“Looking back now, I can see 100 percent that [my son] was in pain and wanted me to stop.”
Of everything Crystal Oertle remembers from the darkest days of her heroin addiction, the memories that haunt her the most, she says, involve her children. Crystal was 24 years old and four months pregnant with her daughter before she put a halt to her daily drug routine of painkillers and meth. From the time that daughter was 2 and her son was 9, Crystal would leave her son at a skateboard park unattended for hours at a time while she made dope runs. On one of those occasions he was badly bitten by a dog and, bleeding, terrified, and alone, was rushed to the hospital by a concerned stranger. Often Crystal met with her dealers with her toddler daughter in tow. And she drove high with both kids. “I put them in danger many times,” Crystal, now 36, admits, her voice low. “I could’ve gotten into a wreck, been in a situation with drug dealers, gotten arrested. My kids could’ve witnessed that.”
Crystal has been clean for 10 months and is now an advocate for recovering addicts. She runs a website for people pursuing recovery called Erase the Shame, and hopes one day to become a substance abuse counselor. For almost a decade, though, she was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans hooked on heroin and opioid painkillers, drugs that have plagued communities across the Midwest and Northeast, everywhere from rural Shelby, Ohio, where Crystal grew up, to the suburbs of Boston and New York City.
According to the CDC’s most recent available statistics, more than 29,000 people died of opioid painkiller- or heroin-related overdoses in 2014, more than any year on record. Harder to quantify, however, is the devastation those drugs have wrought upon families and children. Over the last several months, painful accounts of opioids’ tiniest victims have gone viral. In September, law enforcement officials in Ohio posted a disturbing image of a grandmother slumped over after a heroin overdose in the front seat of her car, with her 4-year-old grandson in back. Authorities later placed the boy with relatives — but other kids don’t have that option. Experts attribute surging numbers of children in foster care in several states to the explosion of heroin abuse. In Ohio, Crystal’s home state, the number of kids in the system has spiked 13 percent since 2012, per state statistics. More babies are hospitalized in Ohio for symptoms of opiate dependence than in years past, too, from 14 for every 10,000 live births in 2004 to 134 per 10,000 in 2014. “Children really are the invisible victims,” Scott Britton, assistant director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch in September.
Crystal remembers taking a Vicodin for a hangover about 17 years ago. She slowly started taking more and became addicted. When she switched from opioid painkillers to heroin seven years later, Crystal vowed never to become a junkie. Injection was a boundary she would not cross. She only snorted, alternating between crushed Vicodin and Oxycontin and powdered heroin a few times a day. “It made me feel good,” she says.