Crossroads for addict in Memphis leads north to Great Barrington

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RELATED: At Swift River, high-end drug treatment that can't be for everyone

GREAT BARRINGTON — Imagine passing out in a dangerous neighborhood and being filmed for 11 minutes while people laugh and take pictures, and nobody calls 911.

It happened to Carla Hiers. Hiers and her husband Ronald had just bought heroin on a Memphis, Tenn., street, snorted it, then passed out.

Hiers said she recalls everything up until that happened.

"I don't remember a feeling coming on me or anything," she said, in her soft Southern accent, of a day last fall that turned her life around. It sent her on a journey that would land her in a downtown apartment here — and clean, she said.

And it was an episode witnessed by more than 3 million people who saw it on Facebook. The man who shot the video with his cellphone was widely derided for what people said was his callousness. Courtland Garner later defended himself, telling the Associated Press others had already called for help and that he shot the video so children would see the dangers of using drugs.

CNN and Time Magazine have already interviewed Hiers, whose fairly quick rebound from rock bottom, lifelong addiction tells one story of success amid a burgeoning nationwide opioid addiction crisis.

The video drew so much sympathy that Hiers said her phone call to Addiction Campuses, a state-of-the-art drug abuse and mental health treatment company, had her quickly on a plane north to Swift River, the newest of its four facilities in the U.S.

After 30 days at the Cummington treatment center in November, Carla landed in Great Barrington at Construct Inc., which happened to have a space available at its transitional 10-bed housing complex and headquarters on Mahaiwe Street. Construct provides affordable and subsidized housing, workforce and other support to struggling residents.

And with Construct's ongoing help, Carla got her own reduced-rent apartment downtown through a federal Housing and Urban Development-funded program called Project Reach.

But all of this happened at the end of a 30-day jail stay in October after she was released from a Memphis hospital. She said all she recalls is waking up in an ambulance that eventually came, despite the medical center just a block away from where she passed out.

"There's like three hospitals down there," Hiers said in an interview at Construct. She said it was the bystanders' "ignorance" that led to the filming incident and delay in calling for help.

Word spread online that the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid pain drug that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse. And mixed with heroin, the effects of the drug are amplified, according to NIDA. In Massachusetts alone, fentanyl is increasingly present with heroin in postmortem drug screens in recent years, according to the state Department of Public Health.

"I don't know," Hiers said of what might have caused her to faint and her husband to have a seizure. "We had taken some benzos [benzodiazepines] — we'd been taking them all weekend."

And it was on that Monday they went to buy that heroin, snorted it, then dropped.

"You can't hardly mix the two together; it's dangerous," she said of mixing benzodiazepines like Valium with heroin, which is associated with both fatal and non-fatal overdose, according to a study published by NIDA.

Hiers said she is now recovering, and not using, while she rebuilds her life in a place very different from what she's always known.

Culture shock in the north

"Everybody talks different," Hiers said. "I think everybody is really serious up here. It don't mean I have to be serious all the time."

She grins. "And they don't even have a fried chicken house on the corner."

But she's adjusting. "I had a killer hamburger at GB Eats," she said. Though mostly she cooks for herself.

And she said she likes it here, that it's a good place to recover, especially since she doesn't have a car and she can walk or get rides to most places.

Under the wing of Construct's Employment Specialist Philip McTigue, Hiers has sorted out the details of life that get outrun by the endless pursuit of the fix.

"She came in with the shirt off her back," he said at an Eagle interview with Hiers at Construct's headquarters on Mahaiwe Street. "Once we navigated the system to get her Social Security, she had income for the first time."

"I wasn't anybody," Hiers said. "I didn't have a birth certificate or a social security card. When I came up here I [only] had a little bag."

Hiers, 60, now gets $800 per month in Social Security to pay for her share of the rent and other living expenses. She got MassHealth insurance, the state's Medicaid program, and continues to work on making herself better. She had several eye surgeries and said that every week she's busy going to doctors' appointments and as many as four different recovery groups.

Great Barrington-based Volunteers in Medicine helped her with dental problems, McTigue said. And now the next step is for Hiers to get a job, and he said he's helping her with that.

In Memphis, Hiers owned a home for many years. She said it was a "drug house" in an unsafe neighborhood, and where she once found a man dead in her bed. Eventually the home got eaten by her habit, too.

"It's no joke," she said. "You will sell your soul for that stuff."

Recovery

She said intensive therapy at Swift River is what finally turned her from a habit begun by occasional heroin use as a pot-smoking teenager facing peer pressure. She had been to rehabs before, she said, the first at around age 17 for amphetamine use.

But not every addict can find herself whisked off to a high-end treatment rehab on 500 acres. The company says it offers a holistic approach to treatment as well as "evidence-based" opioid treatment and therapy tailored to each client.

Despite the death of a client soon after Hiers left Swift River on December 2, and subsequent state intervention, the program helped give Hiers a new life. She said she doesn't long for heroin anymore.

Jennifer Michaels, a psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center who is also Medical Director at The Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Pittsfield, said she was thrilled to hear of Hiers' success at Swift River, and said barriers to affordability should be cut down just as they were in this instance.

Yet it is at this very moment that Hiers' hardest work may have only just begun.

"When people leave rehab they still need a lot of help," Michaels said. "It's a sticky transition after being in a protective environment."

Desperation laced with courage

Hiers said she's found that protection from Construct and from living in Great Barrington, and when her depression comes on, she says she knows it will pass.

"I just keep on going," she said.

And she protects herself in other ways: she won't watch the video — she can't bear it, she said.

And while she misses the familiarity of Memphis, it's really the family and people she loved that she thinks about. "They're all gone," she said.

McTigue looks at Hiers with affection — the two are close friends now, like family, McTigue said.

"You didn't bring a coat to Swift River," he said to her, after she recalled how she'd never before experienced a New England winter when she arrived there. "It was brave to get on that plane."

"I was ready," Hiers told him.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.


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