The Strangeness of Covering the Opioid Epidemic As a Journalist — and Former Heroin Addict

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Part of a journalist’s on-the-job training is learning how to move on: Sooner or later, we become comfortable dropping into a situation that, while of public importance, may not directly affect us personally. Once the reporting is finished and the story is written, we often simply head to the next one, unaffected.

But that’s not the case when you’re a former heroin user covering the ever-worsening opioid crisis. Five years ago, in May 2012, I turned 23 while in rehab. Though I haven’t done heroin since, I’ve remained close to it as a reporter and observer. Year after year, I’ve written about the epidemic’s ever-rising death toll from a distance that doesn’t feel like much distance at all.

And now, with synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl — a drug several orders of magnitude stronger than heroin — on the rise, the crisis is taking an even darker turn. In 2015, the most recent year for which the CDC has data available, more than 33,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose. Just under 10,000 of those deaths were from synthetic opioids, a 72 percent increase from the year before. All told, the epidemic is now killing so many people that it’s helped to drive down America’s life expectancy for the first time in two decades.

All of which makes covering this particular public-health disaster an emotional and intellectual juggling act. When I see the runny nose of an active heroin user in withdrawal, or the grief of a mom whose 20 something kid just died from an overdose, the emotions kick in and I stop trying to feign objectivity; instead, I take off my reporter hat and share some of my own experience, a move that inevitably changes the mood of the interview.

Just a few weeks ago, I was interviewing a woman from suburban Boston named Robyn Houston-Bean, whose son died after taking heroin cut with super-potent fentanyl. His name was Nick Bean, and he was 20 years old. I told her that Nick’s backstory sounded almost identical to my own: Like Nick, I graduated high school with a massive painkiller habit and went off to college, where I eventually started using heroin. Nick, she said, struggled with depression. Same, I told her. He was an impulsive child. So was I. Nick was a risk taker who liked extreme sports. I love the rush from going super fast on a snowboard, so much that I moved to Colorado for college. But the rush from heroin was too powerful, and I eventually forgot why I’d come to Colorado in the first place. Pursuing extreme activities is actually a common trait among drug users: After getting off drugs, some of us take up skydiving, excessive exercising, or other things that release endorphins — which, in Latin, translates to morphine within.

Whenever I share my own story with my interview subjects, I know inevitably the script will flip. When the subject starts asking me the questions, especially about something as personal as addiction, the interview becomes something else entirely. In Robyn Houston-Bean’s case, it became a chance for a mom to understand, through my own story, the story of her dead son.

But my story’s explanatory power only goes so far now. Aside from the obvious — the fact that I escaped death and Nick did not — there’s one critical difference between our experiences: It may sound strange to say, but the heroin I used between 2007 and 2012 wasn’t nearly as dangerous. For starters, it was actually heroin. During the time that I was using, my risk of encountering fentanyl in the heroin I purchased was very low. The supply was stable, and dealers would tell me if it had changed. (Heroin dealers are not out to kill their customers — that’d be a poor business model.)

But over the last five years, contaminated heroin, like synthetic opioids, has become increasingly common. Since roughly 2014, fentanyl has had an outsize prevalence in America’s heroin supply. It used to show up here and there, sporadically causing overdose outbreaks. For example, there was a super-deadly fentanyl outbreak in Chicago that killed nearly 350 people between April 2005 and December 2006.

Before Nick’s death, Robyn said, she wasn’t aware of how prevalent illicit fentanyl was in Massachusetts. She said she doubted that Nick knew, either. During 2013 and 2014, 32 percent of fatal overdose victims in Massachusetts tested positive for fentanyl, but that rose to 74 percent by mid-2016. Public-health officials predict the number of fentanyl-related deaths will only continue to grow. This isn’t a story I’ll ever fully move on from, and unfortunately, it’s not one that’s going away.

Covering the Opioid Crisis As a Journalist and Former Addict