Each day, about 115 Americans die of an opioid overdose, but we are just beginning to understand and confront the opioid crisis – the deadliest drug crisis in American history. In the above documentary, Refinery29 producer Jacki Huntington features three women working to transform the landscape of addiction medicine, drug policy, and recovery services: Dr. Lipi Roy, Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Cortney Lovell.
Lovell has been in long-term recovery from heroin addiction for the past decade. She is a public speaker, recovery coach, and addictions counselor based in her hometown of North Chatham, NY. As a public speaker, Lovell often shares the traumatic story of “slipping” into addiction and her journey to recovery. This is her story, as told to Jacki Huntington.
I was 16 when I tried an opioid for the first time. My friend offered it to me and said, “It's harmless. Doctors give it out. You'll like it. We're just gonna sniff it instead of taking it how we should. It's still the same drug. It's okay." At first, I resisted, but the logic made sense to me; I tried it.
That first time, I got pretty sick after using it, but eventually this warmth flooded my body. It was like I had been going through life freezing cold, and suddenly I was wrapped in a warm blanket. That was the high of pain medication. The next time it was offered, I was a little hesitant. The time after that, I didn't even question it. By then, I started to seek it out.
During the same time, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She was that one good thing in my life, and her diagnosis was the perfect excuse to sabotage myself. I didn't know how to deal with it, so I just opted out. At 17, I slipped deep into my addiction like a ghost in the night. I started using every day, dropped out of high school, and only returned to the school parking lot to buy pills.
Once you use opioids for more than a few weeks, you become physically dependent. My life became a cycle of doing whatever I had to do to get money and buy drugs. I couldn't stay in college and I couldn't hold a job, so I would manipulate my parents and come up with crazy, asinine reasons why I needed $40. My parents were worried and concerned, but it was hard to distinguish between teenage angst, depression, and drug use. I could cover it up, so I did.
A year after my first opioid experience, I visited my biological father's side of the family in North Carolina. I barely knew them. That's when I experienced my first withdrawal; I brought pills with me, and I thought that I could just taper down the amount I was using to get by for a whole week. But I didn't – I couldn't. By the second day, I used everything I brought with me, and I started going through withdrawal. I was unable to sleep, and I couldn't function. I tried to hide it and said I had the flu.
That night, at two in the morning, a distant relative came into my room. I finally begged him for help. "Please don't tell anyone," I said. "I'm going through withdrawal, and I don't think I'm going to make it."
My relative said that he knew some people in town that we could ask for methadone or suboxone — medications to help with withdrawal. Everyone had been drinking. But that frontal lobe of mine was shut down, and it didn't matter. Going through withdrawal, you feel like you're going to die. Your mind convinces you it's the end of the world. I was in survival mode.
So we left in the middle of the night against all logic and rational thought, and we didn't make it anywhere good. My relative pulled over into a school parking lot and raped me in his car. I never got help that night.
Afterwards, I blamed myself. I kept telling myself, "You shouldn't have gotten in the car. You shouldn't have been in that situation to begin with. It would never have happened if you weren't addicted to drugs, if you weren't living this lifestyle. This was the one person who was trying to help you, and this is all your fault." I couldn't tell anyone, and I went through withdrawal for the entire week. I didn’t sleep for at least five days.
When I finally got home, a friend picked me up from the airport, and we went right to a dealer. I was vomiting bile, because I hadn't eaten. And I did something for the first time that I never thought I'd do: I shot up heroin.
As soon as I stuck that needle in my arm, my pain and worries disappeared so quickly, like a switch. I vowed to never experience withdrawal again. I was going to live and die a drug addict, because I would never face all of that stuff that the drugs pushed away. It was not an option for me.
In the next two years, I did whatever I had to do to support my habit. I stole money and things from people and businesses. I had 27 felony charges across four counties – mostly grand larceny – and many misdemeanors against me. I couldn't live at home, so I left home and slept wherever I could. But by 19, I was tired of it – running from myself and running from my pain. I tried to end it all – to overdose and die and slip all the way into that darkness. I used the last of my heroin and my cocaine, and I filled it all up into a needle. I smoked my last cigarette, and I shot up. It was winter in upstate New York, and I went to sleep in my car in somebody's front yard. I thought I would never wake up again. I knew what my tolerance was; it was a science to me at that point.
I shouldn't have woken back up, so when I did, I was really confused. At four in the morning, it was cold and dark and snowy, and I wanted a cigarette so badly. I knew that I wasn't going to get any more drugs. I didn't know what else to do, so I turned my car on and drove home to my parents' house. I knew the cops were looking for me; I knew what going home meant. When I got there, everyone was still sleeping. I went upstairs to my room, crawled into bed, and fell asleep.
Not long after, my mom woke me up. She hugged me and told me that she loved me, but she had to call the cops. It was over.
The state trooper took out the handcuffs, read me my rights, and asked me really kindly if I wanted the handcuffs to the front or to the back of me – a blessing of my white privilege. I could hear what was going on, but I felt so far away – like listening through water. My parents asked, “What happens now?”
I went through withdrawal in jail, in this cold, concrete box. I begged my parents to bail me out, but they refused. They knew it was better than letting me be free to kill myself. It was in jail that I finally got the help that I needed — a sad reality.
After five months, I was forced into treatment programs, but my bad behavior landed me in a therapeutic community, where I used toothbrushes to clean stairs. The idea was to break you down to rebuild you – not a common approach used at all anymore, but this was 10 years ago.
While I was isolated, my mother was finally placed into hospice care. After two and a half years of fighting cancer, she told me over the phone that she wasn't going to make it.
That was the moment that changed everything for me. It wasn't the jail, stopping substance use, or even the treatment programs. It was that profound moment of realizing my mother was going to die. She was a beautiful, kind woman who wanted to live; I was hurting and broken, trying to take my own life on more than one occasion. Yet I was still alive, and she wasn't going to make it for much longer.
The drug court pulled me out of the therapeutic community, and I was able to come home and see my mom. I made amends to her and said goodbye. I told her that I would live the life that she wasn’t going to be able to live anymore. I made that decision right then and there. That's all she wanted for me, and I could actually give that to her. I held her hand as she passed away.
The first few years of my recovery process were all for her. There are these cliché sayings in recovery: "Fake it till you make it," "Go through the motions," "Take the next right step." I lived by those words in the beginning, and it wasn't easy. I was raped again in early recovery by a friend who was supposedly being supportive. I went through trauma counseling. Just because I made the decision to heal did not mean that life was suddenly rainbows and sunshine – it wasn't. What was different was that I finally understood that I had a choice. I had power, and I could do something different, no matter what I was faced with.
Today I know that recovery is always possible. As of February 9th, I've been sober for 10 years — 10 years of discovering who I am beyond a victim to circumstance, my own torture, or my own hurt. I threw myself into my recovery, and eventually my recovery wasn't just about doing it for my mom. It was about me. The self-esteem, self-worth, and self-love that I hadn't had my whole life started to develop, and it has been this remarkable – sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful and hard – journey. I am empowered, healthy, and whole.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.