In Grays Harbor County, the rate at which people die from despair — from drugs, alcohol and suicide — is nearly twice the national average. Here are some of the stories of those caught in the cycle of addiction.
ABERDEEN, Wash. — In Grays Harbor County, a rural community on the coast of Washington state, the rate at which people die from despair — from drugs, alcohol and suicide — is nearly twice the national average. The county embraced Donald Trump’s call to America’s forgotten corners, and flipped Republican in a presidential election for the first time in 90 years.
Many of those caught in the cycle of addiction did not vote; they are either felons or too consumed by the turmoil of trying to claw their way out to be engaged in society. But they, too, hope for a better tomorrow.
Here are their stories.
After losing a love, an addict hopes to start over
Misty Micheau Bushnell stoops to light a candle at the foot of a cross standing 8-feet-tall in memorial to the boyfriend she’d been with so long she called him her husband. She found him dead here two days earlier, near the tent they shared on a riverbank in Grays Harbor County.
She looks out over the calm water. It gets rough sometimes but not today, and she takes that as a sign from her lost love: Peace. Hope.
“I believe in that stuff,” she says. She thinks he sent another message, too: It’s drizzling outside. “I think he made the mist for me: Misty.”
Shawn Vann Schreck, 42 and an immense man of more than 300 pounds, was so beloved on the streets many called him “Mayor.” He died slowly from heart and lung ailments made worse by infrequent medical care and longtime addiction — problems plaguing far too many in a county that voted for Trump in hopes of turning things around.
Bushnell’s father was a logger in Grays Harbor, and she and Schreck met in the sixth grade. With the timber industry in ruins, they both struggled to figure out a future. Schreck couldn’t find steady work, and so he did odd jobs and tried to make do. Eventually, both wound up addicted to methamphetamine and found themselves living by the river in a tent camp, with dozens of others like them.
Bushnell thinks Schreck knew he was dying. He took her daughter aside the day before he passed on and told her he loved her, but that he wouldn’t be around much longer to look after her. He said to be safe, and to live better. Bushnell wants to move now and hopes the drugs won’t follow.
“That’s what he would want. He would want me clean again.”
She keeps some of Schreck’s ashes inside a locket that she wears next to her heart. The rest, she sprinkled in the river.
“We will meet each other on the other side,” she says, wagging a finger. “But not too soon.”
Fighting to stay clean, ex-addicts fear losing coverage
Tarryn Vick and her best friend, Anjelic Baker, line up every morning before dawn outside a methadone clinic in the Grays Harbor town of Hoquiam. On this day, the talk among those in line is whether they all might lose their health coverage if Republican lawmakers repeal the Affordable Care Act. Without insurance, Vick and Baker would likely be unable to get their daily cup of pink liquid that prevents the sickness of withdrawal that strangles so many addicts’ attempts to get clean.
“Recovery is like chasing a freight train; it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” Vick says. “I enjoy being clean. But I can’t say I could stay clean if I lost insurance. We would all be too sick.”
Baker rolls up the sleeves of her sweatshirt to show the toll drugs take: she shot up bad heroin once, and the skin on both arms peeled away, like “someone skinning a banana,” she remembers. The wounds are still open and a half-inch deep, from her elbows to her wrists. She’s been clean now for two years, but she lives in constant agony.
Today she cries at the prospect of going back to that life.
“Are we going to lose our coverage?” she asks Vick. “Are we going to die?”
Vick shrugs, shakes her head and says she doesn’t know.
“Every day,” she says, “I wonder more.”
Vick was once a nurse, and then, eight years ago, she snapped her Achilles tendon and her doctor prescribed opiate painkillers — the chemical cousin of heroin. Before she knew it, heroin consumed her so quickly and completely she found herself stealing from her own sick mother. Vick promised her mom as she lay dying that she’d beat the addiction.
“I whispered that in her ear: ‘I will never go back out and use. You have nothing to worry about. It’s OK to go up to heaven.’ ”
“I don’t want this life”
Scott Stevens ambles up to an old camper parked in a gravel lot under a tangle of overpasses, carrying a bag of dirty needles to trade for clean ones. The weekly exchange is an initiative of the county health department to keep dirty syringes off the streets and stem the tide of drug-related diseases, like hepatitis C.
Stevens carries his Chihuahua, Edgar, and says he plans to never put the little dog down again. Someone recently stole Edgar from him, and they were apart for seven days. He posted signs and online ads. “I was beside myself,” Stevens says. “He’s my little buddy, my best pal.”
Stevens is 60 years old. He’s been addicted to heroin for four decades, and lives with Edgar in a tent on the riverbank, down in the brush filled with spiders and snakes. He’s buried more friends than he can count.
“I don’t want this life,” he says. “I want to get my life cleaned up again. I’d like to have a job, a house, a way to pay my bills.”
He watches all around him as other addicts end up on the riverbank. It’s seems like they’re getting into drugs younger now, he says, and he tries to “let them know what they’re heading into.”
He guesses he got started to “escape life’s complications,” then the addiction dug in. He has children and grandchildren who aren’t like him, and he’s proud of that. But he doesn’t see them or call them, because he doesn’t want to lie and he’s too ashamed to tell the truth.
So Edgar, this little black dog under his arm, is all he has left.
A man battles his demons, dreams of a future
Forrest Wood threw out his spoons and his needles, and braced himself for the sickness and sadness of withdrawal, because he wanted his life to be better than this.
A week later, he told his mom he needed money for the bus. She gave him $7. He pooled the cash with a friend to buy a $20 bag of heroin.
Now, he shoots the brown liquid into his vein — and the shame and remorse set in almost immediately. The heroin doesn’t make him happy, he says, just numb.
“You know how sometimes when you do something and you know you didn’t do your best on it and you regret a little bit?” he says. “That’s how I feel, just in general. I feel like I’ve breezed through a lot of things, a lot of important things.”
He knows his mom waits by the phone, terrified it will ring and the caller will bring bad news. She already lost her brother to an overdose. He died in his truck, a few blocks from the graffiti-covered bridge where Woods just shot up. His mother has battled addiction, too, and stays clean now on a methadone regimen. She recently had a heart attack and requires an oxygen tank.
Woods is 24 years old, and he knows he’s wasting time getting high. He’s been in trouble with the law again and again; he’s not allowed to drive, and his court fines have ballooned to $20,000 — a number so insurmountable he wonders how he’ll ever get out from under it.
He dreams that someday he might get himself clean, go to college and get a job as a park ranger. He loves animals, and would like to help save engendered species.
“I just want to be happy, that’s all,” Wood says. “I’m trying to get myself to feel like I have some sort of purpose, instead of just aimlessly walking around all the time, just wanting to get high.”
“It’s crazy how things can spiral out of control”
Just a year ago, Staci Hadley and Deric Hensler had jobs, credit cards, a nice little rental house and a brand-new, king-size bed. Now they live in a beat-up Honda Accord, and they’re searching for a safe place to park and sleep. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” Hadley says with a self-conscious laugh.
The couple had struggled with drugs for years before getting clean on a methadone program. They started building a better life. Then Hensler lost his job at a concrete plant, and with it his health insurance. They couldn’t get methadone anymore.
“It all just dominoed after that,” Hadley says. “It’s crazy how things can spiral out of control.”
They relapsed, got evicted, starting pawning their possessions. Now they’re back at the county needle exchange, and repacking the trunk of the Honda they live in, cramming in hampers full of clothes, books — all that’s left of everything they ever owned. The gas tank is almost empty. Their wallets are too, and they don’t know where to go. Hensler can’t go home because his family thinks he’s stolen from them, and he says he has before but not this time. Hadley has two adult daughters and a disabled son in a nursing home, and she knows she’s not the mom they need her to be.
“They’re not asking questions because they don’t want to know the answers,” she says. “I feel like I’m letting them down.”
A woman staggers by, scabs on her face and her bones protruding through her clothes, and Hadley gasps. It frightens her to think that this cycle might not end and that woman passing by could be a reflection of her future.
“They’d rather have drugs than anything else in the world. They have nothing to look forward to,” she says.
“I know we’re kind of messed up right now, but this is not my life.”