In recent years, heroin usage has been on the rise throughout Winnebago County as well as the rest of Wisconsin.
The harmful effects of heroin impact individuals as well as the community.
“I was living out on the streets in my vehicle, bouncing from house to house. I overdosed three times that summer over a period of three months. I almost lost my life a couple times.”
Those are the words of Anthony Alvarado, a recovering heroin addict. Alvarado’s story is not all that different from that of many young people throughout Winnebago County.
“I am from Oshkosh, most of my family is from Oshkosh and my using days are from Oshkosh,” Alvarado said. “My friends that are still messed up are from Oshkosh.”
Alvarado has been sober for the past six years. Recently he helped co-found a group with his business partner Douglas Darby, who himself is a recovering addict, that goes to middle schools, high schools and colleges to speak about the dangers of narcotics.
That is why Alvarado and Darby started Rise Together. In the past four months, the two have visited numerous schools in the Fox Valley, sharing their stories and hoping to inspire kids to choose a life without the hardships brought on by drug addiction.
While Alvarado’s life is currently in order, this has not always been the case. Like many addicts, he has faced hard times and it took a serious wake-up call to move forward with his life.
For Alvarado, it took having a child for him to realize the destructive path he had gone down and that he needed to get clean.
“My son was one of the most influential factors,” Alvarado said. “He was just 3 years old. He came up to me and looked me in the eye. He was bawling and told his dad not to die and that he loves me. I started crying, and at that point, the lights turned on. I didn’t want to live anymore. It took a 3-year-old to actually say, ‘Hey, I’m still here.’”
Alvarado is not alone on his journey. More and more young people are using heroin than ever before. The drug is also becoming more accessible.
The spike in heroin usage is hitting all demographics, but the frequency of use in young people from ages 12-24 is particularly troubling, according to Alvarado.
“Back in my day, I had to go down to Chicago to get my drugs, but [kids in Winnebago County] can get it in their own backyards,” Alvarado said. “If you did a line of heroin like you did a line of cocaine, like some of these kids are doing, you would instantly drop dead.”
Rise Together takes a different approach to reach the youth than many drug programs have in the past.
“We’re not some guys standing up there with a suit or a badge,” Alvarado said. “We are 28-29 year old guys, fully tattooed and not too different than the students we are talking to. Going out there with an edgier approach has allowed the students to approach us and ask us questions.”
According to Alvarado, the style has been effective and students are really taking their message to heart.
“We have something really special,” Alvarado said. “It’s different because the kids are actually paying attention and that is a huge difference maker. It is great to have other people spread our word for us, and that is what that education awareness is. Having advocacy around the issue is huge.”
The work done by Rise Together comes at a time when heroin usage is at an all-time high throughout the country.
Since 2010, the numbers of heroin-related overdoses and arrests has skyrocketed in Winnebago County, leaving the city in dire straits to fix the ever-growing problem, Brad Dunlap, the drug enforcement officer in charge of the county, said.
“It is pretty significant,” Dunlap said. “It is probably our No. 1 drug problem that we have in the Valley right now. More than any other drug, it has the potential for overdose and death as a result of overdose.”
In addition to the staggering number of arrests, there have been an increased number of heroin-related overdoses in Oshkosh, Winnebago County and the entire state of Wisconsin.
According to a Gannett Wisconsin Media report, the number of Wisconsin deaths from heroin overdose rose to 199 in 2012, a 50 percent increase from the previous year.
In the event of an overdose, the paramedics issue a deployment of Narcan, a drug used to counteract the emergency effects of the overdose, according to Jim Austad of the Oshkosh Fire Department emergency service.
“If you think of your body like locks on a door, your respiratory system is the lock and the narcotic is the key to the lock that stops your respiratory drive,” Austad said. “Narcan basically prevents that key from going in the lock.”
In recent years, the number of administered Narcan injections has risen steadily. In 2009, the Oshkosh Fire Department gave only 26 Narcan deployments. By 2010, that number had rose to 45 and to 52 in 2011. In 2012, the number of deployments hit 61. In 2013, the number of deployments dipped back down to 38. Thus far in 2014, the fire department has issued 14 Narcan deployments.
Austad said the efforts by the city and groups like Rise Together are part of the reason there has been a reduction in the number of Narcan deployments this past year.
“The decline we saw this year has to do with public education, the police department doing due diligence removing it from the streets and there is the heroin task force,” Austad said. “The needle exchange program is giving out Narcan to people who are getting needles, either users or to the family members.”
Austad said heroin overdoses are common because it is difficult to know how potent the drug actually is since every batch is different.
“It is not like when you go to the doctor and they tell you how many pills to take in a day,” Austad said. “With heroin, you don’t know what you are taking. They don’t know how much they are putting in their body, which can potentially cause that overdose situation.”
Narcan is extremely effective when deployed in a timely manner, but the problem lies with getting to an overdose victim before his heart shuts down.
“It prevents you from dying, but once you have lost your pulse and respiratory drive from a narcotic and you are full cardiac arrest, Narcan is ineffective at that time,” Austad said. “If they have been in cardiac arrest for a period of time, their brain has been without oxygen for that period of time and we may get a pulse back on them but they more than likely end up dying later of brain death because the brain was deprived of oxygen for too long.”
While the success rate of Narcan is remarkably high, Dunlap said the increase in the need for deployments is troubling because of the seriously addictive nature of heroin.
“Every Narcan deployment is basically a life saved,” Dunlap said. “Once your body becomes addicted to it, you are no longer taking it for the high like you would smoke pot or snort meth. You’re taking the opiate to avoid being sick so the withdrawals won’t kick in. That’s a physical addiction, and that is a unique component to treatment.”
In 2010, the formula for Oxycontin was changed so it became harder to consume. This led to a large number of opiate addicts to move on to heroin.
“Prior of 2010, Oxycontin was the opiate choice of the area and once they reformulated Oxycontin, the people that were addicted to that transferred to what was readily available, which was heroin,” Dunlap said.
In the years since the formula change, the amount of heroin coming into Winnebago County has risen dramatically.
“In 2010 we saw our largest increase. Our seizures were quite a bit higher. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and now in 2013, every year we have seized higher quantities of heroin than the year before,” Dunlap said.
One of the problems related to heroin is its effect on the community. Dunlap said heroin tends to play a role in a number of other crimes, even though it doesn’t always show up in the statistics or police reports.
“The biggest problem is when people become addicted to heroin and then start committing other crimes to support their habit,” Dunlap said. “Once people become addicted to it, they steal from their relatives, they steal from their friends, and they do whatever they need to do to get their next high. They don’t care about the social structure of their lives. They only care about their next high.”
Dunlap said the real victim of heroin abuse is not the user but the community as well as the user’s loved ones.
“People say that drug use is a victimless crime,” Dunlap said. “But it doesn’t consider the trauma that the family encounters basically watching the addict kill themselves over a period of time.”
Alvarado was one of the many cases of heroin addiction leading to criminal behavior.
“I didn’t care if I had to steal from my grandma, my mom or my best friends,” Alvarado said. “I lost some good friends because of my problem.”
Alvarado said addiction is a sickness that takes over people’s brain and blocks you from thinking about things other than getting high.
“Mentally, all you are thinking about is using drugs,” Alvarado said. “I was using prescription pills on a daily basis and that was immediately what I thought of when I woke up. That is where my mind went consistently, time and time again, day after day.”
Addiction takes a physical toll on a person’s body as well.
“At that point I was down a considerable amount of weight,” Alvarado said. “I was skinny, white, pale and my circulation was low. When you are out and without sleep for four or five days, you look like shit.”
Alvarado said an addict has to want to get himself or herself sober and until that happens, chances are any treatment wouldn’t take hold.
“I had to get clean for myself,” Alvarado said. “Nobody was forcing me to go to rehab.”
Hugh Holly, the executive director of NOVA Counseling Services in Oshkosh, agreed with Alvarado, saying patients have to be true to themselves before anything is accomplished.
“Accepting a life of abstinence, not only from heroin but from alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, is a big thing to swallow,” Holly said. “Patients have to be willing to be completely honest.”
Holly said if an addict accepts their problem and embraces treatment, then the likelihood of them getting clean is very high.
“When people ask me what someone’s chances are, I say ‘100 percent,’” Holly said. “The treatment model is proven to work, but the variable is whether the person is willing to do the work themselves.”
Heroin addicts accounted for about 40 percent of the 450 new admissions to NOVA in 2012, equaling the amount of admissions for alcohol abuse, according to Holly.
Winnebago County has formed a heroin task force in hopes of ridding the county of the problem.
They are using a four-pillar approach similar to the one used in Brown County. The four pillars of enforcement, treatment, harm reduction and prevention, aim to both slow down the growing heroin problem and eventually eliminate it all together.
Only through use of all of the pillars can the county achieve its ultimate goal, according to Holly, who is a member of the task force.
“We have to do it all,” Holly said. “We need prevention in the middle schools and grade schools because when we wait until high school, it is already too late. We need law enforcement to provide the consequences. We need treatment because people will run into trouble; they always have and they always will.
“Addiction is a part of the human condition,” Holly said. “Having more treatment and more cost-effective treatment is something we have to work on.”
Members of the taskforce, including Holly, Dunlap and Alvarado, have continued to be proactive by speaking throughout the community as well as on radio and television interviews.
The task force hopes to curb the growing trend of heroin by coming through Winnebago County and the surrounding local areas.
The severity of the heroin problem can be seen through some major events in the state legal and legislative system over the past year.
This past November, Lord Wilson was sentenced to 19 years in prison in Oshkosh for his role in a heroin and crack cocaine distribution ring.
Wilson was arrested in July 2011 when law enforcement broke up a drug ring that had sold nearly 20 pounds of heroin and 13 pounds of crack cocaine, which together were estimated to be worth just shy of $5 million.
In October of 2013, Rep. John Nygren of Marinette introduced a bill to specifically fight heroin use in Wisconsin. Nygren’s daughter, a heroin addict, had been sentenced to a year and a half in prison in 2009.
The effect the drug is having on the local community is startling, and the county has to confront the problem now because of the devastating long-term effects of heroin, according to Holly.
“People underestimate how powerful it is,” Holly said. “There is very little middle ground. Once you are in, you are in deep, you are in trouble.”
Alvarado said even though the situation looks bleak at times, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Alvarado and Darby plan to turn Rise Together into a nonprofit organization and expand it from school speeches to a full-time gig. They hope to open recovery centers for youths in the area suffering from addiction.
They are excited about the responses they have received and look to continue to share their story with the world.
“The founders of Rise Together are two addicts, but we are also two success stories,” Alvarado said. “I’m a full-time dad and a full-time employee. Doug has a great family and is a full-time employee himself. This is something we started on the side and it has just blown up.”