From pain pills to heroin addict: Ex-area man now focused on helping others

CHATHAM — Andrew Dewey’s life was a mess.

Asurvivor of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, he moved back to Illinois in 2006 and went through a divorce. His wife left to live in Bowling Green, Ky., taking their son with him.

“It spiralled me deeper and deeper, and I ended up being a drug addict and alcoholic,” Dewey, a rural Penfield native, said.

The drug use all started from an opioid drug prescription to help him deal with pain from a back injury.

“(My doctor) had me on a prescription drug killer with no exam, no MRI. Then he up and closed his office, and I started detoxing,” Dewey said, noting that he started on vicodin, then graduated to oxycontin and then to morphine with oxycontin. At one point he was taking 20 tablets a day as his body became immune to the drug.

Unable to get more pain reliever, Dewey was desperate. That’s when a friend offered to help.

“He said, ‘I can make you feel better.’ It was a shot,” Dewey said.

The shot was heroin, and his battle with that drug began.

Dewey lost 100 pounds in six months. He wasn’t eating. Only using.

Today the 1984 Armstrong Township High School graduate is one of the faces of the state of Illinois’ battle against opioid drug abuse. Dewey spoke at a ceremony last Wednesday as Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and other state officials unveiled the State of Illinois Opioid Action Plan.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that created the Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force that will look at strategies to prevent expansion of the opioid crisis, treat and promote the recovery of individuals with opioid-use disorder and reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths.

Dewey, who has turned his life around with treatment, wants to help others who are like he used to be. He said it is important to eliminate the stigma of drug abuse and stressed the importance of prevention, treatment and ongoing support.

“We as a society have to realize we are not going to arrest, we are not going to prosecute our way out of this problem,” Dewey said. “When you take a user and put them in the system, to me that’s like arresting a diabetic for possession of a donut.

“Heroin is different. It’s affecting blue-collar middle class families. It’s the housewife next door to you.”

According to state figures, since 2013, the number of heroin deaths has nearly doubled, and the number of prescription opioid deaths has almost quadrupled. In 2016, there were 1,889 opioid overdose deaths, an increase of 76 percent from 2013.

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids have increased more than any other category of opioids. The largest increase was in the number of deaths involving fentanyl and drugs similar to fentanyl, which led to a tenfold increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths between 2013 and 2016.

Said Dewey: “I don’t think most people wake up at any point and say, ‘You know what? I can’t wait to be a heroin addict. We’re having kids in high school and middle school” with addiction issues.

And Dewey said many times it starts with “some kind of pills.”

One reason heroin is the drug of choice is because it’s so cheap and readily available.

“It’s everywhere,”he said. “I live in a little town the size of Rantoul (Chatham). I’m well aware of at least six places at least a mile from here that have it. It’s becoming the level of problem that no town, no village is becoming immune from.”

Dewey said he began treatment March 5, 2012. His step toward a new life continued when he enrolled in Lincoln Land College, Springfield. He was later asked to be the commencement speaker.

“They wanted me to tell my story from addiction to that date,” Dewey said.

It is a story of hope.

From there he enrolled in classes at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is now working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.

Dewey said in April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield was working to assemble community residents to work toward combating the opioid crisis. They approached one of Dewey’s professors, who pointed them to Dewey.

Mike Emery, the re-entry outreach law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Central Illinois, said Dewey’s story is so impactful that it needs to be heard.

It took “a lot of courage” for Dewey to get up in front of a room full of people and tell his story, Emery said. “Andrew was fantastic on both counts as a speaker and making his point. I know for a fact that his talk made an impact.

“I worked for law enforcement for 33 years. I needed to hear what Andrew had to say. When I was active in law ... that’s all I did was enforce the law, make the arrest and not see the end result of people having the addiction.”

There is a relationship between opioid prescription drugs and illegal substances, Dewey said.

“I think that heroin is a substance of choice because it is an opioid. (Addicts) can’t break that cycle of addiction without treatment,” Emery said. “Andrew is a perfect example of having the strength to break that addiction. It’s a horrible struggle.”

Opioid addiction is both a physical and psychological addiction, according to Dewey.

“It’s the sensors in the brain that are calling for the addiction of the opioids,” he said. “It’s breaking down that mental barrier. You do that by backing off a little bit at a time.”

A full-time grad student who is raising a son, Dewey works at NPR radio in a graduate assistant program that helps pay his college bills. He also works two days a week as an intern at Gateway Addiction Treatment Center.

Dewey’s goal: “I knew from day one when I walked out in 2012 (having completed treatment) that this was what I was going to do. I had a goal in mind at that time — that if I can just save one person, all of it’s worth it. I think in the bigger picture, that’s what sometimes we do looking out at the problem, is forget these are people. We want to stigmatize, demonize, but this is a person.”

dhinton@rantoulpress.com


 

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