Nick woke up with a blue face and purple lips, only to find his girlfriend curled up into a ball in the corner of the room, crying.
Barely breathing, he tried to utter the words “I’m sorry” toward the direction where she sat.
Minutes earlier, on a Thursday morning in January 2017, Nick, a Hilton Head Island resident, took a dose of counterfeit fentanyl-laced oxycodone mixed with heroin before getting ready for work.
His girlfriend, who was asleep at the time, heard a loud bang and ran over to find him collapsed on the floor.
The next thing Nick, 30, remembers is waking up to a group of about five emergency medical technicians standing around him.
It was the third time Nick had overdosed in a nine-month period, but many people in his life had no knowledge of his addiction.
When Nick arrived at the hospital, however, the nurses knew him by name. They sent him home with a prescription for Narcan, a life-saving drug used by emergency responders to reverse an overdose.
About six months later and now in recovery, Nick spoke with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, reflecting on that day and his downhill spiral into opioid addiction. He asked that his last name not be used to protect his identity.
“It was a terrible existence,” he said. “The last time the EMTs revived me, I was almost mad because I thought it (my pain) was finally over.
“It’s so insane to think that way, but that’s just the nature of this disease. You’re stuck in this rut, and you just can’t get out of it. You hide the disease out of shame and remorse, which usually keeps you from getting help before it was too late.”
In terms of the current opioid epidemic in the U.S. — where more than 142 Americans die of drug overdoses every day and more than half of which are opioid-related, federal statistics show — Nick was lucky.
His story did not end with the “before-it’s-too-late” conclusion, as with the 18 lives lost to drug overdoses in Beaufort County so far in 2017.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine, and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that had not been tracked before 2016, collectively accounted for 15 of the deaths to date this year, according to the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office.
“People are dying left and right, and it’s not getting any better,” Nick said. “In fact, it’s getting worse with fentanyl being put in everything. The real danger is that most people are unsuspecting and don’t know any better.”
142Americans die of a drug overdose everyday.
18 people have died of drug overdoses so far this year in Beaufort County.
15 of the Beaufort County drug overdose deaths so far this year involved fentanyl or carfentanil.
‘It’s like a game of roulette’
About 2 1/2 years ago, Nick’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
The two worked closely together and had plans to start their own business. So when his father died suddenly, Nick struggled to cope with the loss.
Within the matter of a couple months, his girlfriend of nearly six years broke up with him.
“I wasn’t in a good state of mind, and then I was doing even worse,” Nick said. “But I got high because I liked to get high. (Those events) weren’t excuses.”
Forced to move out of the apartment he and his ex-girlfriend shared, Nick moved back in with his mother, returning to the same home where his father spent his last dying days.
“I just hated being there,” Nick said. “I went straight to happy hour and wouldn’t come home until 1 or 2 in the morning every night, and that’s when things starting taking off for me again ... specifically with those little blue oxycodone pills.”
Nick soon found himself using opioids everyday, if not several times a day. The habit cost him anywhere from $100 to $200 a day, he said.
“I was usually out of money by Wednesday night, so I took my last dose Wednesday morning and was sick Thursday and Friday morning,” he said. “Then I’d get paid and magically be feeling better Friday night. I’m surprised no one ever noticed.”
As for the high he got from the drugs, he replied: “The first couple of times it felt great. The rush it gives you can be very intense ... but mixed with a comfortable feeling, kind of like you’re wrapped in a nice warm blanket on a rainy day.”
After a while, though, Nick said he wasn’t even getting high anymore, and the drugs just kept him from not feeling horrible.
“They call it chasing the dragon, because you’ll never get as high as the first time, and you’re always chasing that feeling,” he said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t get high enough to feel good, and every time I got close I was waking up in the hospital.”
According to Nick, opioid withdrawals are like having a very bad flu.
“You get hot flashes and cold sweats, and sometimes you can barely sit up because you have so little energy,” he said. “It affects your mood where you’re short with people and don’t even feel like talking.”
Nick said although he would stop using for two or three weeks in a row from time to time, he never truly shook his physical dependence. At times, he said, he bought pills he knew were most likely laced with fentanyl.
“The problem is they’re not made by Merck or Pfizer (pharmaceutical companies); they’re made in someone’s house,” Nick said. “You don’t know how much you’re getting. You could take a whole pill and be fine, or you could take a quarter of one and it could kill you.
“It’s those inconsistencies that are going to kill people. It’s like a game of roulette.”
Nick said when he started drinking and smoking marijuana in high school, he was always surrounded by friends. But he said by age 28, he was usually using opioids by himself, keeping it hidden from most of his family and friends he cared about.
Still, someone was there all three times that he overdosed to the point where he needed to be revived, he said.
“For me it was more than luck, and I feel like the reason why is so I can help save someone else,” he said.
‘Jail, institutions or death’
About 24 hours after Nick’s third overdose, he checked into a rehabilitation facility in Savannah.
“I decided, at that point, I needed to go to treatment,” he said. “I wasn’t strong enough to do it on my own. I knew I was at the point where I was clearly going to die if something didn’t change.”
Nick said he lost his girlfriend and apartment when he went into treatment. But he doesn’t regret his decision.
“If that’s what had to happen in order for me to get clean, then I’m glad it happened,” he said. “I wasn’t really free until I got clean, and I didn’t really have a life until I got clean.”
Nick said he is now nearly four months clean after going through detox and rehab.
He returned to Hilton Head after getting out of rehab in May and began working again. He said, instead of hanging out at bars after a long work day, he spends his free time helping others.
As a volunteer with Greener Grass, a Bluffton nonprofit organization that helps fund treatment for addicts, Nick helps drive those who need help to long-term treatment facilities.
Jaison Hrobar, one of the founders of the nonprofit organization and Nick’s sponsor, said he has seen relatives and close friends die of opioid overdoses. Hrobar, who works as a firefighter with Hilton Head Fire and Rescue, said he has responded to multiple overdoses while on the job.
“To an addict or alcoholic, not having another drink or dose is scarier than death, jail or divorce,” he said. “A real solution has to be presented. And that’s why Joe Naughton (Greener Grass co-founder) and I are trying to help them find an answer and apply it to their lives, and then go out and help others.”
A couple of months ago, Nick said he helped transport an older teen to an Upstate rehab facility.
Weeks later when he returned to the facility to drop off another person, he saw the teen again.
“I saw his bright white eyes and the smile on his face, and I felt so grateful that we were able to help him get there,” Nick said. “Just seeing that change in people really keeps you dedicated and committed to staying clean.”
He is all too aware of what happens if he falters.
“The only end for people like me who are in active addiction is jail, institutions or death,” Nick said. “It’s the only way it ends if you don’t stop, but it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s a solution out there.”
For more information about Greener Grass or to make an online donation to the nonprofit organization, visit greenergrasssc.com or send contributions to Greener Grass, 25 Thurmond Way, P.O. Box 1307, Bluffton SC 29910.