Utah Stories

Utah’s Suburban Drug Use

Drug addiction in Utah can lie behind many closed doors. What can be done to help the addicts in need?


Family PhotoWhat is the face of drug addiction?

Is it the homeless man at the park, the teenager down the street or the odd uncle at the family gathering? Is it the wife, the husband or the child? Would you know it if you saw it?

It is all these things and more; addiction has many faces and many reaches.

Jenny, a young, pretty, LDS mom of three, lives in a small close-knit community on the outskirts of Park City. But as far back as she can remember, she knew something was different about her.

“I was never a miserable kid or teenager but I was never really happy either,” she said. “I was always quiet and kind of sad. I have never done street drugs or even smoked marijuana. I have never even been drunk.”

It wasn’t until after she married nearly twenty years ago that she discovered a different use for the leftover pain pills she was prescribed for various medical procedures and treatments, from wisdom teeth extractions to kidney infections.

“I would later remember I had them and would want to quit hurting emotionally,” she said. “They made me feel what I thought at the time was normal or happy. I started taking them maybe once a month or every couple months. But over time it increased and increased until I couldn’t go hours without them.”

Jenny’s then husband Matt didn’t discover the addiction until she was fired from her job at the Park City Clinic for forging prescriptions, after which she promised it would never happen again.

But it did.

Matt and Jenny were at an emergency room a couple years later when the staff asked to speak with Jenny alone.

“When I went into the room with her afterwards, she was crying,” Matt recalled. “They weren’t going to treat her at the hospital because they found out she had forged the prescription medication she had just gotten from her doctor. She had added a one in front of the number of pills the doctor had given her, and the doctor didn’t want to have anything to do with her again.”

Jenny explained that at the time, her forgery had made “perfectly good sense” to her and she had expected it to work. “It’s taken me a long time to realize how bad it was. But you’ll do anything to get your drugs.”

Anything, including breaking into the houses of friends, family and neighbors.

Matt was sitting in his historic County Courthouse office in Coalville when one of his colleagues, a Summit County Sheriff detective, approached him about his wife’s first known break-in.

“He came in, shut the door and sat down,” Matt remembered. “He said a neighbor saw her run into a person’s house and leave. I went home and talked with her. At first she tried to deny it. Then a little while later she came to me and said, ‘Ok, call him up and arrange for us to go over and speak with him.’”

Matt and Jenny went to the detective’s house where they sat together with him in the living room. “She says, ‘Yeah it was me. I did it.’ I just sat there thinking, ‘What the hell! This is my wife!’”

Jenny was sentenced to two years probation. Matt stood by her side, attending the trial, sentencing and charging. “It was really disheartening. It’s worse than being punched in the stomach. It takes a lot out of your sails and you’re left not knowing what to say or think.”

The collateral damage was still to come, however. A probation officer was required to visit at least once a month.

“I mean, throw out any Bill of Rights, because they can show up at your door and ask to search your house for drug paraphernalia or anything,” Matt said. “They come in and have the right to go through your bathroom, your dresser drawers, whatever and look. Most of the time, the guy was pretty good and he would usually just come in and talk with her and me. Sometimes he would come and she would not be there because of work or another commitment. So I’m there with the kids, and I just have to tell the kids, ‘This is mommy’s friend, and mommy’s friend is rummaging around our house.’”

Matt also had to remove a BB gun from his home to avoid violation because the probation officer felt threatened by it. “This little decision of hers had a huge impact on everybody.”

Late one night, after the children were fast asleep, there was a pounding at the door. Three deputies with hands on their holsters had come to arrest Jenny for not paying her fines. Her two-year probation lengthened to three to four years due to such violations.

Last November, she was again arrested for breaking and entering, this time with her twelve-year-old daughter in tow.

“They stop at a house on the way to pick up my daughter’s friend and Jenny says she needs to run in to drop something off,” Matt explained. “While she’s parked in the driveway with my daughter in the car and Jenny in the house, the homeowner shows up and catches her in the bathroom. It just so happens her husband is a highway patrolman.”

For Matt, this was the last straw.

“By then it seemed like an ongoing series of piling medical bills and her being accused of breaking into places,” he said. “I finally say, ‘I’m done. I’ll stay under the same roof because of the kids. But we’ll never share the same bed again.’”

He filed for divorce shortly afterwards.

Jenny was sentenced to Drug Court, which she resisted for the first couple of months.

“I just kept thinking I could take things and get away with it,” she admitted. “I thought I could just get through the program and continue using because they didn’t know me and they didn’t know what I was going through. I thought I needed the drugs to survive and be normal.”

It wasn’t until she got a DUI and was forced to sit in jail for five weeks that Jenny finally began to shed her old skin.

At first, however, she was angry.

“I felt no one cared enough about me to get me out,” she said. “But it was the complete opposite. It’s still hard for me to say, but I really needed those five weeks in a safe environment where I could not get drugs. I needed more or less to dry out and start getting my cognitive thinking back.”

At the time, Jenny said she not only thought she would die without the drugs, but she felt an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness and shame.

“I would pray every night that I would die, that I would stop breathing, that my heart would stop,” she said. “I just did not want to wake up. But once I got that out of my mind, and once I could make cognitive choices again and have cognitive thoughts, realizing that my kids deserve a clean and sober mother and that I loved them and wanted to be there for them, then I started working through the [Drug Court] program.”

She’s now grateful for those five weeks, she said. Since coming out, she hasn’t had a single relapse and has been sober for a year.

“I have gotten a job and been promoted and I’ve also gotten my kids back,” she said. “I have everything that I thought I’d lost. But it did take those five weeks. I had to decide for myself that I didn’t want that life anymore.”

Jenny is now being counseled and treated for the depression for which she now realizes she was self-medicating.

“I thought people were perfectly happy all the time and I’ve had to learn that pain is natural and normal and I’m going to feel it and its going to hurt and that drugs only make it worse,” she said. “But there are also so many good things in my life. With the hurt comes happiness and joy and I have to work through what I need to, to get to the other side.”

Comparatively speaking, giving up the drugs is the easy part, though, Jenny said. “Once you give up the drugs, you have to find out why you took them, and that’s a battle that I’m going to fight every single day for the rest of my life. But now I have the ability and tools do so.”

Addiction can be hard to understand.

Even Kathy Day, Valley Behavior Health Prevention Specialist and Substance Use Disorder Counselor, said she sometimes wants to say, “‘Just stop; if you really loved your kids, you would quit!’ But for a person who is truly addicted, it would be like having a bad case of diarrhea and through sheer willpower making it stop. You just can’t do it. That’s how it is with addiction.”

Day compared drugs entering the receptor site of the brain to a grocery store. “If the manager brings in a product and nobody buys it, he’s not going to order it anymore. That’s how it is with our brain.”

When drugs artificially fill the receptor sites, the sites don’t produce the “feel good” chemicals anymore. So when someone stops taking the drug, they feel really bad and it takes a while for the brain to start producing the chemicals again.

“That’s when people start to say that they crash or when withdrawal sets in,” Day said. “So for a person that is really addicted, the solution for them to get out of feeling lousy like that is to use again. So you have this vicious cycle.”

Day cautioned against giving up, saying you can’t do anything about the addiction. “You can, but you can’t do anything through just willpower. You have to structure your life a certain way.”

Drug Court helps repeat drug offenders like Jenny do just that.

The Summit County Drug Court works cooperatively with prosecution, defense, law enforcement and treatment providers to help high-risk, high-needs offenders. If they complete the Drug Court program, their charges are dismissed.

“There’s drug testing three times a week and they come in and see the judge every week so he can check up on their progress,” said Matt Bates, Summit County Attorney’s Office Chief Prosecutor. “Everyone on the team also communicates regularly during the week with how the person is doing, so there’s much more oversight than regular probation.”

There’s also a lot of positive encouragement and feedback, Bates said. “When they have a good week when they come into the judge, we all clap and give them praise, and they draw a little prize like a gift certificate out of the fishbowl.”

On the other hand, if they have a relapse sanctions are immediately imposed. On probation, when an offender relapses, it can be months before they face the consequence because of the time it takes to process paperwork and schedule a court hearing.

“In Drug Court, when you relapse, the following Monday you are in front of the judge getting a sanction,” Bates said. “And the sanctions are designed that in the early phases we don’t expect people to be completely clean. If you have a relapse you may get six hours of community service but as long as you’re going to treatment, testing and being honest with everyone, you just get that little sanction.”

As they move through court, they put more trust in them and they go to court less often. If they then relapse, they get stronger sanctions.

Those who enter Drug Court are much more likely to successfully complete their probationary period and stay clean, Bates said. But it’s not for just anybody.

“We screen for high risk and high needs, so you have to have a fairly lengthy history of substance abuse and some criminal history,” Bates said. “If we pick up someone on a first time marijuana possession, they are not going to be a good drug court candidate. It’s designed for the biggest troublemakers in the community and those we see over and over again. If you go into Drug Court, there’s hardly a person in there the Summit County Sheriff deputies don’t know really well already.”

Including Jenny.

“Any deputy who’s been there more than a couple years knows exactly who she is,” Bates said. “And I know her family is thrilled and we’re thrilled to see her turnaround. It’s her. She’s put the effort into it. She goes to group, she tests, and she puts in the hard work to make the changes. Drug Court is just a tool. It’s not a miracle. It’s a tool for people who want to use it to make a change.”

Prescription drugs are among the hardest to combat because it is typically written on a legal script by a doctor, said Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez.

“How are we as law enforcement to say that that script is invalid or should not be for that many?” Martinez said. “And it’s typically kept in the home and you don’t talk about it, because you go to church with these people. They put on this front that they’re a good God-loving family, and in reality their home life is shattered because of drug abuse.”

Once a person becomes addicted, it’s often a downward spiral to other drugs, added Lt. Gus Winterton of the Summit County Major Crimes Unit. “Once the doctors stop the prescription, they go to heroin which is easier to get and cheaper.”

According to a report published by the Trust for America’s Health in November of 2013, Utah has the eighth highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States, with 16.9 per 100,000 overdose fatalities.

Most of the fatalities are linked to prescription drugs, which now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined; the numbers also exceed motor vehicle-related deaths, according to the report. The abuse costs the country about $53.4 billion a year, and yet only one in 10 Americans with a substance abuse disorder receive treatment.

Jenny doesn’t want others to go through what she went through.

“I don’t want families to be torn apart,” she said. “I don’t want children to suffer. But they are. They are right now. I can’t even imagine how many women, how many moms, are sitting in their homes right now going through the very things I went through.”

Jenny thought she was a bad person for what she did. Now she knows differently and she doesn’t want anyone else to feel similarly, she said.

“If someone had given me the courage to ask for help, it may have stopped years of not only my suffering but the suffering of my children and those around me,” Jenny said. “It’s going to take me a long time, if ever, to get over the pain I’ve caused other people.”

If you’re interested in finding a substance abuse treatment agency in your area, visit dsamh.utah.gov/substance-use-disorders.

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