My community service project aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding opioid addiction has gained so much attention all over the world. Fortunately, in the last couple years I have seen many minds being changed from this being a morality issue to one of understanding and compassion. I am hopeful that we can get through this horrible epidemic that is taking so many lives and destroying so many others. If you are new here, check out this post to learn about the project.
In doing these mini-stories, the hardest part has been condensing someone’s tremendously multi-faceted addiction story into a one or two paragraph blurb on Instagram. I have gained a new level of admiration for journalists who do this all day! When I met with my latest subject, Shannon (pictured below), she talked for almost 50 minutes about her life in addiction, and I could tell that she could have went for hours longer. As I was trying to pull out a short story from her words to post, I felt I needed to post more of her story. She had sent me a copy of a letter that she sent to a teenage boy recently who was struggling with addiction that captured a good portion of her story, so I asked if I could share that here. She was more than willing to share any information that could help someone else. I am so blessed to have met so many amazing humans who are doing such incredible selfless work in our community, and working to better themselves in the process. Start by reading the Instagram post shown, and then continue with her letter below to one of the many people she is trying to help (names have been changed). Be sure to follow me on Instagram here for periodic updates to the 52Addicts Project! If you don’t have Instagram, you can view all the stories posted so far at the links provided at the bottom of this blog post.
View this post on Instagram
Shannon is standing at the door to Jefferson County Community Ministries where she volunteers her time as a recovery coach. I always have a hard time pulling a paragraph out of someone’s addiction story, but Shannon’s was impossible. Instead, I’ll tell you what set her heart-breaking story of addiction in motion, then let you read in her own words some of what transpired along the way. Shannon was sexually abused by her stepbrother when she was younger. When she came forward, her stepmother did not believe her and accused her of trying to ruin her marriage, so nothing became of it. Shannon eventually confronted her abuser when she was an adult, but he denied it and called her crazy since by that time she had fallen to the depths of addiction. Read so much more of Shannon’s story on my 52 Addicts section of my blog (link in profile). Follow along on my journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with addiction. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52addicts
My name is Shannon, and I have been in touch with your mom, Dorothy,
about what’s been going on in your life recently. Actually your step father
reached out to my husband (they work together) and told my husband a little
about what was happening, and my husband asked me if I could possibly do
anything to help you. I’m currently president of a new Harm Reduction / Drug
User Union here in Charles Town, WV. I spoke to my colleagues, and got a list of
things we can do to help you, but need a few things from you before we move too
much further. But before we get into all that let me tell you a bit about myself,
my organization, and what exactly Drug User Unions are and do.
I am currently in recovery from pretty much a lifelong substance abuse
issues, and I was sent to my first rehab at age 13. At that point I was a daily pot
smoker, and occasional binge drinker. The thought of being an “addict” or
“alcoholic” was completely absurd to me at that time. I had periods of abstinence
and occasional use from that time until about age 19 or 20. Around the age of 19
or 20, I was already married with two young kids, and began to drink heavily on a
pretty regular basis. Shortly after that, I got into a car accident and was
prescribed Vicoprofin. Vicoprofin became my “mothers little helper” and helped
me keep the house clean, be super mom, and super wife. About a year later
when the doctor wouldn’t refill my prescription, I started buying pills off the
street and then, like so many others, moved to the cheaper option of heroin.
From then on things went downhill very quickly. I caught a federal felony, and
numerous other charges at the state level, both felonies and misdemeanors. I
lied, cheated, and stole from those I loved, and put the family in financial ruin.
My mother and daughters, whom I love more than anything, were the main
victims of my chaotic behaviors. My mom tried sending me to numerous rehabs,
and I would stay sober for a while, but inevitably relapse and be off to the races
again. This continued for years. I wasn’t living life but merely existing. In 2012, I
was hospitalized for endocarditis, an infection of the heart. I lied to the doctors
when asked if I was in IV drug user. I had my aortic valve replaced, and was sent
home to return to my heroin addiction.
Then in January of 2016 I became very ill. I started to run a very high fever,
and couldn’t move my head hurt so badly. After a week unable to move out of
my bed, my daughter finally dragged me to the hospital, where I laid, unable to
move for 5 more days. On the 5th day they took me for some testing, and I
vaguely remember the doctor confronting me and asking if I was an IV drug user, I
told him “NO!” They told me my valve was horribly infected with MRSA, and I
needed emergency open heart surgery again to replace my valve, again. I don’t
remember much about the next few days. I was transported to Fairfax hospital,
and had emergency surgery to attempt to repair my valve again. This time it was
REALLY bad. About an hour after the doctors started surgery, they came out to
tell my husband to prepare himself, and to prepare our daughters, because the
likely hood of me coming out of surgery alive was slim. The MRSA infection had
digested the top half of my heart, completely destroyed the electrical connections
in my heart, severely damaged my mitral valve, and destroyed my aortic valve and
root. No one expected me to make it out of surgery.
See I grew up with the Ryan White situation, and knew that if I was going to
inject drugs, I could never share needles or anything else. What I didn’t know was
using the same needle 50+ times could damn near kill me. At that time of my
chaotic drug use, I really didn’t care if I lived or died. I felt like I was beyond help
and with all the damage and heartache I was causing my family, I really thought
they would’ve been better off without me. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I
survived the surgery. I did crash afterwards, and was in a coma for few days after
surgery, and this is when I began to withdraw. I remember when the doctor took
out the breathing tube, and he asked how I was feeling. I grabbed his arm and
told him, “If you send me home I will die! I’m an IV heroin user and I need help”.
The doctor put his head in his hand, and after what seemed like an eternity, he
looked up and said “OK, well do what we can” and walked out. At that moment
my entire body flooded with fear. What had I done? I knew there was no
returning from that point. I would have to do whatever it would take to save my
life, and make a real attempt at getting sober.
I wish I could say it was easy, but I think I may have been the biggest pain in
the ass patient ever! I wanted to get sober, but it was hard. I got caught injecting
my pain meds into my PICC line, and needless to say the doctors were PISSED! I
justified this behavior by telling myself, the doctors were weaning me too fast,
and I was already on antibiotics, so I’d be fine. Talk about irrational thinking!
Long story short, after the hospitals staff removed almost everything from my
room, and had someone watch me 24/7, the doctors finally were able to put me
on Suboxone. Once stable, and finished with my IV antibiotics, I was sent home. I
then started an intensive outpatient treatment program, based in Behavioral
Cognitive Therapy. I had to relearn how to live as a sober, productive member of
I remember shortly after I came home, my husband called and asked where
I was. I told him I was at the gas station and would be home soon. As soon as I
hung up, I had to call my husband back and apologize for lying, as I was still at
Walmart, and hadn’t even checked out yet. I realized that during my active
addiction, lying was second nature, and just because I had quit using, it didn’t
mean my behaviors weren’t still there. Being honest was the hardest thing for me
to learn to do. In our active addictions, we lie to survive. In sobriety, we keep that
fear of telling the truth with us as a defense mechanism, as our brains tell us, if
we tell them the entire truth, it will hurt them too much, and I can’t deal with
causing them any more pain. I have found, the more honest I am with people
around me, the less pain I cause, as it’s always more painful to be lied to than to
be told a truth that hurts.
The outpatient treatment I got in was supposed to be a 3 month program. I
continued to go for 6 months, as I was scared that I was ill equipped to be let into
the world, alone, and to my own devices. I pretty much stayed to myself for the 6
months that followed, until I realized I couldn’t just hibernate forever. I had
learned so much, and had been part of the problem for so long; I needed to
become part of the solution. I took classes to become a recovery coach and
began volunteering in the community. That’s when I went to a community forum
on the opioid crisis, and long story short, The Exchange Union was formed. The
Exchange Union is a group of community members who were tired of seeing our
loved ones getting HIV, HEP B&C (rates at three times or more the national
average), as well as having to bury or attend loved ones funerals. We are
Jefferson County’s first Harm Reduction Program outside the health department,
as well as West Virginias first ever Drug Users Union. Were currently being
trained as harm reductionists, and community health workers, which means, we
will be interacting with people who actively use drugs in our community and
supplying them with sterile equipment and syringes, Naloxone, preform rapid HIV
and HEP B&C testing, refer to treatment, and hold SMART Recovery meetings for
those in our community who are interested. The Drug User Union aspect throws
people for a loop sometimes. No, we are not a bunch of people who sit around
and get high, well at least not at the meetings lol. Some of our members may
actively use drugs, but most of us are in some kind of recovery. The purpose of a
Drug Users Union is to fight to protect the basic human rights and dignities of
people who use drugs. Our most current project is what we call a “Living Will”
and is meant to reframe the blame about overdoses. When I was actively using, I
told several people if I overdosed it was not the dealers fault. Anyone who
actively uses drugs knows the risk A-Z, and the current “war on drugs” is actually a
war on drug users, as a majority of the time the difference between a drug user
and a drug dealer is nothing. People who use drugs, share drugs, or share the
cost of drugs with other users is a way to show appreciation and affection for the
people they know and love. The current drug laws need to be changed, and this is
where you come in.
After speaking with your mom, it appears, you may have struggled with
substance use around the time your friend passed, which I am so sorry to hear
about. However, most people don’t steal guns from their family unless they’re
feeding an addiction. Also no one gets put on Suboxone for sleep. I told your
mom I believed you did have a substance abuse problem, and in this type of
situation, was probably a really good thing. I would ask that you be honest with
your mom. She’s going to stand by you no matter what, and I think the relief of
knowing it was the drugs that influenced you to steal from her aunt and uncle
would be a relief to her, as the other option she has to think, is that she raised
you wrong. I know she didn’t raise you wrong, and I think you know she raised
you the best she could, and from what I can tell, that woman loves you to the
moon and back. That was something I struggled with in my relationship with my
mom also. I didn’t want to add more stress or upset her more than I already had,
but when I told her the truth it was like a weight was lifted from her, as she then
had hope that I could and would eventually recover. I’m thinking you had
previously used with your friend, and like users do, we share with our friends
when they need our help, and unfortunately, it ended the worst possible way for
So, in closing I guess I just need to confirm that you would like our help, and
are okay with the support of Drug User Unions behind you.
Update #1 can be found at this link.
Update #2 can be found at this link.
Update #3 can be found at this link.
Update #4 can be found at this link.
To get these stories as soon as they are published, follow along on our Instagram page here!
Thanks for following along on our photographic journey! If you would like more info on our wedding photography, use the contact form at the top of this page to request more information. We also shoot senior portraits, newborns and personal brand photography and would love the chance to work with you! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest to get updates on everything happening here at Swadley Studio!