When Taylor Newkirk overdosed on heroin Jan. 24, it wasn’t a suicide attempt or even an attempt to get high, he said.
But it was a wake-up call that led to a second chance.
The 26-year-old Seymour resident was looking for a way to take away the pain and sickness of withdrawal from suboxone, a prescription painkiller he had been on for more than two years to help kick his drug addiction.
His doctor had been weaning him off suboxone by cutting his dose in half every month until finally he was cut off completely and released from the program.
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“I started having withdrawal a few days later. That was on the 24th, so I went and picked up $25 worth of heroin. I was only trying to make it through work,” he said.
“You see a lot of addicts don’t even use because they want to get high,” he said. “They use because they don’t want to feel sick.”
He suspects the heroin was laced with fentanyl, making it even stronger and more dangerous.
“It was totally accidental,” he said of the overdose. “I had been clean off heroin for almost a year and was clean off of suboxone for a few days for the first time in years.”
Newkirk is one of at least 80 people in Jackson County who overdosed and were treated at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour this year. Of those, five died.
In 2015, 14 Jackson County residents, including 10 from Seymour, died from drug overdoses.
Communities across the nation are seeing similar spikes in the escalating opioid crisis.
About two weeks ago, at least four overdoses in Jackson County were tied to heroin laced with an elephant tranquilizer. Within the same 24-hour period, as many as 13 people overdosed in Jennings County from heroin. One woman from Jennings County died.
Authorities have said nearly 300 overdoses have been reported in the Cincinnati area since Aug. 19, including 174 reports in a six-day period.
Addicts often turn to heroin when they cannot get or afford prescription opioids.
To make the crisis worse, fentanyl and carfentanil, the elephant tranquilizer, are appearing in batches of heroin. They often make the heroin deadly.
Newkirk grew up in Seymour and Freetown. He went to Brownstown Central High School but dropped out and later earned his GED.
He has two young children, is engaged and works as a packer at a local plastics factory. He loves computer programming and engineering, but has been battling addiction for nearly a decade. He’s been in jail twice, been fired from jobs and nearly died because of his addiction.
Where it started
Newkirk said he has struggled with drugs as far back as his sophomore year of high school.
“It started as taking pain pills and eventually led to shooting up Oxycontin for the first time in 2010,” he said. “And then heroin seemed to be the only thing around.”
Heroin was cheaper and easier to get than prescription pain killers, he said.
In 2012, he was on probation for a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol and got arrested for possession of a syringe.
“I knew that I had to do something to avoid revoking my probation, so I started going to the methadone clinic near Jeffersonville,” he said. “I knew that was a bad idea after I missed a day, and I experienced withdrawal unlike any I had ever had before.”
From there, he started jumping from doctor to doctor getting prescriptions for suboxone, but he would get kicked out of rehab programs for using marijuana or would quit going because he had started using heroin again, he said.
“With opioids, you build a tolerance fairly quickly, so when I started taking pain pills, I never in a million years thought I would end up on heroin,” he said. “It starts out as something to make you feel good and relaxed, and you don’t realize you are addicted until you try to stop and you can’t get out of bed and you are sick to your stomach.
“No one decides, ‘I want to be an addict,'” he said. “And it happens long before you realize that you are.”
Over the edge
Newkirk had been alone at home when he shot up the heroin that caused his first and only overdose.
Had it not been for his grandparents, who found him unconscious on the bathroom floor, and his mother, Jackie McClintock, who administered an intramuscular injection of naloxone, Newkirk could have died.
McClintock said she thought her son had taken some pills or something and was just sleeping it off until she got to the house and saw him lying on the floor.
“His face was white, he was soaked in sweat, his fingernails were blue and he was making grunting noises every 20 to 30 seconds,” McClintock said. “I was scared to death he would die because we did not know how long he had been home alone.”
McClintock, a nurse with the Scott County Health Department, knew naloxone was an opioid reversal and had been trained how to use it.
“We had several kits donated to our department, and I took one home with me just because I knew the kids knew people that were using heroin, and I wanted to have some on hand in case anyone needed it,” she said.
At that point, she never even considered she would have to use it on her son because he had been clean for at least 10 months, she said.
“I’m not sure if he knew that I had it or not,” she said of the naloxone. “I knew with my job and the clients I encounter, I would probably use it at some point, but I wasn’t worried about him needing it. I never thought I would ever be using it on one of my children.”
She has no idea how she remained calm enough to administer the naloxone.
“I drew up the medication from the vial into the syringe and then just pushed it into his thigh,” she said. “I waited and waited and waited for what seemed like 30 minutes, and there was no change in his breathing pattern or his color.”
By then, she thought she was going to watch her son die right in front of her, so she called 911.
“It was a nightmare that no parent should ever have to go through,” she said.
After she answered questions from the dispatcher, the police arrived.
“When they lifted him up off the floor, I saw blood everywhere. I didn’t know if he had taken something or he had tried to kill himself,” she said.
Because police thought McClintock was doing drugs, too, she found herself in handcuffs and wasn’t able to go to the hospital with her son.
She initially discovered Newkirk was using drugs by accident in 2011, when he was 21, she said. He had been in a car wreck and was in the emergency room at Schneck Medical Center.
A friend of McClintock’s worked in the emergency room and left her a message that Newkirk was there and really needed to talk to her.
“When I got there, she showed me his labs, and I saw methamphetamine in his system,” she said. “I was shocked that he was doing meth but was glad he was still alive.”
During his hospital stay, McClintock and her son talked with the doctors about entering rehab when he was released. He agreed at first but was less interested as time went on, she said.
After they argued about it, Newkirk admitted he was actually using heroin several times a day and had used meth that night because he could not find any heroin, McClintock said.
“I was shocked. I could not believe I had a child who was using heroin, that I was a nurse and never saw the signs,” she said. “He lived with me, and I did not ever suspect anything.”
After Newkirk refused to go to rehab, the family moved to Bloomington.
“I made him move with me and my daughter to get him out of Seymour and away from whoever he was getting the drugs from,” McClintock said. “He seemed to be doing better, so I dropped the rehab thing.”
His overdose was a wake-up call, he said.
He was charged with possession of a syringe and had to serve time in jail.
Being in jail was exactly what he needed because it gave him time to think without having access to drugs, he said.
“I know I would not have had the willpower to get through it if I had not been arrested and sitting in jail,” he said. “I missed the birth of my youngest son, and I realized that I had too much going for me to continue to throw my life away.”
Having her son in jail was just as hard as knowing he was addicted to and had overdosed on drugs, McClintock said.
“You see them behind a glass wall and talk to them on a phone with no physical contact when all you want to do is hug them and tell them everything is going to be OK,” she said. “Another side of you is thankful that at least they are not using.”
The stigma and shame attached to being a person with a substance abuse disease is hard enough to deal with, let alone dealing with the shame of being in jail for that action, she said.
“I did not even tell all of my family what happened or that he was in jail for fear of what they would think of me, and I definitely did not want anyone talking bad about Taylor,” she said. “No matter what, he’s my child, and I would do anything to protect him.”
Drug court option
While he was in jail, Newkirk learned from his mom that Jackson County had a drug court program. So McClintock contacted their attorney, who got in touch with Jackson-Jennings Community Corrections. That agency sent a representative to interview him for admission into the program.
“They tried to discourage us by saying it was going to be a difficult program, and they didn’t know if Taylor was going to be a good candidate for it,” McClintock said.
The program would last 18 to 24 months and maybe longer, and if Newkirk slipped up, even once, he would be looking at six years in prison.
“I told them that was at least two years that Taylor would be held accountable for his actions and two years that I would not have to worry about him dying,” she said. “Taylor was interviewed by them, and he really wanted to live, to change his life and to be a better person.”
After signing a plea deal, he was released from jail and visited community corrections to get an ankle monitor.
The first phase consisted of being on home detention, starting treatment and one-on-one counseling, weekly court dates and drug tests at least twice a week, he said.
He completed that phase in July.
Moving into the second phase, Newkirk got his ankle monitor removed, found a sponsor to help him through his addiction recovery and got a job. He is now required to check in with community corrections every morning and still has court every week and at least two drug tests a week, he said.
“I should be moving into phase three soon,” he said.
His progress wouldn’t be possible without the strong support and love of his family.
“It for sure helps having someone in your corner during recovery,” he said. “I have my mom as well as my fiancee, my sister and my grandmother all looking out for me and counting on me.”
Newkirk said it was his two young sons and his fiancée that were the main motivation for him to get and stay sober.
“I wanted to be able to be there to watch and help my boys grow,” he said.
When Newkirk first heard of the recent outbreak of heroin overdoses in Jackson and Jennings counties that led to the death of a North Vernon woman, he said it scared him.
Newkirk said he is glad to see the issue of drug addiction drawing the attention of people in the community and others wanting to help.
“I think the coverage is a good thing,” he said. “It takes getting the word out there so maybe other addicts will realize there is hope for a ‘junkie.’ There are a lot of addicts out there that really don’t want to use, but they are scared to go through the withdrawal.”
McClintock said she is proud of her son for stepping up and taking responsibility for his own life and his actions.
“Taylor almost died, but he didn’t,” she said. “He is a great father, he’s working on his addiction and is doing very well on his recovery program.
“He goes to counseling weekly and has had over 40 negative drug tests since May,” she added. “He is learning to deal with his anxiety. He has a job, a home for his family and is finally comfortable in his own skin.”
She also views addiction in a whole new and personal way.
“I now feel like I have a child with a terminal illness, and I’m always afraid I will get that call telling me he’s gone,” she said.
That’s why she feels it’s important to be there for her son, no matter what.
“I try to be as open and available as possible with Taylor so he knows he can tell me anything,” she said. “I want to know when he’s feeling vulnerable. I try to control who he hangs out with by sending messages to his old friends telling them to stay away from Taylor while he gets his life back on track.
“It’s not that I don’t trust Taylor, but I don’t ever want him to go through that again,” she added. “We talk daily, and he knows that if he has any problem, he can call any of us and we are going to be right there for him. Recovery is possible with the right tools. I only wish everyone had access to help.”
Newkirk knows there are a lot of people who don’t agree with the availability of naloxone to the public. But without it, too many people would die, he said.
“I sure hope they never have to live through a family member or friend having an addiction,” he said. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but no one is entitled to be ignorant. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
To those who suffer from addiction, Newkirk wants his story to serve as an example that recovery is possible and worth it.
“There is hope,” he said. “You can recover if you put your mind to it and see the proper treatment. There is help out there if you are willing to work for it.”
Newkirk doesn’t consider himself an addict anymore and doesn’t think it’s healthy for anyone in recovery to call themselves an addict. He also doesn’t pretend that his addiction is gone.
“I do not want to get high today,” he said. “But I know that if I do use, I probably won’t be able to stop after one use. I will always be a recovering addict.”