One morning in late October, Charlene Maycott knocked on her daughter’s door before she left for work. It had been almost an entire day since they’d spoken. Charlene got no answer, so she headed to work. Her husband had already left the house for the day.
Later that afternoon, one of Monica’s siblings heard strange noises coming from the other side of the door and alerted Charlene. Worried about her 25-year-old daughter, who had recently come back from substance abuse treatment in Florida, Charlene returned to the house in the early afternoon. She peered through the bedroom window.
Monica had collapsed onto her bed in a puddle of vomit. The strange noises were the sounds of Monica struggling to breathe.
Charlene knew what this was: a heroin overdose. She had taken Narcan training while her daughter was living in a halfway house, and kept a kit in the family’s home — just in case.
“But I never thought I was going to have to use it on her,” Charlene said.
After administering the opioid antidote to her daughter, Charlene performed CPR. Monica survived, but barely.
In Williamstown — where the heroin death rate in 2014 was nearly 25 times the national average — others haven’t been so lucky.
Between 2004 and 2014, at least 53 people died of heroin or opiate overdoses in Williamstown, an unincorporated community located almost entirely in Monroe Township, Gloucester County.
Monica gave her first interview from bed at a medical rehab center in Marlton surrounded not by patients with drug problems, but senior citizens recovering from surgery.
“She gave me my life,” Monica said of her mother. “And then she saved it.”
‘You’re kind of taken aback’
The Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office acknowledges that — on paper, at least — Williamstown has a high overdose death rate; but the agency also points out that no town in the county has been spared from the battle against opiates.
In Gloucester County, the heroin death rate was 17.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 — nearly seven times the national average, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Only Atlantic, Camden and Cape May counties had a higher death rate that year.
It’s not entirely clear why Williamstown — where the rate was 63.8 — has such a high concentration of overdose deaths, but some experts believe geography plays a major role.
Michael DeLeon, an anti-drug activist and documentarian who made the film “Kids Are Dying,” said the heroin that comes into Philadelphia-area seaports is brought in from South America. Williamstown is a straight shot down the expressway from where high-quality drugs enter the country.
DeLeon called the ease of travel, coupled with a middle-class population where curious kids have access to widely-prescribed prescription opiates, a “perfect storm.”
Williamstown isn’t alone. From 2004 to 2014, Washington Township, with a population of about 50,000, was the site of at least 23 heroin and opiate-related deaths. Glassboro, home to 20,000 people, had 11 in the same period, and Deptford, which has a population of 30,000, had about 18. Even tiny Newfield, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, had four overdose deaths.
“When you see the statistics, you’re kind of taken aback. It lets you know you have to work harder,” said Mayor Dan Teefy, who has spoken at several recent town meetings about the growing problem. “We want people to know their town cares about them, and we want them to know it’s OK to seek help.”
It started with a prescription
Ten years ago, a healthy 25-year-old with a good job might have painted a surprising portrait of an addict. The face of heroin addiction is no longer someone from the inner city, skeletal and homeless. It’s the face of friends, family and co-workers.
“People think of addiction, and they think of some skinny guy with a needle hanging out of his arm,” said Monica. “No one would choose this. I never thought I’d be stealing from my parents. I never thought that I’d spend my paycheck on pills. I look like a normal person.”
Monica’s addiction began when, in her teens, she was prescribed Percocet for polycystic ovarian syndrome. The National Institutes on Drug Abuse estimates that nearly half of heroin users start by abusing prescription drugs.
Monica’s story is almost identical to that of 28-year-old Amanda Potopchuk, a former heroin user who graduated Williamstown High School in 2005 — a few years ahead of Monica.
Potopchuk was prescribed OxyContin at age 15 while being treated for kidney stones.
“I slowly abused the pills — take one, skip a few days, take another,” she said. “If I couldn’t snort the pills first thing in the morning at home before school, I would snort the pills at school, usually first period in a bathroom.”
After a year, Potopchuk started getting sick in the morning before she went to school. At first, she attributed it to the kidney stones.
“I realize looking back that the ‘flu’ and ‘kidney stone sickness’ were withdrawal,” she said.
Potopchuk was high at her senior prom and was secretly using several times a day by the time she graduated. She tried college, but at 19, her habit had long outstripped her access to pills. She began buying individual doses for $50 at a time, experiencing flu-like withdrawal symptoms unless she used every five hours.
“I had no hope for myself, no purpose,” she said. “The pills got too expensive.”
By the time she began using heroin in 2007, she had alienated her parents and was almost never home.
Then, that August, a man she’d been using with died of an overdose. Potopchuk sought help, spending 30 hours a week in intensive outpatient therapy. She relapsed on her 21st birthday with Xanax and woke up in a psychiatric ward.
Potopchuk says she was lucky to have parents who were open and honest about what was happening.
“They didn’t hide anything,” Potopchuk said. She’s gone public about her recovery precisely because she doesn’t fit the stereotype.
‘Changing the norms’
In 2013, after months of suspicion, Michele Perez cornered her oldest son in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m using heroin,'” Perez said, recalling the scene at the dining room table of her bi-level house, not far from the Black Horse Pike.
Perez knew she had to act and is now head of the Monroe Township Municipal Alliance Commission. Her son, now 25, is in recovery.
She has made a personal mission of educating her hometown on the subject of drugs. By making it socially acceptable to discuss addiction, Perez hopes to help families start having meaningful conversations about drugs.
“I’m trying to think about how to fix this. As a mom, that’s what you do,” she said. “I couldn’t fix how broken the system was,” she said, referring to a lack of beds in recovery centers around the state and the difficulty some families have in getting insurance companies to pay for treatment.
“I couldn’t fix it myself, but I could support people in finding resources.”
Perez made herself an expert on the subject, attending more lectures and workshops than she could count. She is now a certified recovery coach and is the township’s go-to person for helping people find addiction help. Now, when someone in Monroe realizes a loved one has a problem, they direct those people to Perez.
“You hate the disease, not the person,” said Perez. “It’s an evil twin that takes over. Our stories are all the same — it’s just the chapters that are a little different.”
Even the vocabulary surrounding the issue has to change, Perez said. She tries to steer people away from words like “addict,” and in her vernacular, “junkie” is a four-letter word. Rather, she advocates for the use of the phrase “substance abuse disorder,” which is preferred by mental health professionals.
Progress was slow at first. Early town hall meetings on drug abuse last year would attract only a couple dozen people. But an October event brought out well over 120 residents, many of them finally ready to talk about what their kids were going through.
One Gloucester County man who spoke about his child’s addiction at a public meeting this fall said he and his wife had begun shopping late at night, hoping to avoid acquaintances who might ask how they were doing. One evening, the couple ran into a pair of old friends. That couple was also going out of their way to shop at night —for exactly the same reason.
Councilman Cody Miller, 24, an alliance member, has been open about his brother and sister’s struggle with addiction. He describes Perez’s work as “a godsend.”
“She came in, and we were on the same page about everything,” he said. It was personal for the both of us. As a native of the town who’s witnessed it firsthand, I don’t think we were doing enough.”
“I’m tired,” said Sgt. Danielle LoRusso of the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office.
She was sitting in her office in late autumn and had spent much of the last few months in meetings with officials all over South Jersey, signing schools up for educational anti-opiate programs. But the endless meetings weren’t the reason she felt drained.
“We’re arresting the same people over and over again — people who have addiction, people who are trying to supply their own habits, selling drugs,” said LoRusso. “We have to get to the bottom of the problem. And the problem is getting people in recovery — getting them help.”
Donna Gaudio, Williamstown High School’s student assistance counselor, has helped teenagers deal with substance problems for the past eight years. She noticed four years ago that marijuana and alcohol were no longer the issue. Instead, she was hearing that her school was occasionally called “Pilliamstown High.”
Normal health classes, Gaudio said, are not enough.
“There’s a component in the curriculum for drug education,” she said. “But it’s a few lessons, and then it’s done.”
Monroe, and all of New Jersey, needed more.
In the fall of 2014, Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton appointed LoRusso to head a new anti-heroin campaign, and the GCPO Opiate Initiative was born. The monthly programs range from lessons on simple coping techniques for younger children to in-depth discussions of addiction with teenagers. The Monroe Township school district has served as the pilot for the program, but districts in Salem, Atlantic and Camden counties have already expressed interest in joining.
Law enforcement will get involved as well. Starting this winter, police departments in Gloucester County will begin providing people arrested for low-level drug offenses with pamphlets that list addiction resources. It’s not the sweeping change that some advocates hope for, but it may mean the beginning of someone’s recovery.
“When somebody is arrested for drugs, no matter what it is, they’re going to be given a resource to get help,” said LoRusso. “I can’t tell you how many times we arrest somebody and they cry because they’ve got nowhere to go. We’re going to be giving people resources…a number to call for help. That’s going to be a positive thing.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Potopchuk and her friend Sarah Kennedy, 19, took a drive to a cemetery in Cherry Hill. They brought along a grave blanket, adorned with a photograph. They stood before the grave of Kennedy’s brother Jake — one of 10 Williamstown residents who died from heroin in 2014.
Jake, 20, shared Kennedy’s love of music and art. The two had bonded by going to concerts together, and Jake had been a guardian for his little sister.
But as Kennedy and Potopchuk stood at Jake’s grave, they did something unexpected.
They laughed, sharing an inside joke.
“It was only a few months after Jake passed, so it was still fresh,” Kennedy said of when she met Potopchuk at a Municipal Alliance event. “She came up to speak, and I said, ‘she’s just like Jake.'”
Potopchuk helped Kennedy make sense of her brother’s death.
“I told her, ‘your brother had so much guilt and shame,'” said Potopchuk. “He’s no different from me. Using was all I knew.”
“I pushed him away. I stereotyped him,” Kennedy said. “Nobody told me it was a disease. That’s part of the reason I speak. I want to reach someone like me.”
This fall, the two gave their first peer-to-peer assembly to the nearly 2,000 students at their alma mater in Williamstown. That assembly alone brought half a dozen students to the administration, seeking help for themselves or for a friend. Under the Opiate Initiative, every participating school district will find young speakers of their own.
Despite the toll heroin has taken on their lives, both women are moving on. Potopchuk now works as a caregiver for a disabled person, and will receive her master’s degree in the spring. Kennedy is pursuing a degree in graphic design.
Kennedy imagines a future in which addiction treatment is easily accessible and affordable.
“I want my nieces and nephews to grow up and know that if they have a problem, they can get help,” she said.
Two days after that visit to the cemetery, just a few miles away in Marlton, Monica Maycott prepared to go home. It had been four weeks since she was first hospitalized.
She had learned to move herself in and out of a wheelchair, and could move 30 feet down a hallway with the help of a walker. Her mother was working to figure out whether the Hope All Day Recovery Center in Atlantic County could accommodate her daughter’s chair. If the facility could, she said, Monica would begin counseling immediately.
“I owe you,” Monica said to her mother as she prepared for one last meeting with hospital staff. The family expects that she will need months of physical therapy before she is fully independent again.
“You do owe me,” Charlene said. She smiled, gentle but firm. “You owe me a clean, healthy life.”