The pill takers
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - It is 4 a.m. in a bad part of town, and Bill Brooks is waiting at his usual street corner.
Leaning back in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla, he exhales a cloud of Marlboro smoke that mingles with exhaust fumes floating in the chilly spring air.
Brooks comes here three mornings a week. He is as much a fixture as the crack dealers and junkies who prowl the neighborhood.
There was a time when Brooks was part of that crowd.
For two years, he was so addicted to the prescription painkiller OxyContin that he would do almost anything - even steal from his mother - to get more.
NATALEE WATERS / The Roanoke Times
|Bill Brooks and his wife, Melanie, sit in their car at 4 a.m. in Knoxville, Tenn., waiting his turn at a methadone clinic. He is one of the growing number of people in Southwest Virginia who have become addicted to the painkiller OxyContin.
On this morning in late March, Brooks is looking for a different kind of fix.
When a nearby methadone clinic opens at 5:30, Brooks will curb his appetite for OxyContin by drinking a mixture of methadone and orange Gatorade under the watchful eye of drug counselors.
As he waits in line for the clinic to open, Brooks talks about the drug that ended his drug problem.
"I believe in God, and the way I look at it, there are two things that will get you off drugs," he said. "There's being saved by Jesus ... and there's methadone."
Brooks and his wife, Melanie - who also is a recovering OxyContin addict who credits her sobriety to methadone - have been in the car for hours. They left their Lee County home at midnight so they could claim the second spot in what is now a long line of cars outside the DRD Knoxville Medical Clinic.
Melanie drove the deserted country roads while Bill slept, so he could be ready to start his construction job back in Virginia in a few hours. It is 110 miles from Pennington Gap to Knoxville.
"I think we could drive it blindfolded and in reverse," Bill said of the early-morning trip they have made every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the past year. "But I think it's worth it."
Melanie nods from the driver's seat. "You'll do anything if you really want to be off drugs," she said.
But help is hard to find in the remote reaches of Southwest Virginia, where hundreds of people have become hooked on OxyContin in recent years. Addicts must drive for miles to get treatment. The nearest methadone clinics are in Knoxville and Galax.
Plans for a satellite clinic in Tazewell County have met opposition, even though that county is particularly hard hit by OxyContin abuse. The controversy bothers Brooks, who considers himself living proof that methadone treatment works.
"I know here and here that I'm cured," Brooks said, pointing first to his head, then to his heart. "Now I want to start giving back. ... I want to show people that you can change."
Bill Brooks grew up in Lee County, as far west as you can go in Virginia.
There wasn't much for a teen-ager to do but drugs, he said.
"Basically, it comes out of boredom," he said. "It starts out as 'Let's go get a six-pack of beer.' Then it's 'Let's go get a little bit of weed.' Then it's 'Let's go get some pills.' "
When Brooks was 16, a friend told him that snorting Lortab would help him drink more beer. So he ground up a tablet and used a straw to sniff the powder up his nose.
By the time he was 21, Brooks figured he had found the cure to life's problems in a pill bottle. Whenever he had an argument with his girlfriend or problems at work, he turned to drugs. He always thought that if his addiction got out of hand, he would just quit - the way he did once with cocaine.
One day Brooks and a friend left his home in Pennington Gap to get more Lortab at their dealer's remote mountain home. When they got there, the man was hawking something called OxyContin.
"We were like, what's this?" Brooks said. Never one to say "no" to a new drug, Brooks tried a 40-milligram "Oxy" on the way back to town, grinding the pill on a plate he kept handy in the car and snorting it through a straw.
It made him sick, not high. Suspecting that they had been ripped off, Brooks and his friend researched the new drug by reading literature that belonged to a relative they knew had been prescribed OxyContin.
They liked what they saw, especially the warnings.
Brooks kept trying Oxies until he got the high he wanted. First comes the euphoric rush. Addicts describe a warm, fuzzy feeling that radiates through their bloodstream with each heartbeat. Later, the high gives way to a pleasant drowsiness called "nodding."
At first, Brooks did OxyContin to feel good.
He wound up doing it to keep from feeling bad.
Whenever Brooks and his wife tried to stop, their bodies revolted. Withdrawal from OxyContin causes severe mood swings, nausea, diarrhea, cramps, cold sweats and a bone-penetrating ache like the worst imaginable case of the flu.
"It got to the point where we were trying to save one for the morning just so we would have something to get us out of the bed," Brooks said.
By late 1999, Brooks was spending the $400 to $600 a week he made working construction. "It was just Oxy, Oxy, Oxy," he said. "I would get paid on Friday and all my money was gone by Saturday night."
Brooks began to take money from the cash register of his mother's video store, where he worked part time. He started with $5 and $10 bills, but eventually took enough to close the business down.
To make more money, Bill Brooks bounced checks. Melanie Brooks, his wife, committed credit card fraud, charging purchases to the numbers she had access to as a convenience store clerk. They both pleaded guilty and were placed on probation.
By the autumn of 1999, Mary Lou Brooks had run out of both money and patience. She kicked her son and Melanie out of the house.
By then, they were too far gone to care.
"If you had put me out on the street in a cardboard box, as long as I had OxyContin, I was a happy camper," Brooks said.
The Brookses got a $45 motel room at the Convenient Inn. For a while, they lived off the $700 financial aid check that Melanie got for tuition to a local community college. The money went fast.
Then they moved in with Melanie Brooks' mother. They stole from her, too. She kicked them out.
Promising to get clean, they asked Bill Brooks' mother to take them back in. She relented, despite the financial burden her son already had caused.
"I'd rather be paying off debts than a funeral bill, because that's what it was coming to," Mary Lou Brooks said.
By that time, the Brookses were down to their last few dollars and their last Oxy pills. They did the drugs first, then headed for the methadone clinic in Knoxville with what little money they had left.
As people often do with life-changing events, they still remember the exact date and time.
"We set out on March 12  at 3 a.m., not knowing what the future would hold," Brooks said. "It was just a last-ditch effort to get clean."
From the very first dose, the Brookses knew they were cured. "Methadone gave us our lives back," Bill Brooks said. "It made me feel like I felt before I ever took any drugs. It made me feel like a kid again."
At 5 a.m., a security guard emerges from the clinic. Headlights flash on and engines grind to life. The line of cars proceeds through a checkpoint. The security guard collects identification cards from each patient.
Half an hour later, when the clinic doors open, patients enter the building carrying metal lockboxes used to store their carry-home doses for the next day. Walking purposefully in the twilight, the recovering addicts look more like factory workers carrying lunchboxes on the way to punch in.
After being "dosed," Brooks said he feels no drug-induced euphoria. "I just feel normal, and that's a great feeling," he said.
Methadone blocks receptors in the brain, relieving withdrawal from opiates such as heroin and OxyContin and eliminating an addict's craving for the drug.
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that methadone treatment for heroin addicts reduced their drug use by 70 percent. Criminal activity among the recovering addicts went down by 57 percent, the study found.
But the drug can be addictive, as clinic director Mary Little warns everyone who comes to her for help. She said methadone should be reserved for hard-core addicts who have failed in other types of treatment.
It is also reserved for those who can afford it - it costs $77 a week for someone to go through the program, which includes counseling sessions, urine tests and monitoring by two physicians on the staff.
Most addicts remain on methadone for two years or longer, and are weaned from the drug gradually under close supervision.
Although the clinic is closely regulated by state and federal agencies, abuse of the powerful narcotic it dispenses is inevitable. Fifteen people have died of fatal overdoses of methadone since 1998 in far Southwest Virginia.
Because methadone can be prescribed by physicians to relieve pain, it's hard to say just how much of the drug's misuse is linked to the clinics. But it's clear that OxyContin addiction is increasing the demand for methadone treatment.
Of the 250 people enrolled in the methadone maintenance program at the Life Center of Galax - the state's only methadone clinic west of Richmond - 243 were addicted to OxyContin. The other seven were heroin addicts.
The Life Center is proposing to open a satellite clinic in Tazewell County, where there have been eight fatal overdoses and an estimated 30 percent crime increase attributed to OxyContin. Despite that, some people are opposed to the plan.
Law enforcement officials see methadone treatment as replacing one drug for another. Residents are upset with the idea of having recovering drug addicts in their neighborhood.
"They are always saying it's going to bring crime and a bunch of addicts to the community," Little said. "What they don't understand is those people are already there, it's just a matter of getting them help."
At a town meeting on OxyContin abuse in Lee County, the Brookses brought brochures about methadone treatment, hoping to educate people about the program. If methadone worked for them, they figured, it should work for anyone.