Heroin in SWFL: Users atypical of stereotypes

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This is the first of a three-part series examining heroin usage in Southwest Florida. Thursday’s piece will show the faces of addiction. Friday’s story will focus on the people heroin hurts the most and how easy it is to find.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – On paper, James Byrum’s upbringing doesn’t have the markings of a future drug user.

“I had the best of clothing, the best of schooling,” he said.

His drug use started with marijuana. Eventually, he graduated to heroin.

“I have broken marriages, busted jobs, the whole gamut of how far down in the hole can you go and I’ve been there,” he said. “You can take a slice right out of middle America and the story will be the same. It got to a point where choices had to be made and I made the wrong choice.”

Heroin is not just a big city problem.

Users don’t always transition to heroin from another illegal substance.

“They’re prescribed prescription medicines for pain management to treat a legitimate problem that they have,” said Lt. Dana Coston, Cape Coral police spokesperson. “That treatment accidentally became an addiction. Now their source to feed that addiction has been taken away and they’re having to seek that from other sources and that’s when they’re turning to the heroin dealer.”

It’s how Byrum’s daughter also became a Heroin user.

“It took away my pain instantly,” she said. “And I felt like i was a normal person with no injuries. That’s exactly how I felt and I felt like I could go out and run 6 miles like I used to when I was in the military.”

She and her father now sit through recovery meetings together.

“Drugs can be found anywhere,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what state, what county, drugs are definitely a big issue no matter where you go.”

Heroin use has more than doubled within the past decade among young adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin deaths in Florida increased nearly 80 percent within the past year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In Southwest Florida, more than 55 people died from the drug in 2015, according to FDLE.

In Lee County, more than 350 died from heroin within the past five years, FDLE said.

There’s no age to addiction: A Lee County teenager died from the drug last year, but those over 50 have also succumbed to heroin overdoses, FDLE said.

Some take the drug in search of an enhanced thrill.

“Perfect, I guess invincible, like nothing bothers you,” said one former Heroin dealer and addict. He turned to Heroin when pills and alcohol weren’t enough.

Susan McNichol knows what the drug can do to users.

Her daughter is a recovering addict. She turned to heroin while in college.

“She was real good in school, almost straight As, she won beauty pageants when she was in high school,” McNichol said. “When I saw her, I couldn’t believe it. She was down to nothing. Her weight had just dropped, just plummeted. When I hugged her, it was like I was hugging a skeleton.”

Those who use the drug can range widely, said Dr. Brandon Short with PA-C CAQ Psychiatry.

“Heroin users range from CEO of companies to the unemployed kid looking for work right out of college,” he said.

Short has seen a 150 percent increase in drug-addicted patients within the past year.

And they’re getting younger, he said.

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