugs altogether, it’s a space where they can get away from their usual surroundings and escape the influence of the wrong crowd.
The physical side effects of heroin actually occur for relatively short periods, there may be a few days, or even a week of pain but it’s the psychological pull which is the hardest to endure and the obsession may remain lifelong with relapse never far away.
Since Kay arrived on July 6, 2017 in Cleveland she’s been counting the days of her abstinence. “I had to quit my city, my relationship… get outside of my comfort zone.” After experiencing three overdoses in just two days due to heroin cut with fentanyl, she decided it was the final straw. She had her last overdose in her home in Chillicothe, three hour’s drive from Cleveland, and was saved by her 19 year old son Ethan. Fentanyl is so powerful that it can take two or three doses of Narcan to revive a person experiencing an overdose.
The first time we meet she talks about Chillicothe, a small town of 27,000 habitants, plagued by mass unemployment and the prevalence of opioid abuse. “You should go to this city in the south, over there it’s hell…people die everyday due to Fentanyl, dealers cut the heroin with it because it makes it more powerful, so more clients and more benefits…”
She asks me if she can go there with me, show me the places she knows but I’m concerned - “Is it a bad idea to go back there? Maybe it’s too early? You are going to see your friends who are still dealing with drugs…”
However she insists: “ I feel strong enough, I’ve been clean for nine months, it’s like a test... I miss my family so much, it will be an opportunity to see them.”
We check with Tony Correa, who responds with humour: “ I’m ok, but can you assure me that she will be safe with you? You are French and we all known about your reputation with women. So no sex, no bar, no smoke and no injection.” He says this while acting out giving himself an injection.
“There’s only one Magnum I know and that is the condoms…”
Kay has been taking heroin for 8 years, at the lowest points injecting up to 5 grams a day. “I needed a lot of money, I stole from my own parents, ripped off my friends,” she admits, “I was violent, a real threat to society. I was jailed more than 10 times, that was the only time I was clean, but as soon as I was out, I went straight back to it.”
In Ohio, needle exchange programmes don’t exist and it’s impossible to buy them in a drugstore. As a result addicts use their needles repeatedly, often sharing other drug addicts. Treatments like Suboxone, are only just being made available.
“Like everything else in the US, it became a business. First drug companies flooded the State with Oxycodone and other opioids, now they also want to make a lot of money on the back of addicts with Suboxone, but it’s just substituting one drug with another.”
According to Kay addiction is like a hereditary disease, she believes there is a gene for addiction. “My biological parents are completely addicted to heroin, I was adopted when I was 3 months old and I don’t have any contact with them anymore.”
Nearly twenty years ago Kay had become pregnant with Ethan after being raped by three men. He continues to live in Chillicothe, staying with his best friend’s family.
Kay introduced me to her adoptive parents, an elderly couple who lived in a pretty white house, quite “bourgeois”, far away from the urban area of Chillicothe.
After this we head to the “Drug House”, to met her best friend, thirty year old Missy - “She’s like a sister to me”.
Missy’s three children have been taken away from her because of her addiction, a fourth died at birth. When she was just four years old, she was raped by an uncle. At a young age she started spending time in bars, drinking strong alcohol and smoking weed - later moving on to speed and meth. “But I ran it, I was pretty, I had many friends, I liked to have fun.”
Her life suddenly changed three years ago when a friend introduced her to heroin.
“The first time I didn’t really like it - it made me sick, I was throwing up, and it made me itch, it was disturbing. However, I kept going and now I need at least one gram (around $10 dollars) a day, just to not miss it and to be ok.”
Missy is homeless, she squats with people she knows, stays at the drug house, or sometimes with a friend who is also a dealer, a dope-boy.
She explains that prostitution has increased proportionally to addiction among women but maintains her privacy about how she herself gets money. She also lived for several months with an ex-dealer in a motel on “Dope Street”, the main thoroughfare that links Cleveland and Colombus.
“Sometimes we made $10,000 a day selling drugs.” For her it was a good period, plenty of money and easy drugs.
Missy often shared her drugs with friends. One of her friends Serena, who’s around 35 agreed to speak to me and being photographed. She said she needs Missy to help to take the drugs, “alone, I can’t”.
Missy needs to try four times before finding a vein and will shoot up twice in a row. “Firstly I will take the half of a standard dose just in case the dope is cut with Fentanyl, I can detect it now by colour and taste.”
While the Fentanyl has caused several overdoses, heroin users are not afraid of it. In fact, the powerful impact of this product can attract drug addicts.
Missy introduces me to her cousin, Sara, 27 years old, who also had two children taken away. She is seven months pregnant but this doesn’t stop her shooting up. Eight months ago her doctor prescribed oxycodone for pain relief from scoliosis. By the time the prescription ran out she had become addicted and began to take heroin instead. Now, she turns to prostitution on the Second Avenue to cover the cost of her habit. She earns between $50-400 a day.
On Sunday we left for Cleveland, but Kay asks me if I can take her to Chillicothe that night after picking up her belongings from the Sober House. She wants to go back to her city, her home. I told her that there is no way that I could take her to Chillicothe, it’s too early to go back, too risky. I feel guilty. She tell me that it’s her choice, and after nine months clean she feels strong enough to go there and she misses her son who needs his mother.
Second Chapter of Jerome Sessini's on-going documentary project on The Opioid Crisis in The US
Click here to access the images for licensing requests and lightbox editing.