The Face of Addiction

Heroin overdoses bring America’s drug epidemic close to home. Central Arkansas has seen its fair share of overdoses, and opioids don’t discriminate when it comes to race, gender or age.

By Dwain Hebda

The Face of Addiction

If there were any doubt the grip of drug abuse was tightening around the throat of the Natural State, the opening months of 2018 laid them to rest. Overdoses are up in a big way, and with them, deaths.

Five people had died out of the 40 overdose calls Little Rock Police Department responded to by the first week of February. Among the calls, was a 16-year-old Central High School student who survived overdosing on heroin in a school bathroom. MEMS recently reported overdose calls jumped from 166 in 2016 to 330 in 2017, while local emergency room officials tell of seeing at least one overdose case per day.

Statistics don’t fully capture the emotional toll the epidemic has taken on friends and loved ones. Cheyenne Matthews, 30, has trouble pinpointing the number of friends she’s lost to heroin just in the last six months. Off the
top of her head, she estimates it’s as high as 10, including several of Little Rock’s most recent fatalities.

“Some of these kids were teenagers. Some of them were beautiful, young 20-something-year-olds with their whole life ahead of them,” she said. “And some of them struggled throughout their 20s into their early 30s.”
Matthews said today’s smack is far more powerful than in the past, which explains why experienced drug users and first-timers alike are overdosing.

“This new, not-your-grandpa’s heroin, this new stuff you can’t just do a little bit and be OK. It’s just going to kill you. It’s when, and which time,” she said.

“The saddest part to me aren’t the ones who have been doing this for years and then this bad strain took their life. It’s the younger people who had no idea this is actually a deadly drug. Not that it wasn’t before, because it could be deadly at any time, but this is for-sure deadly now. You’re guaranteed to die.”

Dr. Caroline Morgan Ford, executive director of Wolfe Street Foundation and founder of the Dills House treatment facility in Little Rock, said changing perceptions among users have opened the door for wider use of hardcore drugs, even as a starting point.

“The stigma is different. When we were growing up, if you had to use it in IV fashion there was some deeper sense of taboo that way,” she said. “These kids today, there’s no stigma.”

“A lot of them never touch alcohol; they start with weed, so the bar is already lowered. And if you can take a lethal drug in a pill form, it lessens not only the fear, but it enables it to masquerade as something more harmless.”

Pushers reinforce this perception by the many ways heroin can be taken; a user doesn’t necessarily have to shoot up anymore, but can snort it, smoke it, take it in pill form or eat it in food. Ford said she’s heard of it cooked
into M&M-style candy. Whatever the form, the results are the same.

“Twenty years ago, chem-free houses would have been all alcoholics in their 40s and 50s. Now it’s opioid and heroin addicts in their 20s,” Ford said. “The intensity of the drugs have made people hit their bottom earlier.”
“You can string alcohol out for three or four decades and abuse it, but when it comes to fentanyl, and morphine, and dilaudid, and synthetic heroin, you can’t experiment with that in your 20s and then keep experimenting with it by the time you’re 50. It takes you to hell more quickly.”

State Drug Director Kirk Lane said the pervasiveness of today’s drugs is beginning to get the attention of parents, even those who previously couldn’t bring themselves to admit their kids are at risk.

“Parents and people in the community don’t really educate themselves on the issue until it happens in their yard or on their street, or to somebody in their family,” he said. “Then it becomes personal and they begin to get
engaged in trying to deal with the issue. I think that’s what we’re seeing now.”

Lane said it’s counterproductive to lay blame in any one area; he said the situation is so dire that all attention must be paid on how to fix things going forward.

“We created it, we can fix it,” he said. “If we don’t do something about it, we will be the first generation not to leave it better for the next generation. So we really need to put an emphasis on dealing with it. We need to work to affect the problem and stop pointing fingers at each other and point the fingers at ourselves about what we can do to fix this.”

Matthews has taken up that very call. She’s given free haircuts to users who want to quit at her mobile salon The Southern Blonde, and met with others in the community about how to address the situation. She proudly points out that for as many people as she’s lost, an equal number have found help and gotten their lives back together.

“One thing I want to make clear is that addiction doesn’t really have a face,” she said. “There can be people that are doing drugs all of the time and you can’t tell. They drive nice cars, they have a social life, they have friends. It
looks like they have things going for them.

“Addiction isn’t the homeless person on the side of the road. It looks like anybody.”