'I was just existing': A look at fentanyl addiction from a survivor
Angelica Hernandez knew things had gotten bad when she realized she'd missed a Christmas. It was 2021 and she had been on a drug binge, staying home and taking painkiller pills. Some were real Oxycontin, which she took orally, some were fake Oxycontin pills which she smoked. They were laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which made them cheaper and more convenient than pharma-grade pills or injecting heroin.
In 2019 she had heard people proudly saying how they had given up injecting heroin and instead were smoking painkiller pills off of foil, through a straw, as though that were more sanitary and controllable. She disliked heroin's dirty image, so in late 2021, Herandez fell in line with this thinking. The result was she was almost zombified by fentanyl, unable to work or look after her 20-year-old daughter or her five-year-old son.
"I didn't even call my daughter on Christmas," she told Pamplin Media. "It wasn't until months later, when I was clean, that I realized what a sh---y thing I had done. I was not living; I was just existing." She said when she was in her addiction, she was useless. All she cared about was her addiction. "And it's really sad, because once you start getting clean and making amends and waking up to who you were, it's like, where did my life go? Who was that person?"
What clean-living looks like
Hernandez is in recovery today. She has a $20 an hour job as a chambermaid at a stylish downtown Portland hotel, and she lives in a Homeward Bound sober house with three other women. She is mending the rift with her children. She was in and out of addiction for 12 years, starting with cannabis in her teens and working her way up the drug pyramid. Hernandez is keen to talk about her recovery and try to warn people away from fentanyl, especially young people just starting to experiment with pills. In 2020, a 17-year-old at her daughter's old school died of an overdose.
"With these manmade pills, not that it's okay to experiment with drugs We're from the era where we could experiment and make it to rehab. These kids are not going to have that opportunity, they're going to die."
Hernandez compares these pills to badly made cookies with very irregular amounts of chocolate chips. Anyone can squish powder into pills and give them a fake logo with a home pill press. Hernandez worries about people becoming addicted, and overdosing, because the fentanyl is mixed so poorly. Sometimes there isn't much in there, sometimes there are "hot spots" that can cause a lethal overdose.
Not everyone makes it out
The day before she met with Pamplin Media in the office of 4D Recovery in Lents, another of Hernandez's friends died. He was a heroin addict released from prison in March. "We talked every so often and I could tell that he was going to get right back into the game as soon as he got out," said Hernandez. "So, I stayed away from him."
The guy was on a two-day fentanyl binge when he got into a beef with his brother, who had taken his pills. "Then he got on his motorbike (a Honda Ninja) and crashed head-on into another car. He didn't strap his helmet all the way, he wasn't paying attention. It actually made the news in Gresham. Mike McDonald. He was announced brain dead yesterday."
She went to see him in hospital, and said his face was split open and his head swollen like a basketball. She watched someone in the hospital try to protect him from the pain of withdrawal or dope sickness.
"One of his ex-girlfriends comes in, who's also a heroin addict. And she says to the doctor, 'You know he's an addict?' And the doctor is like, 'Yes, I'm well aware.' And she's like, 'Is he withdrawing?' She was more concerned about him withdrawing and making sure that they're going to give him something, than his face. And that's the addiction. It totally changes you."
Two weeks later, another drug user friend, a good swimmer, drowned in Hagg Lake, while paddle boarding. Her theory? He was too under the influence of opiates to make it back to shore.
A change in attitude towards addiction
To get clean, Hernandez had to leave Portland. She took the train to stay in an RV in some friends' yard in northern California. They let her be, until after four days of agony she came out begging the husband to find her some fentanyl. He and his wife refused and talked her down.
"I believe in my heart that the day I was arrested was the day I was rescued, because I could not stop," she said.
She later realized that having a friend who would do that for her, against her will but good for her in the long run, was very valuable. Most of the other people surrounding her were more about feeding her addiction and their own.
"That's why we as addicts have compassion for addicts and recovering addicts who are still suffering and still using, because there's a point where you're using against your own will." She said people are wrong to think of it as a moral deficiency. "I believe that when people OD they die of a broken heart. There's no way anybody's happy using that much, if they're using that much."
The 'Little Devils' made to kill Americans
Growing up in Hillsboro, Hernandez has lived in a world where drug lords are folk heroes. But there is a dark legend about fentanyl. "They're made to kill us," she says of the blue pills. "They're made to kill Americans. El Chapo said he would unleash the blue devil and America will see who's really in control." In Mexico, the combination of heroin and fentanyl is known as "el diablito," or "the little devil."
"It puts a lot of fear in my heart for our teenagers, they have to be educated about drugs."
"That's my concern with these manmade pills, not that it's okay to experiment with drugs, but we had the era where we could experiment and go to rehab. These kids are not going to have that opportunity. Not that they should, but even if they do, they're just going to die."
Asked why any dealer would put a depressant like an opioid in with an upper like methamphetamine, Hernandez says it's to make any drug more addictive.
"My doctor personally told me that she has meth addicts who are getting clean and have tested positive for fentanyl. And they're going 'Wait, that's not my drug!'"
"A lot of my friends that were IV users, are like 'Guess what, Ange? I don't shoot up anymore. I'm smoking fentanyl pills.' They feel like they've done something better because they're not pulling out a syringe. But little do they know." She adds, "On Christmas Day (2021) I smoked ten pills. I didn't even call my daughter on Christmas. It wasn't until months later when I was clean that I realized like what a sh---y thing I had done. When I'm in my addiction, I'm pretty useless."
Rip it up and start again
Once, desperate to find a pill she had dropped, she tore the inside of her car apart looking for it. "I took the whole thing apart. Those are like, sh---y moments in my life, that's embarrassing. But that's my truth today. Never did I feel as crazy as I did on the withdrawals of fentanyl. I mean I literally took my car apart."
Drooling, sitting still for hours, ignoring the world…that was the lifestyle. "You don't have desire for anything. No food, no laughter, no sex, no movies. I feel people that are lost or have something broken within, go to this to numb that out."
She didn't know her father, and her mom kicked her out when she was 13. She dabbled in drugs until she was 32, when she got divorced and fell into harder drugs. She was a personal banker, in a corporate setting, until she met a drug dealer. It became a lifestyle.
Even in her job downtown today, Hernandez can't avoid fentanyl. Recently she could smell it in the hotel hallway. When she entered the room to clean it, she saw the foil, the tooter (straw) and the blue fentanyl pills on the table. She pulled out her phone, which tracks which rooms she cleans, and told her boss she was in recovery, and she would clean two rooms instead of this one, or even quit altogether. "That's like playing on the devil's playground. That's a backdraft, a memory, the smell. That's not who I am today."
It was OK. "He understood, he said leave it."
The damage done
Angie Hernandez's teenage gateway drugs was cannabis, then alcohol. In her 20s she added casual cocaine use, then the painkiller Vicodin.
"Vicodin relaxed me. I've always been a high energy, high anxiety person so I honestly felt like that it completed me. I felt like drugs made me feel normal," she says today.
Next, some girlfriends talked her into smoking methamphetamine, which she calls "a run-away-and-hide-from-everybody drug. And then I just started doing it. Meth is really bad on your self-esteem."
The Vicodin was costing her $600 a week, which is when fentanyl came along, as a much cheaper substitute. She says it took away her interest in living. For example, a friend invited her to a Justin Timberlake concert in Portland, but Hernandez only lasted an hour before she had to leave to get high. She also danced in a strip club for a while and sold drugs. "I did a good job at flipping pills. I'd buy a grip of them (500 pills) and just flip them. I was asked to go to Mexico one time to bring stuff back, as a drug mule. Like 'Oh you're a pretty girl, you can do it.' I thought about it. Later I realized they only asked me because I was living my life with no purpose." She turned it down, realizing that if caught, she would have to keep quiet and spend time in federal prison.
"It's like a pyramid. When someone gives you a bunch of drugs to hold it feeds your ego, but you're just storing it for them."
"When you do the pill at first it makes you nauseous, and it slows you down. It was better than heroin, it made me more relaxed. If you're going through a lot, it pulls the wool over your eyes." But as she used more, she had mood swings and became aggressive. Even food didn't taste good. And detox was more painful than giving birth.
Getting thrown in jail for possession helped Hernandez get clean for six months, and she moved to a recovery house. She was a server at Shari's. Then the pandemic hit, she lost her visitation rights to her five-year-old son, and she spiraled back into opiate use. She was stealing makeup and trading it for drugs, but insists, "That's not even who I am."
Her second detox was four days in the RV in northern California. When it was over, she turned herself in to her parole officer in Portland, and begged to get into Homeward Bound sober house, which is where she is now, still sober, except for vaping nicotine and drinking coffee.
Fentanyl was the final nail in her drug use coffin.
"I wish I would have known that I'm not alone, and that it's okay to ask for help. I was using my past experiences as an excuse to throw my life away. And I can't do that today. I realize I'm always going to be sick (addicted). But it's my responsibility to take my medicine, and that's my meetings, my recovery, my God, and my prayers."
Measure 110 has complicated future
Tony Vezina is the executive director of the 4th Dimension Recovery Center, a non-profit providing recovery support to thousands of young people every month. Vezina has worked with Hernandez. Vezina told Pamplin Media about Measure 110, the decriminalization of drugs in Oregon, "The type of services the money will support are really good, (like) outreach engagement, harm reduction, free checkups. But Measure 110 took away the intervention of the criminal justice system. If you talk to people in recovery, who got arrested, a lot of times they'll say I'm grateful somebody intervened. We have to have some other new intervention system to engage with people. We need mentors, just talking to people who get ignored and forgotten. That would be like a new form of intervention."
Vezina says when opiate users overdose and go to the emergency room, they are often patched up with Naloxone, water and insulin and sent home with a leaflet about substance abuse.
"There's a lack of commitment and responsibility that the medical establishment has in treating this issue. Despite the belief that it's a health care disorder, it should be treated like health care, the medical establishment just does not take responsibility."
"I'm seeing a whole new type of overdose. It isn't your traditional overdose, where people are addicted and they're using these too much. These are people who are not addicted, and they're overdosing. There's some research that shows that the perceived perception of harm for fentanyl is like the equivalent to tobacco use in young people. So, they're just not aware."
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