Federal officials say in 2014 they intercepted nearly ten times as much heroin coming into Alaska than in 2013. The growing use of the drug is impacting urban and rural areas. This is the first in a series of three stories about the impacts of heroin in Bethel and how the community is fighting it. It begins with one woman’s struggle to get clean in Bethel.
Don’t be fooled by Tracy Faulkner’s 5’4” frame. The small brunette with thick hair and the nickname malaggai, which means “fur hat” in Yup’ik, is a former wrestling champion.
She competed against boys in high school, going all the way to state and national competition. But in her off time she hid a dark secret.
“When I wasn’t training I would go and use — steal my parents’ booze, you know, find weed. It eventually progressed to taking pills,” said Faulkner.
That started when she was 12. One semester into college drugs started taking a priority over schoolwork. She dropped out and returned to Bethel where she tried school again, but her drug use intervened. She started a food truck business, but couldn’t maintain that either. That’s when Faulkner’s need for escape escalated.
“I got addicted to Tramadol – started taking that, eventually it wasn’t doing the trick for me anymore – I wanted that same high which I first got in the beginning. Then went to Oxycontin, and then went to using heroin,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner smoked it. Others inject. She couldn’t hold a job and was stealing to support her habit. Each high, or ‘nifty’ as they’re called, cost $100 here.
There are no treatment programs specifically for heroin addiction in Bethel. Treatment centers in Anchorage have waiting lists. Rick Robb is Bethel’s Mayor and also runs residential facilities for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. “It seems like a few years ago it would be non-existent to rare, but now we’re seeing full-blown heroin and we’re seeing it more and more. So the numbers are definitely increasing,” said Robb.
YKHC’s behavioral health division offers outpatient and inpatient treatment for those struggling to get off drugs and alcohol. But there are only 16 beds at the local center and they’re not equipped to handle heroin withdrawal. Sometimes, Robb says, people endure the painful process in the hospital emergency room or at home.
“People can come in if they have a problem, and we’re gonna do the best we can with the resources we have to get people the help they need. I think we have to. There’s some emphasis on us. We have to improve our programing specifically for heroin and we have to learn more about it,” said Robb.
Faulkner says she distinctly remembers the day this winter when she gazed out the window at a friend’s house and realized she wanted to make a change.
“I remember looking out on the river and just seeing everybody living life and I was stuck in this dark place,” said Faulkner.
But with no detox facility in Bethel, Faulkner realized it would have to be cold turkey. She reached out to an uncle for help. He cared for her as she went through withdrawal.
“You get sick to your bones, I mean you want to crawl out of your skin. You lay in bed all day. You have the shakes, the sweats, you know. You’re puking, out the other end, you know it’s bad to where I couldn’t get out of bed,” said Faulkner.
After detox at home, she was ready to check herself into the local treatment program run by YKHC. But it wasn’t an easy process. YKHC told her it could take weeks to get an assessment necessary to access treatment. Instead of waiting she got the assessment at a local primary care clinic and was able to check in to in-patient treatment through YKHC within a few days. Robb, with YKHC, says he knows they need to do a better job of getting patients quickly into treatment. Now Faulkner is done with her treatment program. She says she gains strength from her ancestors and from her young son, who she says deserves to grow up in a healthy environment.
“It’s our younger generation that’s going to be most affected by this. I mean, our heritage, our culture is gonna be lost. For me, looking at my own child, I don’t want him to grow up in this kind of community. I want him to grow up in the community that I was raised in. Where we showed love for each other, where we cared for each other, where we stood as one,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner says she knows she’s in a unique position to help unite people in the region around the issue, and now that she’s clean that will be her focus.