Hidden faces of opiate addiction

SPOKANE, Wash. - For many of us, the phrase "heroin addict" evokes a specific image, often a junkie, or a criminal.

But, for most, it's not a woman like Melanie Senn.

"I have two little girls. Eleven and three. Maybe not so little anymore," Senn said.

Senn is a daughter and mother, with a family and a home.

She's also a recovering drug addict.

"It was an awful time in my life," she said.

Hers is the evolving face of opiate abuse in Spokane and in this country.

"It doesn't discriminate against neighborhood boundaries," said Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

"It doesn't discriminate against ages, white collar professionals, blue collar, people that are homeless. It crosses all the possible barriers and assumptions that we make," he said.

Since 1999, opiate-related overdoses have increased significantly.

Spokane is not exempt from that trend.

"Regardless of the geography or the demographics... really every fire station has seen an increase, [a] substantial increase in those types of overdoses," Schaeffer said,

Firefighters can see anywhere from 10-20 overdoses a week.

Heroin is still the most common, and most fatal, opiate used in Spokane, and men the most likely to overdose on it.

But for many women like Melanie Senn, women in their 30s to 50s, what spiraled into a severe addiction began with a visit to the doctor.

"I had an injury at 19, and was put on a pain medication," Senn said.

For eight years, all seemed well.

"And then he just told me, basically, you should be at the point of not needing it anymore. and, I of course wasn't," she said.

Middle-aged white women are prescribed opiate painkillers more frequently than any other demographic.

I thought it was prescribed by a doctor and I saw him every month and he assured me everything was good and I was doing the right thing," Senn said.

A doctor's order almost legitimizes, even justifies the use of drugs.

"The person becomes or became addicted to the narcotic, the physician stopped prescribing for the narcotic, and she had to go somewhere else," Schaeffer said.

"Honestly, no. I didn't think I had that big of an issue until it wasn't there anymore," Senn said.

Many don't even realize it, until they're on the street, looking for drugs.

"You can completely understand how somebody got to the situation where they were," Schaeffer said.

"They use words like functioning addicts. I don't feel like I functioned whatsoever, but on the surface I was able to barely maintain life," Senn said.

"I've never been a depressive person, but when you feel like you want to escape your sin and it's hard to live in your own body," she said.

With more families like Senn's affected, opiate addiction is now part of the national conversation. Both presidential candidates made it part of their respective campaigns.

But those who see it on the streets every day have known for years: Treating opiate addicts means more than throwing them in jail.

"I think we need to stop focusing on the blaming and start focusing the resources that we do have onto help correcting the problem, helping those people because they are in need," Schaeffer said.

Today, Senn is clean.

She drives to Spokane from her home in Deer Park twice a week to take methadone, a drug that helps addicts overcome their need for addiction without the severe medical effects of trying to quit cold turkey.

Her two daughters are happy and healthy.

"When you're not so hurting, and stressed out, and worried about how tomorrow is going to feel, life happens. And you just....you want to live," Senn said.

"This is honestly the happiest I've been since I can remember," she said.