In high demand: A sister remembers her family’s experience with heroin
One morning in early August 2016, Becca Smith woke up to a hard knock on her front door.
As she walked into the living room, she noticed her three-year-old niece, Rory Smith, sitting on the couch watching videos. Becca Smith thought nothing of it, so she went to answer the door. She opened it to find her father. She was irritated because he was supposed to take her niece and Becca’s sister, Sam Smith, to go see his new puppy, but her sister was not answering her phone. Becca Smith turned to her niece and asked her where her mother was, and she replied, “In the bathroom.” Smith walked to the bathroom to find the door open and her sister sitting slumped on the toilet, unmoving.
“I remember just standing in the doorway and pointing, like what’s happening, this can’t be what I think it is,” she said. “I looked back at my dad and he asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t say anything. I just had my mouth open and was pointing in the bathroom.”
As her dad was trying to wake her sister, Becca Smith went into the living room with her niece and called 9-1-1.
“It wasn’t until I was on the phone with them and had to say the words ‘I think my sisters overdosed, she’s a drug addict’ that I started freaking out and crying.”
While on the phone, Becca Smith went back into the bathroom to check on her dad, and the operator told her to start CPR. She looked at her dad, and asked him to go take her niece outside.
“I got her on the ground and she was like purple and had blood coming from her mouth, and I started doing CPR, like hysterically crying while the operator on the phone was talking me through it,” Becca Smith said. “One thing I really remember is feeling her ribs crack when I started.”
Somewhere around 15 minutes went by before an officer responded.
“I crawled out of the bathroom into the corner of the kitchen and balled my eyes out. I thought I was gonna puke,” Becca Smith said.
EMT’s finally revived her sister, and took her downstairs. Becca Smith followed shortly after, to be with her niece.
“I knew she was dead,” Becca Smith said. “Like, I knew it in my gut as soon as I saw her in the bathroom.”
Her sister was in the hospital and her family remained hopeful she would make it out alive. Four days later, she was taken off of life support.
Sam Smith was one of 308 people in 2016 who died from overdosing on heroin in the state of Delaware. She was 25-years-old.
Heroin is a potent opioid drug that claims more lives in the U.S. per year than HIV, guns and vehicular accidents. Opioids are highly addictive and hard to give up, even after one use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of recovering drug addicts will relapse. Some research shows that the rate of relapse for heroin addicts is as high as 80 percent, leaving the recovery rate at about 20 percent.
“Before I got clean nine months ago, heroin was my life,” Erik Johnson of Georgetown, Del said. “Going to work and taking care of myself was out the window. As long as I was getting high, nobody else mattered.”
In 2011, federal agencies started working with states to educate the public about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and the need for proper prescription, use and disposal of opioid drugs. Many improvements have been seen from decreasing the availability of prescription opioid drugs, as seen by a decline in overdose deaths in the states who have adopted these policies. However, overdose deaths as a whole have increased since 2007.
“I started using opioids when I was 18,” Johnson said. “I stopped for a short time until I was 24, when I was introduced to heroin, other people did it and I wanted to fit in. I felt great until the withdrawal set in; at that point it became a need more than a recreation.”
Prescription opioids and heroin share similar chemical properties and also have similar physiological effects. There is still no definitive evidence that proves that opioid abuse and heroin use in the U.S. are related, but these drugs all fall under the opioid category.
Research demonstrates that the popularity of heroin use is linked to the drug’s availability and low cost. According to the National Institutes of Health, of the people undergoing treatment for opioid addiction, 94 percent said that that they use heroin because prescription opioids are more expensive and harder to obtain.
“It was all I thought about all day, every day,” Taylor Murphy said. “I became irritable and argumentative towards everyone including my family and friends. My schooling suffered because I would skip classes to go buy or get a fix. Or I would be sick from not having any and not go to class or do my homework.”
“I quit on my own. I never told anyone I did drugs except for a couple of very close friends who did heroin. I went home and got a job the summer after my junior year in college and decided I was going to get clean. I rented my aunt’s farmhouse and had three miserable days of sickness, night sweats and I hated everything. By day four and five, I felt better and realized I made it through the physical part. The hardest part was mental. I saw people I had done heroin with, I dreamt about it every night, thought about getting high constantly and struggled finding ways to live life and enjoy it without drugs.”
There is no saying what will work in order to get clean; in Murphy’s case, she feels she was lucky to have been able to do it on her own. There are many programs offered in the state of Delaware that offer help to those who want to get clean. The website, addicted.org, supplies long lists of rehabilitation centers all over Delaware, including those that accept Medicaid.
“I couldn’t remember what it was like to really feel emotions until I got clean. I smile so much more and I think people notice that,” Murphy said. Her advice to anybody struggling with addiction is, “Stay positive. Make a plan to help yourself out of that lifestyle and do it. Don’t put it off, just do it. You will be grateful at the end of the road. Whether you need the discipline of a rehab, a friend who is clean to tie you down for 5 days, or a cold turkey attempt with an extraordinary amount of self-discipline, do it!”
Becca Smith’s mother did her best to keep everything together while fighting the disease alongside her daughter. Unfortunately, she could not save her.
“The hardest part of loving an addict is that you stop living for yourself,” she said. “You are consumed with worry and stress. I would advise all family members to get help. We are just as sick as the addict. Educate yourself. Don’t blame yourself; it’s not your fault. Do not accept unacceptable behavior. Most importantly do not enable the addict. It’s okay to say “no”. It’s okay to protect yourself. Have I followed my own advice? My answer is yes and no. This is all easier said than done, I know, but you have to in order to survive. You need to be physically and emotionally healthy for other family members, or you won’t be any good to anyone else in your life.”
Sam Smith’s funeral was about to start, and everyone in the room took their seats. The room was silent, other than the few sniffles and creaking chairs, and the piano played a sad song. In the front row, Becca Smith and her mother sat in disbelief. Ahead of them was an open casket surrounded by flowers. Inside, she could see her sister’s face; she was at peace. Her dark hair was wrapped in a red bandana, just as it was in the picture on the program. The pictures around the casket represented who her sister was. She was goofy, she was fun and she was not her addiction. This is how her family chooses to remember her, though they will never stop bringing awareness to the drug that took this beautiful young woman’s life.
Rory Smith sat next to her aunt with a small flower in her hand. She looked up at and asked, “Can I go give this to mommy?” Rory Smith’s dark curls bounced as she got up and scurried up the stairs to the casket. She quickly placed the small flower she had on her mother’s chest. The niece returned to her seat with an innocent smile, unaware that her mother was heroin’s latest victim.