09.24.19

‘So easy to get into, so difficult to get out of’: How pain meds pointed one young woman toward heroin

If you want to understand heroin addiction, think about this: When addicts seek more heroin to stave off the terrifying symptoms of withdrawal, they say “I need to get well.”

Even in Boulder, where the term wellness is both a quasi-religion and a business opportunity, heroin hijacks the brain so completely that a high school senior who grew up in a loving family can reach a point where the word “well” means sticking a syringe full of heroin into her arm.

The 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey administered to high school students in the Boulder Valley School District found a slight decline in the percentage of BVSD students who have taken prescription opioids without having a doctor’s prescription. In 2017, 5.4% of BVSD teens had taken the drugs in the last 30 days, compared with 7.8% in 2015. Even though the trendline is falling, the data continue to be significant, because opioids are highly addictive. Teens who become addicted to heroin often start with prescription pain medicine.

Mila was one.

If you meet her, you will encounter a poised and attractive young woman, with a straightforward manner accompanied by a watchful intelligence.

Here are some other things to know about her:

She was a good student, a stellar athlete and hung with the popular crowd in high school.

By age 22, she had known 24 people who died.

When not working, Mila spends most of her time with her mom, Trina Faatz, whom she considers her best friend.

When Mila was using, her mother kept Naloxone in the house in case they needed to revive her from an overdose.

Trina attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, partly to learn to accept — to the extent any mother can — that she might not be there to revive her daughter from an overdose.

Mila is making fast progress toward certification as an addiction counselor. “I see people who judge,” she said. “I don’t give up on anyone."

It began with inadequately treated Lyme Disease at age 9. It flared around the start of middle school, but by then, no one connected Mila’s chronic stomach aches, headaches and other symptoms to the Lyme exposure.

Her doctor prescribed opioid medication for pain. She began high school still in athletics and doing her schoolwork. However, the meds began to take on a greater importance.

“They were prescribed for my pain, and then I realized they could help with my emotions, too,” she said.

She began smoking heroin in her senior year.

“I was getting high and feeling good,” she said.

Then she went on a family trip to New York and for the first time experienced withdrawal.

“After that trip, for the next several years (everything) was about never having to be sick,” she said. She began injecting heroin.

During a stint in rehab, she found out her best friend had died of an overdose. Her friend’s mother pleaded with Mila to stay in rehab. Grief stricken, Mila sought the remedy she knew best.

“My use really took off at that point,” she said.

She began injecting cocaine along with heroin.

“I couldn’t remember living another way,” she said.

One day, she overdosed, but there was no Naloxone to  revive her.

Then a surprising thing happened.

“I came back. All my friends had left me there,” she said. “I don’t know why I woke up.”

Life is not a cliched novel that ties up all the loose ends. But that week, for the first time, Mila told her mother that she wanted to get help.

Now on medication-assisted treatment, Mila works as a peer counselor with others on the same journey.

“I think I felt all those years of life were a total waste,” she said. “There’s no better feeling than working with someone when you’ve been in their shoes, seeing them be successful. Nobody wants to be an addict, nobody.”

by Cindy Sutter