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SoutholdLOCAL special report:
Heroin addiction: Lawmakers, treatment specialists and police anxiously work to contain an expanding epidemic

When she woke up in the middle of the night, she immediately knew something was wrong.

It was 3 a.m. The lights in the house were still on. The bathroom door was still closed. And the water was still running.

She’d been tossing and turning in bed and when her 25-year-old son came home two hours earlier, she felt relief. She heard him go into the bathroom and she heard him turn on the water before she fell asleep.

The water is still running. A panicked internal voice told her that was not right. She jumped out of bed. The lights were still on. She turned the knob on the bathroom door and pushed — it was blocked. She pushed harder. It wouldn’t budge.

Nearly nine years later, Patricia Sapienza-Brown recalls in vivid detail what happened next — almost minute by minute.

She banged on the bathroom door, screaming her son’s name.

“George! George!”

She hollered to wake up her daughter Erica. “Call 911! Call 911!”

She knew, she says, she just knew — and the tears flow as she recalls the horror of March 7, 2007.

“I broke the door down,” Sapienza-Brown recalls. Her son’s strapping 6-foot-3 frame was on the floor, against the door. “When I tried to turn him over, I just lost it.”

Almost out of nowhere, Riverhead Police Officer Michael Mowdy was there.

“He picked my son up and carried him into the living room, threw him on the floor and began working on him. He tried everything…” Sapienza-Brown’s voice trails off. “I knew, though… You can just tell.” She pauses. “I think he must have been lying there for a while.”

2014 0415 heroin

A growing epidemic
From 2010 to 2014, overdose deaths — the vast majority of them from heroin — increased more than 50 percent in Suffolk County, rising from 189 in 2010 to 284 in 2014, according to the county’s medical examiner’s office.

The statistics for 2015 are not yet finalized, but the preliminary numbers show drug overdoses responsible for 317 deaths in Suffolk County last year, according to data provided by the medical examiner’s office.  Most are from heroin and other opiates.

The magnitude of the problem comes into sharper focus when overdose reversal numbers are taken into account. The number of overdose deaths and reversals taken together, will likely exceed 800 for the first time in 2015.

* including 130 suspected overdoses pending confirmation
** as of Nov. 30, 2015

Overdose reversals have risen sharply in Suffolk as the opiate antidote naloxone, used by EMS and hospitals for more than 40 years, has been made more widely available, thanks to new legislation and FDA approval of new, easier-to-administer forms of the drug.

“The reality is, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know someone who is suffering from heroin addiction,” Suffolk County Deputy Police Commissioner Tim Sini said in an interview last month.

“It started in the ‘90s with an influx of powerful pain medication that was over-presecribed throughout the country,” Sini said. The widespread availability of those highly addictive opiate-based pain pills led to their widespread abuse. Government’s efforts to restrict their availability only led a rising number of addicts to turn to heroin to fill their needs, he said.

Many heroin addicts first became addicted to prescription pain pills — either because they were prescribed for an ailment or because they experimented with them as recreational drugs. But the high cost of those pills on the street — as much as $100 a pill — leads addicts to turn to heroin, available at a fraction of the cost.

Photo: Michael's Hope
Photo: Michael’s Hope

That’s already an all-too-familiar story, one that’s been told over and over again to legislative task force members and a Suffolk County grand jury empaneled by District Attorney Thomas Spota in 2011 to investigate the issue.

Paul Maffetone, of Laurel, watched his older brother Michael become addicted to pain pills prescribed to treat a hand injury, then move on to heroin. Michael died of an overdose in February 2012 at age 29.

“I watched how his life became taken over by this drug. I watched him lose everything. Visits in jail, the day by day struggles when he was home, the withdrawals, the lies, the stealing, the pain in my parents and myself, then the ultimate consequence,” Maffetone said.

He has made it his mission to raise awareness about the horrors of heroin and the symptoms of use, which are not necessarily easy to recognize. To that end, he founded a nonprofit, Michael’s Hope, and is hosting educational forums and Narcan training across Long Island. One is scheduled in Mattituck on Feb. 4. See prior story.

‘Heroin? It wasn’t even on my radar’
One North Fork mother whose son is in the grips of heroin addiction said he became addicted to pain pills legally prescribed to him by a physician. Then he moved on to heroin.

“At first we didn’t even realize what was going on,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because her husband is a police officer.

“It wasn’t even on my radar,” she admits. “Heroin? You just don’t think of it.”

The heroin user is not the junkie shooting up on the corner, Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said. “That’s what it was years ago. Not any more,” he said.

“People you would never expect to be using, you would never have any inclination. Many can still lead a quasi-normal life, hold a job, go to work, et cetera. You would never know they have a habit like that,” Flatley said.

“The truth is, the heroin problem really is an issue among the middle class,” according to Suffolk County Police Det. Bob Donohue, who runs a program called “The Ugly Truth” aimed at high school students and their parents. “And there’s a level of denial, a level of embarrassment. Parents are ashamed. They say, ‘What did I do wrong’ and so there’s a level of secrecy.”

Heroin use has become “more mainstream, more socially acceptable,” Donohue said. And that’s exactly what worries prevention specialists and law enforcement officers most, because — make no mistake — it is highly addictive.

“Heroin is not a drug you can dabble with, not something you try once or twice,” he said. And that’s a perception Donohue’s progam is battling among Suffolk County’s youth.

According to police and school officials, heroin has not yet taken root in the school-age population across the North Fork. They are working with prevention specialists to make sure it doesn’t take hold.

Southold Town Police are partnering with county police to bring “The Ugly Truth” program to North Fork schools. Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney said the district is exploring that and other prevention curricula.

Donahue’s program consists of an in-school curriculum for students and awareness education sessions for parents — accompanied by training on how to use the heroin antidote Narcan.

Raising awareness among parents is the first step in prevention and rehab, according to Donohue.

“Alcohol and marijuana are still the gateway,” Sini warns. While not all alcohol and marijuana users end up using heroin, nearly all heroin addicts used alcohol or marijuana first. “It’s very rare that the first drug a person tries is heroin.”

Parents are usually pretty familiar with the symptoms of alcohol and marijuana use. But heroin — not so much.

“People will not know their kids are on heroin,” says Patty Brown, “because once they have the fix, they’re normal.”

One thing to watch for is a person dozing off to sleep. “If they just took a dose, they will nod off, just like that,” she says.

When her son starting shooting heroin, Brown says, “my spoons started disappearing.”

Addicts build a tolerance and that’s what usually leads to overdose. They need more and more of the drug to satisfy their cravings, which are powerful — so powerful it’s unbearable not to have a fix.

George Brown
George Brown in an undated family photo

‘He was crying like a baby’
Brown vividly recalls her son’s efforts to get clean, his attempts to go without the drug he felt like he needed to stay alive.

“He felt like he was dying. He said he felt like you were taking his skin and rolling it back,” Brown recalled.

George battled his addiction for “a good four years, maybe longer,” Brown said.

“We tried to get him into every rehab you could think of,” she said. “It’s not easy — you have to be — like, dying.

“And when they do take you, you’re in for three to five days,” Brown said. “All they do is wean you down, then you’re on your own. That just defeats the purpose. I think once they accept them it should be mandated, a locked facility for 30 days,” she said.

On the nights he went cold turkey, trying to get clean on his own, she was up with him all night, holding him as he writhed on the floor “crying like a baby.”

George got “lucky” when got into a methadone program, his mother said. “Methadone did help.” For a time.

Lack of sufficient, accessible detoxification and rehabilitation programs remains a problem, according to a state legislative task force that issued a report this week, following a series of community forums held throughout the state to gather information on heroin addiction.

The detoxification process takes from seven to 14 days, the legislators heard, but insurance companies often allow three or fewer days for detoxification. Many hospitals are closing their detox centers because of insufficient Medicaid reimbursement rates, according to the report.

Parents often resort to having their children arrested so that they can get detox services, the legislators heard.

Rehabilitation is required following detox, or the addict is sure to relapse. But rehab programs are “fraught with problems,” the report says: unwillingness of insurance companies to pay for inpatient services; too few programs; long waiting lists to get into existing programs; and the high cost of drugs used to treat heroin addiction.

And without long-term care following rehabilitation, relapse still remains likely, according to the task force findings.

But Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, says prevention and rehabilitation efforts are futile unless they address what causes of alcohol and drug use in the first place.

“In the digital and highly technological world we inhabit, we are inundated with stimulation,” Chassman said. “Our world is so full of stress and uncertainty. And I think people are looking for relief.”

His organization, which offers counseling at three offices on Long Island, including one in Riverhead, saw more than 1,300 people last month, a record in its 60 years of operation.

A disproportionate number of them are 15 to 30 years old, he said.

“Why are people trying to anesthetize themselves at such a young age?” he asks. He believes it’s “overstimulation, which leads to anxiety, which leads to drugs. People are looking to self-medicate,” he said.

“We need to do better as a society. We need to teach healthy coping skills,” Chassman says. “We need to do better with education and prevention, with building self-esteem, improving communication skills and creating healthy support networks.”

Government sends mixed messages, irresponsible messages, he argued, pointing to medical marijuana and the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

“Our young clients, every single one of them started with alcohol and marijuana,” Chassman said. And marijuana today is not the same as the pot smoked when these kids’ parents were young.

“Marijuana today is 200 to 300 times more potent than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Chassman said. “We let parents know, if you smoked a little in the ‘60s ‘70s or ‘80s, this isn’t that marijuana.”

“We have to teach our youth that there are healthier ways to socialize,” he said. “Get involved helping others. Invest in being emphatically and socially useful to others. Learn to regulate your own emotions without pills and powders and potions. Shut off your computer, put down your phone.”

Photo: Fotolia stock image
Photo: Fotolia stock image

Melanie (not her real name) started socially drinking in high school. She grew up in a home where both parents drank — to excess, she now knows.

The Wading River woman is 31, a new mother, a business owner — and a heroin addict in recovery.

“I did very well in school. I didn’t do drugs. I saw a lot of people do a lot of drugs, but I stayed away. And never heard the word addict.”

She continued social drinking and then one day, almost on a whim, she “tried a pill” offered by a friend, she says. “I said, ‘why not’ and took it. Then I kept saying ‘why not’ and began experimenting. Then the why nots kept coming more frequently. Without even realizing it, I became that addict.

“I was truly comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life,” she said. I was able to handle life situations, a skill I didn’t have. I didn’t realize it would transform into ‘I need this’ the way it did, so quickly. I was about 20 or 21,” she said.

“In the blink of an eye, I found I was highly addicted to heroin. I couldn’t say no anymore. It had me. It truly had me.”

An addict’s story
Melanie recounts her fall into the abyss of heroin addiction, a path that took her from sniffing to needles, to get a better, faster high.

“I hated needles. I always hated needles. But I had this guy shoot me up. It took watching him do it once to make me do it myself,” she recalls.

“The unacceptable becomes acceptable. I thought it would never be me, but there I was.” She turned to dancing as a stripper to earn money to feed her habit.

Eventually, “the legal system intervened” and she ended up in drug court.

A court psychologist told her, “I give you a year. You’ll either be back here again or you’ll be dead.”

She was in detox three times. “I was stopped in detox. I was stopped in jail. My problem wasn’t stopping, it was staying stopped. My problem wasn’t heroin. It was the fact that I had absolutely no skill within me, I had nothing to live life with. My go-to was to get high, whether it was a good day or a bad day.

“When you live this lifestyle, you get caught up in this lifestyle,” she said. “You know to lie, cheat and steal just to make it through the day.”

People, counselors included, told her “just don’t use” and “don’t pick up the first one” but, she says, “If I could do that, I wouldn’t use. In hindsight I came to realize I had lost the power of choice over what I did.

“On Oct. 20, 2009, my mother slammed the door in my face,” Melanie recalls. “That was the best thing she could have done.”

Melanie says she knew her addiction — or the lifestyle she led because of it — was going to kill her. But it was the only thing she had.

Instead, she says, “I went into court. I had an enormous amount of warrants out for my arrest. I knew if I went in there, I’d be arrested. And I was,” she said.

Jail saved her life, starting with what would be her last detox.

“Everything changed after that. I learned a whole new set of values. I swear to God, I was sitting in the DWI trailer, I had 13 misdemeanors, all drug-related. I remember sitting there, surrounded by barbed wire, and looking up at the sun thinking I felt so free for the first time in my life.”

In jail, Melanie said she learned she wasn’t “crazy” — the counselors and the people who worked with her understood. “For the first time people understood,” she says.

She met a counselor who was a recovering addict — “a junkie,” a woman who was sober through the 12 steps.

“She introduced me to this God idea. I thought- ‘you’re out of your mind’ but I had nothing. I didn’t even have a bag of clothes. I looked at my life and you know, I really effed my life up. How bad could this God thing be? It couldn’t be any worse than what I’d done to myself,” she reasoned.

For the first time, she said, she owned it — the addiction, her identity. “Rather than being victimized by it, I was empowered by it. You have to concede to your animal self that you are this thing. That’s your ticket to freedom.”

All of the other things that “had grips over me” — being raped as a young teen, being abused by her violent father — no longer had power over her, she said.

“I started getting this soul food that let me deal with these things in a different way,” Melanie says. “It’s not the pain itself. It’s how you deal with the pain.”

Melanie said she needed to cleanse her soul. “The God idea, the soul idea, it sounds crazy to some people. But when you gain a relationship with God, it gives you a set of morals and values. When you get that relationship outside of yourself… you change fundamentally.”

After nearly six months in jail, she was released on March 25, 2010. She went to a sober house for 13 months, and then to a transition house. She got a job, bought a car, enrolled in Suffolk Community College. She has since graduated with an associate’s degree and a 3.8 GPA, making the high honor roll. She is working on a bachelor’s degree in education.

Melanie is engaged to be married and had a baby daughter in November.

She is a regular speaker in drug court and chairs a group for addicts in Riverhead.

“When you find out you’ve been given a gift, a miracle,” she says, “You have to give that gift away.”

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.