For Holly Wright, heroin was bliss.
It was cheap, and it was everywhere. She craved the rush of energy that came with the high, but soon she needed the drug just to get out of bed and feed her children without feeling dopesick.
But last year, she was confronted with a choice. She could keep her addiction and lose Dani, then 2, and her older brother Brayden, then 6. Or she could get treatment and start clean with her family.
By then, heroin had already taken her job and her money. And she didn’t realize the damage it had done to her children.
“When you’re getting high, it don’t matter,” said Holly, 34, now living in Pittsburgh in housing provided by Sojourner House MOMS. “I thought as long as they had a clean diaper on and food in their belly, they were fine.”
Holly is one face in a state and national crisis.
Heroin is cheap, plentiful and extremely addictive, and it does not discriminate based on race, place or social standing. It’s in urban Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It’s in the suburbs. And it’s in places like Kittanning, a small river town in Western Pennsylvania where drugs used to be sold behind closed doors, and now they’re on the street corner.
Kittanning, a town struggling with few jobs, little to do and easy drugs, is where Holly became an addict.
In Armstrong County, where Kittanning is the county seat, paramedics seem to respond to calls of overdoses nearly every day, the county coroner said, though only 13 heroin users have died this year.
In nearby Allegheny County, heroin has been detected in 239 overdose deaths since 2013, according to the latest available figures.
Meanwhile, treatment facilities struggle for funding, and insurance companies routinely refuse to pay for long-term care until an addict has numerous relapses. Those costs are instead transferred to hospitals and prisons, common refuges for addicts who can’t get clean.
(Produced and edited by Molly Duerig and Natasha Khan/PublicSource)
‘Took every dime’
If she didn’t come out and tell you, Holly might not seem like a recovering heroin addict.
She’s like any other young mom, tired and a little frantic from trying to juggle life with a son with disabilities and an active 3-year-old daughter.
With little makeup, her usual attire is jeans and a sweatshirt. You can tell she loves her kids. She smiles and the corners of her blue eyes — like Dani’s — crinkle as she talks about how they made cupcakes together the other weekend.
She would never have paid much attention to such an experience last year, when her top priority was getting her next fix.
Now she’s serious and listens carefully, and she talks freely about her addiction, as if recounting how much she’s changed helps her get through each day. She’s going to meetings, seeing her son in therapy, playing with her daughter, cooking supper for the family.
Holly’s journey with drugs started at age 12 with marijuana. She’d steal it from her mother, she said, and she smoked and drank through high school.
At that age, she was shy and had difficulty fitting in, and drinking was an easy way to loosen up and make friends. Holly said her mom used drugs and was an alcoholic, but her home life was happy. Even if they had arguments, Holly still had everything she asked for.
In her early 20s, Holly turned to harder drugs like cocaine, both powder and crack.
These were party drugs — for the weekends — and she was still paying her bills and getting up for her job in the kitchen of a nursing home.
“It wasn’t a big thing there,” she said. “I could still function.”
Holly prided herself on being reliable. She’d worked since she was 16, and she always saw herself as self-sufficient. Drugs were just for her free time in Kittanning, she said, where there’s little but bars, laundromats and a Wal-Mart.
When she moved to opiates, it was pills at first: Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin.
Those names are familiar to the more than two million Americans who have found themselves hooked on opioid painkillers, often prescribed for pain. But many found them too expensive and turned to heroin, which is cheaper.
Holly snorted crushed pills socially with friends, she said. She still felt in control, and she still showed up for work, doing laundry at another nursing home.
In her 30s, she moved to the world of syringes, burnt spoons and glassine bags. At first, heroin was recreational. Something to do on payday.
But then she fell hard. And it was every day, and it was crippling.
She’d wake up sick, anxious about the vomiting and diarrhea that would come if she didn’t inject. And she’d lie on the couch, scheming about how she’d get money for a fix.
A stamp bag cost just $10 to $15, a pittance compared to what she might spend on painkillers, yet, over time, the heroin “took every dime.”
“After a while it was like, OK, don’t pay the bills,” she said. “A little bit after that, you’re selling your food stamps. Everything.”
Small town, hard drugs
Kittanning, roughly 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, has a scenic view of the Allegheny River. But the former manufacturing town has fallen on hard times, with unemployment higher than both the national and state rates, according to the most recent census estimates. The median household income is $35,735.
As the county seat, people used to drive in from the surrounding area to shop downtown. Now they drive past it to shopping malls.
“The only thing really left to do is drink and do drugs,” Holly said, “because they took everything out.”
But heroin is plentiful.
Addicts used to drive to Pittsburgh and bring drugs back to sell at inflated prices so they could pay for their own fix.
Then city dealers saw the profits they were missing and started cutting out the middle men, said Kittanning Police Chief Bruce Matthews. Parking lots and street corners became drug markets.
Today’s heroin users, Matthews said, grew up with campaigns like “Just Say No” and more anti-drug education than any generation. Yet they still inject.
Using drugs means ignoring clear warnings, Matthews said. But he concedes that towns like Kittanning lack so much as a movie theater to pass the time.
In Pennsylvania – and across the country – heroin has penetrated all walks of life. Once it takes hold, fighting addiction can be next to impossible.
“I’ve been here for 21 years, and I don’t have a success story yet,” Matthews said of those who try to get off heroin.
For addicts, shooting heroin brings a blissed-out relaxation they can’t get from anything else.
The drug provides an intense initial rush, followed by a long, sluggish nodding-off period. Pulse and breathing slow. Pupils tighten. Limbs feel heavy, while the drug blocks pain signals sent up the spinal cord.
“It covers up pain. And pain is the worst thing,” said Douglas Stubbs, 28, Holly’s boyfriend, Dani’s father, and an addict. “If you’re depressed and that stuff, us addicts go to our drug of choice.”
A year ago, Dani, a curly-haired blonde with blue eyes who was just learning to speak, found a baggie of her dad’s anti-depression and anti-seizure medications in an unlocked desk drawer and swallowed enough to overdose.
By Holly’s telling, she came out of the bathroom and saw Dani drooling pill fragments after she had gummed them together. Holly rushed over to dig them out with her fingers.
Dani went limp on the way to Armstrong County Memorial Hospital, Holly said, and her face was purple.
A helicopter took her to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“In the beginning, we didn’t believe the child was going to make it,” Matthews said.
After nine days, Dani woke up from an induced coma. Even then, she wasn’t herself.
“She kind of just didn’t look like she was there,” Holly said. “I was so afraid there was actual brain damage.”
Dr. Jennifer Preiss, a pediatrician and internist with Allegheny Health Network, said the drugs probably haven’t harmed Dani long-term. The unanswerable question, she said, is whether the incident might have an immeasurable impact on her intelligence later in life.
“There’d be no way to know,” said Preiss, who was speaking hypothetically and not involved in treating Dani.
The pills Dani swallowed caused her limbs to stiffen, and while in intensive care, the doctors treated her with morphine — an opiate just like heroin — and detoxed her with methadone.
“Her body was already addicted, even though it wasn’t her fault,” Holly said, which her counselor told her could make Dani more susceptible to addiction later.
When Dani woke up, she had no muscle strength. Holly said she worked with her daughter to get her moving again.
“I got her sitting up,” Holly said, “and I got her holding her head up and got her walking with one of the toy walkers.”
After a few days, Dani was moving on her own, Holly said, and starting to become her old self.
But while Dani was recovering, Holly was still feeding her addiction.
“I had to do it just so I could sit there and take care of her,” Holly said. “Cause if not, I was lying on the floor puking.”
When she didn’t have drugs, Holly said, the withdrawal made her so sick she wanted to die.
Dani was then transferred to The Children’s Institute. While she was there, her father Doug was arrested for drug possession after Pittsburgh police said they saw him in the parking lot hiding a cigarette pack full of heroin stamp bags behind a car tire.
He pleaded guilty to the charge.
While Holly considers Dani’s overdose the catalyst for getting clean, she said she wasn’t high the day Dani overdosed. She and Doug didn’t have money for drugs.
Police couldn’t tell whether Holly was using heroin, Matthews said, because they were not able to interview her for the investigation until the next day.
Holly and Doug gave conflicting accounts of the event, Matthews said, but he said that a police investigation found that Dani took the pills from an unsecured desk drawer and that they were properly prescribed.
No charges were filed because there was no evidence of a criminal act, he said.
After investigating Dani’s overdose, Children, Youth and Family Services in Armstrong County gave Holly a choice between heroin and her children. Any custody decision would be made by a judge in juvenile court.
An agency official declined to comment because the agency’s investigations are confidential.
The result was that Holly lived with Dani for six months at a Familylinks inpatient drug rehab facility in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood. Her son Brayden, who has autism and cystic fibrosis, stayed with her ex-husband.
For Holly, the length of the rehab program was crucial.
“It took me almost four months to really open up my head and figure out I need this,” Holly said.
If it hadn’t been for the possibility that she would lose her children, Holly said she might have walked out early on.
Doug has had a harder time keeping clean.
While Holly was in rehab, he spent two months in the Allegheny County Jail for missing a court date after being caught with the drugs at The Children’s Institute.
Since then, he’s been through two 28-day treatment programs, most recently at Cove Forge.
Insurance wouldn’t pay for longer care, he said.
“How are you gonna learn about recovery in 28 days?” he said, saying he would have stayed longer if he could.
Now Doug and Holly have a relationship of recovery. Because she has more clean time and learned more in her program, she helps him when he struggles.
But even if their family is a reason to get clean, recovery is intensely personal.
“You have to do it for yourself,” Holly said. “You have to want it yourself.”
Holly currently lives with Dani, 3, and Brayden, 7, in a low-cost apartment.
Dani is talkative and rambunctious. She loves Hello Kitty and has a daily ritual of watching Bubble Guppies on Nick Jr. after school.
The overdose caused no lasting damage, Holly said. Dani’s speech has been slow to develop, but Holly said that might be because Dani was copying Brayden, who is non-verbal.
Holly — who is also talkative now instead of quiet and withdrawn — feels like she’s making up for lost time.
“Over the weekend, me and Dani made cupcakes,” she said with a laugh, “and Brayden tried to smash them all.”
Doug now lives in a $410-a-week three quarter house for recovering addicts. He isn’t allowed to stay overnight in Holly’s building, but he takes a bus over every day and considers it his daytime home.
For them, Pittsburgh is a fresh start. Away from the dead ends of Kittanning and the old haunts where they used to use drugs.
The new life means trips to Kennywood and Idlewild. They went to see the Wiggles, a favorite of Brayden’s, in September.
On weekdays, Doug and Holly walk Dani to and from school, pulling her in a wagon. And Dani regularly goes along to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, so she is a part of their recovery.
Life can be overwhelming now that she’s putting her attention toward her kids instead of her addiction.
Holly said she’s busier than ever, helping Dani and Brayden with school assignments, getting them to doctor appointments and trying to make fun memories for them in Pittsburgh.
She wants to be a better mother now than she might have been even if she never fell for heroin.
Watching Dani’s overdose was painful, but Holly considers it a positive thing. It forced her toward treatment and away from drugs that had taken over.
“I had to be slammed pretty hard in the face I guess to fully understand what was wrong with me,” she said.
As for the future, Doug and Holly said they want it to be like now, except with a place of their own to share.
But that’s for later. Now, they have to keep living clean and learning to manage life’s stresses without turning to drugs.
Holly said she doesn’t look back.
“I don’t want to lose this,” Holly said. “I never want to go back to that because this is so much better.”
Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.