Her veins burned. For the second time in her life, Nicole Walmsley felt the grip of an overdose. She was twenty-seven and gaunt. Quietly, she slipped out of consciousness.
“There was a comforting peace about it,” Walmsley recalls. “It was just a dream state. But you couldn’t see anything in the dream. It was just black. Blackness.”
When she came to, Walmsley refused medical help. At the time, she had a pending drug trafficking charge in her home state of Ohio and faced up to two years in prison. She was spiraling into the criminal justice system, propelled by a heroin addiction that had started—as many do—with prescription painkillers. That year, 2006, Ohio healthcare providers wrote opioid prescriptions at a rate of 87.7 prescriptions per 100 people in the state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walmsley received the painkiller Vicodin to treat endometriosis, a debilitating condition that affects the uterus. She was twenty-one with a two-year-old daughter and four weeks worth of pills. The day her prescription ran out, she began to sweat. “Death spit” coated her mouth, a foul-tasting mix of saliva and mucus. Her legs tingled, her arms twitched, and cramps twisted her stomach. A friend recognized the symptoms as opioid withdrawal and offered Walmsley a fistful of round blue-green pills, OxyContin. Keen to ease the pain, Walmsley followed his instructions to snort the drug. She rubbed off the colorful coating with a wet cloth, then used a metal hose clamp to shave and crush the pills. Blue-green smudges soon marked all her clothing.
But the pills were expensive and increasingly difficult to get, as Ohio clamped down on prescription drug abuse. In 2007, Walmsley switched to heroin. She found a dealer who gave her the first bag free. “There was no going back,” she said. She overdosed once, early in her addiction, waking up in a bathtub her then-boyfriend had filled with cold water in his desperation to revive her. She shot up again soon after.
In the six years that followed, police arrested Walmsley eighteen times. Her first charge was trafficking heroin in a school zone. While on house arrest, Walmsley cut off her ankle monitor and fled to another city. Police caught up with her and Walmsley was sentenced to a four-month correctional rehab program. Following her release, she was indicted on an old drug charge and again placed under house arrest. “I did not cut this ankle monitor off,” Walmsley said. “The first one was expensive.”
At home, Walmsley relapsed. That’s when she overdosed the second time and her world faded to black.
“I came out of it and I was like, ‘I have no more lies, there’s no more justification—I can’t use one more time.’ It was enough. That was my rock bottom and the fact that part of me still wanted to use again, I panicked and knew that I had to be locked up.”
The next morning, Walmsley slowly straightened her long brown hair. She wanted to look good in her mugshot. With each strand, her mind changed. “You’re going to be locked up,” she recalls telling herself. “Don’t go.” Then, “Just go. We are done. There’s nothing left for you here … shut up and go or you’ll die.” Already, Walmsley felt the urge to use again. She pulled on pajama pants. She also wanted to be comfortable. Then, knowing she would end the day in jail, Walmsley turned herself in to police.
A judge in Youngstown, Ohio sentenced Walmsley to another five months in a local correctional rehab center. There, she imagined her addiction as an abusive ex-boyfriend. “He couldn’t get to me in jail,” she said. Instead, he waited outside, ready to take Walmsley back. He was impatient, reminding Walmsley of their abandoned relationship with angry bouts of withdrawal. Detox is especially painful while incarcerated, she said. When her sentence ran out, Walmsley didn’t want to leave her cell. She was terrified. Her new apartment was just one street away from where she bought drugs and she didn’t yet trust herself. Wary, she cut off old friends and took a job as a hotel receptionist. She spent more time with her daughter and parents, who had since moved to quiet home on a grassy acreage.
“I just kind of wanted to move on. I didn’t want to talk about my addiction or anything like that. There was still a lot of shame in the decisions I had made,” Walmsley said. “But then fentanyl and carfentanil had hit Ohio, and a lot of the people that I used with or knew, they were dying. They were bringing in refrigerated trucks to put all the bodies in.”
Ohio in 2017 recorded the second-highest rate of opioid overdose deaths nationwide, according to the CDC. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, and more than seventy per cent of overdose deaths in Ohio in 2017 were linked to fentanyl and similar drugs, such as carfentanil, another synthetic opioid, used to tranquilize elephants. “The amount of death really led me to want to do something,” Walmsley said.
Reluctantly, she agreed to speak about her addiction and recovery at a small-town rally to raise awareness about heroin abuse in Ohio. She stood dry-mouthed in front of 500 strangers and shared her story for the first time. To prepare for the rally, Walmsley had researched recovery programs across the United States. She discovered the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) and reached out to its founder, Leonard Campanello, a police chief in Massachusetts. The program teaches police to refer addicts to a trusted network of treatment providers, rather than arresting them. Campanello agreed to train Walmsley, who in 2015 began recruiting departments in Ohio for a version of PAARI she dubbed Safe Passages.
“I came back to Ohio driving this beat-up Grand Prix. I went to fifty departments—forty-nine rejections,” Walmsley said.
She recalls one officer telling her he wished police didn’t carry naloxone, a drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, because it would “thin the herd” of drug users. Finally, the police chief of Lodi, a Ohio village of less than 3,000 people, agreed to try Safe Passages. Berea’s police department joined soon after, led by Sergeant Pat Greenhill. He jokes that Walmsley agreed to work with police only because their badges lend Safe Passages’ reputation an official, authoritative gleam that’s appealing to politicians and sponsors.
“Nicole could have done the exact same thing we were doing as police officers, but because we were police officers, people listened to us,” Greenhill said.
His department now refers roughly one person to treatment every week, choosing from a list of vetted treatment providers. It’s symbiotic — police have another way to reduce drug use in their communities, while treatment providers tap into a stream of highly motivated clients. Anyone willing to walk into a police department to get help for an illegal activity must be desperate for recovery, Greenhill reasons. Addicts have travelled as far as 150 miles to turn themselves in to Berea’s police.
In Newburgh Heights, one officer received a thirty-day sobriety chip and a handwritten thank-you letter from a young woman she had coaxed into treatment. The officer, Sergeant Rachel Halaska, says it’s the most prized memento of her fifteen-year career. In Strongsville, Lt. Michael Campbell says the program has become a valuable tool for officers responding to situations involving addiction. “We never knew these resources were out there. It’s just not part of our training,” Campbell said. “We go out there, we arrest the person breaking the law, we put ‘em in jail. That’s the end of it. This is just a change in thinking where we’re going to try to help these people so they’re not committing crimes in the future.”
Throughout his career with the Strongsville Police Department, Campbell says he has encountered the same people again and again, so-called frequent flyers. When he arrests them, he hopes for the best. They keep coming back. Over time, Campbell says he grew jaded about the possibility for recovery. “You can distance yourself from it,” Campbell said. “Portray them as not real people — that they’re just junkies.”
But death has crept into overdose calls. On doorsteps, bracing to break the news of someone’s final overdose to their family, Campbell feels reality suddenly draw close. “When you have to tell someone that their loved one passed away, it becomes real again,” Campbell said. “You realize these are real people that are dying and that there’s something you have to do about the problem.”
Many of the dead first passed through police departments, courtrooms, jails, prisons, or treatment centers. People who have been recently incarcerated, in particular, are at a disproportionate risk of overdose, especially in the fourteen days following release, according to a 2007 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Incarceration can lower a person’s tolerance to certain drugs, making them more likely to overdose if they return to the same dosage as before prison or jail. For example, inmates in North Carolina—the only state with more opioid overdose deaths per capita in 2017 than Ohio—are forty times more likely to die of an opioid overdose within two weeks of release than the state’s general population, according to another study, published last year by the American Public Health Association, in which researchers compared death records and inmate data of nearly 230,000 people released between 2000 and 2015. Opioid overdoses killed 1,329 of those people.
To tackle the crisis, Ohio’s former governor, John Kasich, in 2015 announced a partnership between the state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.The merge was meant to increase the number of recovery service staff and treatment options in correctional institutions, as well as build a network of treatment centers to catch people released from prison before they can fall through the cracks. John Sexten took charge of the Bureau of Correctional Recovery Services for the Ohio Department of Mental Health Services in 2014. He knows the title is unwieldy. “There are so many people that are clamoring for hope,” said Sexten, who started working as an addiction counsellor in Ohio’s prisons two decades ago.
On an overcast morning in mid-January, Sexten adjusts a crisp charcoal jacket and slides into the back of a golf cart at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The prison is the oldest institution for women in the state, opening in 1916 to thirty-four inmates. By 2019, the population surpassed 2,000—including Ohio’s only woman on death row. Over a century, new buildings sprouted from the farm field surrounding the original prison. The golf cart rattles between women in green and navy sweatshirts as they return from breakfast, before stopping in front of a red brick building, the prison’s live-in addiction treatment center.
Roughly sixty per cent of the 49,000 people incarcerated in Ohio prisons qualify for addiction treatment, Sexten said. About half of those who qualify want help. Substance use and addiction are a societal issue, he said, that “far exceeds anything else that I would compare it to,” seeping irrepressibly into prisons and jails. The system can’t keep up. Only a third of the men and women who last year qualified for treatment received direct services. Waitlists stretch into the hundreds and staff slam into walls at every turn. At some institutions, there isn’t enough space for treatment programs to expand. There’s too much work and not enough qualified people willing to do it. Sexten said recruitment is one of the top three challenges in his department and staff regularly scour college job fairs and conferences.
“There are always going to be needs for correctional facilities and prisons around the country, around the world, because of some of the evil acts that people do,” Sexten said. “However, addiction drives a lot of the criminal activity that happens, and if we could treat addiction in the community in a more focused, a more structured manner, to intervene in people’s lives prior to them committing crimes … I think we would do our country, our world, a better service.”
Inside the treatment center, the white glow of artificial light bounces off a childlike mural—an expanse of painted clouds and doves, interrupted by the black bubbles of security cameras. Names are neatly printed among the clouds, always the title “Ms.” followed by a first initial, then a surname. Ms. A. Powell, Ms. J. Juersivich, Ms. K. Weaver. Twenty-nine names in all, circling a message written in fat black letters: Until we meet again, peace my family. It is a tribute to former residents who completed their prison sentences, only to die on the outside, beyond the razor-topped fences. Many had slipped back into drug use.
Women in blue and green prison uniforms gather beneath the mural. They live at the center for up to a year, enrolled in an intensive regime of group counselling, seminars, and meetings. The center offers ninety beds for inmates with addiction. On any given day, roughly sixty others are on a waitlist that can stretch for months. Kerri Dingus, twenty-six, waited nearly half a year to move in. She shares a cramped cell with another woman. Their cell, like all the others, has a bunkbed, a metal desk and shelf, a sink, and a toilet that juts halfway into the room. Metal bars are mounted horizontally across the windows, slicing through the sunlight.
The cells circle a central hall, two stories high, with cinderblock walls covered in murals and painted messages that wrap around concentric rows of chairs below. Dingus drops into a seat next to another twenty-six-year-old. That morning, the women are presenting paper collages cut from magazines, spelling out messages such as “bring something different to the table,” “don’t mind me, just flexing my hustle,” and “clean.” Jeffrey Wheelbarger, the regional administrator for recovery services, says it’s an exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal is to change the way people think, Wheelbarger says, tackling their substance abuse disorder by shifting beliefs and associations. Dingus leans back as the session begins, hands folded in her lap. A delicate spade tattoo is etched into her right ring finger and a ripple of strawberry blonde hair falls to her shoulders. Dingus, a hairdresser, requested to join the program during her orientation at the prison, after noticing a staff member with carefully groomed hair. “She was dressed real cute and she was so friendly to all of us so I just decided that I wanted what she had,” Dingus recalled.
At the time, Dingus said she didn’t see her drug use as a risky addiction. She first tried drugs with a boyfriend who smoked marijuana. When the relationship turned abusive, Dingus broke it off and fled to a man she says had a dangerous reputation, but one she hoped would protect her from the ex-boyfriend. Dingus’ new boyfriend, a drug dealer, gave her heroin.
“I thought that—um, I don’t know,” she pauses and shakes her head. “I thought he loved me and that he was taking care of me and now, looking back, I can see that he was more of an abuser than I would have ever placed him to be because giving me those drugs—he had me under his control.”
Dingus was incarcerated in the late summer of 2017 on two counts of drug trafficking, an attempt to tamper with evidence, and an aggravated assault against another woman—low-level fourth and fifth-degree felonies. She is eligible for early release in August 2020. The idea stirs both excitement and fear. Dingus says she wants to believe she’s stronger, ready to leave treatment, to leave prison. But even the sound of sniffling is enough to trigger cravings for heroin. “I’m scared to fail. I’m scared to disappoint myself. I am terrified,” Dingus said. “The smallest thing can trigger an addict.”
As Dingus talks about life after release, tears sting her eyes, bright in a pale, round face. They match her pine green prison-issued sweatshirt. “I’ve never done any recovery in my life, until I got here, so I don’t know what I’m going to face when I go home,” she says. “I believe that once you’re an addict you’re always an addict, and it’s just a matter of time before you’re going to be faced with something that’s going to trigger you.”
When she leaves the reformatory, Dingus faces myriad treatment options, if she wants them. None are guaranteed to work. Dingus says she hopes to be injected with naltrexone, a drug meant to prevent relapse and suppress cravings.
‘Luring and seductive’
Naltrexone was developed as a daily oral drug in the 1960s and approved by the FDA to treat alcoholism in 1984. Neuroscientist Edward Bilsky studied the drug’s pharmacology during his bachelor’s degree in the ‘80s, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. Bilsky is now provost at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, Washington, where his research focuses on opioid pharmacology, pain, and addiction.
Bilsky says he first experienced the effects of opioids as a child, after accidentally drinking a bottle of sweet, yellow cough syrup that contained codeine. His parents told him he slept for two days, Bilsky said. The second time, he received morphine at a hospital following surgery. The sensation that unfolded confirmed what he already knew from decades of opioid research, Bilsky said — “a coldness in my vein, going up my arm, a flutter in my gut,” as the drug worked its way through his blood vessels, before tapping into a convolution of nerves in his brain and limbic system. Opioid drugs inhibit pain by binding to opioid receptors throughout the body, brain, and spinal cord. Within twenty minutes, Bilsky said he felt warm and cozy, detached from the pain, as though it was “a long distance away.”
For people trying to numb emotional pain, opioids can be “luring and seductive,” Bilsky said. They stimulate parts of the brain that control pleasure and satisfaction, magnifying the sensation. Withdrawal creates the opposite effect, including “intense feelings of dread.” Physical withdrawal symptoms such as muscle spasms have given rise to tropes like ‘kicking the habit.’ Going cold turkey refers to the fleshy prickles raised by goosebumps during detox, similar to the skin of a plucked bird. Withdrawal can also trigger sweating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea—the worst flu you can imagine, Bilsky said.
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, used to suppress cravings and combat certain addictions by blocking the effects of opioid drugs and alcohol. Bilsky tested naltrexone in college, on rats. He says early versions of the treatment for humans “didn’t go over so well,” causing “nasty side effects”—for opioid users in particular. Oral naltrexone was ill-suited to chronic opioid addiction, requiring patients to take daily pills. Many lapsed in their treatment. The drug has since advanced, notably in 2006 when the FDA approved injectable naltrexone that can block opioid receptors for up to a month.
Lyndsi Pearson takes Vivitrol once a month to suppress heroin cravings. She’s twenty-seven, slender, with thick blonde hair and black-rimmed glasses. Her treatment was court-ordered, following multiple arrests for solicitation, and involves frequent counseling at a center in Columbus. The building juxtaposes its neighborhood in Old Oaks, a dilapidated fleck of city hemmed by Interstate 70, where crushed beer cans stud unkempt lawns and plywood sheets obscure the doors and windows of surrounding houses. The steel-grey center opened in 2017, part of a rapid expansion by an organization called Alvis, to meet growing demand for addiction support in Ohio. The nonprofit owns more than forty sites across the state, providing residential care as well as various types of outpatient counseling to nearly 8,000 clients annually.
Pearson has struggled with addiction since taking prescription painkillers at age nineteen, after the birth of her second child. By her mid-twenties, the drug had rotted Pearson’s teeth to the gums. A boyfriend taught her to inject heroin. “He knew I needed it, so he would use that as leverage to make me do what he wanted me to do,” Pearson said.
The man pimped her out, she said. About six years ago, he was arrested for human trafficking. Pearson believes he’s still in prison. “When I got with him, he was my boyfriend—he loved me. That’s what I thought. That’s what he made me believe. So, we was together for a year and a half and I still…” she falters. “Like after I testified against him and everything, I still felt bad about it. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I didn’t realize I was the victim ‘til I got here.”
Pearson’s treatment is tailored to women with solicitation records, hosted by Alvis in collaboration with local municipal courts. The women meet regularly in pastel-washed rooms, where plastic butterflies are glued to the walls. To her, the center is “a whole new world,” Pearson said, in which people don’t take advantage of her addiction. She’s working on her GED and plans to go to college, before joining the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force as an advocate for victims.
“My counselor teaches us how to respect ourselves and how to become ladies and all that good stuff,” Pearson said. “I still struggle with self-love but she helps us, gives us ways for affirmation — she tells us all the time.”
After each counseling session, a security guard in a midnight-blue uniform pulls on rubber gloves and sweeps the room for drugs and related paraphernalia. He spends longest in the bathroom, flushing and peering into toilet reservoirs. The women can easily lapse, even while in treatment, said Pearson’s counsellor, Rhonda Ervin. It can be a deadly slip. Ervin recently lost a pair of clients who were incarcerated in Columbus for two weeks. The women left jail on a Friday, due back at Alvis the following Monday. Over the weekend, both overdosed and died.
Yet nearly eighty per cent of people who complete Alvis’ residential re-entry program—similar to a halfway house – stay out of prison and jail for three years or longer. Alvis’ chief program officer, Linda Janes, has worked in criminal justice for more than three decades and says the common thread for “every single client, every single inmate, is addiction.” She believes treatment is the key to lowering both overdose and incarceration rates in Ohio. “If you don’t treat the addiction or the mental health issues, you might as well forget everything else.” Janes said. “You can’t just contain and secure people without dealing with that addiction, or you’re just spinning your wheels.”
Ohio last year considered a constitutional amendment—called “Issue 1”—that would have changed state drug laws, notably to lower the charges and punishments for obtaining, possessing, or using illegal substances, including cocaine and heroin. If adopted, the change could have undermined treatment options for people addicted to illegal substances, according to Paul Pfeifer, a retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice. Pfeifer co-authored the official argument against Issue 1, on behalf of a state-wide organization of judges called the Ohio Judicial Conference.
An advocacy coalition called the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign submitted the counterargument, stating that Issue 1 saves money, efficiently reinvests tax dollars, reduces recidivism, and protects public safety. In its arguments, the coalition claimed “bipartisan support from law enforcement, mental health and addiction treatment providers, nurses, faith leaders, and victims of crime.”
The Ohio Judicial Conference focused on defeating Issue 1 on the ballot, drawing on support from judges across the state. And “In my adult lifetime, I have never known judges to get as involved as they have in this,” Pfeifer said. The proposed constitutional amendment failed two-to-one, with sixty-three per cent of voters against Issue 1.
Among the judges fighting Issue 1 was Judge Todd McKenney, who runs a drug court in Barberton, certified in 2016. The municipal courthouse perches near a watery dip in the ground, popular with wild geese, Lake Anna. Drug courts are a sentencing alternative for people with addiction who have committed low-level, non-violent crimes. Every Tuesday, McKenney slips into black robes and prepares for work.
McKenney is an expressive, middle-aged man from an upper-middle-class family. He once worked as a pastor and still preaches at a local Chinese Christian Church, his sermons translated from English. Pastoral work softened his stance on addiction, McKenney said. Drug court, however, hardened his faith against the possibility for someone addicted to drugs to make rational choices about recovery.
McKenney recalls a particular case, involving a man charged with tampering with a corpse. The man had been sitting in a car with his friend, when the friend overdosed, the needle still dangling from his arm. “He took the needle from his friend’s arm to shoot up with it and then dumped the body,” McKenney said. “There’s no kind of rational behavior where you dump your friend’s body out of a car and take that same needle and shoot up. There’s a certain amount of crazy—and I just mean detached, just temporary insanity—that applies to these kinds of addiction cases.”
In McKenney’s courtroom, about a dozen people sit in wooden pews. Some rock back and forth in their seats. Others knead their hands or fiddle with papers clutched in laps. One by one, he calls them to the bench. He asks about their recovery. As a drug court judge, McKenney can order people into treatment, require that they apply for jobs or get a driver’s license. When faced with resistance, he can threaten drug tests and jail time.
“I will use whatever tools are available to me,” McKenney said. “If I think you’re in an active state of addiction and I can’t stop you in any other way and I can’t get you to do what’s in your own best interest, I’ll give you enough jail time to try to persuade you that this is in your own best interest.”
Issue 1 likely would have dissolved the drug court, McKenney said. Moreover, the constitutional amendment would have robbed him of the tools he uses to push people with addiction into treatment, such as the threat of jail time, he said.
Behind the argument for Issue 1, the judge said, “is that we should not be giving people a felony record. My only response to that is I tend to agree with you, I tend to be fairly libertarian—that people can live their lives as they want. You can make your own choices.
“But when I see you caught in a pattern of addiction and not able to make anything what looks like a good choice to me, then I feel like I need to intervene and I need enough tools to intervene so that you at least make a conscious choice that is something in your best interest. Living a life addicted to drugs, it just can’t be in your best interest.”
The Ohio Judicial Conference partnered with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association to write the official argument against Issue 1. Daniel Lutz, the prosecutor for Wayne County, sits on the executive board as vice president. He launched his legal career in the Navy, working for two decades as a military attorney and judge. He’s also on the Wayne County Opiates Task Force. Asked whether he believes his role involves breaking the grip of addiction in Ohio, the prosecutor smiled and said, “I would like to think that.”
Lutz views punishment as a crucial yet waning element of criminal justice, particularly in the context of an opioid crisis defined by powerfully addictive drugs. He’s a thin-lipped man with slate-coloured eyes. In another life, he would have been a dog trainer, Lutz said. A framed photograph of his three-legged Doberman, Thatcher, named for Margaret Thatcher, is tucked between legal tomes in Lutz’s office. The walls are a tapestry of certificates, family photographs, and posters of the American flag. Half a proverb, “where there is no wisdom, the people perish,” is etched into a wooden plaque hung opposite the doorway. Not shown, the proverb ends: “But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office last year presented 630 cases to a grand jury. More than half, 377, were drug cases. The local jail is overcrowded and people arrested with small amounts of drugs often bond out immediately.
“They’re out going right back to what they were doing and that’s why I see them week after week, presenting their cases to grand jury,” Lutz said. “Admittedly it gets frustrating sometimes with our judges because I think they’re being too lenient and the person’s not getting the message. Are they really helping the person by being so lenient? It’s like if you never discipline your child—Are you really helping your child if you never discipline them and let them do anything they want? No.
“If the criminal justice system isn’t going to hold them accountable, who is?”
But incarceration can’t be the only option, Lutz said. That’s why he joined the capital campaign committee for New Destiny, a faith-based treatment center struggling to expand services on its thirteen-acre lot. Up to sixty men live at the center for nine months at a time, on the acreage near the northern Ohio village of Clinton. New Destiny uses the same twelve-step program made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, substituting Jesus for the unnamed “higher power” identified in Step Two. The center opened in the 1960s as a shelter for homeless people, run by the Barberton Rescue Mission. In 1993, the shelter rebranded as New Destiny and began offering residential and outpatient addiction programs, including counselling and medication-assisted treatment. The center also has capacity for 175 outpatients, both men and women.
Marketing director Cris Prillaman says the faith-based approach is at once a defining feature and a public affairs nightmare, spooking funders who believe the center discriminates against non-Christians. She’s an energetic woman with a spray of blond hair and wide, bright green eyes. They fill with tears when she talks about the men who live at New Destiny. “I just get so emotional,” Prillaman says. “I see these guys come in and they’re sick and they have sores on their faces. We’ve treated some tremendously ill men.”
The medical costs add up quickly, Prillaman said, stacking on top of bills for food, facilities, staff, and equipment. She’s co-ordinating the capital campaign, which aims to raise $4 million for expanded services at New Destiny. “It’s up to the Lord. I cannot do it. I do not know people with money,” Prillaman said. “We need it so badly because we are a Medicare facility so, although we do have support from some individuals and churches, it’s nowhere near what it takes to staff this place.”
Nate Ritter has lived at New Destiny three times—nearly two and a half years, total. His first two treatments were court-ordered. Both failed.
Ritter is fighting a heroin addiction and has spent the majority of his adult life incarcerated, starting at age eighteen. “I was a kid when I went in and it was hell,” Ritter recalled about his first prison sentence. The decade that followed was a blur of jails, prison, and rehab, he said. Every time Ritter walked free, he stepped back into his addiction. He’s grown skeptical of mandated treatment.
“It’ll stop the process but for how long?” Ritter said.
“I can sit here and tell you til I’m blue in the face that I don’t want to do drugs anymore. Whether I do drugs or not doesn’t change that answer. I still don’t want to do ‘em. Will I be able not to? I really hope so.”
He’s now thirty-one, a tall man with a creased forehead and thick brown stubble shaved into a strap across his jawline and chin. For years, he said addiction clouded his judgement, pierced by moments of clarity when the drugs clawed too close. Last year, more than a dozen of Ritter’s friends overdosed fatally. He lost count at fifteen.
“Once you’re in active addiction, you’re getting high every single day,” Ritter said. “Whether or not I’m going to die over this bag of dope really doesn’t—it doesn’t compute. You don’t think about it until you see the buddy in your car, he’s black and blue, you’re driving him to the ER, trying to get him to come back to life. Then it’s real.”
Ritter overdosed for the first time on October 2, 2018. He knows the exact date because it was his sister’s birthday. That day, he pressed a shot of heroin into his arm before getting in the shower. He remembers thinking the floor was slippery, as he lost his balance. More than eight hours later, he woke up still crumpled in the bathtub and certain he was dead. Ritter used meth the same week and said it was “like somebody shut the lights off on me.” Dazed, he stumbled to a local police station.
“I remember standing outside this police station, I was thinkin’—I don’t know if it was God or what, man—either I go in here and get help, or I’m going to continue this. And I went into that police station. I remember knocking on a window and they looked at me. I’m like, ‘Hey, I need help.’”
Late last year, Ritter checked into New Destiny for the third time.
Though he has been an in-patient at New Destiny twice before, he said his third stay felt different. The center’s strategy hadn’t changed, but for the first time he wanted to be there. Ritter finished treatment in April. He doesn’t remember much about the day he left—except for the hope that, this time, he wouldn’t come back.
“I felt like I could do it. Like I could stay sober,” Ritter said. “I thought I was going to be fine. I thought I was good.”
He overdosed on heroin within a month. He’s still struggling to get clean.
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