Life as an Addict

Brian Parker does chores in his kitchen in Tucson. The father of four is rebuilding his life following an addiction that began with a prescription for pills after a motorcycle accident. (Photo by Sean Logan/Cronkite News)
Part two of a five-part investigation

Addicts say they are trapped in a vicious cycle of dependence

TUCSON – They pawned their wedding rings, lost their house and nearly walked away from their marriage. For almost a decade, their world revolved around prescription pills and, later, heroin.

He stopped working. Her depression spiraled. Their lives narrowed to one purpose: staving off the sickness that sets in during opioid withdrawal.

The addiction morphed into an uncontrollable obsession, starting with Brian Parker’s motorcycle accident in 2007. The father of four suffered nerve damage after he was T-boned at a Tucson intersection. Trying to hold onto his job as a welder, Parker said he could not go a day without the morphine and oxycodone doctors prescribed him. His wife, Jamie Dutton, was having headaches, so she started taking pills, too.

“Every day I woke up, I was sick, so before you even get out of bed, you’re looking for your pill bottle,” Dutton said. “And it’s a vicious cycle. You’re afraid to even leave the house without looking to see if you have enough medication. ... It’s a scary feeling.”

In Arizona, drug users say they are gripped by an almost-identical pattern of drug addiction, which starts with a pill bottle and ends with a needle.

Cronkite News conducted a four-month investigation into the rise of prescription opioid abuse in Arizona. In 2015, more than 2 million grams of oxycodone alone came into the state, the third-highest total per capita in the country.

Dozens of journalists at Arizona State University examined thousands of records and traveled across the state to interview addicts, law enforcement, public officials and health care experts. The goal: uncover the root of the epidemic, explain the ramifications and provide solutions.

Since 2010, more than 3,600 people have overdosed and died from opioids in Arizona. In 2015, the dead numbered 701 – the highest of any year before, according to an analysis by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Every single addict Cronkite News interviewed said they never expected that popping legal pain medications would seduce them into an insatiable cycle of drug abuse. These addicts are young men who relapse fresh out of rehab in Prescott, women who leave their children behind in search of recovery and sons from close-knit families with mothers who, in their words, love them “almost” to death.

According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, 12.5 million people across the United States said they had misused prescription pain relievers in the past year.

“Abusing a prescription opioid is no different than putting heroin in your arm, in my opinion,” said Lt. James Scott, deputy commander of the Tucson Police Department’s Counter Narcotics Alliance. “They’re both opioids. You’re taking them for the wrong reason. It doesn’t matter that a doctor prescribed them to you, it doesn’t make it right.”

One of her doctors was Robert Osborne, an anesthesiologist who prescribed her hundreds of pain pills. She freely shared those drugs with Dutton and her husband, as well as her 41-year-old son, who died of heroin and alcohol intoxication last year.

Four years after Barnett’s death, a federal grand jury in 2014 indicted Osborne for prescribing thousands of painkillers to patients across Tucson. Osborne pleaded not guilty to all the charges in the indictment, which included unlawful distribution and dispensing of a controlled substance, maintaining a drug-involved premises and health care fraud. That case is ongoing.

“It caused a whirlwind of addiction in my family,” Dutton said.

Jamie Dutton and Brian Parker have been married for nearly 20 years. Over the past decade, both husband and wife have struggled with pill addiction. (Photo by Sean Logan/Cronkite News)

Jamie Dutton and Brian Parker have been married for nearly 20 years. Over the past decade, both husband and wife have struggled with pill addiction. (Photo by Sean Logan/Cronkite News)

Parker also went to Osborne. He said that the doctor only took cash, stripped him naked, asked if he was with the Drug Enforcement Administration. When Parker said no, “then he asks you what you want, and you tell him, and he writes it out.”

“He was just a legalized dope dealer,” he said. “He is somewhat responsible for what happened to my mother-in-law.”

Parker soon lost his job and his health insurance, and he turned from pills to heroin. He said he had no choice. The sickness from withdrawal was so strong, it was like “God revoked your soul and then you got hit by a truck,” he said.

Three out of four new heroin users said they used prescription opioids before they moved on to shooting, smoking or snorting heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly every addict interviewed by Cronkite News told their own version of that same story.

Dutton said she has been sober for about a year. Parker has been clean since August. He said he is trying to be a better father to his two younger sons and two older daughters who grew up in the shadow of his addiction.

“They see me as a piece-of-s--- addict,” he said. “They deserve better. But I’m trying now.”

Dutton said they recently found empty heroin bags in their 17-year-old daughter’s room.

“She knows all the dealers in this neighborhood, and we don’t want her to go down that route,” she said.

Kayla McBride

When she didn’t have money to buy pills, Kayla McBride would sleep with her dealer, a man she found through mutual friends on Facebook. She was looking for Percocet, a drug she was introduced to at 16 years old.

“I didn’t care, because I was really sick, and I said OK,” she said. “And I mean I felt disgusting about myself, but he handed me the pills and I did them right there and then, broad daylight, pulled out a foil and started smoking them.”

McBride said she overdosed five times. The 23 year old was in a sober living home in Prescott in September, but by November she had relapsed. What started as a high school pill habit morphed into a full-blown heroin addiction.

“Once you have experienced the high of meth, heroin, pills, anything like that, it’s always gonna be with you,” she said.

Two weeks after McBride graduated from high school, she met Brandon, now her ex-boyfriend. He introduced her to heroin.

“I just wanted to feel how he was feeling,” she said.

Drugs colored their relationship. The first year she used heroin, he would shoot her up because she was afraid of needles. One day, she learned how to shoot herself up. She said she didn’t want to have to wait for him.

McBride has been trying to get clean since 2013, relapsing over and over again. Family members have stopped talking to her. She has a 13-year-old brother who has known her only in the throes of addiction.

Like McBride, nearly every addict relapses. The rate of recovery from substance abuse among adolescents is 35 percent, the U.S. Surgeon General reports. Achieving long-term recovery – if achieved at all – can take as long as eight or nine years.

“It’s that little … that voice in the back of your head telling you one more time: It’s OK, it’s OK,” McBride said. “But one time, it’s never enough, ever.”

Nicole Creech

Nicole Creech said she started using prescription painkillers at a young age to feel “normal.”

Eventually, she began experimenting with other drugs, from ecstasy to heroin to crystal meth.

Now, 16 months sober, she said her recovery from addiction is still an active part of her life — one that takes work, patience and strength.

“I have two options,” Creech said. “I either stay and do this every day, whether I’m in pain, sad or extremely happy. Or I go out there, and I die. I truly believe that addiction only has one word for me left — and that’s death.”

Play the 360 video below for a glimpse into Creech’s addiction and recovery.

Brock Bevell

Brock Bevell stared at the neat rows of orange pill bottles lined up in his medicine cabinet. In that one moment, he realized he cared more about the contents of the cabinet than his marriage. Maybe even more than his kids. He decided to detox.

For seven long days, he said he lay, detoxing, on the bathroom floor.

“That kind of triggered me like, ‘OK, so you have this addiction, Brock,’” he said. “‘You care more about your pills than anything around you.’ So my family suffered, my job suffered, my relationship suffered with other people. Everything suffered from it.”

Bevell, then a Mesa police officer, was a father of five devoted to his Mormon faith. He didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs until he started racking up injuries as a police officer. It started with a blown knee after hopping a fence in pursuit of a suspect. In another pursuit, a suspect high on meth ran him over with a car.

His cabinets were filled with Percocet, Vicodin, hydrocodone and more from different doctors.

“I had a ridiculous amount of drugs in my house,” he said. “Because I was a police officer, the doctor never felt like, ‘hey, this guy’s doctor shopping.’”

His marriage dissolved. His addiction crescendoed. He retired from the police department.

Brock Bevell stands outside the rehab center he owns, Blue Vase Recovery in Show Low. He struggled with prescription pill addiction for years after he was injured on the job as a police officer in Mesa. (Photo by Lily Altavena/Cronkite News)

Brock Bevell stands outside the rehab center he owns, Blue Vase Recovery in Show Low. He struggled with prescription pill addiction for years after he was injured on the job as a police officer in Mesa. (Photo by Lily Altavena/Cronkite News)

Bevell has been sober for seven years. He moved to Show Low, where he worked in the medical examiner’s office and as an assistant principal at the local high school, where he saw parents staggering into the school high or drunk.

Last year, he and his brother Jimmy opened Blue Vase Recovery Center, one of the few treatment centers in Navajo County.

“In my mind, pills are so easy,” Bevell said. “Pills are everywhere. Every medicine cabinet in the United States has pills.”

Brett Morrison

Brett Morrison, a graduate of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, said he started devouring pills the summer before he started college at Northern Arizona University. In high school, he smoked marijuana almost every day, and tried cocaine and ecstasy. But painkillers felt different.

“It was like, 'This is what I've been missing my whole life,’” he said. “It felt as if I had a spiritual experience at that moment.”

Morrison, now 34, didn’t finish college. Instead, his life was all about the drugs.

“I've been to 11 rehabs,” he said. “I've been to prison twice. I have lost a countless amount of friends. I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have lost businesses. I have lost my integrity. I have lost my self-worth.”

His mother, Janice Morrison, said she was afraid of her son, no longer recognizing the “wonderful, joyful, energetic, smart, bright child” she had raised. Now, he was often high on painkillers or heroin, verbally abusive or in too much of a daze to get out of bed.

“He was not Brett at all,” she said. “And when he was high, like anyone that’s walked through this, their loved one becomes a monster.”

Surgery on an injured shoulder made the problem worse. Even when he told a surgeon he was a drug addict, Morrison walked out of the hospital with a prescription for 30 OxyContin pills, his mother remembers.

The amount of oxycodone prescribed in the United States accounts for 81 percent of the world’s consumption of the drug, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Anybody who tells me that they'll never stick a needle in their arm eventually does, that's just the progression of the disease as far as I've seen,” he said.

He overdosed on heroin and almost died the night before his brother’s wedding. Morrison was the best man.

“That didn't keep me sober,” he said. “Just the fact that I see people dying all around me does not keep me sober. But it scares me today.”

He has been sober for more than nine months. He helps other addicts at a sober living house in Scottsdale.

“All I cared about was myself, what I can get from you, how I can use any bit of my intellect my humor to try to manipulate you and persuade you in order to get something I wanted,” he said of his addiction.

Emily Shy

She says she was born “horse crazy.” As a kid, Emily Shy begged her parents to buy her a horse. She trained the animals, groomed them and competed with them.

But it was the aches and pains from doing what she loved that drove her to an unruly addiction, which eventually took her away from the comforting routine of saddling up and riding.

Shy did demanding work as a horse wrangler in South Phoenix. She estimates unloading 10 bales of hay by herself the day she had a back spasm that sent her to the doctor. For one month, she said they prescribed her 180 Percocet, along with a muscle relaxant.

“You get handed two scripts for 90 Percocets a piece, it’s really, I don’t know, it’s hard not to get hooked on them,” she said. “I started feeling like I needed the pills just to function.”

The CDC estimates that medical professionals prescribe opioids to one out of five patients with non-cancer pain or with pain-related diagnoses: injuries from car accidents, athletics, on-the-job mishaps and more. From 1999 to 2010, prescription opioid overdose deaths of women in the U.S. increased by 400 percent.

“At first, you have all this energy and you’re just so happy and all this other stuff and then it switches and you’re tired and falling asleep and by that time you’re addicted,” she said. “You don’t have much of a choice at that point because if you do, you’ll get sick.”

She stopped working with horses.

She was 24 when she first started taking pills. At 28, she started on meth. It was an arrest in 2013 that motivated Shy to get sober. Her boyfriend at the time was sent to prison. She was pregnant.

Emily Shy and her daughter spend time together at their home in Glendale. The 32-year-old injured herself when she was working as a horse wrangler. (Photo by Lily Altavena/Cronkite News)

Emily Shy and her daughter spend time together at their home in Glendale. The 32-year-old injured herself when she was working as a horse wrangler. (Photo by Lily Altavena/Cronkite News)

“They (law enforcement) ran a drug test because I had admitted that I was on stuff,” she said. “It came back … the drug panel came back with 17 different substances. Heroin being one. Pills being another.”

Getting sober has been “confusing and hard.” She’s relapsed on pills after dental work. After one 90-day program, she remembers a craving for drugs so intense, she said she returned to using for at least six more months. Her parents, she said, were heartbroken.

“It makes zero sense, the things we do and the things that drive us to do the things we do,” she said. “The normal person says, ‘oh you just stop, just quit, just make up your mind.’ But it’s not that easy, once that chemical takes a hold of you.”

Shy hopes to be an accountant. She’s on track to graduate with an associate’s degree in May. She’s raising her daughter, Chloe.

“To be in recovery, it means giving back to my community and trying to help other people that have the disease of addiction,” she said.

Cronkite News reporters Kate Peifer and Karla Liriano contributed to this article.


Cronkite News is the news division of Arizona PBS . The daily news products are produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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