Hooked in Wisconsin: When heroin hits home

A USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin project

Heroin entered their lives so easily.

For 10 addicts, the hard part is staying clean.

They got the pills from their doctors, then kept using them until they couldn’t stop. They switched to heroin because it was cheaper, because a friend said it was an easier, better way to get high.

They went to parties as teens, took pills, snorted powders. They got bored with the drugs they were doing and then found heroin, the drug they loved the most.

They had faced abuse, poverty, tragedy. Their pain was deep, and psychological, and the drug was an escape.

The stories of 10 recovering heroin addicts from Wisconsin are the stories of millions of Americans who have been hooked on opiates and either died, or lived with the consequences. They’ve lost friends. They’ve been arrested. They’ve lost touch with their family and friends, lost custody of their children.

COUNTY BY COUNTY: Deaths and ODs in Wisconsin.

“It wasn’t what they always told us it was going to be,” said Moriah Rogowski, a 22-year-old recovering addict, about her first time using heroin. She didn’t develop an addiction right away. But somewhere, more gradually than she expected, she lost control.

Like the other nine recovering heroin users profiled in this special report from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Rogowski has taken back control of her life. She’s clean. She lives in a different city, imagines a different future for herself.

Recovery from opiate addiction is hard, filled with setbacks. But these 10 people from across Wisconsin have taken the first steps toward a life after heroin. In photos, in words and in their own voices, these are their stories about how they started on heroin and fought to get off the drug.

'That was the only way I liked to get high'

Moriah Rogowski, Green Bay

Moriah Rogowski lives in Green Bay but returns home to Mosinee to see her family and spend time in the environment she grew up in around the horses on her family farm. On a weekend trip in October, Rogowski took a friend's daughter to ride a pony.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Moriah Rogowski liked the feeling of downers: Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin. She and her friends, the summer before high school, would go out to parties and crush pills and snort them.

She and her three siblings lived in a rural home near Mosinee, where she was homeschooled until eighth grade. In high school, she found her place among the stoners. One night she found herself in a drug house in Marshfield with 33-year-olds. She was 15.

That was the day she first tried heroin. She was afraid of needles, so she let someone else shoot the drug into a vein in her arm.

"That was the only way I liked to get high after that," she said.

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Rogowski is now 22. She’s been in and out of programs in Minnesota and Green Bay as she tried to get clean. But she'd come home and hang out with the same friends; each time they led her back to the drug.

She sought treatment at the methadone clinic in Wausau, where she saw others abusing the methadone and still using heroin. She fell into the same pattern.

She mixed heroin, crack, Xanax. There is a week of her life she can’t remember. She took her brother's car and got an OWI. Her license was suspended.

Then, from somewhere, she found the will to change. She called her mom to come get her because she wanted to get clean. She began to use the methadone program correctly, taking classes and attending therapy sessions.

Rogowski has lived in Green Bay for two years. She hopes to complete her GED. And she's trying to help others by working toward becoming a recovery coach.

— Laura Schulte, leschulte@gannett.com

A soldier's widow masks her pain

Sarah Bear, Wausau

Sarah Bear graduated from an in-patient recovery program in Wausau in October with the support of a friend and her grandmother. Sarah believes this time she will be able to regain control of her life and stay clean.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Sarah Bear didn't want to feel anymore.

Her husband, Jordan, was killed in Afghanistan in 2012 during an attack at his base in the Kandahar province. More than a year later, just when she started being able to grieve her husband's death, her oldest son's dad died.

Bear's addiction started in the summer of 2014 with pills — Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet. They dampened the pain of her losses. A friend had been prodding her to try heroin: It was cheaper, he said, and she wouldn't have to use as much. She swore she would never touch it.

One day, Bear couldn't get any pills. The withdrawals hit. She got sick; she couldn't take care of her children. Eventually, she called the friend, and within a half hour was snorting heroin for the first time in her Antigo apartment.

Then, she felt nothing, just like she wanted.

"I completely, seriously fell in love with that drug," she said. "There was nothing that compared to it, honestly. Sadly.”

She did heroin every day, either snorting or smoking it, and eventually injecting it.

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Beginning in January 2015, Bear was in and out of jail, and on and off heroin. She tried methadone treatment but it didn't stick.

In October 2016, Bear's four children were taken from her. Two went to stay with her mom, and two with her grandmother.

Almost a year later, Bear, 33, found herself in North Central Health Care's Lakeside Recovery in Wausau, a 21-day medically monitored substance abuse treatment program. She believes she hit rock bottom.

She started the program in mid-September and could feel the change within her as her Oct. 6 graduation approached. She's determined to get better.

“I remember a time when my life was good, and I know that I can be back there," she said. "I know that I can have that again."

— Haley BeMiller, hbemiller@gannett.com

He laughed at the idea he could be saved

Nathan Scheer, Fond du Lac

Nathan Scheer started cleaning up neighboring yards, parks, and business parking lots in Fond du Lac with his son as a way to stay busy after getting clean in 2016.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Nathan Scheer felt the bottom drop out the day before Christmas Eve 2016. His wife and kids watched the cops haul him away.

His probation officer had heard he would test dirty and showed up at his home unannounced.

“On the way to jail I was higher than I’d been in years, but I remember my probation officer telling me she was going to save my life,” he said. “I laughed and told her you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.”

He first used prescription opiates after a car crash. One day he didn't have enough money for hydrocodone pills. In their place, he was offered “dog food” —  a street name for heroin.

A decade-long fling with heroin followed, and it turned the 35-year-old factory worker from a regular, middle-class guy into a liar and a thief.

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“I once explained to my wife that it (heroin) felt like what I imagine looking into the eyes of God would feel like,” Scheer said. “It’s the most religious experience you could ever imagine.”

But since the day the probation officer showed up a little more than a year ago, Scheer got clean through counseling, group support and a local church. He learned to feed his addictive personality through the gratification that comes with community service.

Today, Scheer and his 4-year-old son, Bentley, have gained recognition in Fond du Lac by cleaning up parks and playgrounds. Giving back is his metaphor for recovery. Father and son call it #cleanstreetforkids.

“I call it my beautiful disaster, because the way everything happened, I was so lucky. I had people who stuck by me while I waged war on myself."

— Sharon Roznik, sroznik@gannett.com

'They just kept prescribing pain meds'

Rebecca Palmieri, Wisconsin Rapids

Rebecca Palmieri has been in recovery since November 2016 after being incarcerated in Portage County. Almost a year later, Palmieri and her boyfriend recovered the items they had on them when they were arrested including cell phones and a $20 bill.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Rebecca Palmieri's house is quiet now. In August, a court commissioner ordered her to give up her five children. It was the second time in two years that she lost them.

She's lost everything since she started using heroin. She's been homeless. She has a record.

Palmieri, 39, had medical complications when she had her fifth child. That was in 2013.

"They just kept prescribing pain meds for five months after I had my son. They did corrective surgery, but, by then, I was hooked."

She used pills for about two years. In January 2015, a friend came to her Wisconsin Rapids apartment with heroin. He told her to hold out her arm. In the empty bedroom, with her children in another part of the house, he injected her.

Using wasn't an everyday thing, she said, until it was. She would look around her apartment to see what she could sell or return for money to buy the drug.

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The courts put her kids into foster care. She was homeless for about six months. The kids went to live with her husband; they came back to her when he went to prison. She got clean and found a house. But the courts sent the kids back to her husband when he got out.

Palmieri said she has been clean since November 2016. She goes to the YMCA every day to work out; she attends addiction support group meetings. She wants to get her kids back.

"It's probably the hardest thing I ever had to do," she said, "to get clean and stay clean."

— Karen Madden, kmadden@gannett.com

Sacred fire lights a path to recovery

Joey Powless, Oneida

Joey Powless lives on the Oneida Nation reservation with his two children. He helps to maintain a sacred fire that’s burned continuously since October. Addicts can come to the fire for support at any time.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Joey Powless stood by the sacred fire burning under a tepee in the center of Oneida. He busied himself by keeping the fire steady and clean, moving ash and coals out of the flames.

Powless, 36, a member of the Oneida Nation, called it the Grandpa Fire, and without it, he said, he would not have been able to stay clean for the past five years or so.

The sacred fire represents the spirit of native people, a connection to the past and present, a source of strength, a place to pray, a gateway to understanding.

"Without fire, we couldn't live," Powless said. "This is what we cooked our food with. This is what gave us life. Gave us heat. So without it we could never live. This is our very first teaching right here."

His mother abandoned him and his family when he was a kid, and he responded at a young age with anger, he said. He started drinking and smoking pot at age 13. By the time he was in his early 20s, he added opioid medications and cocaine to the mix.

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Powless was 28 when he first tried heroin at a party. He was deep into drug culture, and selling drugs to pay for his own drugs. "Cocaine really wasn't doing nothing for me no more," he said. Snorting heroin seemed like a natural thing to do.

It made him sick at first, but as that feeling eased, he felt the high. "That's when the magic happens," he said. He continued to chase that high. He graduated from snorting heroin to shooting it into his veins. 

He was about 31 when he was jailed, and put into solitary confinement. It was there that he decided he didn't want to be an addict anymore. "Because I have children," he said. (Powless is the father of two teenagers.) "I didn't want to be out of their lives no more."

— Keith Uhlig, kuhlig@gannett.com

Arrests pile up after friend overdoses

Jennifer Solis, Stevens Point

Jennifer Solis lives in the Salvation Army in Stevens Point while she attends drug court and works as a roofer when the weather allows. She hopes to go back to school for interior design.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Jennifer Solis was out of pills and already felt sick.

In the bathroom of her friend's house in Stevens Point, she crushed up a little heroin and snorted it. It was the first time she had tried the drug.

Her friend, close by, was injecting it. They didn't talk.

Solis, who was in her mid-20s at the time, looked down on people who used needles. She told herself she wouldn't cross that line. She would.

Solis, now 34, was born in Colorado but moved to Wisconsin as a teenager. She was already using drugs with her friends — first marijuana, then cocaine — by the time she was 16.

“I think I was always looking for the next best thing,” she said. “I didn’t see myself as an addict back then.”

Solis became addicted to pain pills after she suffered a serious back injury as a result of domestic abuse, she said. After her friend introduced her to heroin, she used it every day.

She called paramedics when a friend overdosed a few years ago, then watched as they used the counteracting drug naloxone to revive her. She was charged in that incident, and then arrests piled up quickly.

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She joined Portage County's drug court in May and stayed clean for her first three months. Then she relapsed by using heroin and methamphetamine. By October 2017, Solis had again been clean for three months.

Solis has five children but no contact with them. Her three oldest live with a relative and her two youngest were adopted as infants.

She wants to go back to school for interior design. But for now, Solis lives at the Salvation Army in Stevens Point, working to put her life back together.

— Chris Mueller, cmueller@gannett.com

'I smoked pot with both my parents'

Kevin Williams, Wisconsin Rapids

Kevin Williams was incarcerated on drug-related charges when he found out he had a brain tumor. He suffered a stroke during the surgery to have it removed. He now lives in an assisted-care facility and works part-time at a pizza restaurant.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Kevin Williams is 35 and lives in a Wisconsin Rapids assisted-care facility. His mother and father divorced when he was 8, and, he said, "I basically smoked pot with both my parents by the time I was 15."

By the time Williams was an adult, he tried every drug he could.

Cocaine: "Why not? I was already stoned on weed."

Meth: "I tell people I used meth once in my life for eight months."

Opiates: A friend first gave him an oxycodone pill, "and I was like, 'Why not?' I crushed it up and snorted it. ... It was like the absolute, most warmest hug I ever felt."

He can't remember when he first switched from prescription opiates to heroin. But shooting up the drug, he said, "was like stepping into the perfect temperature of bath water, and (the feeling) would go all the way up, and all the way down."

Williams is disabled. He walks with a limp and his left arm hangs at his side.

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"I went to prison a couple years back. I found out I had a brain tumor. They went in to take it out, and they cut a blood vessel ... gave me a stroke."

One day, two years ago, he ran out of money and got clean. He can't explain why.

"These days ... I feel better about my life than I ever have before. Which sounds pretty crazy, doesn't it? I only got half a freakin' body right now. ... But I get by. I still joke and love and make it to the Dollar Tree. All my essentials are taken care of."

— Keith Uhlig, kuhlig@gannett.com

Addiction becomes a legacy of abuse

Jodi Chamberlain, Stevens Point

Jodi Chamberlain relinquished custody of her two sons to her sister-in-law in October while attending drug court. Though it was emotional for her, she said it's for the best, and she can maintain a relationship with them.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

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Jodi Chamberlain couldn't get pills. They cost too much.

She got heroin from a friend instead. She was alone in her bedroom the first time she snorted the drug.

She didn’t have to think or feel. She didn't have to deal with anything. But, Chamberlain said, "when it ends, you just crave more.”

She used heroin again within a week.

Chamberlain was living in Stevens Point at the time. She was barely in her 20s, but was already a regular drug user — mostly pain pills, but also cocaine and other stimulants. Her addictions grew out of a turbulent childhood, which, she said, included incidents of sexual abuse by a relative.

“I was taught to lie and to not have feelings,” she said. “I’ve never felt feelings.”

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Now 41, Chamberlain has been clean for about eight months. She moved back to Stevens Point late last year after living in Eau Claire. Sometimes she slept in a truck.

Chamberlain was arrested again and again. She was sentenced in May on felony drug charges, but instead of going to prison, a judge allowed her to participate in Portage County’s drug court. She's never made it through treatment without going back to heroin. If she fails in drug court, she faces a prison sentence.

Chamberlain regrets how many people she hurt with her drug use, particularly her two children, who watched their mother struggle with addiction.

She wants to stay clean, but even she can’t say whether she will make it.

“I can’t make that promise to anyone, not even myself,” she said. “But I choose to have people in my life now who can help me when I am going through rough times.”

— Chris Mueller, cmueller@gannett.com

'A very functional addict' awaits prison

Kyle Keding, Wisconsin Rapids

Kyle Keding vowed to never use heroin again after he was present when another user died from an overdose. Now, over a year clean, Keding awaits his February sentencing for a first-degree reckless homicide charge.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Kyle Keding was 26 years old and had been a heavy user of drugs for years before he tried heroin.

He had been drinking and smoking marijuana for about half his life. He had been dependent on opiate painkillers such as Percodan and Oxycontin for about five years. The pills helped him get through long days as a welder and they helped him forget about the crap life handed him.

Keding was sexually molested when he was about 5 years old, first by a babysitter, then by a relative, he said. Those memories never left him, unless he was high. So he got high. A lot. For him, that was just part of life, in addition to work, being a parent and a husband.

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"I was what you call 'a very functional' addict," he said.

The heroin was a practical choice. Opiate painkiller manufacturers had changed the formula of their pills, making them more difficult to use to get high, and also created a huge opiate shortage. 

"So I couldn't find what I wanted. I called up my friend, and he was like, 'Well, I've got some 'ron (heroin). ... (I was) kind of skeptical," Keding said. "I had not done it before."

He did not feel as if he had stepped over any kind of line. He had already liquefied prescription opiates and shot those up intravenously.

Shooting up, both synthetic opiates and heroin, gave him a stronger high. He chose the needle because his friend and dealer did not have enough pills to get Keding as high as he wanted.

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"I can remember the words that came out of my mouth once I released the strap off my arm," he said. "'Oh, my God. This is amazing.' And I knew right there, this is it. I was like, there was no turning back now. But there was."

He used heroin for five years, until Dec. 2, 2014. That night he was with friends, getting high, and one of the people he was with died. He was charged with first-degree reckless homicide/deliver drugs. He accepted a plea deal on that charge on Dec. 1, 2017. He awaits sentencing in February and could face years in prison.

— Keith Uhlig, kuhlig@gannett.com

'This is a lifelong battle'

Tommy Casper, Neenah

Tommy Casper said one of the main reasons he has stayed clean for more than seven months is because of his nephew Owen, who has only ever known him sober. Casper sees his sister Carly Fritsch, who overcame her own struggle with addiction, and Owen most days of the week after work. Casper plays on a recreational volleyball team with other recovering addicts and attends Narcotics Anonymous meeting three times a week.
— Photos, video by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Tommy Casper was alone in the basement of the two-story home where he grew up.

He sat on his bed and opened a small bag of heroin that had been on top of a dresser beside him. He hadn’t used the drug before, but at about $120 a bag, it was cheaper than the pills he used. He snorted it.

He found himself asking one thing as the feeling went away: “What do I need to do in order to feel that way again?” He used heroin again three hours later.

Casper was 21 years old and living in Muskego, a community of fewer than 25,000 people on the outskirts of Milwaukee. His mother had died about six months earlier and he struggled with the loss. His sporadic use of pain pills became an addiction.

“The first time I used (as a way) to cope — rather than using to have fun or go out — was at her funeral,” he said.

After he turned to heroin, Casper told himself he wouldn’t use a needle because "then I wasn’t as bad as other people.” He used a needle for the first time a year later.

After his mother died, Casper moved around — to a house in West Allis, then an apartment in Neenah. He began to steal to support his addiction, but got caught shoplifting at a Walmart in Fond du Lac. He was charged and went to treatment a few days later.

Casper hardly slept or ate for two weeks as he fought through the physical withdrawal from the drug.

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Casper, now 29, has relapsed twice since going to treatment. He hasn’t used for about the last seven months and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings three times a week. He has a full-time job at a call center in Appleton and hopes to use his story to help others.

“This is a lifelong battle that we’re going to be in,” he said.

— Chris Mueller, cmueller@gannett.com

About this project

Wisconsin has a heroin problem directly linked to its opioid epidemic. Every corner of the state has been affected, every taxpayer, every school district, every police department, every social service agency, every hospital.

But why do an estimated 6,600 Wisconsin residents regularly snort, inject or smoke heroin? And how do we get our state off this deadly drug?

A team of journalists from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin went to 10 people who know firsthand how heroin enters a person's life, and how best to get away from its grip. Their stories are part of a project the news organization will continue in 2018 to investigate Wisconsin's response to the opioid crisis and the most successful paths to recovery.

All photos and videos by Alexandra Wimley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Send feedback to Robert Mentzer, project editor: rmentzer@gannett.com

How to get help

For people who want to get help with heroin addiction:

Emergency: In a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

United Way 2-1-1: If it's not an emergency but you want information over the phone at any hour about local options, call 211.

Narcotics Anonymous: Local meetings can be found online at wisconsinna.org or by calling 1-866-590-2651.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services: Guide to treatment resources statewide, online at dhs.wisconsin.gov/opioids/.