By Michael Booth
The Denver Post
MADISON, WIS.: Thirty-six hours on a bus numbs the body, but it can focus the mind on increasingly unpleasant facts. What else to do, through hundreds of look-alike miles of Nebraska and Iowa, but count the minutes since your last shot of heroin? Angel had thinned out and stretched out her doses to make them last the long bus trip.
By a late August afternoon near Eau Claire, Angel's stomach hurt, she was too irritable to talk, and her nose was running. Her teeth now ached, too — the constant opiates had masked the pain of decay.Hours later, she was home.Waiting at a curbside drop-off in Madison were her mom, her older sister, her uncle and her grandfather. Angel pulled back her hoodie and descended from the bus with two goals in mind: "Finding a stable dose of methadone that works for me," and, "making amends with my family."Yet when she embraced her mother, it looked like she was hugging a cactus. Her family rallied around her in August when she finally accepted her dad's offer of a bus ticket home. But in the past, her family has been as much problem as solution. Among them, Angel's immediate family has more than 50 entries in the Wisconsin judicial database. "My family keeps telling me they'll help me with whatever they can so I can get through it," Angel said.But in the next breath, she adds: "My dad takes pills, but he only takes them for pain when he has to. My mom is on methadone, and she drinks a lot now. My sister, from what she says, is on the straight and narrow and doesn't do any drugs."The day after arriving on the bus, Angel stayed at her grandparents', the most stable home in the family. She took her last Denver dose of heroin that morning, and by evening, it was wearing off. Angel alternated between lying on the couch and watching television, holding her stomach, and coming outside to the shaded patio of the trailer home to smoke and listen to family stories.Lynne, Angel's mother, found a framed photo of the family posed in sweaters and smiles for a formal Christmas portrait, when Angel was about 9 years old. Angel looked at it, then looked away with a sad smirk. "We were happy then," she said. Lynne shushes her, saying they can be happy now, too.
She sees Angel carry out a yogurt drink from the kitchen and fusses over her, saying she knows how hard it is to wean off drugs. "Those are good for you. Suck it up, buttercup," she said.Then Lynne talked about the growing homeless and drug-addiction problem in Madison and surrounding rural counties. "I'm a softie; I get taken by the same (liars) every time, holding their signs," she said. Angel listened to this, bent over with a cigarette and then went indoors. Lynne suddenly realizes her daughter held such a sign just three days ago to raise drug money for the trip home. "I try to be sensitive to what she's been through," Lynne said, then turned her anger on Joe, in prison. "I had her boyfriend on this porch last July say, 'Your daughter can make $80 to $100 a day!' That's not the dream I had for my daughter."
Joe, 90 miles away behind barbed wire and concrete, said that's not his dream for Angel anymore either. His dream is for her to kick heroin without using methadone as a crutch, the same way he did after getting arrested in Denver at the beginning of the year. She's more than tough enough to pull it off, he said."I think if she just suffered ... she's already suffered a lot in life, and I would never want to see her suffer, but three weeks. That one day when she woke up and didn't feel that sickness anymore. Then she'd know," he said. "She's stronger than me, a million times."As beholden as she's been to his opinions in the past, Angel felt her body wasn't strong enough to try it his way. Her mom was overcoming her opioid-painkiller habit through Suboxone and methadone, and Angel wanted to get into the same clinic. They had tried the day after she arrived home. First the clinic wanted a Wisconsin ID, which would take Angel another day to get. Then they said the next appointment she could get with a prescribing doctor would be the following Wednesday, six days away. Lynne and Angel got on the phone. Striking up again with friends who deal is one of the most dangerous things a struggling junkie can do, treatment experts say. Yet those same risky acquaintances can fill the craving gaps. This is the very reason clinics handle addicted clients with frustrating restrictions: There is a black market for any prescription drug.
The rules and the laws are just obstacles to getting what you need to stay functional, Lynne believes. She doesn't see it as a moral minefield. Drinking has hurt just as many people in her family as opiates have. "Every substance is a drug," she said. "It's just different degrees of it."While Angel struggles to get off opiates, the temptations around her in south-central Wisconsin are only growing worse. Heroin-overdose deaths in young people ages 15-24 jumped from 198 nationwide in 1999 to 510 a decade later, according to federal statistics.