Heroin in SWFL: Who the drug hurts most

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This is the second of a three-part series examining heroin usage in Southwest Florida. Our final piece will show how easy it is to find.

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Susan McNichol had to nearly lose her daughter to gain her back.

The mother of a recovering heroin addict, McNichol, is riding up the incline on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

She can remember the tense moments of loathing toward her daughter.

“You go through every emotion under the sun you hate them one day but you always love them because they are your kids,” she said.

Viral photos of parents passed out as their children staring into the camera with hollow eyes, make one thing clear: Family members like McNichol are hurt the most by the drug.

The faces of addiction are becoming more common in Lee County, where an alarming spike in heroin overdoses sent medical professionals at Lee Health into a frenzy. But it takes more than statistics, a scroll down a timeline or even a look in the mirror to reverse the damage of heroin.

One addict, who didn’t want to disclose his name over privacy concerns, said “never” became his favorite word, but with dangerous consequences.

“One thing that addicts always say, especially when they haven’t reached their bottom is ‘Oh well, that won’t be me,” he said. “‘I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ll never be that bad.’ Well, never say ‘Never.’ ‘I’ll never do this. That’ll never happen to me, never. Never. Never.’ Well, I’ve pretty much run out of the nevers.”

While heroin sends addicts spiraling out of control, those around them — officers, counselors, recovering addicts, mothers — fight to pick up the pieces.

But it’s not easy.

While others see criminals and those beyond help, James Byrum sees himself, a recovering addict. He hosts regular meetings at a center that attempts to get heroin addicts readjusted to normal life. But despite his efforts, clients harbor animus toward him often.

“I got a lot of people who really don’t like me, but they are sober today and they’ve come back and said ‘Thanks for doing what you did,'” Byrum said.

Heroin was named one of the deadliest drugs in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Lee County ranks fourth in the state for most frequent traces of heroin found in the system of people who died.

Before her daughter began rehab, McNichol dealt with the fear of her imminent death, which was stoked by comments from people who would tell her things like “if she didn’t quit using by the time she was 40 she would probably kill herself.”

McNichol is proof that the pain of addiction is inflicted beyond heroin users, Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said.

“We see day in and day out how drugs hurt people, families, communities,” he said.

The sheriff’s office stopped criminalizing heroin use, and offers addicts free rides to treatment centers.

“If you walk up to one of our deputies, if you call us to your location or if you walk into our office, you’re going to get that help,” he said.

But that help sometimes must come from a desire within, one former addict said.

“It was if I didn’t turn around now I was going to die. I had to lose almost everything, you know, just to realize that I still have a chance to come back and regain it all,” he said.

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