A ddicted to mainlining cocaine, "Nicole" spent last winter holed up in her downtown Juneau apartment sticking needles in her arms, legs, fingers and toes, trading collapsing veins for slightly firmer ones.
Nicole is convinced she'd be dead today if her friends hadn't intervened.
"A heroin junkie might fire up one, two, three times a day, but a coke junkie will fire up 20, 30, 40 times a day," said the 32-year-old woman whose identity was withheld to protect her safety. The Empire's effort to provide an accurate picture of drug addiction would not have been possible without her cooperation.
"I was up to 10 to 13 grams a night, which is so toxic I might as well have been dead," she said. "I was completely marked up. I was so involved I couldn't get out."
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-day series that looks at drug trends in the capital city.
Sunday: IV drugs
Monday: The new problem drugs - Meth and OxyContin
Tuesday: Kids and drugs
Nicole started using cocaine in Juneau 15 years ago. She quit - again - six months ago. In between, her fortunes ranged in the extremes. She has been a runaway teen and a well-paid career professional. She has overdosed, gone through treatment and spent time in jail. She said she dealt more than $100,000 worth of cocaine to support her own habit.
Nicole said her friends' intervention saved her life. They asked that their identities be disguised to protect them from violence, arrrest, and risks to friends in recovery or still involved in drugs. They came forward in the hope this story might encourage others to seek help or intervene to save a friend.
Nicole's friends describe her as talented, funny and fun to be around.
"She has a huge heart and would give you the shirt off her back," said her friend, Kelly. "She has all the qualities of a great human being. She just has all this extreme baggage."
They met when Nicole was clean and working as a consultant. Kelly, who runs a local business, needed her skills. She hired Nicole several times. Over the years they became friends.
Last winter, Nicole dropped the ball on a couple of jobs. Kelly suspected a problem but had no idea Nicole was using cocaine intravenously. That changed when Nicole showed up at Kelly's office one day just before Christmas to apologize, saying she felt terrible that she had let Kelly down.
Nicole was a mess, floating inside a giant, filthy sweater. There was blood on her pants.
"Jesus, that was intense," Kelly said. "Her skin was this bluish-gray color. She was holding her arms funny - she couldn't straighten them out. Her hands were swollen. She was dirty. I was actually having a hard time talking to her."
Two weeks later several of Nicole's friends sat down and compared notes. It hit them just how serious the situation had become.
"Everyone put their two cents in and we put it all together," Kelly said. "That's when we decided it was time. I really thought she was going to die. I thought she could die tomorrow."
Nicole was raised in Juneau in a middle-class family. She says she started snorting cocaine at 16 and started smoking it at 17.
She dropped out of high school and ran away to Seattle where she found a restaurant job and got an apartment, which quickly turned into a hangout for users.
"People started coming by early in the morning giving me a freebase hit, which starts your whole day on a binge," she said. "In no time I was moving (dealing) drugs to keep up with my habit."
She worked out of the restaurant, selling "teeners," tiny packets of coke folded in a napkin. That helped her maintain a three-to-four-gram daily habit. It also landed her in the King County jail for 60 days. Two months of scummy showers and eating warm raisins and baloney sandwiches provided a wake-up call.
"I decided to come back to Juneau and get my life together," she said.
It was a good plan. She stayed clean for four years. Drug availability ebbs and flows for a variety of reasons. This time around, Nicole said she wasn't looking for the drug that had been accessible during her high school years. But she also noticed it didn't seem to be as readily available.
In the mid-1990s she moved south for college and to pursue professional interests. After completing school she moved to the East Coast, found work in her field and developed a solid professional reputation.
She was making good money and started exploring the club scene in the large city where she lived. Cocaine was cheap and easy to get. Nicole said she routinely was offered coke by friends, clients and business associates in social situations.
In bigger cities, she said, dealers will sell cocaine in tiny amounts, catering to users with little cash. She said in Juneau dealers are unwilling to sell small quantities.
"It costs $100 to hook up in Juneau," she said. "In the city, I could get three and a half grams for $80. Cocaine costs three times as much here."
She slid back to the use of her teen years. She passed what she calls the "party stage" and entered the addict's realm, trading social situations for cars and bathrooms where she could be alone. She progressed from snorting to smoking to injecting the drug into her veins.
"There comes a point where you can only do (snort) so many lines and only smoke so much before you're coughing and dirty and nasty," she said. "Then somebody hooks you up and you think, 'why do it any other way?' It's a better high and you use less. You don't have this horrible cough and a bloody nose every day. There's not the serious crash you get after freebasing. You've gone so far the next step doesn't seem any worse."
But it is.
"The problem is it's got a lot of carnage that goes with it."
She wasn't using less cocaine after all. A gram of coke might go a little further, but she needed more. She could get five hits out of a gram, but she could do a gram in less than an hour. She'd stay high all night, smoking cigarettes and injecting hundreds of dollars worth of coke.
"Cocaine is like sex. It's the same euphoria," she said.
There's more to it than the euphoria. Nicole said her obsessing on coke focused her in a strangely calming and reassuring way.
"When I don't use, I'm severely hyperactive. When I do there's a crash and depression, and that brings me down to a 'normal' level," she said. "For 12 years, all this has been a part of my chemical makeup. The euphoria, the jones (craving), getting the money, getting it, there's an addiction to all of it."
She decided it was time to come back to Juneau and clean up. She recognized she was out of control, but she had no idea how much worse it was going to get.
In the spring of 2001, she collected her savings and arranged to move. The day before she left, she holed up in a hotel room with 28 grams of cocaine. It was her last hurrah, and she doggedly went to work on the ounce.
She OD'd in the middle of the night.
"I thought, 'This is it, I've done it.' I knew it was too much," she said.
She lay on the floor, wracked by muscle spasms, unable to stand. Gradually the cramps and spasms passed. But as soon as she could move again she finished the bag.
"My friends knew I was junked up when I came back" to Juneau, she said. "But they couldn't believe it when I hobbled off the plane."
In spite of her good intentions, she made no progress. She breezed through a month-long treatment program last summer. She said her counselors were trained in alcohol recovery and knew little about cocaine. She told them what they wanted to hear. As soon as she was out, she started using the drug again.
Cocaine was easy to find in Juneau. She fully embraced I.V. use.
"I'd done it before but not like this," she said. "I didn't care any more, pretty much.
"I started seeing how many I.V. users there are in this town. You'd never know it because it's such a personal thing. Nobody talks to other people about it."
Users do talk to each other about needles. Nicole was religious about clean needles. Needles are available through drug stores, at the discretion of the pharmacists, but Nicole used the no-questions-asked needle exchange programs, such as Northern Exchange in Juneau. She's convinced she'd be infected with hepatitis or HIV today if clean needles had not been available.
Clean needles probably saved her life in the long run but in the short run they helped her network with other users. Concerned about surveillance, users are reluctant to visit a clinic or office. A member of the drug community acts as a liaison. Nicole volunteered to distribute needles.
"I figured I'd get a couple hundred needles and that way people would be coming to me for points," she said. "Only people who have dope need needles.
"That was the start of absolute depression and nonsocial existence. I could stay home and people would show up 10 times a day for new needles. And the common practice is if I gave them a needle they'd give me a hit."
Dealers began fronting her coke, giving her drugs with the expectation of payback after she sold them. She'd sell enough to pay off her source, and then shoot the rest. She could sell $700 to $1,300 worth a night. Last winter she shot up tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine.
"I could've sold all that and been rich," she said.
She was an addict, not a business person. Her apartment housed an ashtray crammed with cigarette butts, a foldout bed and a duffel bag full of needles. She'd binge all night, going through 10 or 12 grams, sometimes half an ounce, shooting up 50 or 60 times.
"Every five minutes I'd hit it," she said.
Her hands became so swollen she couldn't find veins. She suffered bouts of cotton fever, a painful affliction caused when a fiber of cotton accidentally is injected into the bloodstream.
Cotton is used to prepare a shot, a process which Nicole was loathe to discuss. She does not want to teach people how to use. Shooting up becomes a junkie ritual, she said, and that fixation with "the cook" is particularly disgusting to her now.
One night she was shooting up on a friend's couch. He was asleep in his bedroom. A couple of dealers came over, pulled him out of bed and beat him up. Indifferent to her, she said they forced him at gunpoint to call a dealer and set up a delivery.
When the dealer arrived, she watched them take his drugs and money and beat him unconscious. With blood splattered across the walls, they left her to administer first aid.
Her lifestyle was killing her and she knew it. She was throwing up every day. Her veins were collapsing.
"Everybody around me was telling me I looked sick," she said. "It was obvious what was going on and I finally had some friends who put together a little meeting with me."
The meeting was short and the message was to the point: Clean up or go to jail.
It was not a casual threat, even though turning Nicole in could create legal headaches for them, depending on the extent to which law enforcement agencies probed for details of their knowledge of her activities.
"I had done some things I could go to jail for a long time for," Nicole said. "My friends were going to turn me in. I knew they were ready to take me to jail."
Nicole considered a third option - suicide.
"Every day I think about that meeting," Nicole said. "I have never broken down like that before. There was nothing left."
Nicole's friends had called her family. Her mother had flown to Juneau and was waiting to see her after the meeting.
Nicole went home with Kelly that afternoon. Kelly's family was prepared for a long-term visit from their "Auntie Nicole." Kelly said she harbored no illusions that she was going to cure her friend.
"I knew she could start using again," she said. "I was acting out of concern that she was about to die. I thought maybe if she got her mind clear enough to look down the line she'd have some insight to see hope and think about a future."
Nicole spent a week huddled on the couch watching cartoons with the kids. Surrounded by the routines of normal family life, she suffered through panic attacks and withdrawal. She said she thought about cocaine every three minutes. It was difficult to sleep and when she did she dreamed about cocaine. She was angry and depressed, but she was determined to clean up. Gradually her health returned.
As painful as the first days of withdrawal were, she said the weeks that followed were harder.
"You reflect back on all the wreckage you have and see how you've affected other people," she said. "A lot of suicidal thoughts go on in that time. You're traumatized by the things you've done. I'm traumatized by the things I've done on it and for it."
In the weeks that followed, Kelly brought Nicole to work with her. She kept her busy with chores and Nicole caught up on all her unfinished business projects. After three months she moved in with another friend.
"I'm afraid to have my own place because it could become a place to use," she said. "I have to have roommates."
Kelly would like to see Nicole in counseling and ongoing treatment, but Nicole is reluctant. She said she doesn't have much confidence in therapists. Nicole said she can stay clean this time. She said she's careful to avoid situations that create unstable moments, such as being hungry, tired, angry or alone.
"After the surveillance, cleaning up, there's no way in my mind I can go back and say, 'I screwed up again,' " she said. "I put my friends at risk, and they showed so much faith in me and put so much time into me."
She's also disgusted by the thought of prison.
"My addiction is not worth 20, 25 years of jail time," she said.
Kelly also is involved in helping another friend stay clean. It's taxing, she said, but it's important.
"I'm drawn to talented people," she said. "I would give my eye teeth for that talent and it floors me that people with these gifts are sticking needles in their arms and smoking crack."
She worries that cocaine use is on the rise among people she knows in Juneau and she's concerned, especially for young people.
To Nicole, cocaine is everywhere. She says she's seing three times as much cocaine use in Juneau as she did a year ago. She recognizes dealers and says she sees them working South Franklin and Front streets on a regular basis.
But she is staying clean. The tracks on her arms have faded to brown, permanent bruises.
"I fight it every day. I dream about it every night. I still do," she said. "It takes all the strength I have to stay clean. I do a daily inventory of what happened in my life. I want something more. I'm extremely smart and extremely talented and I have everything going for me - and people like that are the worst."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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