ELIZABETHTOWN - Jennifer Smith first took oxycodone pills 20 years ago when she was 18 years old.
The prescription drugs, which she got from her sister, initially made her sick, to the point where she vomited.
But they also gave her "that rush, that high that everybody talks about getting.
A nurse holds bottles of prescription narcotic drugs, the abuse of which has become a growing problem in the North Country and across the state.
(Photo courtesy of AdBuilder)
"It was a great feeling," Smith said.
While she didn't know it at the time, Smith's decision to take those pills was the beginning of what would be a 20-year struggle with drug addiction that would severely strain her relationship with her family, force her to quit her job, lead to several stints in drug rehabilitation programs and eventually land her in jail.
Smith, 38, of Port Henry, recently sat down with the Enterprise to talk about her addiction and how she eventually came clean. She asked to speak with the newspaper on condition of anonymity. Jennifer Smith is not her real name.
Resources for help with prescription drug abuse:
St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers
159 Glenwood Ave.
Saranac Lake, NY. 12983
891-3950 or 877-813-8647
North Star Chemical Dependency Services
The interview took place at the St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center's outpatient clinic in Elizabethtown, where Smith attends regular one-on-one and group drug counseling sessions, with one of her counselors in the room.
'Hated my life'
Smith said she took drugs to escape the problems in her life.
"I started out drinking (alcohol), and the older I got, the heavier that became," she said. "I ended up having a baby at 17 and was, of course, 'Woe is my life.' As time progressed, my life, I felt, got worse. I was in an abusive marriage. I hated my life. To medicate myself was the only way to go."
While the oxycodone she got from her sister was her first foray into drug abuse, Smith said she didn't really become addicted until she was given a prescription for liquid codeine after getting her tonsils removed.
"That was it; I was hooked," she said. "Instead of waiting every four to six hours, I would swig out of it probably every half-hour. I liked the way it made me feel."
Smith said she initially got high with her husband by taking prescription narcotics like Percocet and Dilaudid. She often got the drugs by going "doctor shopping" at physicians' offices and medical facilities around the region.
"You'd make up an issue they couldn't prove like, 'Oh, my lower back is hurting,'" Smith said. "You can't really prove that, so they give you medicine to make you feel better. You'd go from doctor to doctor. I went from Ticonderoga up to the Adirondack Medical Center (in Saranac Lake) to the hospital in Burlington. I went all over the place, making up things."
Eventually, Smith said she had to stop visiting her primary care physician because staff there had flagged her chart to say, "No narcotics." But that just meant she went elsewhere.
Without any health insurance to cover the cost of these prescriptions, Smith said she was spending about $200 a week out of pocket to feed her addiction.
"It really kind of destroyed and took away from my family, my children," she said. "It was a lot of money that could have went into the household."
The harder stuff
Smith's addiction to prescription painkillers eventually led her to harder drugs, including heroin, crack and cocaine.
"It actually happened by mistake," she said. "I ran into a girl on the street. I was going somewhere and a bag of pills fell out of my pocket, and she picked it up. She goes, 'What are you doing with those?' I said, 'I don't need a lecture.' She said, 'Well, I have something better.' That's how it happened. I just kind of stumbled on it."
Smith said she would steal narcotics and either use them herself or barter them with dealers who could get her harder drugs.
"I used to lie to my sister, and I'm so ashamed of this," Smith said. "She would have legitimate reasons to have the medication, but I would make up a lie saying, 'If you don't give me 50 Percocet and 50 Dilaudid, my dealer is going to beat me up.' And she would always pull me out and save me, and she would give me the medication."
As this was going on, Smith was working as a registered nurse, a job she held for 11 years. She said she would often take drugs at work. No one seemed to notice, at least not in the beginning.
"I could hide it fairly well," she said. "But toward the end, a lot of people would ask me, 'Are you OK? What's wrong with you?' They questioned me about drug use, my supervisor, and I lied. I said I'd be willing to do a urine test but it'd have to be tomorrow, or I'd make up an excuse why I couldn't do it."
Smith said she would swipe prescription narcotics from the patients she was supposed to be helping.
"They would have a medication that they may only be able to swallow it if it's in applesauce," she said. "So I would take the medicine that was for them and take it myself and give them the applesauce, and they never knew."
Eventually, Smith decided to quit her job because she said it was getting in the way of her drug use.
"I didn't want to get caught stealing from up there because I was thinking that will send me to jail," she said.
Smith often got high at home. She said she tried to hide her addiction from her family, including her three children. She'd do cocaine to get high and then take the sleep-aid drug Ambien to come down so she'd be asleep when the kids came home from school.
But the children still noticed.
"My son, who was 16 at the time, put together an intervention for me," Smith said. "He actually called child protective services, my mother, my father and their significant others. I was upstairs sleeping, and they came up, yanked me out of bed and told me I was going to lose everything unless I went to rehab. So off I went to rehab. That was about five years ago."
Smith spent her first stint in rehab, which lasted about a month, counting the days until she could get out and get another fix.
"I did what I had to do, like most addicts, to get out of there as quickly as possible," she said. "I couldn't wait to get out and get a fix. I'm very ashamed to say this, but it wasn't as important for me to see my family and children as it was to get my next hook. My life, I felt, was using. That was my life. I wasn't thinking of anybody but myself."
When she left rehab, Smith started drug addiction counseling at the St. Joseph's outpatient clinic in Ticonderoga and stayed clean for about a month. Then she fell back into her old routine again.
"My mother had gone through my phone and tried to delete the people she thought were my connections, but you can always find your connections," Smith said. "That's what I did. I went to where they were located. They welcomed me with open arms."
Smith actually started using more drugs at that point. Instead of taking two Percocet, she would take six or seven.
"Two didn't make you feel better; four didn't make you feel better; six or seven did," she said. "My body could handle more, was my logic. I didn't realize what I was doing to myself."
Back to rehab
After her kids found her passed out on the couch and unresponsive, Smith went in for another round of rehab.
"I had overdosed two or three times, but on this occasion my kids found me," she said. "It wasn't nice. They didn't know what to do. They called 911. They called my father. And then I ended up in the Plattsburgh hospital. They put me on the mental ward for 10 days to detox me with nothing except for Ativan (an anxiety relief drug). It was horrible."
"Not having the fix, I would pace all night long because that's one of the things that happens is you can't sleep, you don't want to eat, you don't want anybody around you, your legs have to be constantly moving. The upset stomach, the diarrhea, the puking - it was awful."
After 10 days of detox, Smith emerged and, yet again, resumed her old habits. This time it took all of a day.
"I came home on a Monday and started on a Tuesday," she said. "I figured, my family's always mad at me, why not? My mother and father probably hate me, so why not?"
Not long after that, Smith was arrested for driving while intoxicated. She got probation but was later sent to jail for two months for violating her probation by drinking and blowing off her probation officer. She detoxed again before she went to jail.
"I did it with absolutely no help, and it was twice as bad because I had been taking twice as much," she said. "If I can always remember how that felt, I don't think I'll go back to using, because that was the world's worst feeling.
"Jail was very bad. That was just as bad as going to rehab. You couldn't see anybody. You could see them every Saturday and Sunday for an hour. To see everybody's disappointed face, it was pretty hard. The only good thing about it was I started drug and alcohol counseling while I was there."
Turning the corner
When she finally got out of jail, Smith said she realized that she had to change her life.
"I knew I was ready to become straight," she said. "I was sick of disappointing family. I had already started with the mental health counseling and was talking to the drug and alcohol counselor (at St. Joseph's). I figured now's the time, just stick with it."
That was about 16 months ago. Smith said she's been clean since Aug. 15, 2010, and plans to stay that way.
"I do have temptations, but I call someone in the program," she said. "I come to a meeting. I have my counseling sessions here. I have major support from my family, and I've changed my life a lot. I moved out of my boyfriend's and got my own place. He was very much an enabler, so leaving that situation really helped things. Things are good now, whereas before my mindset was totally different."
Smith is currently unemployed but said she's in the process of trying to renew her nursing license "and hoping to good God that I can find a job.
"It's awfully embarrassing that I was a big, huge drug addict and I'm an RN," she said.
Kim Ferguson, a St. Joseph's alcohol and substance abuse counselor with St. Joseph's who has worked with Smith, said she is now a much stronger person.
"When she was addicted, she didn't care about all those things that were important," Ferguson said. "Now she cares about her family. She's looking to seek employment. She's looking to get her life back together. I think she's come a long way."
Why tell her story?
Asked why she was willing to speak with the Enterprise about her struggle with drug addiction, Smith said she hopes telling her story will drive someone else who's addicted to seek help.
"If I just help one person who's doing this, then I'll feel really decent, really good," she said.
Smith also said prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the region that needs to be addressed.
"I think it's a big deal," she said. "There's a lot of use, and people don't look at it. They look at it as, 'Well, it's a prescription drug.' Well, guess what? There's a lot of people out there using. There's a lot of people out there selling. It's easy to find. I think some time needs to be spent on cleaning it up."