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Local organizers fight back as heroin tears through their community 

Falling out

Maegan Severt found herself crying on the mattress yet again in an otherwise empty room at her grandmother's house. The walls were already covered in expressions and lyrics scribbled during addiction-fueled manic episodes, but this time she jotted on a ripped up piece of paper.

"Someone tell me how I got to this place and where the fuck do I go to get out," she wrote. Then she heard her fiancé and sister coming back up the driveway with her daily dose of heroin.

She wiped her tears and met them at the door, happy the sickness would soon be gone again, but knowing she had to get out of the cycle she was in.

It was March 20, 2015, and things were going to get worse before they got better.

Just days before suffering a dangerous overdose in March, she took this selfie. - COURTESY OF MAEGAN SEVERT
  • Courtesy of Maegan Severt
  • Just days before suffering a dangerous overdose in March, she took this selfie.

After her sister left, Maegan and her fiancé, the father of her two-year-old daughter Lily, tied off and shot up a half-gram each. It was their normal daily amount, meant just to get them out of the sick feeling that comes along with a physical addiction to heroin. But it became immediately clear to Maegan that something was wrong.

As soon as the drug entered her veins, she became heavy. There was no rush like the one she felt with a normal heroin shot. While an injection usually just numbed her mentally, this one quickly began to numb her entire body until she couldn't feel her face. Her hearing left first, and then her vision began to blur.

She panicked and yelled at her fiancé that something was wrong, but he had heard her get nervous when she got too high many times before and he brushed her off. He told her it was just a good batch. Maegan made her way to the kitchen, despite feeling debilitated by the numbness creeping through her body. She felt like she was being dragged down. She began drinking water, but it wasn't helping.

In a fog, she made it back to the bedroom. She remembers saying, "The shit was laced with fentanyl," before passing out.

She came to with her face pressed against the floor, just as her fiancé was well into experiencing the same thing she had just been through. He nodded out of consciousness, and she grabbed him by the hair and began slapping him while screaming his name. There was no response.

The young couple had overdosed almost simultaneously. It wasn't Maegan's first time, but it would be her last.

Heroin is inherently poisonous, and therefore, inherently dangerous. But a rash of recent overdoses throughout Charlotte and the surrounding areas over the last year has grabbed the attention of authorities, medical workers and addiction specialists. Some suspect it's due to a growing trend in which fentanyl, a deadly opiate that can be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, is used to cut the drug, often unbeknownst to users. An injection of fentanyl can stop a user's heartbeat within seconds of injection.

The number of deaths by overdose in Mecklenburg County has been on the rise for some time. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, unintentional heroin overdose deaths in the county remained in single digits between 2003 and 2010, with only three happening in 2010. Just one year later, it was at five times that amount, and reached 31 in 2014.

DHHS hasn't compiled the number of overdose deaths in the county this year, yet. Lester Oliva, a paramedic with Mecklenburg EMS, said he's seen a rise in heroin overdoses in recent months, although he can't justify it with numbers. Mecklenburg EMS tracks overdoses as one subject, so the numbers include everything from Tylenol to alcohol overdoses.

"It is a challenge to track specific heroin-related overdose cases in the pre-hospital setting," Oliva says. "However, the nationwide trend of increased heroin overdose cases can be seen in our community."

Many times, if an overdose victim is lucky enough to wake up, as Severt did, it goes unreported and untreated, as people are afraid of prosecution or the stigma that comes with being a heroin addict.

"We are seen as scum," Severt says. "Addicts are seen as the scum of the Earth."

Severt entered a detox program the day after overdosing in March. She has since left her daughter's father and actively worked a 12-step program. She regularly returns to the detox center to speak with people there going through the same struggle.

Maegan Severt with her daughter, Lily, after Maegan began the recovery process from her heroin addiction. - COURTESY OF MAEGAN SEVERT
  • Courtesy of Maegan Severt
  • Maegan Severt with her daughter, Lily, after Maegan began the recovery process from her heroin addiction.

But many people who go through what Severt did don't get a second chance at life.

On November 2, Ivy Cerniglia was found dead of a heroin overdose at a family friend's house. That same week, Jason Freeman lost his battle with addiction. On November 21, Adam Goodgame died of an overdose. The three victims traveled in the same circles and could be seen hanging out with friends in Plaza Midwood on any given day.

It's unclear what has caused this most recent rash of overdoses, as the medical examiner's office is yet to release any of the victims' autopsy reports, but many blamed a recent batch of heroin laced with fentanyl that's going around, possibly from Atlanta.

In May, Creative Loafing Atlanta reported on the rise of heroin cut with fentanyl in that city. In March, Atlanta police found four pounds of the deadly drug in the home of a 34-year-old man found dead in the home.

Robert Evans, spokesperson with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Atlanta, said he can't say whether fentanyl-laced heroin out of Atlanta is making it to Charlotte, but acknowledged that Interstate 85 makes for an easy drug route between the two cities.

"Most of the truck traffic that comes from Atlanta goes up that way, so absolutely you're going to see more illegitimate trafficking as well," Evans said. "What affects Atlanta usually affects the rest of the southeast. We are a major distribution point for what comes in from the border. We are a large point of control for many of the Mexican drug cartel traffic coming through the southeast."

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department refused multiple requests for interviews about the use of fentanyl in heroin here and the rise of heroin use in general.

Severt said the batch going around her hometown of Kannapolis currently is called China White. Cabarrus County EMS officials have said they saw a 600-percent increase in overdoses due to the drug in October alone. They believe much of it has been laced with fentanyl.

Perhaps the scariest part of such a deadly batch is that it tends to have a snowball effect with users who see the overdose numbers as a sign that the heroin is good.

"When an addict hears about something that somebody OD'ed on, they want to do it. That's a sick part of the disease," Severt says. "They're like, 'Oh somebody OD'ed off that shit? I'm going to go find that.'"

Severt, 23, watched her parents use during her childhood. Her father died of an opiate overdose three years ago. Her mother and half-sister are active users and she worries about her friends and loved ones using the China White that's going around Cabarrus County and elsewhere.

"My younger sister is 19 years old and she's just as strung out as I was at that age, and I was talking to her about this problem just the other day," she says.

Speaking outside of a coffee shop just days after her daughter Ivy's death, Twiggy Cerniglia begins softly crying when asked what it's been like to deal with losing her daughter at just 22 years old.

Ivy Cerniglia, 22, died of a heroin overdose on Nov. 2. - COURTESY OF TWIGGY CERNIGLIA
  • Courtesy of Twiggy Cerniglia
  • Ivy Cerniglia, 22, died of a heroin overdose on Nov. 2.

"It's been hell," she says, voice shaking. "There's a very negative stigma attached to people that die that way. Nobody wants to talk about it and a lot of people don't want to feel sympathetic. Even though she spent 21 years not being on heroin, and to be honest, she spent most of her life being productive, it was only the last few months that things kind of fell to shit. But that's what everyone is going to remember. That's got to be the worst part of it is that nobody wants to talk about it and those that do want to point fingers. They want to accuse her friends. They want to accuse her family. That's been the hardest part."

It's that stigma that a group of friends in Plaza Midwood have come together to hopefully change by organizing the Dec. 11 Heroin Kills Awareness Show, a concert event at which people will be on site at The Station with information about detox programs and access to naloxone, a shot meant to save lives in the midst of an opioid overdose. (See sidebar, page 11).

The idea for Heroin Kills came from a Facebook post from Adam Griffith, who said he has lost six acquaintances to heroin in 2015.

"I didn't know her that well, but Ivy was number six this year for me, and that's too much," Griffith says. "It was too close to home; she's in the neighborhood. I can help the people around me, but this is bigger than that. We need to help the entire neighborhood — the city — to actually heal it. I felt the only way I knew how to do anything was to set up a show about it; to raise awareness and raise benefits."

Funds raised at the show will go to Charlotte's Anuvia Prevention and Recovery Center.

Griffith reached out for help from friends, including Severt; Cat Glenn, who is studying to become a substance abuse counselor; and Heather Alexander, a close family friend of Ivy's who kicked her heroin addiction 13 years ago.

Glenn said the group saw a trend starting after losing friend Hollis Meyers to an overdose when he mixed pills with alcohol in August 2013.

"The first person to overdose on alcohol and pill complications was our friend, Hollis," Glenn says. "When he passed we were like, 'This is only the beginning.' We sensed that this was the beginning of something bad and it was."

Glenn, Griffith and Alexander watched as more friends got hooked on popular opioids like Oxycontin and hydrocodone. Once that happens, heroin addiction is not a far jump.

"You run out of being able to get that pill supply," Alexander says. "You take a couple hydrocodones, it makes you feel happy. Then you can't get those anymore and you find out that you're dope-sick and you don't know what it is."

Severt went through the transition as a teenager.

"You say, 'Oh I'll never do this or I'll never do that,' and then you get to a certain point where you realize it's all the fucking same," Severt says.

Heroin prices have come down remarkably in recent years, and that's led to a rise in its use in America's suburbs, Evans said.

"At its current level, heroin knows no boundaries, it knows no socioeconomic status," Evans says. "Historically, it has not been in the middle class and upper-middle class, but now we see more and more that these people aren't your typical users because it's easier to get."

Now that the drug has become so prevalent, locals are hoping to shift gears away from their usual reaction, which was to shut out and stigmatize people they knew were using for the safety of the group.

A confrontation with Goodgame, nicknamed "Pooh," came to blows recently when he showed up at a hangout spot obviously high.

"He'd literally been kicked out of our community — one of our closest friends," Glenn says. "There's so much anger, so much confusion around this issue that people don't know how else to feel or what else to do."

After Pooh died, the group knew something had to change.

"I'm not saying it was the wrong approach because it's absolutely necessary for people to do what they have to do to stay healthy. If you feel like you need to cut this person out of your life because you can't care for them, then that's the healthiest thing that you can do as an addict," Glenn said. "But we definitely need something else. We need a different approach. We need people — instead of turning our backs and shunning them out and saying, 'If we see you at Common Market we're going to hit you in the face' — to get together. Let's talk about this and do something about this."

Glenn, who has recently shifted focus from addiction counseling to harm reduction, reached out to Griffith after seeing his Facebook post about a desire to organize an event.

"I contacted Adam because I wanted to start a substance-abuse-centered discussion for our community," she says. "For people who are not going to go to NA, who aren't driving cars – they ride bikes – and they don't want that Christian-based stuff. They want to be able to come and just sit and listen and even have a beer if you want to have a beer. It's not about recovery or having to follow these lines, it's about opening the discussion and I think that's what Adam wanted; we need to open this discussion and we need to start talking about this."

The group of organizers will set up tables at the show to help people with whatever they need, whether during or after the show.

"If necessary, it can even be anonymously," Glenn says. "You can sneak up to our table and grab a kit of Naloxone, grab a pamphlet, grab a number of someone to call, or just see the people who are doing it and contact us later."

She said she's been excited about all the positive feedback for the show — more than 800 people have showed interest in the event on Facebook — and hopes it will make a change, since she doesn't feel as though most people are paying attention.

"We're the alternatives, we're the underdogs, we're the punks, we're the kids that are on the streets. We're not 'Banker Town,' we're an underrepresented part of the community," she says. "The media overlooks a lot of Plaza Midwood unless they want to build a new condo, or look at it negatively. You have to have something that seeps into their world that attaches them to it.

"If some nice high school graduate (overdoses) who was about to go to college – whose parents are doctors and they talked to them about drug abuse – something like that would draw attention, but we have been largely ignored in that regard, and that's one of the reasons that this is us standing up for us. This is us coming together as an alternative community of activists, punks and musicians and people with different ideals than the rest of the city, and we're doing this for us."

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