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From high school to heroin

(April 18, 2014) By his own admission, self-proclaimed drug addict Connor “Wes” Bresnahan is fuzzy on the details of what transpired as he plunged ever downward into a world of needles, theft, dealing and, ultimately, jail time.

Convicted twice on drug charges, the 23-year-old looked like any other young adult as he walked into a private visiting room at the Worcester County Jail. Clean, tall, trim and light-haired, Bresnahan might otherwise be any white middle-class young man about to embark on a successful career, were it not for the county-issued jumpsuit that he wore.

The other indicator of how far he had fallen was the door that locked behind him as he entered the room and the sheet of glass pocked with handprints that separated the visiting station into the prisoners’ side and those who come to see them.

Talking through a small, mesh box in the window, Bresnahan began the conversation by explaining why he had agreed to the jailhouse interview.

“I just feel like I should be helping other people, even though I’m not really cured myself,” he said. “I don’t think there is a cure.”

Bresnahan, who comes from a good Ocean City family, with the advantages that allows, is one of the millions of young people who have used or continue to use heroin.

In 2011 alone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 4.2 million Americans age 12 and older had used heroin at least once. Bresnahan was among the 23 percent who become dependent on it.

“I knew the consequences. I just kept using. The compulsion was too crazy,” he said. “As long as I did it, I felt good.”

The urge to feel good, as he puts it, began when he moved from Salisbury to Worcester County. A newcomer at Stephen Decatur High, he was eager to find his social footing.

“I wanted to fit in, and I guess that drugs are one of the best ways to do that,” said the then-football and track athlete. In the 9th grade, he started drinking beer and smoking marijuana with his friends.

“I was a lot more sociable and confident. I felt like I could conquer anything (when I was high),” he said, and attaining that feeling trumped all else, including his spot on the football and track teams.

By the summer after his sophomore year, his parents were determined to rein in their son, who by then had dabbled in cocaine. In a $50,000 move, they sent him to a 10-month program at Diamond Ranch Academy in Utah for his junior year of school.

Tucked miles down a dirt road in a quasi-military institution where even caffeine and sugar were prohibited, Bresnahan devoted himself to getting clean.

“I pretty much committed myself from day one. I actually did what I was supposed to do. It was a really tough program,” he said.

But the teen soon learned that year was “like a little limbo.” He re-entered Stephen Decatur for his senior year and found himself falling into old habits straightaway.

“My first day back, one of my buddies — we went out on his boat and were drinking and smoking pot. I was having such a good time, I forgot where I went,” Bresnhan said.

The same year, a friend introduced him to oxycodone, an opioid commonly prescribed for pain.

“They (doctors) were prescribing it like crazy,” Bresnahan said. “Pills — it was so innocent and whatnot.”

“Doing those oxys for the first time, it just completed me,” he said. “I snorted it and I loved it. I just had to get my hands on it, because I felt so perfect.”

Bresnahan netted two citations for underage drinking and possession of marijuana that year. Usually a hard worker, he lost his job at a local restaurant that summer before vanishing on a weeklong binge.

Police delivered the 17-year-old to his parents after arresting him on marijuana charges.

He said his parents kept a close watch on him for the rest of that summer, administering drug tests and keeping him at home as much as they could. Their hopes for him hinged on a fresh start at college in the fall.

They still didn’t think of their son as an addict, but by then he relied on drugs to mend his anxiety, even while they were making him sick.

“I knew I just needed it to be in any social situation,” he said.

The drugs only became more accessible when he arrived at Marshall University in West Virginia, as soon after his arrival he met a student heroin user who introduced him to intravenous use.

“He looked so good on it I couldn’t refuse,” Bresnahan said. And while oxycodone could cost up to $30 a pill back home, Bresnahan said he could score a $10 high on heroin.

But even at that price, his habit required a constant cash flow that he did not have, so he ransacked his room and sold his roommate’s books and laptop before running out of fuel for his addiction. The drugs were making his anxiety worse, ramping up his dependence in a vicious cycle.

“You’re an animal sniffing out the drugs,” he said. “The anxiety and the bugs running through your skin — you have to have the drug or you won’t want to get out of bed … It’s really tough just getting the energy to go out and get the drugs.”

When he ran completely out of money, Bresnahan found himself down the road at the methadone clinic, which offers “replacement therapy” for heroin users.

Methadone is a slow-acting opioid agonist, meaning it activates the same brain receptors as heroin. It’s taken orally so it reaches the brain more slowly, dulling the high that other drugs induce while preventing withdrawal symptoms. It is only available through outpatient treatment programs, where it is dispensed to patients on a daily basis.

Despite his addiction, Bresnahan still met a girl, Alison, who would make the trek to the clinic with him.

“I would drag her along with me. She would walk with me to the methadone clinic,” he said. “I remember walking four miles from campus to get to that clinic.

“When I went to college, I was there for all the wrong reasons. I never went to class.”

When Bresnahan returned home for Thanksgiving, his parents were so stunned by the change they wouldn’t let him return to Marshall. He went through a succession of rehab programs with little result. He also did other drugs, including Xanax and Adderall, at the time.

“I lied to doctors … If I was able to get my hands on five or six other drugs, I would,” he said. “I went to three straight places and I was sick of it and I ended up calling Alison. She dropped out of school for me. I still feel guilty to this day.”

Bresnahan won Alison’s parents over despite his history and he began living with them. By then, he was on Suboxone, a prescription treatment for cravings.

Taken orally, Suboxone contains the compound naloxone, which blocks the action of opioids to prevent addicts from trying to inject the medication. If a patient does inject Suboxone, the naloxone induces withdrawal symptoms, which they avoid when taking it orally as prescribed.

The FDA approved Suboxone in 2002, making it one of the first medications eligible for prescription by certified physicians through the Drug Addiction Treatment Act. According to NIDA, nearly 10,000 physicians have undergone training to prescribe it.

“It’s like government, synthetic heroin,” Bresnahan said. “Suboxone is itself an opiate … The thing I’m trying to get at is, I got dependent on that. I never even tried getting clean at all.”

With the help of the legal drug, he stayed off heroin — he doesn’t know how long — before relapsing. It was on Valentine’s Day, when he and Alison had planned to go out to dinner and to see her father perform at a concert.

Instead, he told Alison he had an emergency situation at work and had to cancel the plans.

“In actuality, I was driving back down to the Shore here. Someone had a bunch of oxys and a deal I couldn’t refuse,” he said. “It speaks volumes about what it does to you. Those drugs always come first.”

As a consequence, he lost his housing and his girlfriend and “it was back and forth between sober houses and halfway houses” after that.

After getting kicked out of his last sober house in Levittown, Pa., Bresnahan returned to his parents.

“I came back here, and, oh God, that was not the answer. People I first knew to be athletes and stuff like that had a needle in their arm. Coming back to a place like this and seeing how it’s evolved horribly — it’s a shock.”

With the latest relapse, Bresnahan again had a heroin habit to finance. Though he never considered himself a drug dealer, he began to sell heroin to obtain his own.

Police arrested him in October 2012 for felony possession of Suboxone. He received 18 months with all but 90 days suspended in the county jail.

As he recalls, the withdrawal over those three months was brutal.

“I was throwing up and had diarrhea. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks straight.

“You’re just left with the cravings … I never thought you could crave something so bad. All your thoughts are just centered on how to get it and how to get comfortable.”

Though Bresnahan got out on probation, he soon found himself back in the county jail, after a drug-run to Philadelphia for his dealer, Michael John Abbaticchio, 24, of West Ocean City, resulted in his conviction of possession with intent to distribute 411 bags of heroin that police found in his car.

Bresnahan had agreed to transport the drugs in exchange for a discounted price, while Abbaticchio followed in another car. He pleaded guilty last December to the charges and was back in jail this January. Abbaticchio also was convicted on drug charges last December and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.

“I got out and I was doing the exact same thing,” Bresnahan said. “At first I thought that it (the lowest point) was when I got kicked out of a sober house and was shooting dope in the street. My second time here was when I realized I completely hit bottom.”

Despite the months he’s spent in the Snow Hill cell, his cravings persist. Finding a routine — exercising, reading and journaling — has helped the days pass.

After serving one-quarter of his 18-month sentence, Bresnahan will be eligible for an interview that will determine whether he receives an early release on probation. He worries, though, that his old habits will return once he’s out of institutional life.

“I can’t afford to screw up even once,” he said. “You’ve really got to take the time to get clean.”

He plans to enroll in Wor-Wic Community College, attend counseling and work out to stay busy. He wants to study psychology, a subject he loved in the past, and produce electronic music, a passion born during his time in halfway houses.

“You’ve got to find something to be passionate about to stay sober and not lose it,” Bresnahan said. “It’s like being reborn again … It’s like coming up from under the water.”

Like most parents of addicts, his wonder what they could’ve done differently. But even their son can’t answer the question.

“Trying to think of things that might’ve worked — If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it,” he said.

He still feels guilty for how he treated everyone during his nearly decade-long decline.

“Every relationship I touched turned to [expletive],” he said. “That’s one of those things I feel really guilty about and want to pull my hair out and go back and fix it…. They acted really humane toward me and I just pushed them away.”

As he continues his recovery, he feels a mixture of emotions, which can shift in an instant.

“Sometimes you can’t even pin them down because they’re so strong,” he said, but “I feel a lot more positive now.”

As Bresnahan knows, any addict is going to come “crashing down.”

“When it does, it’s a lot of pain and a lot of repair,” he said. “Now I weigh the reward and consequences and I look at the consequences a lot more.

“I feel like I completely wasted my life.”

Clara Vaughn, Ocean City Today
Clara Vaughn, Ocean City Todayhttps://www.oceancity.com/OceanCityToday
Clara discovered journalism as a freelance reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Eastern Shore News, in 2008. She spent her summers reporting from the courtroom to the marsh as a general assignment reporter for the News while finishing her undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. In 2011, she earned a Virginia Press Association Award for her health, science and environment writing package. After a stint in press relations, Clara returned to school, earning a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in 2012. She traveled overseas and landed as a reporter and copy editor at Ocean City Today in May of 2013.

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