Each day, about 115 Americans die of an opioid overdose, but we are just beginning to understand and confront the opioid crisis – the deadliest drug crisis in American history. In the above documentary, Refinery29 producer Jacki Huntington features three women working to transform the landscape of addiction medicine, drug policy, and recovery services: Dr. Lipi Roy, Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Cortney Lovell.
Lovell has been in long-term recovery from heroin addiction for the past decade. She is a public speaker, recovery coach, and addictions counselor based in her hometown of North Chatham, NY. As a public speaker, Lovell often shares the traumatic story of “slipping” into addiction and her journey to recovery. This is her story, as told to Jacki Huntington.
I was 16 when I tried an opioid for the first time. My friend offered it to me and said, “It’s harmless. Doctors give it out. You’ll like it. We’re just gonna sniff it instead of taking it how we should. It’s still the same drug. It’s okay.” At first, I resisted, but the logic made sense to me; I tried it.
That first time, I got pretty sick after using it, but eventually this warmth flooded my body. It was like I had been going through life freezing cold, and suddenly I was wrapped in a warm blanket. That was the high of pain medication. The next time it was offered, I was a little hesitant. The time after that, I didn’t even question it. By then, I started to seek it out.
During the same time, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She was that one good thing in my life, and her diagnosis was the perfect excuse to sabotage myself. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just opted out. At 17, I slipped deep into my addiction like a ghost in the night. I started using every day, dropped out of high school, and only returned to the school parking lot to buy pills.
Once you use opioids for more than a few weeks, you become physically dependent. My life became a cycle of doing whatever I had to do to get money and buy drugs. I couldn’t stay in college and I couldn’t hold a job, so I would manipulate my parents and come up with crazy, asinine reasons why I needed $40. My parents were worried and concerned, but it was hard to distinguish between teenage angst, depression, and drug use. I could cover it up, so I did.
A year after my first opioid experience, I visited my biological father’s side of the family in North Carolina. I barely knew them. That’s when I experienced my first withdrawal; I brought pills with me, and I thought that I could just taper down the amount I was using to get by for a whole week. But I didn’t – I couldn’t. By the second day, I used everything I brought with me, and I started going through withdrawal. I was unable to sleep, and I couldn’t function. I tried to hide it and said I had the flu.
That night, at two in the morning, a distant relative came into my room. I finally begged him for help. “Please don’t tell anyone,” I said. “I’m going through withdrawal, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
My relative said that he knew some people in town that we could ask for methadone or suboxone — medications to help with withdrawal. Everyone had been drinking. But that frontal lobe of mine was shut down, and it didn’t matter. Going through withdrawal, you feel like you’re going to die. Your mind convinces you it’s the end of the world. I was in survival mode.
So we left in the middle of the night against all logic and rational thought, and we didn’t make it anywhere good. My relative pulled over into a school parking lot and raped me in his car. I never got help that night.
Afterwards, I blamed myself. I kept telling myself, “You shouldn’t have gotten in the car. You shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with. It would never have happened if you weren’t addicted to drugs, if you weren’t living this lifestyle. This was the one person who was trying to help you, and this is all your fault.” I couldn’t tell anyone, and I went through withdrawal for the entire week. I didn’t sleep for at least five days.
When I finally got home, a friend picked me up from the airport, and we went right to a dealer. I was vomiting bile, because I hadn’t eaten. And I did something for the first time that I never thought I’d do: I shot up heroin.

I DID SOMETHING FOR THE FIRST TIME THAT I NEVER THOUGHT I’D DO: I SHOT UP HEROIN.

As soon as I stuck that needle in my arm, my pain and worries disappeared so quickly, like a switch. I vowed to never experience withdrawal again. I was going to live and die a drug addict, because I would never face all of that stuff that the drugs pushed away. It was not an option for me.
In the next two years, I did whatever I had to do to support my habit. I stole money and things from people and businesses. I had 27 felony charges across four counties – mostly grand larceny – and many misdemeanors against me. I couldn’t live at home, so I left home and slept wherever I could. But by 19, I was tired of it – running from myself and running from my pain. I tried to end it all – to overdose and die and slip all the way into that darkness. I used the last of my heroin and my cocaine, and I filled it all up into a needle. I smoked my last cigarette, and I shot up. It was winter in upstate New York, and I went to sleep in my car in somebody’s front yard. I thought I would never wake up again. I knew what my tolerance was; it was a science to me at that point.
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