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
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
Source: Iredell County Health Department