Dying to be free: The heroin epidemic

In 2016, police in Berks County reversed 21 opioid overdoses with naloxone, but still, 58 people died.

"Heroin users need to know the next hit they take could be their last," said Detective Nelson Ortiz, with the Berks County district attorney's office.

According to Berks County detectives, there's now more heroin on the streets, making it cheaper and deadlier than ever. Nabbing dealers, however, isn't enough, investigators said. The problem starts somewhere else.

"When you're shooting up and you press the top of the needle into your arm, that is the best feeling," said Jillian Ingram, an 18-year-old from Boyertown who started using at 15. "My brother was using, pretty much my whole family."

Jillian fought her addiction. Now, she's helping others recognize the signs of heroin use. She hid the drugs from her grandparents by hiding it in shoes, under carpets, and in book cut-outs. She entered rehab multiple times with no success, but one day, everything changed.

"That's when the love of my life, Brendan Traylor, passed away," Jillian said. "I would just sit in the bathroom all night and just cry,".

At Brendan's memorial, she met a woman named Pat, who would eventually help her stay clean.

"I said he was the love of my life, too. He was my first grandson, and I loved her from that day forward," said Pat Erb, Brendan's grandmother.

Brendan was 18 years old. He had graduated from high school in the summer of 2014. He was a musician and played drums. 

After graduation, the family noticed something changed. Near the end of the summer, a friend told the family he'd tried heroin.

"One mistake cost him his life," Pat said.

After an intervention, the family sent Brendan to rehab in Florida, where he worked on fighting his addiction. Two weeks after returning home, his mom found him dead in the basement. He'd found pills and overdosed in a chair.

"I remember everything so distinctively. I picked up his arm and it was so heavy, it just fell down," said Brendan's mother, Kristie Springman.

Two years later, she still hasn't returned to the basement. She can't make it down those steps and around that corner.

"We had no education on this. We never expected to be going through this as a family," Pat said.

The death tore the family apart. Vacations and holidays will never be the same, they said.

"We're still family, but it's hard to explain what happens when you lose that one member. We're trying to work our way back," Pat said.

The months following Brendan's death, Pat was overcome with anger. She eventually channeled that into hope by founding a charity called "Brendan's Band."

"We have information on every drug. We have information on seven steps to know your child has relapsed. We have information on local drop boxes. We encourage people to get rid of old prescription drugs," Pat said.

The nonprofit supports users by providing funding for treatment, educates the community on drug usage, and organizes survivor walks.

"I was never, ever ashamed of him. I think that's what people think you should be," Pat said.

"I think its hard for families or people to believe that their child is doing it, because they have this big loving family, and I thought, too, if you love them enough, it's not going to happen," Kristie said.

Understanding the addiction is part of the problem.

"I would say that they are the most addictive, illicit drugs on the face of the planet," said Dr. William Santoro, an expert in addiction medicine at Reading Health System.

Once you're hooked, he said withdrawal can be excruciating. For someone who's never tried the drug, he compares it to downing a bottle of laxatives. 

"I want a person to drink a full bottle and just not go to the bathroom. It can't happen. They have to do it," Santoro said.

For most, he said the addiction begins with something as innocent as prescription pills, but then too many depend on the high. 

"They keep doing that until the receptors are deformed and you've moved from wanting to do it to having to do it. The receptors are fried," said Santoro.

Part of the problem also stems from the language, such as using the word "addict."

"When you say they are an 'addict,' you're saying the person is the disease. This person is cancer? No. Nobody ever says that. This person has cancer," Santoro continued, "You are stigmatizing. You are blaming. You never hear the word 'addict' being used in a positive sense."

Jillian has come a long way.

"I have a car now. I have a job. I'm working 40 hours a week. I want to help people," she said.

She's hopeful her story will help and inspire others.

"Lock your medicines up," Jillian said.

Brendan's mistake blew out his light. His family hope's it has enlightened a community to a broader issue.

"Please don't ever say it could never happen to us. We did. We thought it, and now we'll never be the same," Pat said.

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