A mother reaches out to understand heroin addiction
HUDSON, Wis. -- When a New York Times reporter recently went looking for a story about heroin addiction, she ended up in Hudson talking to Karen Hale.
Hale lost her daughter Alysa Ivy, 21, to a drug overdose last May in a Hudson motel. But she believes the process of losing her daughter began the day she found out about her drug habit.
Hale said she lived mostly in silence over the two years of Alysa’s addiction to heroin and other drugs. She watched Alysa, an artist with a distinctive sense of style, change dramatically and saw their once close relationship deteriorate.
Alysa’s addiction began with prescription painkillers that she initially used after surgery on her wisdom teeth. Hale said she didn’t know the danger of opiate painkillers when they are abused, or that in many cases they lead to heroin use.
Hale told her family’s story last summer before a crowd of 500 people at public forum titled Heroin in Hudson: A Community Crisis. She pointed to a picture of Alysa and told the audience this was the face of heroin addiction.
She explained how the family was torn apart by Alysa’s lies, denials and excuses as her addiction took hold. She stole from her mother and sold her jewelry and family heirlooms to buy her drugs. Hale said she questioned everything her daughter said and realized that the most important thing to Alysa was the drugs she needed.
Alysa eventually ran afoul of the law, entered detox and was referred for outpatient treatment. Without insurance and with in-treatment beds scarce, it was the only option available to her. It wasn’t enough.
“She tried to make it work and she stayed clean for a time, but there wasn’t much in the way of support for her. You can’t treat heroin addiction the way you do alcohol. It has to be more intensive, longer and with lots of help afterward. There was none of that for Alysa.”
In the days and months after Alysa’s death, Hale said she has been haunted by something Alysa said to her repeatedly in their confrontations about her drug addiction.
“When I asked what I could do, she would always say the same thing. ‘All I want is your support.’ I realized after she was gone that I really didn’t understand what that meant, what I was supposed to do. I needed to find out how I could have helped her.”
To that end, Hale is learning as much as she can about how heroin addiction works and what is working when it comes to treatment. But she is also reaching out to young people just like Alysa suffering as a result of the disease that is drug addiction.
Friends of Alysa set up a website called Rest Easy. Hale regularly visits the site, posting photos of Alysa with captions she hopes will resonate with young addicts and their families. She can be contacted through the site, and it is through these connections that she is beginning to understand what Alysa meant by support.
Hale has been in contact with about 17 young addicts through the site, and seven more directly. She said the most important thing is to listen to their stories, which often are filled with guilt, shame and fear.
“So often they say they are scared. They want to tell their families but they can’t. Or they are running from the law for something and they don’t know what to do. Or they just can’t see their way to getting clean. They are losing hope.”
Hale has strict parameters in her dealings with the addicts she meets. She never lets them come to her home, and she controls how they contact one another. She never gives them money except to provide a meal, usually fast food. She will not help them elude law enforcement, but she will go with them to talk to their parents.
“When we talk, most of them are scared and know they need help. They want to tell their parents but they are afraid. They’ve done all the things Alysa did and they have trouble facing that. I offer to go with them to their folks if it would help, and sometimes it does.”
Hale said the most important thing that has happened since her daughter’s death is the connection she has made with Alysa’s boyfriend, who is also an addict and who was in treatment at the time of her death.
Hale said she was angry at him for a long time and blamed him for Alysa’s addiction. She even angrily confronted his mother, but all that has changed.
“He has the same disease Alysa did. And my blaming him made no sense. I had to apologize to his mother for what I said, and I reached out to him and let him know I forgave him and Alysa for all the things they did. It was an important step for him and me.”
Since then, Hale has offered him the support she believes Alysa was referring to, helping him regain his footing after a relapse and sort out his legal situation.
Hale has been asked to speak to students and has testified before the state Legislature in Madison. But her most important task will continue to be offering the kind of support she believes Alysa was talking about -- the kind that can hopefully help save a life.