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
Total opioid pills prescribed in Iredell in 2016
Total opioid prescriptions written in Iredell in 2016
Number of Iredell residents who received an opioid prescription in 2016