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October 2017

Paxton West’s words speak volumes about the strong hold opioid addiction has on users.

“I would beg myself not to use as I was sticking a needle in my arm,” said West, a Statesville native now serving a four-year prison sentence.

How do we deal with the epidemic that has ripped through our community and so many others nationwide?

Over the past several months, the Record & Landmark staff talked to those on the front lines of the crisis. We interviewed deputies, doctors, counselors, addicts, pharmacists and others.

This three-part series examines how we got here and where we’re going.

» TODAY: An overview of how the epidemic has affected Iredell.

» MONDAY: How addiction happens and how public safety agencies have responded.

» TUESDAY: Local treatment options and where we go from here.

Data in this series comes from the North Carolina Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT), a state resource created by the N.C. Division of Public Health.

By Jennifer Dandron

Statesville Record & Landmark

One summer afternoon several years ago, Paxton West walked up to the edge of the Radio Road Bridge overlooking Interstate 40.

Frightened, frustrated and coming off a high, West watched as dozens of cars and trucks passed underneath him.

The relentless summer heat beat down on the Statesville native’s frail, gaunt body as he searched for the one vehicle to end it all.

Soon enough, he found the one. A large tractor-trailer barreling down the interstate would work.

The only relief West ever felt came from a syringe. That was about to change, he thought.

Once the truck got close enough, West would no longer be a slave to the needle. He wouldn’t continue tearing apart his family. The shame he endured would vanish.

No turning back. It was the only way out.

“I was tired of feeling the way I was and doing things that felt like were out of my own control,” West, now 28, said. “I would beg myself not to use, as I was sticking a needle in my arm.”

He closed his eyes, stepped forward and prepared to jump.

IREDELL’S OPIOID PROBLEM

West is one of many Iredell residents who struggle with opioid addiction, by far the most widespread drug issue here, according to Iredell County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bill Hamby.

“We’ve arrested everyone from elderly females all the way down to … school kids,” he said. “So I don’t know if you can say there is a typical drug dealer.”

As of June, 250 people were admitted into local emergency rooms for drug overdoses this year.

One in 12 people suffer from substance use disorder, but one in 10 seek treatment.

Statewide, heroin deaths have increased 800 percent since 2010.

“We don’t have any other chronic disease in America where that is the case,” said Dr. Omar Manejwala, an internationally recognized addiction psychiatrist who delivered the keynote address during February’s opioid crisis summit in Mooresville. “That’s not true for diabetes, congestive heart failure, COPD or any other disease. It’s not even true for any other mental illness like depression. The statistics are terrible. People don’t get help.”

But there’s a push in Iredell to change that.

A UNIFIED FRONT

Mooresville substance abuse counselor Rhonda Lazenby, who herself battled an alcohol and drug addiction for the better part of three decades, spends her sessions preparing her patients for recovery.

“We treat the whole person. If someone needs a job, (we can help),” Lazenby said. “If they need to write a resume, I’ll do it for free. I provide free case management services. Drug addiction is a medical issue. If someone’s diabetic and they relapse and gain weight, we don’t dog them and send them to prison. If an addict relapses, we send them to prison. You’ll see people getting help when we get rid of the stigma.”

The stigma of addiction stems from a societal belief that it’s a moral failing rather than a legitimate disease scientifically proven to alter the brain, according to Manejwala.

“These are the patients that most physicians hate to see,” said pain management expert Dr. Bobby P. Kearney of Addiction Recovery Medical Services in Statesville. “Their disease and how it changes the brain causes behaviors that aren’t so attractive … the lying, stealing, manipulating.”

These behaviors are the disease, not the patient, he said.

“These are the modern day lepers, isolated from the rest of society,” Kearney said. “It’s a lot of pressure for them. These people deserve love. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met. They’re some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. It takes tremendous courage to come in and get help, when only one in 10 will come for treatment.”

Kearney joined the Statesville practice in 2003. At the time, it was one of only three pain programs in the entire state, he said.

Now, however, he said there multiple programs in Iredell County alone.

So how did we get here?

“Physicians being as territorial as they are, when other practitioners saw what pain management physicians were doing, they didn’t want to lose their patients to pain management programs,” Kearney said. “They began writing medications that they weren’t trained to write. This began a process that has escalated over the last 25 years, to the point where we’re in an epidemic.”

HOW IT ALL BEGINS

Paxton West is now inmate number 1048049. He hasn’t been home for a Thanksgiving or Christmas in the last six years.

It will be 2020 before he sets foot outside a prison.

“I’m full of regret, shame, remorse,” he said after a brisk walk through Pender Correctional Institute on a recent Wednesday afternoon. PCI, in Burgaw, is a medium-security state prison. “All those things go hand in hand. I put a lot of wedges between my family and pushed a lot of my family apart. It’s not something I’m happy about or proud of, but I just have to get clean, stay clean and live my life.”

West’s drug abuse started in high school, where he first experimented with marijuana. He progressed to harder drugs after receiving prescription painkillers for a sports injury and then again after having his wisdom teeth removed.

Soon he was snorting cocaine and buying prescriptions off the street.

“I moved back to Statesville after living in Asheville for awhile and a lot my friends were already using oxycontin on the IV level. I was very stand off-ish to them about that,” he said. “Then one day, I was like I’ll show you it’s not a big deal. They kept saying they couldn’t stop, so I thought I could show them that you can.”

West shot a solution of crushed pills into his vein about 7:30 one night. By 9 a.m. the next morning, he bought his first pack of syringes from CVS.

‘I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE HER’

West’s addiction drove him to one of the lowest points in his life and landed him on the edge of that bridge four years ago.

Standing there, eyes tightly closed, he wanted his final moments to be filled with positivity.

He thought of family dinners, holidays and graduations. But his transgressions quickly surfaced and the guilt overwhelmed him again.

“I tried to get rid of the negative thoughts and replace them with good ones, but I couldn’t,” West said. “I thought of all the good people in my life and the ones I loved the most, but then all I would think about is the huge amount of pain I’ve caused. I felt so ashamed.”

As the traffic sped forward, and the transfer truck drew closer, one last memory came to mind.

All he could see was his daughter’s face. All he could hear was her laugh.

For an instant, his life had purpose again.

“Nothing could replace her,” he said. “… I thought about how much I loved her. I didn’t want to leave her.”

In his momentary hesitation, a gust of wind knocked West down and breathed new life into him.

He realized he had another option.

He had hope.

Paxton sprinted to his childhood home on West Bell Street, where he fell to his knees and begged for help from his parents, Gary and Patti West.

“We had no idea how bad he was using,” Patti West said. “Looking back I kept thinking, why did I not immediately pick up on everything that was happening? Why did I listen to him when he said everything was OK? We found syringes in his room and our spoons started (going) missing, but we had no idea.”

BY THE NUMBERS

9,950,699

Total opioid pills prescribed in Iredell in 2016

155,284

Total opioid prescriptions written in Iredell in 2016

44,703

Number of Iredell residents who received an opioid prescription in 2016

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Paxton West’s words speak volumes about the stronghold opioid addiction has on users.

“I would beg myself not to use as I was sticking a needle in my arm,” said West, a Statesville native now serving a four-year prison sentence.

How do we deal with the epidemic that has ripped through our community and so many others nationwide?

Over the past several months, the Record & Landmark staff talked to those on the front lines of the crisis. We interviewed deputies, doctors, counselors, addicts, pharmacists and others.

This three-part series examines how we got here and where we’re going.

» SUNDAY: An overview of how the epidemic has affected Iredell.

» TODAY: How addiction happens and how public safety agencies have responded.

» TUESDAY: Local treatment options and where we go from here.

Data in this series comes from the North Carolina Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT), a state resource created by the N.C. Division of Public Health.

»»»

By Jennifer Dandron
Statesville Record & Landmark

Paxton West’s heroin addiction nearly turned deadly while he was visiting Wilmington five years ago.

His pale face went blue. His pulse weakened. His pupils constricted to a pinpoint.

The rhythmic beeps of his heart rate monitor faded into a steady tone as he flatlined in the back of a New Hanover County ambulance.

“Dying was the most painful thing I’ve ever done,” West recalled.

It’s happened to him more than once.

SERVING ONE PURPOSE

Addiction has defined West’s actions for the last decade.

From forging prescriptions to selling stolen goods, every day West has spent addicted to opioids, he’s had one goal: Finding the next fix.

“It has such a grip over every single aspect of your life,” West said. “It does not matter who or what stands in your way to get to that substance to make you feel better. … Every moral went out the window. I had to obtain the dope to make me feel better.”

Last November, just months removed from a 29-month prison sentence, he was convicted of four counts of breaking and entering. He’s now serving four years at Pender Correctional Institute in Burgaw.

“It really sucks being where I am,” he said. “Emotionally, it’s up and down for me right now, but I’m happy to be alive. … Every now and then I feel the urge to use, especially struggling with being in prison. When I get in my head sometimes I think if I could use, I would. I do my best to push that out of my mind, though. I’ve learned as an addict usually my first thought is wrong.”

PRESCRIPTIONS GIVE DANGEROUS DRUGS LEGITIMACY

West traces his addiction to legitimate opioid prescriptions. He was first prescribed low-level painkillers for a sports-related injury.

He got more for the removal of his wisdom teeth in his sophomore year of high school.

Like it is with many users, the addiction progressed.

People tend to view prescription pills as safer than other controlled substances, according to Capt. Bill Hamby with the narcotics unit of the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office.

Users know where pills are made. They know that each pill is exactly the same dosage. They know the side effects.

“I can go buy a rock of cocaine and it may be coke, it may be a macadamia nut,” Hamby said. “I could buy methamphetamine and it could be cocoa powder. I could buy heroin and it might be gum. But … if I’m buying a 20 mg oxycodone or a Percocet and that’s my pill of choice, my drug of choice, I know what that looks like. I’m not as apt to get ripped off. I know what I’m taking. I kind of know the side effects of what I’ve got.”

The opioid epidemic is a source of endless frustration for Hamby and his team.

Hamby has nearly two decades of experience in law enforcement. He’s arrested countless cocaine dealers and shut down his fair share of meth labs.

But opioids, he says, are different. They’re easier to get because they’re prescribed so frequently.

Pills come from doctors, not drug cartels. Pills are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, not homebrewed in a pot.

The truth is, there is a lot about these pills that is legal — and that’s what is so vexing to law enforcement.

In Iredell County last year alone, 9,950,699 opioid pills were prescribed from 155,284.

That’s about 59 pills per Iredell resident.

“This is not a supply-side problem. It is a demand-reduction problem,” internationally recognized addiction psychiatrist Omar Manejwala said during his keynote speech to area prescribers in February. “If you look at the Florida experience, they cracked down on the prescribing of opiates and had a reduction in deaths. Then, Ohio cracked down on the prescribing and had a reduction in prescribing of pills but an increase in overdose deaths. It’s a complex problem.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT DIVIDED ON RESPONSE

In his nine years as a superior court judge, Joe Crosswhite said he has seen an increase in opioid-related crimes each year.

“It’s bad here. It’s bad everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think I could have seen how big of a problem opiates would have become.”

Crimes associated with opioid addiction are clogging the justice system, but local law enforcement agencies are taking different approaches to handling it.

The Iredell County Sheriff’s Office has taken a hard stance on drug abuse, while the Statesville Police Department is working to implement a drug user diversion program.

“Drug dealers and drug houses attract other crime,” Sheriff Darren Campbell said. “Drugs cause people to commit other crimes like larcenies to support their habits. … And that’s why we are so proactive on the drugs. … It just shows being aggressive on the drugs and the dealers helps us stop other crimes and stuff. … Anytime we arrest a drug dealer, that’s a community enrichment program.”

West agrees, in part.

If it weren’t for his drug habit, he says he would never have committed any crimes.

West hasn’t been home for the holidays in six years. By the time he is freed from his second stint in prison, West will have missed eight years of his 11-year-old daughter’s life.

“I don’t think incarceration in any means is a fix for an addict committing crimes,” he said. “We’re not given resources and tools to function and survive. We need treatment and education. We should be making people that are victims of the crimes a part of the recovery process. It needs to be a re-building process for the addict. Incarceration is not going to help.”

The Statesville Police Department applied for a $400,000 grant over a three-year period to manage the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which will allow officers to divert low-level drug offenders to intervention rather than to take them to jail. The offender must go through the program to clear any criminal charges.

LEAD, which is operating in seven states with more exploring the program, has a successful track record, according to program coordinators.

A 2015 study conducted in Seattle “found that LEAD participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program, compared to a control group that went through ‘system as usual’ criminal justice processing,” according to the LEAD National Support Bureau.

It’s unclear when LEAD will go into effect, but West, an advocate of the alternative program, says it won’t be soon enough.

‘MORE PEACEFUL TO DIE’

The back of an ambulance is all too familiar for West.

When EMS administered the life-saving, opioid-effect reversing Naloxone in New Hanover County, West immediately regained consciousnesses, yanked the IV tube from his body and sprang forward, ready to fight the paramedics who saved his life.

“In that instance, I remember being mad for one because the paramedics ruined my high,” West said. “Secondly, I just didn’t want to go on anymore. It would’ve been more peaceful to die than to continue being an addict.”

EMS once again saved his life when a group of friends shoved him out of a car, left for dead next to a Catawba County ambulance outside of the Chuck E. Cheese in Hickory.

He was spared yet another time when a friend dragged his limp body into a blistering cold shower and shook him until he became conscious.

With every injection, the risk of overdosing amplifies, West said. It eventually becomes inevitable.

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “From country club to crack house, the only thing addiction wants to do is kill you and it eventually will, if you don’t get help.”

»»»

BY THE NUMBERS

9,950,699

Total opioid pills prescribed in Iredell in 2016

155,284

Total opioid prescriptions written in Iredell in 2016

44,703

Number of Iredell residents who received an opioid prescription in 2016

Source: Iredell County Health Department

Please follow and like us:

Paxton West’s words speak volumes about the stronghold opioid addiction has on users.

“I would beg myself not to use as I was sticking a needle in my arm,” said West, a Statesville native now serving a four-year prison sentence.

How do we deal with the epidemic that has ripped through our community and so many others nationwide?

Over the past several months, the Record & Landmark staff talked to those on the front lines of the crisis. We interviewed deputies, doctors, counselors, addicts, pharmacists and others.

This three-part series examines how we got here and where we’re going.

» SUNDAY: An overview of how the epidemic has affected Iredell.

» MONDAY: How addiction happens and how public safety agencies have responded.

» TODAY: Local treatment options and where we go from here.

Data in this series comes from the North Carolina Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool (NC DETECT), a state resource created by the N.C. Division of Public Health.

»»»

By Jennifer Dandron
Statesville Record & Landmark

During the most difficult times, Gary and Patti West would often sit in the dark of their Statesville home, rarely speaking to each other.

At times, the silence helped the pair navigate their heartbreak and disappointment over the opioid addiction of their son, Paxton.

“It was the darkest time of our lives, literally. We just sat completely in the dark,” Patti said. “There were no words to describe how we felt. We just knew whatever we were feeling, we were feeling them together and that brought some comfort. We were in this together. We went through nine months of hard depression, full of deep, dark valleys. There were just no words.”

But one day the words started to come, slowly. Eventually, the pair, which has has operated Fifth Street Ministries for more than 20 years, had full discussions.

“This had been a truly traumatic experience for our whole family,” Patti said. “We thought, how could we make this better? There had to be something good to come from all this heartbreak.”

That’s why the family decided to go public with their son’s struggles. The couple contributed their own thoughts to Paxton’s blog — howwestworks.blogspot.com — which they maintain. The blog was started in 2014 during Paxton’s first stint in prison.

Patti still receives comments from people who read the blog and identify with Paxton’s struggles, she said.

Paxton’s parents describe him as honest, compassionate and loving – as long as he’s not strung out. Under the influence of opioids, though, he becomes a manipulative thief who is “willing to sell his own mother for a fix,” they said.

A REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Though opioid addiction statistics are harrowing, experts say there is reason to be optimistic.

More people are currently in stable recovery than are addicted, according to Dr. Thomas McLellan, de puty director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Recovery is an expectable result from good treatment,” McLellan said during a Drug Abuse Free Iredell Coalition meeting in June. “But, you can’t treat your way out of the opioid epidemic. … If you really want an integrated approach, you’ve got to start with the at-risk years.”

About 90 percent of all addictions begin during adolescent years, McLellan said. That’s the case for Statesville native Alan Yost.

Yost recently finished a 100-day jail sentence following a brief stint in prison, but he’s found a new home free of bars and barbed wire and full of resources and support.

‘RELAPSE IS INEVITABLE’

Triggered by the death of his father, Yost was thrust into addiction at 17 years old. Now 28, he’s battled to take back control of his life.

Yost served three years in prison for a voluntary manslaughter charge he received for leading authorities on a high-speed chase in March 2010. During the chase, an Iredell County Sheriff’s Office deputy struck and killed a driver who had pulled out in front of him, according to reports.

“It was really hard to deal with everything, so I tried to numb myself,” Yost said. “I just hurt myself more and more in the end. I tried to run from myself. I moved to the mountains and started a restaurant. I was successful until I relapsed. Then I moved to South Florida. I did really well down there, but then I relapsed. When you run from yourself, you come with yourself. Relapse is inevitable if you don’t have support.”

Emotional turmoil can be a catalyst for relapse, or in Yost’s situation, an innocent trip to the dentist’s chair.

“I thought I was good,” Yost said. “Then I got some teeth pulled and they gave me Percocet. It was the easiest thing to happen. Just go to the doctor, right? Not for addicts. Your addiction doesn’t know it’s a prescription.”

Much of the opioid epidemic is attributed to overprescribing and prescribing unnecessarily.

Statesville spine specialist and pain management doctor Harsh Govil says one way to cut down on over prescribing is to use alternative practices like home exercise programs or physical therapy to manage pain before considering opioids.

If opioids are prescribed, it’s important to track a patient’s pain levels and do regular urine screens to make sure they’re doing what is required and aren’t taking other prescriptions that could put them at a higher risk of injury, Govil said.

‘SUCCESS COMES FROM SELF-HELP’

After moving back to Statesville and finding himself in jail yet again in December, Yost checked into Mooresville’s Oxford House, a sober living facility, in March.  It’s unclear whether he’s still living there.

“It’s really peaceful and quiet,” he said a week after moving into the recently opened space. “It’s easy when you follow the rules. To know that if I slip up just a little bit, I’m right back out there doing nothing. The fact that I have something so nice and comfortable is amazing as long as I follow the rules. It keeps me sober and my head in the work game. It’s all I have.”

As part of rehabilitation efforts, many addicts often move into a sober living home to reintegrate into society. Oxford House is one of those living environments operating in Statesville and Mooresville.

“We find our success comes from self help,” said Greg Weisz, an outreach worker for Oxford who also lives at the Mooresville location.

“We give you all the tools to be successful in recovery, but it’s up to you to do the work,” Weisz said. “As addicts we are dependent on everyone in our lives.

“We become leeches and burn bridges one at a time. When we get into recovery and move into an Oxford House, you have to take responsibility for yourself and become independent.”

Oxford House residents must attend meetings for a 12-step program, like Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery, several times a week.

A STATEWIDE RESPONSE

To fight an epidemic that claimed twice as many lives as homicides in North Carolina in 2015, Gov. Roy Cooper signed the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention, or STOP Act, into law in late June.

Cooper’s plan includes reducing the oversupply of prescription opioids by limiting prescriptions to no more than a five-day supply during an initial doctor visit. It also requires medical providers to use the statewide controlled substance reporting system.

The state’s goal is to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 20 percent by 2021.

To combat the problem at a local level, Iredell County commissioners invested more than $1 million in Partners Behavioral Health Management to build an integrated care center and a Crisis Recovery Center for people suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Iredell County Health Department is also wading through applications for a newly created health planner position which will be dedicated to substance abuse reduction. The position will act as a liasion among all county departments on the front lines of the issue. The starting salary for the position is $40,563.83.

“We have to work together to fight this battle or we’ll never win,” Dr. Jane Hinson of the Iredell Health Department said during a February summit on the opioid crisis.

PUTTING GOOD BACK INTO THE WORLD

Paxton West has lost jobs, strained relationships and has now been stripped of his freedoms because of his addiction.

He’s told when to eat, what to wear and who he can see.

His phone calls are limited to 15 minutes, and any time spent outside his cellblock will be a luxury.

“Even as tough as this is to say, the blessing of incarceration is that he is still alive,” Gary West said. “He probably would not be alive if he had not gone to prison.

Despite the sins of his past, Paxton plans to right his wrongs.

“I did some bad things in my life,” he said. “The only way I know how to make that better is to put some good back in the world.”

As he ticks the days off his nearly 1,500-day sentence, he’s anxious about his future. He’s been in this same situation before – awaiting release from prison, eager to live a drug-free life.

Each time he’s tried, he’s failed. That weighs heavy on him.

Throughout Paxton’s decade-long battle with addiction, his parents have been by his side, and they said they plan to always be – no matter what.

“Recovery is possible with continued support, but the support has to be firm. It has to go beyond just the families. Communities need to be supportive too,” Patti said. “Addiction affects more than just the addict. It will tear families apart, but don’t ever give up on your addict.”

In four years, Paxton will either continue on his path to recovery or relapse.

“I’m positive about the future … West said. “I have no choice but to be.”

»»»

BY THE NUMBERS

9,950,699

Total opioid pills prescribed in Iredell in 2016

155,284

Total opioid prescriptions written in Iredell in 2016

44,703

Number of Iredell residents who received an opioid prescription in 2016

Source: Iredell County Health Department

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