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‘It’s all chemical’

When people use opiates — like Vicodin, Oxycontin and the street drug heroin — for long periods of time, quitting isn’t just about willpower and determination, those who work with the addicted say.

The drugs physically alter the brain.

Human brains, before opiates are ever taken, already have receptor sites for naturally generated “feel-good” chemicals, or endorphins. Those endorphins help people feel intense happiness, and they help us cope with pain.

Opiates, synthetic chemicals, mimic those endorphins. Only they’re more powerful.

“The high of heroin is very euphoric, a very glee-like state,” said Wesley Earl Windsor, who runs a transitional living facility in St. Mary’s and is in recovery from using several drugs, including heroin. “Your body builds a tolerance so you have to take more just to feel OK, just to feel normal.”

As opiates are ingested in any form — including by swallowing a pill or inserting a needle in the arm — the brain (and the spinal cord, and the digestive tract) over time creates more of those receptor sites to manage all the feel-good chemicals it’s receiving. Meanwhile, the body also is struggling to cope.

“Imagine the worst flu you ever had, multiplied times ten,” Windsor said.

A person who is under the influence of opiates might nod off frequently and during inappropriate times. They may appear confused, disoriented, and not interested in things they should care about, or normally enjoy. They isolate, or start spending time with a new group of friends.

“Old friends and family relationships are being neglected,” said Laura Webb, recovery support services director at Walden in St. Mary’s County. There are mood swings, even hostility at times.

When opiate users begin to come down from their high, there are aches and pains, nausea, digestion issues. People may be anxious, irritable, picking at skin, itchy, have trouble sleeping, forget about personal hygiene, and forget to eat.

“It can be very frightening for loved ones to see this,” Webb said.

But the drugs don’t affect everyone the same way, said Carol Porto, program director of Carol Porto Treatment Center in Prince Frederick, where her team sees about 130 patients.

“One person will have the first dose and feel like they arrived. They love it. And one person will vomit. They hate it. They would rather experience a lot of pain than take it. The difference between the two people is brain chemistry, and it’s probably due to genetics,” she said.

“It’s not about the person, their intelligence and their personality,” she said. “It’s all chemical.”

But opiate addiction is also treatable.

Contact Beacon of Hope for information about peer support at 301-751-7258, or Walden at 301-997-1300, or Carol Porto Treatment Center at 410-535-8930.

Wesley Earl Windsor just celebrated two years of sobriety.

“If I don’t want to go back to jail, and I don’t want to be miserable and broke all the time, I can’t continue to hang out with people who drink and drug. It’s just that simple,” Windsor said earlier this week.

There are people in nearly every neighborhood, job site, in schools and around dinner tables throughout this county fighting the same battle, Windsor said. People “are being very naive if they feel it isn’t a problem.”

That problem with addiction seems to be most acute among white youth, ages 16 to 25 in St. Mary’s, according to police and drug counselors here. “It’s more of a white issue than African-American,” said Walden Executive Director Kathy O’Brien.

They’re not sure why. And, O’Brien said, it seems to be affecting young women in that group the most. Studies elsewhere are underway to determine whether there are physiological reasons why females seem to become addicted more quickly, she said.

County residents are invited to a drug summit intended to address the issue next Friday, March 7, at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department at 6:30 p.m. The event is free. The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, health department, county government, local schools and Walden, a facility that provides counseling and recovery assistance for issues such as substance abuse, are partners for the summit. Parents of young children and teenagers are especially invited to attend, to learn about the signs of drug abuse and to learn about help that’s available.

Last year in St. Mary’s, five people died as a result of heroin overdose, said Capt. Daniel Alioto with the sheriff’s office. That’s up from one heroin-related death in 2012, and none in 2011 he said.

In 2008, 17 here died from prescription drug overdoses, compared to one pill overdose death last year, Alioto said. And the pill-related deaths and heroin overdoses are directly related.

As police worked to get illegally obtained prescription pills off the streets, Alioto said, more users turned to heroin — a cheaper and more powerful relative to many prescribed painkillers in the opiate family of drugs.

At Walden, counselors and staff last year saw about 450 people in their clinic and about 60 percent of them were battling opiate addiction, said Gary Lynch, Walden’s chief operating officer. “I think it will be higher this year,” said O’Brien.

“The saddest part,” Windsor said, “is they really don’t know what they’re getting into.”

It usually starts with a kid experimenting with a pill. “They can just go over to grandmother’s house and open the medicine cabinet. They’re not having to go out and find a drug dealer,” said Windsor, who said he had tried everything from marijuana to cocaine, PCP and heroin, at times spending $250 a day to satisfy his addiction.

He said he’s spent years in jail, then gone through a 12-step program, continues sobriety meetings and now heads a transitional living facility in St. Mary’s. He also volunteers with some of Walden’s drug counseling programs and works as a painter and handyman.

After sneaking a few pills, kids get hooked, Windsor said. Then they want to buy some. Then, they realize how expensive the habit is. A 30 milligram oxycodone pill can cost $30,” he said. “All of a sudden, they don’t have no money.”

That’s usually when the high school student, the college student or the young professional turns to heroin.

“Ten dollars worth of heroin will give you the effect of $60 worth of pills,” Windsor said. Users often end up breaking the law — stealing, offering sex, swindling — just to get the drugs.

Everyone interviewed agreed. Long gone are the days when shooting up with needles was confined to junkies and prostitutes. Today, Alioto said, syringes are “just another vehicle” for users to get the drug they want.

Middle-class white adults usually think it can’t happen to their kids, that heroin is a “ghetto” problem,” O’Brien said.

But all it takes sometimes, Windsor said, is for a kid to experience family problems, or feel socially awkward.

“You get high,” he said, “and all of a sudden, you’re one of the cool kids.”