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In Struggle to Get Clean, and Stay That Way, Young Mother Battles Heroin Addiction

Santa Barbara County sounds alarm as opiate drug use escalates, spreads into mainstream population

Lizette Correa shares a moment with her 9-month-old daughter, Layla, outside their Goleta home. Correa is about to graduate from Project Recovery, a program of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and is determined to overcome her heroin addiction — for herself and for her daughter. “I look at her and I think ‘I need to be here for her and I need to show her an example, I don’t want her to see me and learn about drugs’,” she says. Click to view larger
Lizette Correa shares a moment with her 9-month-old daughter, Layla, outside their Goleta home. Correa is about to graduate from Project Recovery, a program of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and is determined to overcome her heroin addiction — for herself and for her daughter. “I look at her and I think ‘I need to be here for her and I need to show her an example, I don’t want her to see me and learn about drugs’,” she says. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series on Santa Barbara County’s heroin epidemic. Click here for a complete series index.]

Lizette Correa begins each day like any young mother.

The 22-year-old greets her 9-month-old daughter, Layla, in their Goleta home, picking her up out of her crib, feeding and changing her, talking to her smiling baby.

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

Like any young mom, she worries about what’s best for her child.

But Correa has a different set of obstacles that other moms don’t.

Court appearances, drug testing and parenting classes must be scheduled between naps and child care.

Determined to graduate from her recovery program this fall, Correa is hoping to beat an old enemy keeping her from being the best mother she can be and from achieving unrealized dreams for her own life.

Heroin — an addiction she’s battled for years — is the foe she’s determined to overcome since giving birth in February while incarcerated.

The cries of her daughter bring the once vague goal of getting clean into sharp relief.

“I look at her and I think ‘I need to be here for her and I need to show her an example, I don’t want her to see me and learn about drugs’,” Correa told Noozhawk.

The struggle to overcome heroin addiction is something more and more Santa Barbara County residents like Correa battle.

The abuse of heroin and other opiates — like Oxycontin, Vicodin and others — has increased by 30 percent over the past five years, according to the county’s Alcohol and Drug Prevention Division of the Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services.

Heroin and prescription pain killers are now the drugs of choice for a quarter of all new admissions into Santa Barbara County drug treatment programs.

These local numbers also coincide with a national trend.

Although heroin use nationwide remains low compared to other drugs, the increase in recent years — to 914,000 users in 2014 from 373,000 in 2007 — cannot be ignored.

Those numbers were part of the remarks made by Drug Enforcement Administration Deputy Administrator Jack Riley in Oct. 8 testimony before a congressional committee.

More people die from drug overdose in the United States than in car crashes, Riley stated, and more than half of those overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid or heroin.

Local officials have said the percentages are consistent in Santa Barbara County as well.

“These are our family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues,” Riley testified.

                                                                  •        •        •

The recent resurgence of heroin can be traced to several forces at work.

Opiate painkillers like Oxycontin, Fentanyl and morphine, which function in the brain in the same way as heroin, were heavily marketed by pharmaceutical companies in 1990s.

Prescriptions were readily available during that time, but as more awareness about the addictive nature of the drugs has come to light, the DEA has cracked down on indiscriminate prescribers, like former Santa Barbara Dr. Julio Diaz, who was arrested in early 2012 after a lengthy investigation.

Earlier this year, Diaz was convicted on 79 counts related to overprescribing painkillers and other medicine. Eleven of his patients died of overdoses.

Meanwhile, a dwindling supply of illegal prescription drugs has made them more expensive, forcing people to cheaper street drugs for a fix.

At the same time, an influx of cheaper heroin flooded in from drug cartels in Mexico.

With heroin, “people say it’s the greatest rush, that nothing else even comes close,” said John Doyel, a program manager for the county’s Alcohol and Drug Prevention Program.

If the drug’s high sends its user into an incomparable euphoria, the lows are inversely cruel, leading to excruciating pain as a user weans himself or herself off the drug. That can mean a deadly combination and an intractable addiction.

“This is the Darth Vader of drugs,” Doyel said. “It just takes no prisoners.”

Widespread use means that heroin, which was once considered a blue-collar drug, has now shifted into the mainstream, including among young professionals.

“It’s definitely a middle-class problem,” he said.

Young people, which Doyel classifies as ages 18 to 25, and middle-class users are now some of those who most often end up in the county’s treatment programs.

Several drugs — like methadone and Suboxone — have been used with great success to help people with opiate addiction, Doyel said.

The county has increased its methadone contracts to $3 million from $1 million each year to meet the need, he said.  

Suboxone, even though it yields excellent outcomes, remains too expensive for many patients who cannot afford private treatment facilities.

One solution could be to train primary-care physicians to administer Suboxone, which Medi-Cal and state health-care dollars will cover.

Doyel said the county is working to create such a program, which also could help with recovery treatment, rather than forcing a user to go to a licensed treatment facility, whose cost may be out of reach for some.

                                                                  •        •        •

Although her road to recovery from heroin addiction is not an easy one, Lizette Correa is motivated by her infant daughter. “I want to be able to be here for her, to be clean and present and not in jail,” she says. Click to view larger
Although her road to recovery from heroin addiction is not an easy one, Lizette Correa is motivated by her infant daughter. “I want to be able to be here for her, to be clean and present and not in jail,” she says. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Beginning with pills and making the transition to street drugs is a trend that rings true for Correa, who was first introduced to prescription opiates while at a local youth treatment center, where a friend offered her Oxycontin.

Correa had been sent to the center for underage drinking as a 13-year-old, but emerged with a taste for the high of opiates that would plague her for a decade.

“Immediately, I liked the feeling,” she said.

A tragic heartbreak would remind the teenager that using was not without cost.

When she was 17, in a nightmarish turn of events, she discovered the lifeless body of the friend who had introduced her to opiates and later had become her boyfriend. He had died of an overdose.

After his death, Narcotics Anonymous became a regular part of Correa’s life. It’s where she met her current boyfriend and the father of her child.

“We were clean and we were into the recovery thing,” but the pair relapsed, and Correa recalled giving him $100 to go buy drugs.

He returned with “this tiny looking ball of tar” which made Correa feel like she did when she took pills — but better.

“It was heaven,” she recalled.

Soon, the couple had nothing left to sell to keep up with their habit, and the withdrawal — or “dope sickness” — kicked in.

Everything hurt, even her bones.

“I didn’t realize that my body needed it so much,” she said, adding that as soon as she smoked heroin, she felt whole again.

Correa slowly stopped going to work at her day job, finding one with night hours instead. She smoked meth to stay awake through her shifts.

Another arrest put Correa back in the Probation Department’s sights, and testing dirty landed her in a residential program in Los Angeles.

When that program didn’t work out, she was brought back to custody in Santa Barbara, where she learned she was pregnant.

Her daughter was born while she was incarcerated and her first relapse since the birth happened when her baby was about 6 months old.

Her boyfriend is also struggling to get clean at a local residential program.

This is Correa’s third time at Project Recovery, a local drug treatment program run by the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, or CADA. She says she wants to stay clean this time.

She’s committed to attending NA meetings and has a sponsor.

The confidence of her mom, with whom she and her daughter are living, also means a lot to her.

When she learned about the drugs, her mother had cut off her supply of money. But she would express relief when Correa would call her from jail.

“She always stood by me,” Correa said.

Her graduation from Project Recovery is later this month. When asked what she sees for her future, Correa said she dreams of getting her GED and enrolling in classes to become a paramedic.

In the meantime, she’s focused on recovery — for herself and for her daughter.

“I want to be able to be here for her, to be clean and present and not in jail,” she said.

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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