If a town could be said to hit rock bottom, Austin, Indiana did so this year. The drug abuse problem had been out of hand for several years, but it took the worst possible outcome to make this community wake up: More than 170 newly identified cases of HIV since December, spread almost entirely by needle sharing.
State and federal officials led an emergency response to control the outbreak. But for locals, the real work of change and recovery is just beginning. Facing the problem is always the first step, and there are signs of hope in Austin.
It’s early in the morning and Kevin Polly is getting ready to go. His daughter has called to wish him well, and when he gets off the phone, he excuses himself. Before he leaves, he has to get right.
One last shot—that’s the hope, anyway.
After a few minutes in a dark bedroom, Kevin comes out. He combs his hair and packs some clothing in a garbage bag. He gets in the car with his father, Clyde, and heads south toward the rehab facility.
Kevin’s been to rehab before, but never by choice.
“I’ve got an anxious feeling right now,” he says. “I guess that makes sense, though.”
Kevin is 49 years old. Until recently, he lived with his dad and a collection of other drug users who cycle through the house.
“I don’t get high…I just get what I call normal. I can’t get out of bed without a little something.”
Like many in Austin, Kevin’s drug of choice is a powerful prescription opioid called Opana. Across the country, heroin use is on the rise. But prescription drug abuse is still more common, and in Austin, it’s all about these pills. Most users turn to heroin only when Opana is too expensive.
Opana users here say no one’s actually getting high anymore. People are chasing the feeling they got when they first used the drug, but it doesn’t come back.
And Opana doesn’t let go.
“It’s sick, it really is. It’s a sickness. It’s really bad. I don’t get high. I can get high, but it takes hundreds of dollars to get me high. I just get what I call normal. I can’t get out of bed without a little something.”
Kevin Polly tells a story that demonstrates just how addictive Opana really is.
Kevin started using drugs when he was 13. It started with drinking and marijuana, and as he got older he moved on to oxycontin, another powerful opioid. He would crush the pills and snort them.
Kevin is 49 years old. Until recently, he lived with his dad and a series of other drug users who cycle through the house to help pay the rent.
“It went from every other day to once a day, to … every chance I got. At one time, I was injecting 10, 15 times a day, at least,” he recalls.
A few years ago, oxycontin was reformulated. The new oxy is impossible to inject or snort. So Kevin made the switch to Opana. “When I first done the oxycontin there can’t possibly be anything better,” he says. “Wrong. Opana is much…better is a bad choice of words. But stronger, I guess you’ll say. And the withdrawal is a lot worse.”
In 2012, the manufacturer of Opana tried reformulating, too, but it didn’t work. Addicts discovered that if you cook it first, you can still inject it. So Kevin stayed locked in his cycle of using, looking for a way to get his next shot, and using again.
“We’re in a small town. That only happens in a big city, right? Wrong.”
A few months ago, Kevin got a letter in the mail. It stated that someone he knew had tested positive for an infectious disease and had reported that they had shared needles.
Kevin went in the next day to the clinic and tested positive for HIV.
“It was devastating news. You’re not prepared…I was mostly ignorant to the HIV, because, who think it’s going to happen to them. We’re in a small town. That only happens in a big city, right? Wrong.”
Even knowing he was HIV positive wasn’t enough to get Kevin to quit using. But then he got another call from his doctor, and found out just how bad it was.
She told him he had liver disease, likely caused by hepatitis C. And his HIV was advanced—technically, he had AIDS. His immune system was weak. Illnesses his body would normally shrug off could kill him.
But Kevin wanted to live. His doctor told him: Get off of drugs, and get on a treatment regimen, to keep the virus at bay.
Kevin decided to go to rehab.
Usually, there was a long waiting list at the rehab facility, which is located 40 miles south of Austin. Sometimes, by the time an addict got accepted into the program, they had lost their resolve to quit.
But after the outbreak, the facility began giving priority to Austin residents, especially those with HIV.
A couple days later, Kevin had a bed reserved for him. He would start in a week.
Starting rehab is the first of several hard steps Kevin will have to take if he’s going to stay clean. Soon he’ll go through withdrawals. The last shot he took is starting to wear off on the car ride down.
“The lifestyle, I’m over it.”
“I don’t feel real good right now. I got up this morning to make myself right, so to speak, but there just weren’t enough available,” he says. “I won’t be lying to me when I tell ‘em I’m not well. I’m sure they’ll want to know the last time I used and stuff.”
For Kevin, the hardest part about rehab is being alone. That loneliness won’t necessarily go away when he gets out. His friends are all addicts, and coming home is risky.
He pulls out a list of phone numbers, basically everyone he knows.
“When I redo this list, it’ll be down to a handful of people.”
He says at first it doesn’t bother him, that they weren’t really his friends in the first place. Then he backtracks. Obviously, it bothers him. That’s why he’s talking about it.
But staying away from his friends to stay clean—it’s a necessary change.
For now, as he arrives at the rehab facility, he’s resolved to put his life of addiction behind him. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s gotta be better,” he says. “The lifestyle, I’m over it.”