Her handshake is firm, as is her gaze.
“Hi, I’m Tiffeny,” she says in a calm voice. The 22-year-old could be any typical girl in her age range. But she is not. Three months ago, Tiffeny gave birth to a baby girl so underdeveloped and addicted by opioids that the doctors had to detox her and perform brain surgery. This is all because Tiffeny has been an opioid addict since she was 16.
As part of our in-depth coverage of the prescription drug abuse epidemic, the Queens Chronicle visited Phoenix House in Long Island City. It’s a 240-person in-patient treatment facility for substance abusers who come from all over the state — most residents are mandated by the drug or criminal courts and are there with addictions to crack, cocaine, marijuana and the synthetic marijuana, K2.
It wasn’t until last year that the director of Phoenix House, Denise Buckley, started noticing more people coming in with opioid addiction. “Most of them were on OxyContins or other kinds of oxycodone painkillers. Some started on opioids and later went to heroin when availability became an issue for them,” Buckley said.
There are currently seven residents, six women and one man, who came as addicts of opioid narcotics. One of them is Tiffeny.
For her it all began with one Percocet pill, which a colleague gave her when she cut her hand while working at a pizzeria. The high she felt from the opioid made her so energized and happy that she spent the next six years chasing it; swallowing and smoking the opioids or snorting them to the extent that she today has a hole in her right nose bone.
“I was using and abusing every single opioid you can think of: Percocets, Oxycontins, Opana, hydrocodone, Vicodins,” she said.
From that point on, every day was about ensuring the minimum amount of those little pills — an amount that grew and grew and required increasingly more drastic methods to satisfy. And she had the best partner in crime: her mother. Together they did things she said that she would have never imagined doing before her addiction.
“I would steel from stores, from people, my family. Me and my mom stole a woman’s checkbook and wrote out checks for a whole year from $100 to $20,000.”
Nineteen years old at the time, she landed herself a five-year felony probation sentenceand restitution of $20,000.
Tiffeny’s mother ended up seeking treatment before Tiffeny and is now a year-and-a-half sober. But Tiffeny only felt abandoned and kept abusing and eventually overdosed. The near death experience, however, wasn’t enough to make her seek treatment, not even when she discovered she was pregnant.
It wasn’t until Tiffeny herself became a mother to a baby the size of her palm that she gained strength to confront her addiction.
“She has been fighting for her life the last three months, and I am fighting for mine, so we are fighting together,” she said about her daughter who now weighs nine pounds. In the room she is sharing with three other women, Tiffeny has hung the greeting cards on her daughter’s birth on her closet, next to a tiny baby cap and a picture of her boyfriend.
She is currently waiting to enter into a mother and child program in upstate New York closer to her family in Germantown.
“It’s sad how much drug use I see. So many young kids nowadays want to experiment with a lot of pills, and once you get that pill, it’s so difficult to stop,” Tiffeny said. One of her best friends died from an overdose on heroin, the cheaper and next best alternative to the prescription opioid drugs.
So far Phoenix House has mainly housed opioid addicts from outside the inner city. “Most of them were from Long Island, Staten Island, Putnam and Westchester County,” Buckley said. But the director is convinced that they will only be seeing more people from the city as the black markets for illicit drug sales expand.
Ebony, 34, from Jamaica, Queens came to Phoenix House six months ago. Ebony’s addiction began when she started taking doctor-prescribed opioid medication after having undergone several surgeries. “I went from one Percocet to seven at the time,” she said. That amounted to 30 pills a day that she obtained from four different doctors.
She said her doctor initially warned her about the addictiveness but that she didn’t realize she was hooked.
“You are chasing your first high, but you are never gonna get that back. The Percocets started becoming a downer for me the more I took.”
But she still needed them, and Ebony had her own supplier, a local pharmacist who knew her and would fill her prescriptions. “He really didn’t agree but he used to be addicted so he understood what I was going through,” she said and described her withdrawal symptoms.
“I would have the sweats, be dizzy, my body would cramp up and I could barely talk. I needed it just to go to the bathroom,” she said. When she felt this way, Ebony knew that the only thing that would make her functional again would be more pills. So she would stumble on the bus, even in knee-high snow, and not leave the pharmacy before going to the bathroom to swallow the pills and feel them work in her body.
She realizes that without her personal hook-up, she could have been forced to go down the criminal road that Tiffeny and her mother went to ensure their daily supplies.
It wasn’t until Ebony was out driving and suddenly found herself in a ditch, having dosed off behind the wheel, that she was ready to get help.
“Thank God I was by myself,” she said. Her 10-year-old son was at school.
Her sister, who was noticing Ebony’s decline, went online and found Phoenix House. Here, Ebony was detoxed and went through various therapeutic workshops such as relapse prevention, Seeking Safety and anger management.
“At Phoenix House they taught me how to take my medicine the correct way but also helped me with other issues I had,” she said.
Even though she is not proud of what she has done, Ebony feels the experience was necessary for her to come out on the other side as a stronger person able to deal with problems she was abusing drugs to escape.
“This is the longest time I have ever been away from my son,” she said in a soft voice. He is currently living with her aunt. “But I don’t mind making the sacrifice, so I can be in his life for the rest of mine.”
Ebony, who worked for 13 years as a bus driver, just passed the GED test and wants to become an x-ray technician.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my life because now I might be able to help somebody else,” she said.
Tiffeny also tries to keep a positive mindset on the whole experience.
“I put a lot of guilt on shame myself, but I put myself in here, so I have to get myself out of here,” she said. She is currently pursuing the nursing education she cut off when she began abusing drugs, and she want to councel drug addicts.
“I hope my story can prevent someone else from doing drugs,” she says and looked to the little baby cap on her closet.