Jesse was 18-years-old when he first overdosed on heroin at a friend’s apartment.
“I remember waking up with paramedics around me. I remember my throw-up on his glass table, and his mom screaming, wondering what was going on. For some reason, I was not scared. I didn’t think I had died, I thought it was just part of the high,” said the now 23-year-old, who requested his last name be withheld so he could speak freely about his addiction and its aftermath.
Jesse found out later that paramedics who rushed to the scene gave him the life-saving narcotic Narcan, a brand of Naloxone, which is usually administered as a nasal spray and quickly counteracts opioid overdoses.
It was the first time he had ever taken heroin, a highly addictive opioid, but not his first experience with the class of drug abused by so many people that the federal government in 2017 declared the issue a public-health emergency.
Three years earlier, at 15-years-old, Jesse got hooked on the prescription painkiller Oxycontin while still in high school.
His near-death experience didn’t keep him off heroin for long, however, and he quickly returned to chasing the high, he said.
“That same night, I ended up doing heroin again, within maybe an hour of getting Narcanned,” Jesse said. “This is something that felt right to me and took me to a place that I never wanted to leave.”
The young man — who is now off opioids and more than two years into an addiction-recovery program — turned to drugs in his early teens, after he, his mother, and his sister moved to Sheepshead Bay to escape his abusive father, he said. Following his family’s move, Jesse fell in with what he called the wrong crowd, whose many older members introduced him to marijuana, booze, and Xanax, he said.
But he didn’t think twice of the company he kept at the time, assuming his new group’s live-fast lifestyle was just a part of being a teenager.
“At 13, for some reason I thought it was normal to be going out every weekend, not going to school, getting high on a daily basis. It was fun for me and it was something I thought was normal and seemed right,” he said.
Two years later, his friends introduced him to another group of people who got him into prescription opioids — and sent his already tumultuous life careening off track.
“That’s when my whole world collapsed. I stopped going to school and dropped out. I started finding more ways to get the drugs I wanted. It was an adventure, it wasn’t even an addiction, it was something I was constantly chasing, I was constantly chasing the same thing that I got the first time, and I never seemed to get it,” he said.
Jesse’s downward spiral continued until he got busted on a couple of burglary charges and landed in jail, where he met the friend and fellow addict who introduced him to heroin — whose house he would later almost die in on the night of his first overdose.
Stories like Jesse’s have become all too familiar in the borough — and across New York City — over the last decade.
In 2017, 1,487 city residents died from unintentional drug overdoses — 62 more than in 2016, marking the seventh year in a row that overdose deaths increased citywide, according to the Department of Health’s most recent annual statistics.
More than eight out of every ten of those deaths involved an opioid, with the synthetic pharmaceutical opioid Fentanyl — which the agency says is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and often mixed with other drugs such as cocaine — accounting for 842 overdose deaths that year, followed by heroin and cocaine, the data shows.
Some 359 of those who died by overdoses were from Brooklyn, which counted the second-highest number of such deaths in 2017, with only the Bronx home to more.
Together, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Jesse’s home of Sheepshead Bay racked up higher-than-average overdose deaths that year, with an average of 22.3 fatal incidents occurring among every 100,000 residents of those neighborhoods, compared to an average of 21.2 deaths among every 100,000 residents of other neighborhoods citywide, the statistics show. Other neighborhoods with above-average overdose death rates include Williamsburg, Bushwick, and East New York.
The Health Department’s provisional figures for the first half of 2018 show that overdose-death rates are similar to those in 2017, but the number is likely to increase due to standard delays in determining some causes of deaths, according to a researcher with the agency.
“There’s always a lag because of toxicology, they need to confirm if it was an opioid overdose or not,” said Denise Paone, the director of research and development in the agency’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use.
Following his burglary bust, Jesse faced more time in jail because drug tests he took on visits with his parole officer kept coming back positive. But his lawyer offered him a way out, he said, by suggesting he enter rehab.
“He said, ‘Listen you’re facing a lot of time in jail, but knowing that you keep coming up dirty at your probation officer, you obviously need help and guidance, you need an opportunity,’ ” Jesse said.
The attorney advised his client to enroll in a rehab program with Dynamic Youth Community, which helps 16- to 25-year-olds recover from alcohol and substance addiction through group and family therapy, counseling, and vocational and educational training at facilities in Sheepshead Bay and upstate.
Jesse ultimately left Brooklyn to spend a year at the organization’s upstate facility — a crucial move, according to Dynamic Youth Community’s intake director, who said getting people in recovery out of their traditional environments for an extended period of time is critical to breaking their addictions.
“Getting clean is one challenge, staying clean is really another. And we have a way to get people out of the city,” said Marina Nakhla.
He followed his time upstate with three local six-month outpatient-aftercare programs — the first of which required him to visit Dynamic Youth Community’s Sheepshead Bay center on Coney Island Avenue five days a week, with the second requiring thrice-weekly visits, and the third, which he is currently finishing up, requiring once-weekly visits.
During his time in rehab, Jesse attended counseling sessions with his peers and his family, while helping out with jobs at both the local and upstate centers, where he also spent time studying to get his General Education Development diploma.
He received his fair share of support from fellow addicts, according to Nakhla, who said program participants can forge deep connections over their often shared experiences.
“They’re able to relate with and support each other as they’re coming into treatment, they really understand each other,” she said.
And Jesse credited that support with helping him overcome insecurities and fears related to his treatment.
“All the guidance and help that I got through my peers, knowing that I have help, through my family, and everybody that’s been there for me. I would be there and wake up every day with a purpose, whether it’s going to work, going to Dynamic, I feel like I have a purpose,” he said.
The city’s response to the opioid crisis has focused primarily on harm-reduction measures, including efforts to substitute more addictive strains of the drug with less harmful opioids such as Buprenorphine or Methadone, abstinence-based rehabilitation, referrals to clean needle-exchange programs, and Naloxone trainings — which leaders of the local public-hospital system and Borough President Adams have hosted across the borough.
And last May, Mayor DeBlasio announced his intention to open one of the country’s first government-sanctioned safe-injection facilities — where addicts can shoot up under the supervision of professionals — in Boerum Hill.
But the scheme, which also calls for opening similar facilities in the Bronx and Manhattan, hit a standstill shortly after he revealed it, because it requires a green light from Gov. Cuomo, who has shown no signs of issuing his approval.
Jesse, meanwhile, now works a full-time job while finishing up the last of his six-month outpatient programs with Dynamic Youth Community, which will wrap in early summer.
And he plans to go to college after completing rehab, with the goal of becoming a teacher — something he would never have aspired to were it not for his grueling addiction experience and subsequent rehabilitation, he said.
“Every day I think that I’m not dead and life is just great,” he said. “And there’s not one day that I would want to go back to the way things were.”
If you or someone you know suffers from opioid addiction, contact the Department of Health by phone at (888) NYC–WELL, via text by messaging WELL to 65173, or online at nycwell.ci