“I became disabled back in late 2006,” Heizer tells us. “I had degenerative disc disease and I hurt my back
. I was workin’ at this convenience store. They knew that I had a back injury, but yet they had me come in on extra shifts and unload the truck. Now I’ve got four discs jus’ layin’ on top of each other, no cushion between them. For three years I lived here without an income, and my dad helped support me, and then last November I finally was awarded my disability.” Heizer, who is gay, saw his drug addiction spiral out of control four years ago after his boyfriend committed suicide. He tells us he has been struggling with his weight -- he weighs 324 pounds -- as well as diabetes, gout, and kidney stones. These diseases are common in southern West Virginia and have contributed to a steady rise in mortality rates over the past three decades.
OxyContin takes a few hours to kick in when swallowed. If the pills are crushed, mixed with water, and injected with a syringe, the effect is immediate. Heizer says that after the drug companies began releasing pills with a rubbery consistency, they could not be ground down. Heizer heated the newer pills in a microwave and snorted them -- leading to his recent overdose. It took place at his mother’s house. He went into renal failure. He stopped breathing. His kidneys shut down. He was Medevac’d to a hospital in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, where he stayed for four days.
“I was just sittin’ around watching TV and started aspiratin’,” Heizer says flatly. “The medication was goin’ into my lungs. You gurgle with every breath. You are drownin’, basically. I remember walkin’ down my mom’s steps and gettin’ in the ambulance. I remember at Welch, they put me on the respirator and then transferred me. After they put me on the respirator, I stopped breathing on my own. And then I remember in Charleston wakin’ up an’ they had my hands restrained so I wouldn’t pull the tubes out. I had a real close call.”
The men sit in front of their flat-screen television and chat about friends, classmates, and relatives who died of overdoses. Hovack talks about a niece in her early twenties, the mother of two small children. She recently died of a drug overdose. He tells us about a high-school classmate, an addict living in a shack we can see from the window. The shack has no electricity or running water. The men, who rarely leave the house, mention the high bails being set for selling drugs, with some reaching $50,000 to $80,000. They joke about elderly grandmothers being hauled off to prison for drug dealing.
“I’ve seen a lot of busts in the county over the last few years, and a lot of the people that have been arrested are elderly people that are sellin’ their medication just to live,” Vance says. “When I was workin’ at the hospital I seen ODs all the time. Young people were comin’ in. It’s bad. The depression and the pain. I guess some people that hang and live in this area, they just have to turn to somethin’.” “Since the drug problem is so bad you see the crime rate as well,” Leach says. “People breakin’ into homes, stealin’ whatever they can to sell or pawn, just to keep up with their drug habit.” Heizer, seven weeks later, dies of a drug overdose, sitting on the living room couch in front of the big-screen television. Modified from Tomdispatch
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