“If I could have turned the switch to just end my life, I would have done it, guaranteed,” said Casey C., a former heroin addict, at a Phoenix House-sponsored addiction seminar at the Merrick Library on June 18. His last name has been omitted for privacy reasons.
Casey, a 29-year-old from Levittown, was referring to a night he spent in the Nassau County jail after being caught with drugs while on parole. Unable to use in his cell, he suffered severe withdrawal symptoms. Now in an active recovery program at Phoenix House and with a full-time job, Casey, who graduated from a Long Island university, is looking to the future.
His drug addiction, he said, could be traced to his first use of marijuana at age 15. Soon after, the star athlete and excellent student began searching for reasons to quit sports and surround himself with new friends.
His opiate addiction began later, after a snowboarding accident in which he injured his leg. His doctor prescribed hydrocodone, more commonly known as Vicodin. When prescription pills became difficult to get, Casey turned to street drugs, soon becoming a “full-blown heroin addict,” as he described it.
Phoenix House, a nonprofit substance-abuse treatment and prevention organization, helped Casey and many like him recover. The organization, established in 1967, runs 123 programs in 11 states, including New York. Its services include prevention, early intervention, treatment, continuing care and recovery support.
New York state, according to Karen Palmiero, a Phoenix House counselor and a speaker at the seminar, has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the country. “For 40 years we’ve been dealing with a lot of issues,” Palmiero said. “Everyone is in agreement that this epidemic is the worst epidemic in American history.”
The new face of addiction
“This is not the heroin you heard of in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s,” Nassau County Legislator Dave Denenberg, a Democrat from Merrick who is running for the State Senate, said at the seminar. Denenberg said he attended the wakes of four drug overdose victims between Christmas and Jan. 15. Since then he has attended four more.
According to a presentation by Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of Phoenix House and a co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, 20- to 40-year-olds are at the highest risk for opioid addiction, and heroin addiction hits the white population harder than any other these days. In the early 1900s, pharmaceutical-grade heroin addiction plagued mostly first-generation Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants. The 1950s to ’70s saw heroin addiction rise most among African-Americans and Latinos.
“What I see [today] is the college graduate who is a teacher at a Long Island high school and has to take 10 bags a day to not get sick in front of his class,” said Lisa Finn, a Phoenix House social worker. Aside from the young adults who are caught up in this epidemic, Finn said, she often sees Advanced Placement high school students suffering from addiction as well.
“It’s the big white elephant in the room,” said Susan Salomone, co-founder of the grass-roots organization Drug Crisis in our Backyard. “Nobody knows what to say.” Salomone and her husband, Steve, lost their son, Justin, to a heroin overdose in May 2012.