Laura Jensen, 32, who grew up in Mattituck and now lives in East Northport, works as a medical assistant and has dreams for a bright future.
But just two years ago, Jensen was living a nightmare, caught in the vise-like grip of heroin addiction, a crisis that is sweeping Suffolk County and the nation.
Jensen had decided to share the story of the darkest days of her life — with the hope of serving as a lifeline for someone struggling, agonizing hour by hour, to survive.
She is living proof that there can be life after heroin.
Jensen’s story began when she was younger, using drugs recreationally, she said. But, in a story that’s echoed among those battling the heroin wars, her journey down the dark path of addiction began when she had surgery and an infected abscess in 2011, when she was 26.
“They put me on morphine and sent me home with it,” Jensen said. “I enjoyed the feeling a lot.”
The abscess returned and she needed surgery again, and was sent home with a large quantity of Dilaudid, or hydromorphone.
“I really liked it,” she said. “I started using it even though I wasn’t in pain anymore. I started abusing it, crushing it and snorting it. I got addicted.”
At the time, Jensen was working for a delivery person for an auto parts store; she met a young man at the time who’d supply here with “blues,” or Roxicodone. “They were popular then. . .this was back before heroin,” she said.
Then, Jensen said, came the days when it became impossible to find pills, in March, 2012 .
“Nobody had pills. The person I worked with, he started telling me how heroin was just like pills. I didn’t want to believe him because of the stigma of heroin. When I was young, I didn’t hang around with heroin addicts. I was completely against it.”
Until the pills ran dry and the withdrawal was more painful and difficult than anything she’d ever imagined or realized — and she ended up doing heroin for the first time.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she said, through tears.
And when she tried heroin, her world shifted.
On heroin: “It was literally love at first sight. . .everything I ever wanted to feel out of a drug.”
“It was literally love at first sight,” she said. “It was everything I ever wanted to feel out of a drug.”
Still, Jensen was conflicted.
“I kept telling myself I was just going to do it that one time. That I’d find pills . . . and try to stop,” she said.
But, she said, she eventually ended up using pills only a few more times. “I stuck to heroin. It’s all I wanted,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
Jensen has lived with her mother throughout her years of addiction. Her mother didn’t know until she entered rehab that she’d been using heroin; she thought her daughter was using only pills, she said.
“I never told anybody. Nobody knew, because of the stigma,” Jensen said. “Telling someone I was on heroin, it sounds so much worse. I just felt ashamed. It’s not something you want to be known as.”
When she first started using heroin, Jensen said, “Things started off great. You think it’s going to be like that forever, that you’ve found the solution to all your problems. And then slowly, it takes all your money. You’re working just to support your habit.”
While heroin can be relatively inexpensive, at just $10 a bag, Jensen’s use escalated until she was spending almost $1,000 every week, she said, adding that she only sniffed or snorted the drug, never shooting up.
“I got really close to shooting up. That’s part of the reason I went to rehab. I knew that if i did that, it would have killed me,” she said.
Journey to recovery
Jensen’s first steps toward recovery began with a detox in 2013. In a relationship at the time, her partner told her to make a choice.
But, she said, “When I got out, one day later I was using again.”
While she was upset about problems in the relationship, Jensen said she did not blame that for her relapse. “I can use any excuse I went, but I probably would have gone back, because my heart wasn’t in it,” she said. “It has to be up to the addict to want help.”
Her life began to spiral downward. Losing her driving position, she went through a dizzying series of jobs, unable to hold one for any length of time.
“I’d call in sick. I got caught stealing. To pay for my habit, I had to steal,” Jensen said.
She’d begun to steal money and jewelry from her mother and her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and had no idea of what she’d done.
“The lying and manipulating. . .Using is a full time job. Nobody understands that. Literally, you wake up and you’re depressed. You don’t want to be alive. I would pray to a God I didn’t believe in, not to wake up in the morning,” Jensen said.
Jensen said her story is not unique; many are living in the agony she once was — and far too many, she said, do not survive.
Stemming an escalating tide of addiction
The numbers indicate a heroin crisis of epic proportions: Last year, statistics were released that confirmed what so many devastated families already know to be heartbreakingly true: Suffolk County leads New York State in heroin-related overdose deaths by a wide margin.
Between 2009 and 2013, 337 heroin-related deaths were reported in Suffolk County.
The “New York State Opioid Poisoning, Overdose and Prevention,”report prepared for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature “provides an overview of opioid-related mortality and morbidity and other consequences of heroin and prescription opioid misuse across the state over the last five years,” the document states.
This week, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation to add chemical variations or derivatives of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl, to New York State’s controlled substance list; Suffolk County is seeing more than 300 fatal opioid-related overdoses each year for the past several years, with fentanyl being the number one killer in 2016 and 2017, according to Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said.
Trying to stem the tide of an insidious epidemic, Cuomo has also signed legislation investing more than $200 million to address the epidemic through a comprehensive approach and has put into place new policies to fight heroin and opioid addiction, including limiting initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain from 30 to 7 days; expanding insurance coverage for substance use disorder treatment; increasing access and enhancing treatment capacity across the state, including an expansion of opioid treatment and recovery services; implementing the comprehensive I-STOP law to curb prescription drug abuse; launching a public awareness and prevention campaign to inform New Yorkers about the dangers of heroin use and opioid misuse and the disease of addiction; and creating a task force to propose initiatives to tackle the heroin and opioid epidemic
For a man or woman ensnared in the throes of addiction, help can seem like a faraway dream, with daily life focused on a single goal — finding heroin, Jensen said.
“When you’re stuck in it, you don’t realize it. It’s like a dream, you don’t even know what the possibilities could be, if you got clean,” she said.
Her days were consumed with “trying to think of ways to get money, who was I going to have to steal from.”
“It was all downhill”
Addiction led to to lost jobs, broken relationships, a steady stream of closed doors, Jensen said.
“I was at my lowest point a couple of times,” Jensen said. “It was all downhill.”
She lost her license and almost lost her car because she couldn’t pay for tickets or insurance. Save for the roof over her head provided by her mother, Jensen said, “I had nothing.”
On the darkest of days, Jensen she almost overdosed in the parking lot with her dealer. “I wasn’t breathing. He was smacking me, to get me to wake up. I threw up all over the place. He told me, ‘You were dead.’ I have no recollection of it. That was scary,” she said.
That incident sparked a search for rehab, no easy task for someone without insurance, she said
Finally, she found a Nassau facility that took her and paired her with a social worker to help her obtain medical coverage, Jensen said.
“I finally got in. I wasn’t giving up but it’s hard because you want to get help, but you can’t. A lot of people die in this process of getting denied.”
Fresh out of rehab in June, 2015, she was arrested four hours later for the stealing, Jensen said.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” she said, adding that she was placed in drug court in Central Islip after jail, which helped erase her record. “It literally saved my life,” she said.
Drug courts are an alternative to incarceration, where a person works with court officers, legal representatives and treatment providers to help with recovery.
People facing legal challenges or jail may feel defeated at a time when they are already struggling with recovery, Jensen said.
“It’s an endless circle. You feel like you’re getting kicked down so you go back to using. Drug court gave me hope,” she said, adding that she was clean the whole time and graduated in August, 2016.
She was also involved in the ACCES-VR program, which helps individuals go back to school and find careers.
Tears in her voice, she said, “Now, I’m a medical assistant. I don’t even know what to say — these are tears of happiness.”
Jensen also said her friend Paul Maffetone, who founded Michael’s Hope to raise awareness about heroin addiction after losing his brother, has been a tremendous support.
Both having grown up on the North Fork, they’ve been friends for years. “He’s helping people kill the stigma of what people think a heroin addict is, or looks like,” Jensen said. “He’s trying to raise awareness so people feel more comfortable coming forward as heroin addicts instead of being ashamed, and hiding it.”
A new life unfolds
Today, Jensen’s life is full of hope and promise.
“I go though phases where it’s difficult, but even my worst day sober is still better than my best day using,” she said.
Today, she has belief in a future she never dreamed of, working in an urgent care and helping others.
“It seems like there are endless possibilities now — instead of just waiting to die,” Jensen said.
Jensen said her pain has given her new appreciation for the opportunities life affords. “If it wasn’t for my struggles, I might not be where I am now,” she said.
To those still mired in despair, Jensen said, “Don’t give up hope. You have to keep going. There’s a whole other world out there that you don’t know about, when you’re high.”
Reflecting on her journey, she advocated strongly that those in pain seek help. “Without treatment, I wouldn’t be here. People need to realize that this will kill you. You will land in a jail cell or coffin — and that’s it.”
Patch courtesy photo.
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Originally published Sep 30, 2017.