Opioid deaths, addiction continue to mount
BY TYLER STOCKS, AMELIA HARPER AND REGGIE PONDER
Adams Publishing Group
Sunday, May 5, 2019
Megan McPhail was a proud young woman.
She loved four-wheeling with her friends and wasn’t afraid of mud. In fact, she loved every second of getting the four-wheeler stuck and having friends pulled her out.
She also had golden blonde curls, bright blue eyes and a contagious smile that lit up a room.
But deep down was an opioid addiction that brought her great pain and suffering, something that a proud woman like McPhail didn’t want people to know.
McPhail was using heroin. Ultimately, when she was 27, it took her life.
The East Carolina University student was among 962 people who died in North Carolina from an opioid related overdose or complication in 2014. According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, those deaths have continued to rise as the state and nation combat what health officials identified as a crisis and epidemic around the time of McPhail’s death.
The crisis began with the overprescription of legal pain killers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Users hooked on the pills often turned to heroin, cheaper and plentiful on the streets. Now officials are raising alarms about the increase usage and fatal consequences of synthetic fentanyl.
Health and Human Services began documenting opioid deaths as the state bolstered efforts to combat the crisis. From 1999 to 2017, more than 13,000 North Carolinians died from unintentional opioid-involved poisoning deaths. That includes 1,169 in 2015, 1,514 in 2016 and 2,006 in 2017, according to the state.
Stories by Adams Publishing Group this month will detail efforts to treat addict and address the crises. Today, personal stories demonstrate how the crisis has affected addicts and the people who love them.
JOSEPH AND CINDY
Joseph and Cindy — they asked their last names be withheld — are nearly 25 years apart in age and in many ways have lived very different lives. But both became addicted to opioids and both have found a path to recovery through traditional 12-step programs and the faith-based Celebrate Recovery model. Both attend recovery programs in the Elizabeth City area.
Cindy, 54, became addicted to prescription pain medications at age 23 after the first in a series of brain surgeries.
“Back in the day they prescribed the strong stuff and they prescribed it in mass quantities,” she said of how she first became addicted to pain medications after her first surgery.
“If you ever pick it back up, you take it and it takes you,” she said. “Addiction never quits. It’s out there doing pushups even when you stop.”
She moved on to heroin after she sent a friend to the store with a prescription and the friend instead brought back heroin.
“So I ended up hooked on that for the longest time,” she said.
Her recovery took a turn for the better when she went to a treatment facility four years ago in Galax, Va. While at the treatment facility she missed one of her grandson’s birthdays — his ninth — “and I vowed that I would never miss another one.”
She’s been clean since.
Cindy, who grew up in the southern part of Chesapeake, Va., and still lives in the area, said she attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and sometimes goes to the Celebrate Recovery program at a church in Chesapeake.
“I do a lot of church now because I think that also soothes my soul,” she said.
Joseph, 30, said he was introduced to heroin around age 14. He and a group of friends first sniffed it and then began injecting it. They all stopped after a girl in the group got in trouble with her parents and they realized they might get in trouble, too.
When he was 17 or 18 Joseph began experimenting with oxycontin and other pills. About eight years ago, he started taking morphine sulfate pills. He said it was the first time he had ever experienced drug-withdrawal symptoms.
“I never wanted to feel them again,” he said.
So he started using heroin again and in 2014 ended up going to prison.
“I was using fraudulent credit cards to feed my addiction,” Joseph said.
After he was released, he said, “I was right back at it” and soon went back to prison for two years on drug charges.
While at a state prison in Pennsylvania, Joseph started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. When he was released after his second incarceration, he did not resume opioid use but started using cocaine and methamphetamine instead.
After winding up in the hospital, Joseph said he wanted help. So he went into rehab in April 2017. Since then, he has been clean and has worked on his recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery.
Each program has its own strengths and complement the other, he said.
Joseph, who has lived in North Carolina about a year, said his path to recovery began when he decided he could live a different kind of life.
“I had to make a life choice,” he said. “There is hope and it all started with me being openminded and willing to learn how to think differently and live differently,” he said.
Kalib, 23, of Rocky Mount, battled opioid addiction and overcame it. Like many young people, he began having problems when he chose the wrong friends.
“I was not the type of kid who did drugs in high school,” said Kalib, who also asked that his last name be withheld. “But after high school, I began to hang around with some people who were a bad influence on me. I began by using pills — opioids — and then moved on to heroin.”
He was able to keep a job for a while, but his life began to spiral out of control.
“I was on a path of destruction,” he said. “I lost my job, I lost my family, I lost everything.”
As he burned bridges, Kalib lost the financial support of those around him. He began staying in cheap hotels when he had money. But one day, he reached his limits.
“I realized that everyone had given up on me. I finally realized that I had to get clean — to do what’s right for me,” he said.
He turned to Tom Bashore, who was at the time the chief of police in Nashville and the founder of the Hope Initiative, a program designed to connect people struggling with substance abuse with the resources they need in a safe environment.
Kalib was sent to Nash UNC Health Care for immediate treatment and then to Coastal Plain hospital to begin the process of recovery. From there, he was sent to a faith-based residential addiction recovery program in Knightdale where he remained for about 11 months.
It was a long road, but his life is the better for it, he said.
“I now have a new job and I just bought my first new car on my own,” he said. “My family forgave me and they accepted me back.”
Kalib has advice for others who have fallen into the trap of opioid addiction.
“The hardest part is to ask for help. But if you ask for help, you can get your life back,” he said.
Because she was a proud young woman, Megan McPhail tried for a long time to fight her battles on her own, her mother said.
“I’m not sure when her addiction started but she hid it very, very well,” Lettie Micheletto said. “I think for a long time, she didn’t want me to know. She was embarrassed by it.”
McPhail grew up in a loving home with parents who supported her and pushed her to be the very best in everything she did.
“Our home life was very normal. She had everything she needed, but I also tried to be very structured as a mother and to make sure my children were involved in activities and sports and making good choices,” Micheletto said. “When she finally did tell me, I was in shock, absolute shock. She told me she was using heroin. From what I know also, she started with pills — that’s how it all started was with pills.”
Micheletto spent the five years since McPhail’s death trying to figure out how she missed the signs of addiction.
“She was what people call a functional addict. She hid it well. It wasn’t until the last year that it became so that her life was kind of explosive. Everything fell apart,” Micheletto said.
During her teenage years, McPhail was an athlete who loved swimming and cheerleading. She was a cheerleader at D.H. Conley High and graduated from J.H. Rose.
She once broke her arm when she was 15 when she was tumbling and refused to get in the ambulance. Six months later, McPhail was tumbling again.
“She refused to stop; she had a goal and she was going for it,” Micheletto said.
When McPhail broke the news that she was using heroin, her family sought out treatment.
“The last time she went into treatment was in June. She was there for 30 days and when they released her, she didn’t want to come home. She said, ‘It’s not safe for me to come home. I need to live in a sober living facility away from Greenville, away from my triggers where I’ll be safe,’” Micheletto said.
McPhail moved to a sober living facility in Wilmington but died days later, on Aug. 8, 2014, after shooting up one last time.
Micheletto said McPhail bought the drugs using some Visa gift cards that were for food.
Before her death, Micheletto remembers visiting with her daughter after McPhail called and asked to come see her in Greenville.
“She came over and we chatted for an hour or so and she looked really good,” Micheletto said. “I kept trying to think, ‘Why is she here, what is going on?’ and she tried to play it off like she wanted to come back to get some more of her things to have with her in Wilmington.”
It was the last time Micheletto would ever see her daughter alive again.
“She wanted to go to school in Wilmington, she wanted to get a job, she was going to transfer from ECU to UNC-Wilmington,” Micheletto said. “She had mapped out what she wanted to do. She was going to get her life back on track and dying of an overdose was definitely not in one of her plans.”
Micheletto will never forget her last words with McPhail.
“I told her I love you, and she said, ‘I love you more.’”