The number of overdoses kept rising. The reality of growing up in Akron is that those numbers became people I knew. I wanted to humanize the heroin epidemic by turning statistics into stories.
In June 2017, I met Brandie (last name withheld) through mutual friends on Facebook. She shared a post about being addicted to heroin, and wrote that she isn’t less of a human because of it. We met for coffee. When I told Brandie what I liked to do, she asked me if I could share her story.
This is a preview of Brandie’s journey so far. After I showed her these photographs, she said to me:
“Wow, look at my life. This is no life at all.”
Last spring, a young woman in rehab confronted a whiteboard with instructions to draw a timeline of her drug use. Her denial of addiction vanished.
“I didn’t realize until I was told,” says Brandie, 18. “Laid out on the board, from age 13 to 18, things just went downhill. I saw that was all my life was consumed of; all of my hobbies- drawing and painting- went out the window.”
Brandie is addicted to heroin. Returning multiple times to the same detox clinic in Akron, Ohio, she keeps fighting this demon as she fears a life in which she will never get clean. However, Brandie’s withdrawal symptoms keep her in fear of the detox.
“Waiting out a withdrawal is like waiting for the sun to come up,” she says. “My muscles are extremely uncomfortable; it feels like it’s never going to end. I can do nothing but cry and pace around my house.”
Brandie also suffers from restless legs that won’t stay still if she attempts to sleep without using. One night, she described licking her finger and tracing it around a drawer in hopes of finding “a pebble” of heroin to use.
At the age of 13, Brandie found a prescription sitting on the microwave prescribed to a family member in post surgery.
Brandie learned about drugs with the prefix oxy in health class, and remembered reading about their “euphoric rush.” Her mouth watered.
“I ended up taking them,” says Brandie. “I loved them, and I just kept taking them, and taking them; and when they ran out, I found myself fucking taking ibuprofen because I didn't want to go to school without a high that I craved.”
A year later, the 14 year old mentioned the pills to a stranger she met at a bonfire. He suggested heroin to her, and she tried it that night.
“No one told me about the sickness,” she says. “The first time I tried it there was no negative consequence, so why not go back to it?”
When Brandie’s habit developed, she ran out of ways to afford it. By the age of 18, when I began this story, she started stripping to support her addiction.
“The stupid club made it so easy,” says Brandie. “I know that’s where I went wrong, I knew it right when I stepped into that club.”
Brandie’s boyfriend, name withheld, doesn’t like Brandie working in a club. She says she has little choice because she needs something without a schedule that pays a lot.
Her boyfriend also struggles with heroin addiction. They met through their dealer, and now they both want to leave this lifestyle behind. In January 2018, they decided to check into the detox clinic again together.
“I have literally lost more than I've ever lost in my life before. When I got to detox this week, it dawned on me how much shit I'm going to have to take care of and how much I'm going to have to face and deal with in my clean life,” she says. “I feel like in my clean life, I’m going to be a shit person because of my past.”
“I want to get out of this lifestyle and get our lives on track,” her boyfriend said. “Basically this lifestyle is over, no one wants to be a ‘junkie,’ no one wants to live like this- no one wants to be living in poverty, blowing a grand a week on dope.”
Brandie refers back to the photos of her nephews when she gets sick to remember how much she wants to be in their lives.
“Please be patient with me. I tell (boyfriend) this all the time, it’s just getting worse, so one day it's going to get better. I tell myself that I know some people have bad endings, but I keep telling myself that maybe I'm just getting closer to my rock bottom so that I can finally go up. They tell us to stop digging, like I know I could consider all of this already a rock bottom. But for some reason, I don't know why Alyssa, I keep digging and digging."