NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS did at its peak in 1995.
In that year, 43,000 died of that disease. In 2015, just over 52,000 died of drug overdoses.READ MORE: Firefighters Battle 4-Alarm Blaze On Upper East Side
In this final installment of our Killer Tide series, we invite you to listen to some of the people we’ve met along our journey. They are your coworkers, your classmates and your next door neighbors.
“I went to college. I went to a private high school. I was privileged my whole life, and I became addicted to heroin,” Vanessa Vitolo, of Absecon, New Jersey, says.
Learn More: Killer Tide. The Opioid Epidemic
Vitolo stars in a commercial with Gov. Chris Christie that’s aimed at getting help for addicts and their families.
“I got hurt and was given pain killers. By the time the drugs ran out, I was addicted. It happened so fast,” she says in the ad. “I ended up on the streets, where the drugs are cheaper and easier to get. I was selling my soul to get high. When I realized I needed help, I didn’t know where to go… But I got help, and you can too. You’re not alone. Help is within reach.”
Vitolo now has a full time job and volunteers at Integrity House in Newark, the treatment center that helped get her clean. But she’s concerned for those still in the grips of the disease.
“It’s something that is still a problem. I had to call like 18 places for somebody recently to get into a detox. We’re talking about a matter of life and death,” she says. “And for somebody to go and sit there and for somebody to be able to turn them down, that’s heartbreaking. That could kill them.”
In March, we met a man named Anthony, who was taken to an intake center by Manchester police. The department is one of two in Ocean County, along with Brick, that allows addicts to turn themselves in without being charged.
“It’s messed up. Unemployable, you know, I’m a great mechanic, decent mechanic and I just can’t hold a job,” he said.READ MORE: Tri-State Officials Bracing For Omicron Variant Urge Everyone To Get Vaccinated And Get Boosters
A month later, Anthony was living in a sober house in Pennsylvania, he was off drugs and working as a diesel mechanic.
“Just sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m tired of getting in trouble with the law, tired of being broke all the time, tired of feeling like crap, tired of being in places that I shouldn’t be and around people I shouldn’t be around,” he said. “Sober is definitely easier, and it’s definitely better.”
It’s an addiction that touches every community in America.
In Goshen, we met Brittany, an inmate at the Orange County Correctional Facility nearing the end of a six month sentence for fleeing a drug treatment center and violating the terms of her probation.
“I know what it’s like to find hell on Earth. I was a walking zombie. I didn’t care,” she said. “When you’re living that life, you don’t care, you don’t care about anything.”
Brittany is now on a drug called Vivitrol, which takes away cravings for heroin. She plans to go to college and study medicine.
Finally, there’s Allison Kernan, who we met in Norwalk, Connecticut. She began using alcohol and marijuana in middle school, progressed to pills and shooting heroin in high school, and ended up behind bars. She got sober and was released.
“Sure enough, I realized what happens when you lose ambition and your ego starts to grow. My ego got really big and I was like, ‘I got this,'” she said. “And I remember the day I said, ‘I got this,’ four hours after I said that, I was using again.”
That is the curse of this disease. It alters brain chemistry, it’s chronic like diabetes or heart disease, and it never really goes away.
“Sometimes I have to get angry with the addiction. Sometimes I have to yell at it and I have to tell it how much I hate it. But if I have to have that conversation with this addition, that’s fine. If that’s a way of healing, that’s fine,” she said.MORE NEWS: Advocates: Put Holiday Consumerism Aside For A Second And Remember Giving Tuesday Is About Helping The Less Fortunate
Kernan is now a certified recovery coach. When patients tell her, “You have no idea what I’m going through,” she rolls up her sleeves and her scars tell the story.