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Forces of habit: Addiction tough to beat

Editor's note: Abuse of alcohol and drugs is a Utah epidemic. One out of 20 Utahns has a substance abuse problem needing treatment. The Deseret News examines addiction in a five-part series focused through the eyes of former and current addicts as they run the gantlet of political, social, economic and medical factors associated with those addictions.

Roger Ashworth smirks when asked about anti-drug slogans.

" 'Just say no.' 'Choose Life.' I didn't choose life, that's for sure," Ashworth says, briefly looking down as if he's watching his 19 years as an addict cross the clinic's vinyl floor. He pauses another second, thumbing his ring emblazoned with the initials CTR — "choose the right."

"It wasn't life; it was something else," he says, absentmindedly taking up the straw in the soda cup that was dry at least four sips ago. "My life became my drugs. It was like I was the drugs. That's all I did, that's all I wanted, that's all I was."

When he was arrested and jailed for shoplifting in 1997, Ashworth had been choosing the wrong for some time. He had a $700-a-day heroin and cocaine habit. He was underwriting it mostly by stealing expensive items like faucets and front door handles from home improvement stores, then trading them in at the customer service desk for money or vouchers. "It was pretty common to make $1,500 in three hours."

He shot seven years and who knows how much money up his arm before he stopped for good two years ago.

He first started getting high in school, still going to church on Sundays, "as normal and everyday as any kid." By the time he kicked, his need to not get sick far outweighed any desire to get high.

"It's a very different motivation just to keep well," says Ashworth, who at 38 stays that way on a daily dose of methadone. "At some point with everyone, the high flips over to needing the drug just not to get sick. Every day after that becomes a chase, and finally you just can't do it any more. You just wear out, and you stop, or else you die. But one way or the other, you stop."

Substance abuse is hardly a problem confined to festering crack houses or the shadows just off the State Street neon. It reaches into virtually every social, religious and economic group in the state. There are suburban moms addicted to pain pills, euphemistically called "Sandy candy," and working-class dads grappling with secret heroin habits.

There are children far too young to carry the monkey; there are grandparents too old to remember their last moment of clarity.

They come from good families. They come from bad ones, too.

They are rich and they are poor. They are the seemingly ordinary people delivering your mail and teaching your kids and working behind the counter at the gas-and-go.

Chances are you know someone addicted to drugs. If not someone in your own family then maybe a co-worker or a friend or someone singing hymns alongside you at church.

"Addiction affects people of all persuasions, it respects no boundaries," says prominent Salt Lake attorney Lou Callister, who started Project Hope with his wife, Ellen, to help Utah addicts. Their son repeatedly battled cocaine and alcohol addiction before he was killed in a car accident.

Roughly 100,000 Utahns, or one out of every 20, suffer from an addiction to alcohol or drugs. One-fifth of all addicts are children under age 18.

The average Utah addict is 31 years old, white and LDS. Two out of three are men.

But women are fast catching up. The number of women admitted to addiction treatment centers increased by 144 percent the past year, compared to a 20 percent increase for men.

The problem, state officials say, is reaching epidemic proportions.

For decades, they watched as the cases of heroin, cocaine and alcohol addiction have mounted beyond capacity of state resources. Now they are seeing a "frightening increase" in the number of women addicted to methamphetamine — better known as "meth" or "speed."

Roughly 1,700 women were admitted for methamphetamine addiction last year, virtually identical to the number of men treated for the same addiction. Until meth, there has never been a drug that women abused in the same proportions as men.

Adding insult to social injury, statistics compiled by the state Division of Substance Abuse say 90 percent of women addicted to speed have young children at home. And experts say those children, in turn, run an extraordinarily high risk of becoming addicts themselves.

The cycle of addiction carries horrific social costs in terms of lives forever scarred by violence, disease and poverty. There are welfare costs, incarceration costs, crime costs and medical costs. There is the cost of broken families, scarred psyches and abuse.

Six out of every 10 cases where the state Division of Child and Family Services is called to protect the welfare of children now involve drug abuse.

A 10th-grade dropout, Joshua was no stranger to drugs. Marijuana mostly, and some pills. He had tried just about everything at one point or another but had always been able to give it up without a second thought.

But 6 1/2 years ago, his best friend's mother opened a door that Joshua, now 25, is struggling to close.

"She had some heroin and she shot me up," he said. "And then she shot up her son. (She) wanted to get us hooked to help support her habit."

Joshua was soon shooting up every day but always believing he could drop it anytime he wanted. But a year later, he knew he couldn't.

"It is the best feeling a human could ever feel, 100 percent total mental and physical sedation," he recalls. "But after awhile, you still get high but not as high. And then you take it just to function."

A year and a half ago, Joshua and his heroin-addicted girlfriend moved to Salt Lake City to pursue treatment together. Their money ran out, and "It wasn't long until we were strung out real bad. We were each doing eight or nine bags a day."

"We were homeless, sleeping in alleys and under stairs," he said. One night, they were caught shooting up in an alley, but the police did nothing more than give them tickets for having drug paraphernalia (needles).

They panhandled, they stole, whatever it took to score heroin. Joshua was caught shoplifting food at Albertson's. "We hadn't eaten in about two weeks," he said.

A Salt Lake man — Joshua calls him a guardian angel — intervened and got them both into treatment. He relapsed briefly after his girlfriend left him, but Joshua says he has been clean for a year.

"I was doing so good when she was there with me," he said. "I didn't think about (heroin). I think about it now. I think about it all the time. It's hard not to."

"I think if I just do it and pass out, then I won't think about all that has happened. Heroin is a reason to escape and it works."

Most addicts began experimenting when they were teenagers, and many come from family or neighborhood environments where drugs and alcohol are commonplace.

One Salt Lake addict, now in treatment, was 14 years old when her own mother shot her up with heroin. While tragic, that case is not unusual.

State survey data indicate children as young as sixth-graders are taking hard-core drugs like cocaine and sedatives. Experimentation with heroin starts showing up in surveys of eighth-graders.

According to one survey of 4,365 students in Brigham City, Cedar City, Price, Roy and Tooele, drug abuse begins showing up among children in significant numbers among sixth-graders. Seven percent said they had taken drugs in the past 30 days.

By the time they get to the eighth grade, the number is up to 15.5 percent, and by the 10th grade it is 19.3 percent. Some 15.7 percent of high school seniors admitted to drug use in the previous 30 days.

Almost without exception, those involved in the treatment of addiction echo the mantra that early intervention is critical to turning around the epidemic that is sweeping Utah and the rest of the country. Experts say if they can just deter teenagers and young adults, the chances of addiction drop dramatically as they mature.

But Utah officials lack good information on what drugs today's young people are taking, how much they are taking, how they got started.

In fact, very little comprehensive statistical data has been gleaned on the drug habits of those under age 18 since 1997 when a new law went into effect that according to state officials, handcuffs their ability to target prevention programs to Utah teenagers most at risk.

Designed to protect privacy and parental rights, state law now requires parents to give written approval before any survey is conducted in public schools — something unlikely to happen with parents of at-risk children, who in many cases are also drug abusers themselves.

Another hindrance is that new requirements raised the cost of conducting the survey from $1 per student to about $4. "We just couldn't afford it," said Pat Fleming, director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse, which compiles data on the drug and alcohol habits of all Utahns. "So we don't survey in the schools anymore."

Gayle Ruzicka, director of the Utah Eagle Forum and architect of the privacy law, said the state's need to know should never supercede a parent's right to decide whether to participate in such surveys.

"It's none of the school's business to ask them personal questions," she said. "They were (survey) questions about their sex life, what they dream about, what they think about. Even the drug and alcohol tests have a lot of questions that have nothing to do with drugs and alcohol."

Angela Smart, a programs administrator with the state Division of Substance Abuse, believes it is hopelessly naive to think kids will answer the survey honestly if their parents are looking over their shoulder.

"The key to the whole problem is prevention, and that is something we focus on in the public schools," she said. "But we have no good information on what will meet the needs of kids."

Children who spiral into addiction eventually pay the price, often dropping out of school.

According to survey data compiled on adult addicts, 38 percent never graduated from high school, and another 38 percent graduated from high school but never continued on to college.

Clairann remembers the 1960s as a time of flowers, free love and drugs. Drugs everywhere.

"I tried heroin in San Francisco and spent the next 27 years looking for that same high," she said.

She never found it. What she found was a career as a drug dealer, something that supported her heroin habit and helped her escape the reality of an abusive drug-dealing husband.

"I had a conscience. I wouldn't sell to first-time users. I didn't want to be responsible for starting them on the road to hell."

But she saw plenty on that road. More than half her friends over the years have died. About half of the women she befriended fell into prostitution.

"Heroin makes young women old and old women dead," she said. "Your shell is there, but heroin is all that matters."

Three years ago, Clairann walked into a Salt Lake treatment clinic and never looked back. She is three credits short of graduating with a degree in business, she has found renewed faith in God and she says she is planning the life she should have had at 25.

"I want to go on a cruise, I want to go to Disneyland and I want to go to the (LDS) temple," she said, giddy and hopeful.

Clairann, 52, also crusades to keep drugs out of the hands of kids, using her cell phone to report drug dealers in her neighborhood and around schools.

"It's so sad, seeing the kids" involved with drugs, she said. "If I can help just one person. . . ."

Her voice trails off, her eyes betraying the painful memories of a young woman made old before her time — herself. " I know God forgives me."

Almost without exception, those in treatment for addiction consider themselves lucky, even blessed by a higher power, to have been given a chance at recovery. For some, it was the intervention of family or church or co-workers that empowered them to turn their lives around. For others, it was a judge who gave them an option: treatment or prison.

All of them have friends who are still addicts who wish they could get out. Friends on waiting lists for treatment programs. Friends without hope.

Those involved in the treatment community wonder: Why is society willing to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and incarcerating addicts but precious little on prevention or treatment that would keep people out of trouble with the law; why is society willing to spend millions on foster care, but parents with drug problems cannot get into treatment programs that could allow families to stay together?

Fleming agrees there is plenty of merit to the criticisms leveled at state policy that has left treatment programs underfunded and state officials at the mercy of those lawmakers who see drug addiction as a moral failing unworthy of taxpayer dollars.

Lawmakers have typically approached the problem by making drug laws tougher and then building more prison cells to accommodate those who break the laws.

Faced with an epidemic of methamphetamine addiction, Gov. Mike Leavitt tried taking a proactive approach in early 2001, asking lawmakers to appropriate an additional $300,000 for treatment programs. They gave him nothing.

"Most legislators have absolutely no experience with substance abuse, and they tend to look at (addiction) as a self-inflicted gunshot wound," Fleming said. "They (addicts) did it to themselves" and therefore should pay the price themselves.

When Fleming goes before the Legislature to plead for more funding for drug treatment, lawmakers weigh his request against funding for senior citizens, the disabled and abused children.

"Ours is not a very sympathetic population," he admits.

The treatment community has, by and large, failed to sway lawmakers to change their thinking about substance abuse or to convince them that treatment will save the state money.

They find lawmakers skeptical when they present research by scientists showing addiction is a chronic brain disease that can be successfully treated with a combination of medical and psychiatric treatments.

"We have not been able to crack that nut," Fleming said. "And we probably won't anytime soon."

Ruzicka, for one, believes "we shouldn't expect the average citizen to pay for people who have gotten themselves in these messes. It's not right," she said. "It's not the proper role of government."

Churches and private foundations, she said, do a far better job at rehabilitation and treatment than government ever will.

Jack shakes his head, wondering how it is he ever came to smoke heroin the first time. The 30-year-old computer programmer had experimented with drugs at the University of Utah years before, but it was always recreational and always occasional.

In 1994, he and some friends — including the son of his employer — were watching a television news report on the drug problem at Pioneer Park. He remembers saying, "Hey, let's go down there and see what it's all about."

"I told myself it was a one-time deal, but I kept going back and going back. Seven or eight months later I knew I was hooked."

And his life spiraled out of control.

"One day I am a successful young guy who had everything, and in a few months I had quit my job, I wouldn't shower for days at a time and I would never leave the house. I was hopeless." When his friends started going to jail and his cash reserves had dwindled to next to nothing, he knew he wanted out. He was desperate and depressed.

Five years ago, he entered a treatment program and has been clean ever since. He is now a manager for a computer company, and he still gets a daily dose of methadone to deal with the addiction.

"Nobody at this point has any idea of what I used to be," he said. "They would never believe it."

Tomorrow: Addiction as a disease.