Kirk Shaffer went to his AA meeting during his lunch break Monday and after it was over, the shadow of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death crept into conversations and sowed doubt in his mind.
Not because Hoffman was a talented actor, died too young or that he’d been found with a needle still stuck in his arm after an apparent heroin overdose Sunday. Shaffer, a 25-year-old from Huntington Beach with two years and eight months of sobriety under his belt, was mostly struck by Hoffman’s reported 23 years of sobriety.
“It made me feel a little weaker,” Shaffer said. “Honestly, whenever I see something like that happen, it triggers me to think – what could happen after more than 20 years that would make them relapse?”
In Orange County, death from opioids, the family of drugs that includes heroin, is a reason for concern with overdoses happening at a clip of one every other day.
Hoffman’s death also brought out one of the tricks of addiction – drawing doubt from anywhere to feed the addiction. Shaffer recognized the disease’s pull when he asked the group a question after Monday’s meeting.
“That guy had 23 years and was nominated for best actor,” Shaffer said. “That’s all pushed under the rug. All they will look at is that he relapsed.”
Hoffman’s death shocked a lot of people, but it rocked some in the recovery community even harder. It was a combination of sadness, regret, familiarity and reality. Addiction comes in many forms and destroys lives. The drug, Shaffer said, is secondary. It just so happened they shared a taste for the drugs in the opioid family.
Through November, the Orange County coroner’s office showed 187 people died from an overdose of an opioid in 2013; 36 of the cases involved heroin. An additional 164 deaths remain under investigation.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a steady increase of opioid overdose deaths between 1999 and 2010 – the most recent data available. In 2010, 38,329 died of a drug overdose and nearly 60 percent involved pharmaceutical drugs. Of that total, 16,651 involved opioids.
Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at Phoenix House – a drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization, said opioids are an “epidemic” in the U.S.
He said the opioids – which include prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, and illegal ones like heroin – physically alter the brain after regular usage in as little as two weeks. When the body comes down off the high, the brain tells the person who is awash in paranoia and flu-like symptoms that the drug is needed to stay alive.
“It hijacks the brain’s reward system,” Kolodny said.
The shifting usage between heroin and pharmaceutical opioids can be attributed to a variety of reasons, he said, but cost can be a key driver.
Sarah Pullen, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said a bag of heroin on the street can go for as little as $8. Prescription painkillers can fetch about four times that amount.
Tim Truelove, 54, has overdosed about a dozen times, relapsed three times and had a heart attack.
He said he saw his fiancée die of a drug overdose and that he comes from a family of addicts. He said that hearing Hoffman died alone made him look back at his journey. It occurred to him that all of his heroin overdoses came when someone else was nearby.
Had someone not been there, he’s not sure he’d be here – sober for 11 years.
Truelove also said the addiction tries to deflect focus from deaths like Hoffman’s. And his fiancée’s.
“It’s pretty sick, but when you hear someone OD’d on heroin, the first thing you think is – where did they get it?” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t good quality or the dosage was wrong.”
Kolodny said overdoses often happen after an addict exits rapid detoxification. He said the body’s tolerance for the high dosages being ingested goes down, and when addicts go back to using, they will start at the dosages they were at just before entering detox.
That can be fatal, he said. Kolodny said it’s important to get effective treatment after the detoxification.
Shaffer agreed and said a critical part for him is having a support structure in place, because the struggle is ongoing.
“For me it’s just as real today as it was a year ago, as it was two years ago, as it was three years ago to stop using,” he said. “It’s not any easier. For me, I want things out of life, to know I have relationships I value highly and I’m trying to combat that illness I have inside by maintaining those relationships.”
BY DAVID MONTERO / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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