RUTLAND, Vt. — Hidden from view among Vermont's world-famous ski resorts and picturesque villages is one of the deadliest slopes.
“My patients tell me you can find heroin on every street corner in Burlington, for example,” said Dr. Deborah Richter, a family physician in Montpelier and one of the state’s leading addiction specialists. “It’s in every town.”
Heroin is spreading through rural America, striking small towns like Rutland, with a population of 16,495. Vermont now ranks second in the country in the number of people per capita seeking treatment for opiate addiction.
Tucked near downtown Rutland’s quaint streets is Serenity House, a halfway home for addicts trying to get clean. Matt Fredette and Ashley Blanchard are now going through recovery there.
Fredette’s addiction cost him a successful career as a computer technician for the Department of Homeland Security, but he’s now been clean for more than a year.
“The people here don't even make enough money to get by, but they'll get rid of their food cards, they'll do whatever means, you know, they'll go without food, they'll steal from friends and family just to get one more,” he said.
Blanchard, who’s been clean for six months, picked up his thought: “And as soon as that one's over, you're thinking about how you're going to get more, and what tomorrow's going to bring. No matter what, 24/7/365 a year plotting in your head on how to get the next high. It's an everyday struggle, an every-second struggle.”
After some trouble with the law and about a dozen overdoses that put her in the hospital, 21-year-old Blanchard hit rock bottom.
“I was homeless with a gun to my head,” she said. “It destroys you. You're happy. You're sad. You're miserable. You're excited. And physically, everything on your body hurts.”
Concern over the state’s devastating heroin epidemic led Gov. Peter Shumlin to devote his entire State of the State Message in January to the drug abuse problem.
Between 2012 and 2013, Vermont’s deaths from opiate overdoses doubled, Shumlin said, and the number of Vermonters seeking treatment for opiates has skyrocketed 771 percent since 2000.
Vermont is not alone, as heroin use has catapulted across the country. In 2012, there were 669,000 users, up from 373,000 in 2007, according to a federal estimate.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder sounded an alarm about the rise in heroin and prescription painkiller addictions.
“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs,” Holder said in an online video (note: link opens as a download). “And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.”
Recovery is a long, lonely and uncertain struggle for people like Fredette and Blanchard, said Liz Antonoff, who runs the support center they attend, along with 1,100 to 1,300 other addicts each month.
She knows that struggle on a deep, personal level. She's been clean for 18 years.
“It’s a Catch-22,” she said. “You have an illness that tells you you don't have it, and you can't think your way out of it.”
‘It started out with pills’
Opiate addiction isn’t new in these parts, and most specialists trace the heroin invasion to the rise of painkiller abuse 15 years ago.
“I moved here in 1999, and in early 2000 [and] 2001, I started seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds come in with habits of OxyContin,” said Richter, the family doctor. “To me, that was the starting point of how things got started. It started out with pills.”
Richter believes pharmaceutical companies could have done more to prevent the epidemic of opiate and heroin addiction, by simply coating the pills so abusers couldn’t crush up and snort or inject them so easily — a way to shortcut the pill’s normally slow release.
“And so if they had put the coating around it, it might stopped this from the beginning,” she said. “But they chose not to for economic reasons, I guess.”
But then doctors became more careful about how they doled out prescriptions, and the maker of Oxycontin redesigned the drug to be nearly crush-resistant. Supply went down, and the cost of powerful painkillers soared to around $80 a pill.
But customers were hooked, and many turned to heroin as a cheaper — and deadlier — alternative. Heroin dealers saw remote towns like Rutland as an instant opportunity to make huge profits. A $6 bag of heroin in New York City can sell for as much as $35 in rural communities.
“We're near New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and people can take a couple-hour trip to these places, score some cheap heroin and sell it for a lot more here,” Richter said.
‘She died a very slow death’
Almost everyone America Tonight spoke with in Rutland knew someone affected by addiction, leaving many families shattered and shamed by heroin’s stigma. One mother told us how painful it was to have an adult son whose life has been overtaken by heroin.
“He went to private schools; he had the best of everything,” said Karol, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “He went to Sunday Mass. He went to the grandparents’ house every Sunday. We lived such a wholesome life. And I don't know how this addiction took over."
Karol said that her son, who’s a father of two, has stolen all her valuables to pay for his habit. She doesn’t believe him when he says he’s been clean for a week.
“I wake up every morning and I thank God that while my son's still alive, I think … I haven't heard from him,” she said. “I think, ‘He's OK.’ I think he hasn't gotten into trouble with the law, you know, and I wonder when he is going to take a bad drug, and, you know, I won't see him anymore.”
But she feels like she’s already lost him.
“I feel horrible as a mother to say I honestly don't know who my son is anymore. He's not the child I raised,” she said. “And it's all because of the addict in him. I really feel like I’m dying a slow death.”
Patrick Martin discovered that his daughter Sarah had a cocaine problem when she was 15 or 16. He and his wife sought treatment for her, and thought everything was fine.
“She had turned her life around and applied to college,” he said. “Life is good. She had a good job. She was vibrant, and we were ready to see what was in the future for her because we knew it would be good.”
But then one night the police knocked on his door.
“It was devastating. I'd had loss before, but I never had a loss of my child,” he said. “Nobody should be burying their child. Nobody should be trying to figure the clothes they're going to put them in in the casket.”
Martin said Sarah's body was dumped in a hospital parking lot after she died from an overdose. The heroin was 82 percent pure, mixed with cocaine.
“She died a very slow death at the apartment of the people she was with,” he said. “They sanitized the place as she was dying. They knew she was going. She was gone, and they took care of themselves first.”
After her death, Martin and his wife started visiting Sarah's favorite spot to relax: a bench in downtown Rutland. That’s where they decided to start a support group to help families understand and cope. They named the group Wit's End.
“If we can save one other person, help one other person live, help another family save their child, then her life won't have been in vain,” Martin said. “She was so much more than drugs.”
With editing by Dave Gustafson