The Needle and the Damage Done: West Virginia’s Heroin Epidemic
By Jessica Lilly
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, called “The Needle and the Damage Done: West Virginia’s Heroin Epidemic.” You can find the entire series, as well as interactive graphics and sound files at http://wvpublic.org/heroin.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As access to addiction treatment in the state’s larger cities like Charleston and Huntington grows, rural parts of West Virginia are still struggling with a lack of resources. But in Bluefield, a much-anticipated alternative to recovery is just days away from opening, bringing 20 beds for men to southern West Virginia.
To some, 20 beds might not sound like much, but those involved say it will make a difference in the community.
“I was dying to get out, I just didn’t know how to get out,” Justin Clark said. He spent most of the past 18 years of his life addicted to prescription pain pills. “I figured if the government lets go of pharmaceutical narcotics and a lot of people are on them, then they won’t hurt me. In retrospect, it was kind of a justification I used to use.”
After being arrested for the second time for driving under the influence of drugs, Clark decided he wanted to get clean, and the justice system helped him find a way. He qualified for and recently completed the recovery program at the Healing Place in Huntington. Now, that program is serving as a model for a new facility in Bluefield, of which Clark will be a part.
Four Seasons Recovery Center
Clark is a replication team member at Four Seasons Recovery Center, a non-medical detox facility that’s the first of its kind in southern West Virginia. Clark helps determine if applicants qualify for the program. He also serves as a mentor to those receiving treatment.
Workers are almost finished renovating what was once a school in Bluefield to make room for 20 men looking to recover from addiction.
“This will be our detox dorm,” program director Terry Danielson said. “Right now, they’re renovating the bathroom. This was a Head Start program before, so there was like kid toilets, you know.”
Four Seasons Recovery Center is a non-medical detox facility. Danielson explains that often, physical withdrawal from opiates starts with frequent bowel movements. So recovering addicts spend a lot of time in the bathroom. It’s something Danielson battled through himself.
“I couldn’t sleep because I was going to try kick heroin on my own and detox on the couch and I couldn’t,” he said.
Danielson described experiencing cold sweats, using the bathroom frequently, but says the worst part was the mental obsession with finding another high to fight the sickness.
“You’re treading that fence at that point, so it’s like I know I shouldn’t do anything wrong to get money to go score dope but I can’t feel like this, you know?” he said. “‘SportsCenter’ was on, cellphone was sitting beside me. I had pretty much robbed everybody that was in my phone as far as dope contacts. I had already exhausted family members helping financially so there was nobody to ask for any money.
Path to Addiction
Danielson’s story doesn’t begin with a troubled youth or exposure to drugs at a young age. He said he was one of the popular kids. He made good grades played football, basketball, baseball and even boxed.
After high school, he was accepted at Notre Dame, University of North Carolina and he ended up attending Marshall University. But no one’s life is perfect and Danielson struggled with regret.
“So I drank more, then it moved from that to ecstasy and cocaine,” he said.
Once Danielson realized he wasn’t on his way to becoming a professional athlete, he lost even more motivation, delving deeper into addiction.
Danielson yearned for structure and discipline, so he joined the Army. But he still repeated his pattern of substance abuse until he eventually became addicted to pain pills. But when the prescription drugs weren’t easy to find on the streets, he found heroin.
Danielson has been clean since November 2011 and said that so far, taking on a new leadership role as program director has been helpful in his own recovery.
“I don’t care to share my story if that’s what it takes to get somebody to relate,” he said. “I don’t care to sacrifice personal time in order to help somebody else. Hopefully that’s why they decided to hire me is the fact that maybe I’ve got something to offer.”
Belief in the Program
Justin Clark, one of the peer mentors at the new Bluefield facility who struggled with an addiction to prescription narcotics, said the non-medicated treatment is working for him where medicated treatment failed.
Clark says he believes in this program because it’s peer-driven and based on accountability and unity.
“Being from here, it’s real big for me because I grew up in this county, I know what’s here,” he said. “You can’t lie to me because I live here, so for me to give back to my own community for so much I’ve took away for so many years is why I took this job and to help others, because somebody carried a message to me and I’m going to carry a message to somebody else and that’s how this works.”
Improving the Neighborhood
Organizers expect a more concentrated impact around the facility itself. It’s located on Preston Street in Bluefield. An area of town with a tarnished reputation.
“Every location that I’ve witnessed in a tough part of the neighborhood, the neighborhood has gotten better,” Clark said.
Community Connections Executive Director and Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett has traveled across the country researching prevention and recovery. He also believes the facility will help turn the neighborhood around.
“When you’ve got an area like this and you’ve got people that are willing to step up and clean their lives up, then we feel confident that the area around that will start to look at this as a positive and say, ‘Hey, I want to get myself clean. I want to do more for my community.’ That’s the signal that we’re giving off here,” Puckett said. “It works much of the time. It’s not a fail safe, of course, there are people who slide back into addiction, but we are excited about the potential and what it could mean here for us and the people that are going to be involved in the program.”
Patients are referred to and qualify for the Four Seasons program after a run-in with the law. Four Seasons will be the first state-funded inpatient treatment facility in southern West Virginia that’s available at no cost to addicts.