Heroin Epidemic

As heroin overdoses skyrocket in Manatee County, a recovering addict says she's lucky to be alive

BRADENTON -- Brandilyn Karnehm wouldn't be alive if heroin dealers hadn't ripped her off.

"Back then heroin wasn't as bad as it is now -- it wasn't really killing people. Luckily the heroin I got wasn't as strong and I survived it -- I never overdosed on heroin because I think I got ripped off half the time. So I was able to live through it," said Karnehm, a recovering opioid addict since April 2013.

"But these people who are dying, they're people I've used with," the 23-year-old admitted. "They're people that I know have a high tolerance, so there's something in it that is killing these people."

Karnehm sat on a comfortable green couch in her cozy Bradenton home on a recent afternoon, talking with her boyfriend and cooing at their baby daughter, Chanel, donned in a Minnie Mouse shirt and a giant pink bow on her head. Karnehm has a steady, full-time job and describes her life as happy, normal and clean.

The picture stands in stark contrast to the one Karnehm paints of herself just a few years ago, when she was a homeless drug addict, doing anything and everything she could for her next fix. Karnehm says she and other addicts would steal items and try to pawn them for drug money, which she was arrested for in 2011.

"I've watched people get shot, and have to go run and hide in our car. I've seen stuff that I never want to see again," said Karnehm, who was born and raised in Bradenton. "It's the same thing every single day. You'll see the same people walking, who are going to jump in a car and sell their body to get drugs, or you'll see people robbing and running and then getting killed over it. It's not living -- you're in hell."

Karnehm started experimenting with drugs when she was just 12 years old. Then, in 2009, she felt like she "found her best friend" when she discovered opioids during the height of the pill mill epidemic.

That's when Karnehm became an addict. When the pill mill crackdown started two years later, she was taking between 15 and 20 pills per day. She saw the cost of opioids rise from around $5 per pill to $15, then $20; the highest she saw was $30 a pill.

The expense didn't make her want to quit, it just forced her to turn to the cheaper drug: heroin.

"Just to feel normal and get out of bed, I had to have something, because it makes you physically sick. You get withdrawal symptoms: You're sweaty, achy, nauseous, all of that," Karnehm said. "And a lot of people don't understand it, like, 'Why don't you stop?' Because I feel like I'm dying, you know?"

Melissa Larkin-Skinner, the chief clinical officer at Manatee Glens, says turning from opioids to heroin is all too common among the addicts they see today.

"The problem is, people who were addicted to those when they were easy to get and cheap, they're more expensive now and harder to get. The supply is not there, like it used to be," Larkin-Skinner said. "So they're turning to heroin. That's basically the substitute."

50 times in detox

Luckily, the law enforcement system worked for Karnehm -- after a couple of arrests for crimes Karnehm committed to get money for drugs in 2011, she was stuck in the Manatee County jail. Records show Karnehm was charged with dealing in stolen property. When she asked other inmates how she could get out, she heard about drug court and enrolled.

Drug court is a program open to certain people charged with crimes that requires them to regularly appear in front of a judge, give urine samples and attend therapy. Those who don't make their court appearances or fail drug tests get short stays in jail, which get longer as offenses pile up.

Even then, it was years of arrests, programs and relapses for Karnehm. She spent nearly every other weekend in jail and went to Manatee Glens for detox and treatment around 50 times, including for their month-long inpatient program. The turning point was around her 21st birthday, when a judge was about to send her to a program for six to eight months -- the longest stretch of incarceration she'd had yet.

But officers brought her back a week later. As Karnehm started her stay in a halfway house, she felt that someone must have believed in her because they weren't just throwing her into the system and giving up. She relapsed a couple more times, but she officially quit on April 18, 2013.

"The last time I used, I had no excitement out of it. I saw that I didn't like it anymore," she said. "I thought, 'What's the point of this? I felt way better when I was clean. I'm just going to repeat the same pattern from the past four or five years, so why don't I just stop?'"

Baby changes life

An even more pressing reason to stay clean came six months later. In October 2013, Karnehm found out she was pregnant.

"That really pushed me to be like, 'Hey, I'm going to do this.' Because I had someone growing inside me, I had someone who was going to depend on me," Karnehm said. "And once we made the decision to stay clean, everything just fell into place."

Soon after, Karnehm and her boyfriend got full-time jobs, they found their own place and Karnehm gave birth to a healthy girl. Karnehm says she's also about to get a car.

"It just gets better and better every day," Karnehm said.

Karnehm's story is one of victory over her addiction, but unfortunately it isn't the reality for a lot of drug addicts. More and more heroin addicts in Manatee County are dying before they get the chance to recover. Overdoses are becoming more frequent, increasing from 339 suspected overdose calls in 2013 to 700 in 2014 and 535 through May 2015.

Karnehm has seen that, too, and she's seen the number of deaths increasing since she quit in 2013. She says heroin is getting cut with other, stronger opioids now. She has a friend in group sessions who has overdosed three times.

"What really brought her back into recovery this time was that she watched people die in her room, and she was right there. I look at the paper, or on Facebook, and a couple weeks ago it seemed like there was a death every day of every week," Karnehm said. "Some of them I knew, some of them I didn't, but it just reminds me how lucky I am to quit when I did, because I easily could've been one of those people that they're saying, 'Rest in peace' to."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at kirby@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter@KateIrby.

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