JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you’ve ever lost someone to addiction, more than likely your story is similar to mine.
My father suffered from addiction for more than a decade.
People always ask when it first started, but to be honest I think I ignored the signs for many years.
The man I knew and loved slowly became a person I couldn’t recognize as the disease, and yes I call it a disease, progressed.
The last time I spoke to my father was in 2014.
For years I tried to be a part of his life while he would be in and out of rehab. At a certain point, I had to protect myself.
The few people I did share my story with would always ask, 'If he got sober would you two reconnect?'
I would usually get upset and explain to that person angrily that they didn’t understand the pain I went through watching him and my family suffer for years.
It wasn’t until he died four months ago that I realized I always secretly hoped there would be that fairytale ending.
That one day my father and I would reconnect, and he would walk me down the aisle and teach my children his love of history and jewelry-making, like he did for me.
The thing with addiction is more often than not, there are no fairytale endings.
There are two choices: someone gets clean or they die.
We all know how my father’s story ended.
‘Recreational drug use is lethal’
Less than a month after my dad’s death, I was at an Opioid Task Force meeting in Jacksonville when I heard about a new drug: acetyl fentanyl.
I didn’t recognize the doctor speaking, but I knew the story he was explaining -- about these drugs consuming someone and keeping them addicted until eventually they die.
When Dr. Raymond Pomm said, “At this point recreational drug use is lethal,” I knew I needed to learn more.
I sat down with Pomm, who is the chief medical officer at Gateway Community Services, and asked the same question you’re probably asking right now.
What is acetyl fentanyl?
“So what (drug dealers) are doing is reducing the risk of death. It’s still there, but reducing it, but (at the same time) keeping people very addicted,” Pomm explained.
Acetyl fentanyl is about 15 times more potent than heroin but is less lethal than pure fentanyl.
“How good is it for the business when you’re killing off your customers and you’re putting fentanyl in and people are just dying?” Pomm said.
Pomm said he had never heard of acetyl fentanyl before this year.
He said he stumbled across it after he and his team used a grant to create the Project Save Lives program at Gateway. The project took urine samples from all the patients and sent them off to a lab in Minnesota for extensive testing, which revealed the new drug.
I asked Pomm if he was surprised the first time he saw the name.
“Yeah that was a head scratcher,” he said. “I called them and I said, 'What the heck is acetyl fentanyl?'”
Now that Pomm's team knew what they were looking for, Pomm said they realized acetyl fentanyl is saturating the drug market in Northeast Florida.
Of the samples he had tested, 60% contained this new version of fentanyl. And it’s not just heroin this drug is showing up in.
“It’s not just acetyl fentanyl mixed in with the fentanyl. We’re talking about those combinations now mixed in with methamphetamine, cocaine,” Pomm said. “Seventy percent is mixed in with fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl. There was just a bust last week where a significant amount of marijuana was laced with fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl.”
Pomm said that's why he believes “recreational drug use is lethal.”
I met April Moore just 60 days into her first try at sobriety.
“I OD’d a couple times on fentanyl,” she told me. “I didn’t use Narcan. Luckily, my friends were there and did CPR on me, and I came back.”
“But that still didn’t change things?” I asked.
“No,” Moore said.
Like many addicts, Moore never thought she’d become one. She said it started with alcohol and marijuana use as a teenager. She said she didn't use hard drugs until her 30s.
I asked her what changed.
“I have five girls,” Moore said. “Me and their dad were having problems -- and me and my mom.”
To be honest, having a father who suffered for many years. I knew that likely wasn’t the whole reason behind her turn to harder drugs.
But it’s the easy answer to try to explain why someone would take that route.
“Did you care to live or die at that point?” I asked her of her lowest times using drugs.
“No, I didn’t, and I used to cry. I used to just break down crying because I thought I was better than that, because I wanted to be, but I felt lost and that I couldn’t find my way back,” Moore said.
After Moore passed out in the Gateway parking lot, she learned she had endocarditis -- an infection of the inner lining in the heart -- because of the drug use. She got a valve replaced in her heart.
Moore used again two days after leaving the hospital.
“Does it ever go through your head when you're shooting up -- 'This could be the last time?'” I asked her.
“All the time,” she said. “And I use to think I was being smart, only using a little bit at a time, but just that little bit took me out a couple times. It’s a disease. It’s baffling; it's cunning, powerful.”
Addiction is real
The good news for Moore: One month after our interview, I checked in with Pomm to see how she was doing. He said she graduated the Project Save Lives program and is now in a sober living facility.
My hope is that Moore stays sober. It’s easy to get clean. It’s hard to stay clean.
My wish for anyone who sees this story is to realize that addiction is real.
It is a disease, and it can affect anyone.
Be patient and kind to those struggling, but remember to always take care of yourself.
I hope my family’s story can one day save someone else’s.