That Journey to Recovery can be Rocky but there is Hope
Because of the multiple forces at work in the third year of the COVID-19 epidemic, people are arriving at the Gateway Foundation sicker than ever from drug and alcohol addiction.
Many people with drug use disorders who join Gateway's Springfield Treatment Center begin to physically shut down and lose consciousness. According to Kerry Henry, senior executive director of Gateway's Central and Southern Illinois Community Division and manager of the Springfield facility for more than 20 years,
Some have required numerous doses of Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose, to be revived. Some had to be transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital and stabilized before being evaluated for residential drug treatment at Gateway, located at 2200 Lake Victoria Drive.
"Medically and psychiatrically, they're very sick—the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here for 28 years," she said.
Because some clients delayed seeking treatment due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, those now traveling to Gateway sites in Springfield, Jacksonville, elsewhere downstate, and in the Chicago area are exhibiting more advanced symptoms of substance use disorder, including higher blood alcohol levels. Some are nearly unresponsive minutes after arriving.
According to Gateway authorities, phone calls from customers seeking treatment have declined by around 25% during the last two years. However, service requests have been around pre-COVID levels in the last two months.
The pandemic has presented unique and diverse issues for drug users and organizations attempting to assist them.
Springfield and the rest of the country are seeing a drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases. Those who treat substance use disorders and cope with its consequences, on the other hand, claim the pandemic's social isolation and other repercussions have led to increased drug and alcohol addiction and, subsequently, an increased need for treatment services.
Fentanyl contributes to more overdoses.
According to law enforcement and treatment specialists, the epidemic has also boosted the influx of fentanyl into the local criminal drug trade. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is less expensive and up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
The substance is being blamed for an increase in deadly overdoses in Illinois and Sangamon County, despite the fact that Narcan is becoming more widely available to both users and emergency personnel.
"The common denominator is fentanyl," Sangamon County Coroner Jim Allmon said. "Fentanyl is in everything."
According to some experts, shipments of fentanyl from foreign nations were simpler to get into the US during the epidemic than heroin. Suppliers have utilized fentanyl to replace other narcotics they offer, and consumers, despite the hazards, sometimes prefer fentanyl.
According to Allmon, there will be 60 unintentional, deadly drug overdoses in Sangamon County in 2021, seven more than in 2020 and 57% higher than the 38 overdoses in 2019, before the epidemic began.
According to him, fentanyl was present in 80% of overdoses in the last two years, and it was frequently laced with heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine.
The victims appeared to be oblivious to the fentanyl, and "they did not mean to die," according to Allmon. "No one knows what these illegal drugs contain."
According to the number of ongoing death investigations by the coroner's office, the trend of rising overdoses will continue in 2022.
RoseAmber Hutchens joined the ranks of those statistics.
Barbara Hutchens, 56, of Springfield, claimed her 34-year-old daughter, a single mother of two, died Feb. 4 of an overdose in a Springfield apartment that was a "known party area."
RoseAmber, who had previously worked at a currency exchange, was unemployed and addicted to drugs when she died, according to her mother, who added that her daughter stole to support her habit. RoseAmber didn't have her two children with her at the time.
Hutchens stated that she had been injecting heroin and taking methamphetamines since she was a youngster.
RoseAmber spent time in treatment centers in Champaign and Ohio as a youngster, graduated from Lincoln's Challenge Academy in Rantoul, and was a member of Narcotics Anonymous, according to her mother. RoseAmber went to Alcoholics Anonymous sessions in Springfield later on.
Hutchens said toxicology findings following Amber's death found meth and fentanyl in her system, as well as proof the narcotics were injected.
She stated that other individuals in the flat had been doing drugs, but there was no Narcan available. "I'm not sure whether addicts understand they can have that for free," she remarked.
Hutchens was skeptical that her daughter would take fentanyl.
"She probably thought she was getting heroin and meth," Hutchens said. "They are lacing everything with fentanyl now."
She encourages people to "pay attention" to substance usage in the Springfield area and to call police if they see suspected "dope homes."
"People in the community need to know what's going on under their noses," Hutchens said. "Our loved ones are dying."
Overdose deaths are a statewide "public health concern."
In an email, the Illinois Department of Human Services stated that opioid usage, overdoses, and deaths "continue to be a public health epidemic in Illinois."
According to DHS official David T. Jones, there were 2,944 fatal overdoses in Illinois in 2020, about one-third higher than the 2,219 recorded in 2019. Jones was formerly the head of DHS's division of drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation before being designated the state's chief behavioral health officer by Gov. JB Pritzker.
According to preliminary figures, there will be 2,774 fatal overdoses in the state in 2021. This figure was 6% lower than the 2,944 in 2020 but 25% higher than the 2,219 in 2019. According to Jones, if past attempts to extend the use of Narcan had not been made, many more people would have perished.
Although data for the first three months of 2022 isn't yet available, he says some of the variables that contributed to the spike in 2020, such as fentanyl, are "still very much at play."
The emotional trauma produced by the epidemic has increased the need for drug treatment and general mental-health services across Illinois, and that tendency "will be there for a while, maybe five to ten years," Jones said.
The Pritzker administration recently renamed the state's Opioid Action Plan the Overdose Action Plan to reflect the increased usage of numerous drugs.
"Polysubstance use increases overdose risks, and the combined use of opioids and stimulants is particularly deadly," the plan document says.
Medication-assisted therapy is advised.
According to the plan, the epidemic and its "related pressures," such as social isolation, job loss, and the interruption of in-person treatment and recovery support programs, "also play a role in increasing overdose deaths."
To save lives, we need to reach out to and engage individuals who are at risk for both fatal and non-fatal overdoses due to multiple drugs: synthetic opioids, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances, the plan says.
It emphasizes improved service coordination, expanded medication-assisted treatment, and "harm-reduction" techniques like making free Narcan widely available to the general population. Sangamon County Department of Public Health, 2833 South Grand Ave. E.; Phoenix Center, 109 E. Lawrence Ave.; and Mini O'Beirne Crisis Nursery, 1011 N. Seventh St., are among the Springfield locations where free Narcan is offered.
The strategy also addresses racial and social gaps in the overdose problem, noting that non-Hispanic white non-Hispanic overdose fatalities in Illinois fell 6.5% in 2018, but climbed 9.1% among non-Hispanic black adults. According to the proposal, non-Hispanic black residents were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from drug overdoses in 2020.
According to Jones, the discrepancies are due to a lack of access to treatment and support services, as well as other pressures associated with black people's disproportionately higher levels of poverty.
At a March 21 news conference in Chicago, Pritzker said that the plan "is about deploying behavioral health assistance to support any Illinoisan who is fighting opioid addiction."
"Here's the truth: Everybody knows somebody who is struggling – everybody – and our systems need to reflect that, because pain left in the shadows hurts us all," the Democratic governor said. "So if you're struggling, know that your fight is my fight, and the government of the state of Illinois is here to assist you."
Springfield organizations find novel techniques to save lives.
According to Karen Harrold, a Gateway program director, the Gateway Foundation, which operates a 108-bed residential facility for adults and also provides outpatient services in Springfield, has worked to improve access for patients by referring them to other Gateway sites when the Springfield location is full.
In 2020, the Springfield location will construct a 16-bed medically supervised detoxification center to "better help those clients who require medication management to address withdrawal symptoms prior to commencing standard residential treatment," according to senior executive director Henry.
In addition to the trauma that many Gateway patients have suffered via childhood abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, people seeking assistance were frequently isolated from their families and other support networks throughout the pandemic, according to Harrold.
Henry added: "It's been a traumatic episode with no end to the pandemic. They're unsure of when it's going to stop. It's precipitated them feeling very isolated and lonely.
She believes that having Narcan available in nasal and injectable forms has saved lives in the community, but she is not shocked by the increase in overdoses.
Because fentanyl is so strong, she said, "you have to use multiple doses of Narcan to revive somebody. Two cartridges won't be enough – usually four to six, and sometimes more. "
According to Henry, adequate payment has been a challenge as the number of patients with severe substance use disorders has increased. Inpatient stays of 28 to 30 days are commonly covered by Medicaid, which covers around 60% of patients, and private insurance, which covers the remaining 40%.
"That's the hard part, because some of these people really need longer," Henry said, noting that patients who don't receive adequate treatment are at a higher risk of relapse.
According to Chief Operating Officer Ron Vlasaty Jr., another drug treatment center has employed telehealth services—via phone and video—to deliver treatments faster during the pandemic in Springfield and other areas.
Family Guidance Centers is a non-profit corporation situated in the Chicago suburb of Glenview that runs a 60-bed treatment center in Springfield at 120 N. 11th St.
During the pandemic, the organization collaborated with Memorial Health to station counselors in the emergency departments of Memorial's hospitals in Springfield, Decatur, Jacksonville, Taylorville, and Lincoln to assist patients with substance-use disorders, as part of a "cultural shift" to improve access to services, he said.
Because of social isolation, the Springfield staff has noted a rise in client alcohol usage throughout the pandemic, according to Vlasaty.
Despite the innovations started during the epidemic, FGC, like many other behavioral health providers, has had difficulty finding enough staff members, particularly those with "life experience" with substance addiction, to satisfy demand, he added.
According to Amber Olson, regional director of clinical operations, Memorial Behavioral Health, a Memorial Health subsidiary, has seen a rise in clients battling with drug abuse. According to her, several of her clients have drug abuse disorders in addition to other mental health concerns. During the pandemic, Memorial Behavioral Health, 710 N. Eighth St., developed Living Care, a mental emergency room option for adults. The free walk-in service employs peer counselors to provide crisis intervention and assistance in connecting with community resources.
Phoenix Center, 109 E. Lawrence Ave., began distributing free fentanyl test strips as part of its harm-reduction program in spring 2020 and continues to do so with financial help from the Sangamon County Department of Public Health, according to center Assistant Director Sara Bowen-Lasisi.
The test strips, as well as free Narcan, clean needles, syringes, and other supplies, have proven popular with users, she said, noting that the number of people helped by the harm-reduction program more than doubled during the epidemic and currently exceeds 700 each year.
People can get the materials without identifying themselves by strolling into the Phoenix Center during office hours or purchasing them for delivery by mail or in-person. The nonprofit organization covers a 15-county area in central Illinois.
"It's completely a public health program" that can prevent overdoses and the spread of hepatitis and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), according to Bowen-Lasisi.
The COVID-19 pandemic has an impact on the travels of Gateway patients.
Tommy McNichols stated that his alcoholism worsened throughout the epidemic. The 31-year-old state agency office worker admitted to being an "isolated alcoholic" for eight years, consuming one to 112 pints of "cheap vodka" most days after work, frequently to the point of blackout.
McNichols, 31, of Springfield, claims he drank more during the epidemic because he believed his coworkers wouldn't notice his hungover breath or appearance via the mask he wore at work.
"They figured it out anyway," he said.
The lack of social activities outside of his apartment also added to the isolation, which made McNichols, who is single, more comfortable with binge drinking, he said.
He checked himself into Gateway's detox unit after passing out at his job and embarrassing himself in front of a coworker, he claimed. He has been in the residential program for almost a month.
Another Gateway resident, Christopher Hayes, preferred methamphetamine. The 32-year-old Atwood resident and former fertilizer business employee claimed he became hooked on meth some years ago and had been clean for two years before relapsing during the epidemic.
More individuals remaining at home in the early months of the pandemic, along with extra money made accessible to people through government economic stimulus checks, resulted in more meth being easily available in Atwood, a hamlet about 69 miles east of Springfield, he said.
Hayes stated that he did not enjoy smoking or injecting meth the majority of the time. He stated he would take amphetamine to alleviate withdrawal symptoms such as agitation.
He believes the meth he consumed was laced with fentanyl at times, but he never overdosed.
Hayes has been at Gateway for about three weeks and credits it with giving him hope for defeating his addiction and returning to his wife, 18-month-old son, and 12-year-old stepdaughter.
"It's been a whole different world since I've been here," he said. It's crazy amazing. I did not know who I really was. "
He said his struggle to find work during the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, as well as the stress of being homeless and living on the streets of Springfield, kept him from treating his addiction.
Tyler, 32, of a tiny town south of Champaign, is on his third stay at Gateway since the epidemic began, having previously completed a 30-day recovery program in another state.
He stated that he began using heroin after receiving opiate prescription medicines to treat the agony of shattered bones after falling off a skateboard in his early twenties. After being denied legitimate medications, he turned to heroin for a cheaper but comparable high.
That euphoria quickly turned into addiction. He stated he took heroin at the time not to feel high, but to escape the terrible flu-like symptoms associated with withdrawal.
"I was used to functioning," he said. "It was completely terrifying. It controlled my life. "
Tyler has been at Gateway for approximately two weeks and is benefiting from the prescription medication Suboxone, which helps him manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
He stated that he is receiving therapy while on leave from his job at a nearby department store and that he intends to return to work.
Before this latest stay, "I was pretty much dopesick for a year," he said. "I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Tyler is more optimistic than ever that his recovery will continue.
"This stay is the best experience of my life so far," he said. "This is it for me. They're not going to see me back here.
Addicts are not bad people. We are broken people. "
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Dean Olsen is an Illinois Times senior staff writer. Dolsen may be reached at 217-679-7810 or [email protected]
The Illinois Department of Human Programs' confidential helpline at 833-234-6343 provides information on services and resources for substance users 24 hours a day.