After losing her nursing license, an Akron woman felt like she had hit rock bottom.

The former nurse had worked in the medical profession over 20 years, but she got caught swindling drugs from the hospital and had her license revoked.

She already felt lost from her addiction to painkillers, but the loss of her nursing license left a hole in her life.

So when her friend offered a drug she claimed was even better than the Vicodin she was taking, the former nurse figured she had nothing left to lose.

Standing against a wall at her friend’s house, she injected heroin into her arm for the first time in her life. Within moments, the drug took hold and dragged her to the floor in a state of numbness.

“I knew the first minute I did it, I was like, wow. My first thought was, ‘What did you just get yourself into?’?” the 43-year-old former nurse said. She asked not to be identified because she didn’t want to affect her current jobs. “It was the most normal I had felt in months.”

She quickly found, though, that “rock bottom has a basement.”

And like many recovering heroin addicts, she found describing the drug easier through comparisons.

“It’s like being in a car that drives itself, and you know it’s gonna crash,” she said.

“It’s like being a shark in a pool of blood,” said Tanner Stroup, 29, a recovering addict who now lives at Community of Christ Church Recovery Home in Akron.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said fellow recovering addict Kenneth David, 31, of Akron, who has been clean for 11 months. “Every time, it’s a loaded gun.”

What leads to picking up that loaded gun?

For some, like David and Stroup, there’s a history of marijuana and alcohol experimentation.

Others, like Michelle Galloway of Akron, have no prior exposure to drugs before landing in the hospital.

Despite their different prior experiences with drugs, David, Stroup, Galloway and the former Akron nurse said their submersion into the world of opiates all began with prescribed painkillers.

Prescription path

Galloway had her first taste of opiates 10 years ago when she delivered her son at age 22.

She said she doesn’t remember her doctor asking if she wanted painkillers, but she would’ve taken them anyway, unaware of the risk they presented.

“I assumed it was normal,” Galloway said. “It was like an instant. I loved it.”

She took painkillers for years afterward whenever she could get them, she said, but it wasn’t until she endured an abusive relationship that heroin became part of the equation.

“I was just in so much pain internally that I didn’t want to do anything,” Galloway said. “I lost everything in a matter of months.”

The former nurse felt just as ignorant of the consequences of painkillers as Galloway.

She had worked as a paramedic for about 20 years. In all that time, she said, she never took a call for a drug overdose.

She did, however, respond to traumatic calls over the years, and she went to the bar to drink to forget what she saw those nights.

Alcohol was the only substance she used before her first knee surgery in 1999, when she was prescribed Vicodin for the pain.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’?” the former nurse said.

Road to destruction

David, on the other hand, started off early with substance abuse and began drinking as a teenager.

“That’s all it was growing up,” David said. “I’ve always had to learn things the hard way — through experience.”

It wasn’t until he landed in the hospital after being injured from a fall, though, that he first took opioids at 19 years old.

“It was unlike any high I’d ever experienced,” David said. “The next thing you know, you’re taking it everyday. That’s how a lot of us got started.”

David quickly became addicted to painkillers. When he was suffering through the pain of opioid withdrawal, his friend offered to try injecting heroin.

“Once you do it, that’s your new reality,” David said. “You’re always chasing that high. Ultimately, you’re chasing death.”

Stroup had a similar experience, experimenting with drugs early with his older brother.

When he was 15, he was ejected from a car going 65 mph. A stay in the hospital paved the way to his opioid use.

“Prescription was never taken as prescribed,” he said.

After abusing prescription pills for years, Stroup lost his job, wife and home. When his friend asked Stroup to pick heroin up with him, he agreed.

“There was no fear behind it at all,” Stroup said. “It was love at first use.”

Changing the game

The war on prescription drug abuse is nothing new. Officials around the country have picked up on “doctor shopping” in which patients visit different physicians to fill multiple drug prescriptions.

Ohio was late to jump into action compared to its neighbors, though. While states like Kentucky implemented electronic prescription drug monitoring programs as early as 1999, Ohio didn’t establish one until 2006.

Ohio’s delay attracted many people who wanted drugs from surrounding states during that time period, according to Danna Droz, a prescription monitoring program administrator, in an State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy newsletter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since published a guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

Drug companies took notice, too. The makers of the powerful painkiller OxyContin changed its pills to gel in 2011 to prevent people from crushing and snorting them.

“That’s when a lot of people switched over [to heroin],” David said.

And when doctors started to follow suit, becoming stricter with their prescriptions and cutting people off from their medication, more people began turning to the cheaper alternative, Galloway said.

Road to recovery

After losing everything, David, Stroup, Galloway and the former nurse all decided they were tired of the pain that came with drug abuse and have gotten clean.

The former nurse said if she would have received counselling after having her nurse’s license revoked, she probably would’ve found hope instead of heroin.

“Nobody would talk to me,” she said. “They would rather think of you as a bad person.”

She’s in recovery now and hasn’t used heroin for two years.

Galloway said if she had known the risk of using painkillers and their potential path to heroin, she wouldn’t have taken the drugs in the first place.

“Had I known, I would’ve suffered through the pain and took ibuprofen,” Galloway said. She’s been in recovery for 2 ½ years.

Some, like David and Stroup, though, don’t think anything could have been done to stop their addiction.

“I’m an addict. I was born that way,” Stroup said. “Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, ice cream, relationships. I have no concept of balance.”

The four recovering addicts have found solace in a 12-step program, a set of principles that outlines how to recover from addiction that was first published by Alcoholics Anonymous and has guided many toward recovery since 1939.

“There’s plenty of us sober today. So many living today that made it out of that,” David said.

The program encourages embracing spirituality, responsibility and public service as means to recovery.

They’re steps Stroup, now 10 months clean, has taken to go back to school at Stark State College. He wants to become an emergency medical technician, a career in which he’ll have a chance to save overdose victims.

“For the first time in my life, I’m in a place of peace,” Stroup said.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.