2018-04-06 / Front Page

Opioid crisis comes home

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Maria Ramos, left, and Katie Rodrigues, have had their troubles with heroin, as, respectively, dealer and addict. But after meeting in a Connecticut prison, they got straight, got educated, and turned their lives around, moving to Maine where they worked hard and saved until they could start their own business, launching Woodgrain Barbers in Biddeford late last year. Now, with the opioid epidemic having followed them north, Rodrigues is speaking out, hoping her story will save others from the experiences that nearly left her dead. (Duke Harrington photo) Maria Ramos, left, and Katie Rodrigues, have had their troubles with heroin, as, respectively, dealer and addict. But after meeting in a Connecticut prison, they got straight, got educated, and turned their lives around, moving to Maine where they worked hard and saved until they could start their own business, launching Woodgrain Barbers in Biddeford late last year. Now, with the opioid epidemic having followed them north, Rodrigues is speaking out, hoping her story will save others from the experiences that nearly left her dead. (Duke Harrington photo) To look at Katie Rodrigues today, you would never guess the horrors she has seen. Pretty and petite, the co-owner of a thriving Biddeford barber shop, she looks every bit her idyllic, white picket fence upbringing in Northfield, Connecticut, a town not at all unlike Kennebunk.

But it was just a few years ago that Rodrigues was as low as it’s possible to get, homeless and hopelessly addicted to heroin, locked in a Dunkin’ bathroom, where she writhed on the dirty floor, the rat poison cut into her latest fix coursing through her veins, doing its level best to end her life.

And it nearly did. According to media reports at the time, she says, four, maybe five people were killed by that bad batch. At her lowest, Rodrigues wished she had been one of them.

“I felt like I was on fire and I blacked out,” she recalled in a March 31 interview, on a bench outside the shop she co-owns on Main Street, within sight of the Saco River.

Once enough people had complained about the locked bathroom, doughnut shop employees called Hartford police, who then called fire and rescue, who then busted down the door. Rodrigues awoke to find herself handcuffed to a hospital bed, covered in burns, almost like she’d been set on fire, literally.

“Niacin, which is the main ingredient in rat poison, is what came up in my blood- work,” Rodrigues says. “From my bloodstream, the niacin ended up coming out through my pores and burning my skin. I had blisters — open wounds — on my legs, my arms, my face, my chest. Everything was covered in sores. I was lucky to be alive, but I looked like I was dying of ebola. I do not kid you. I literally looked like some kind of alien.”

By then in her career, Rodrigues was known to police. Well known. Over time, Rodrigues says, she had discovered herself to be “unusually good” at shoplifting to support her drug habit. But a year or so before her near-death at Dunkin’, Rodrigues got sloppy. Once brazen enough to walk out of department stores with entire racks of designer clothing, simple hunger driver her to pocket a Dollar Store candy bar. The owner caught her on the way out and would not be placated by the return of the Snickers.

“His name was Jackie Chan. I can’t even make that up,” Rodrigues says, laughing with forced perspective at the ridiculousness of it all.

Exhibiting the kung-fu grip of his namesake, Chan held on while the cops were called, and, as Rodrigues flailed in vain hope of effecting an escape, her elbow caught him in the nose and broke his glasses. It happened more by accident than design, but it drew blood and elevated Rodrigues’ crime from petty larceny to full-blown robbery.

That earned her a short jail stint and longer probation sentence, as well as her 14th trip to rehab. Though the victim of an unscrupulous dealer trying to extend his limited supplies, the Dunkin’ incident amounted to probation violation.

Rodrigues was sentenced to three years in prison.

There she did a lot of soul-searching. Finally, she was ready to quit.

“I healed mentally and emotionally,” she said. “I got clean and this time I stayed clean. I truly for the first time in my life sat down and got real with myself.”

Even so, she might have relapsed. Probably would have, she admits. But let back into the world in only a white T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, and having long since burned every bridge with her loving, almost too tolerant parents, Rodrigues wound up at a halfway house. There she met another recent parolee, Maria Ramos.

Ramos was a almost the polar opposite of Rodrigues. She had grown up in what Rodrigues calls “the worst ghetto there is.” That was strike one. Her parents were drug addicts. That was strike two. And then there was her sexuality. At that time, and in that place: Strike three.

Out of economic necessity, Ramos turned to dealing drugs, though she was scrupulous about never partaking of the product herself. And she was as “unusually good” at that as Rodrigues had once been at shoplifting. In many ways, she predicted Walter White of Breaking Bad fame by about 20 years.

And she got away with it for a lot longer. Almost 20 years, living the high life. But the crime train almost always hits a dead end and, eventually, Ramos got caught. But in prison she buckled down. She became a model inmate, earned her associates degree, and took advantage of a prison training program that taught her how to become a barber. As luck would have it, cutting hair turned out to be something for which Ramos had a genuine talent.

Once out of jail, Ramos and Rodrigues, only casual acquaintances behind bars, came to lean on each other as a mutual support system. Over time, their rapport blossomed into a relationship. About five years ago, they moved to Maine.

Rodrigues’ parents, including an immigrant father who achieved the American dream, retired to Kennebunkport about 10 years ago. Having vacationed in the area as a child, and looking for a fresh start, Rodrigues made the trek north. Finally clean, she reconnected with her parents and took any minimum wage or waitressing job she could get, while Ramos plied her new trade in Portland, getting better and better all the time and building up a dedicated clientele.

Eventually, having saved enough, Ramos, 40, and Rodrigues, 31, opened their own salon, Woodgrain Barbers, about four months ago. Ramos is the face of the business while Rodrigues manages things behind the scenes. She still holds down a property management job on the side, but the shop has taken off and done so well that just past week the couple inked a deal to open a second location this summer in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square.

It has been, Rodrigues says, a hard-won recovery, one she works at every day. Sometimes, she says, it’s hard to believe how far she and Ramos have come.

“I’m just lucky to be alive really, especially when you consider the number of people I was around when I was using who are dead today,” she says, with a bit of a shiver.

But now, Rodrigues is reaching out to tell her story, in hopes other young women can learn from her experiences, and avoid the seven years of hell she endured, which plummeted her from college track star to death’s door and just barely back again.

That latest journey began last fall, when Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie was having dinner with Rodrigues’ parents. Over the past couple of years, MacKenzie has taken point in opioid crisis, leading the charge to recognize drug addiction as a disease and to treat it appropriately. Simply arresting drug dealers and their marks is never going to win the war on drugs, MacKenzie said in a March 29 interview.

“What we need more than anything else is awareness and education, to recognize and break the cycle of addiction, so that we are not on this endless conveyor belt of arresting people and releasing them back into the only thing they know, without treating the real problem,” MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie acknowledges that he had seen some forms of substance abuse in his own extended family, and, in his early years of public service, he took a hard line on catching the bad guys. And certainly, he could just continue to do his job, racking up arrests to prove his department’s worth in a crowded municipal budget. But the better thing, the more responsible thing, would be to prevent those arrests from ever needing to take place.

It was about four or five years ago, MacKenzie says, that he first noticed the opioid crisis really coming to Maine. Rodrigues saw it, too. She says she felt at the time like in followed her north, just to taunt her.

And both Rodrigues and MacKenzie said the medical-industrial complex is most to blame for the crisis. Pharmaceutical companies had an interest in moving their latest and greatest products, insurance companies would not pay if patients reported their pain was untreated and doctors, wanting to get paid, made sure there were no complaints.

The dealers and the pushers simply moved in after people were already addicted and their prescriptions ran out.

For Rodrigues, it started when she was still in high school. She went under the knife for rhinoplasty surgery to fix a deviated septum and was given Percocet for her recovery.

“No one in my family has ever had a drug problem, but I must have been born with an addictive personality, or overly sensitive receptors in my brain, because from that very first pill, I knew this was something I liked,” she said.

From there Rodrigues discovered oxycontin. At Liberty University on a full track scholarship, Rodrigues was given the drug by a fellow dean’s list student who had swiped it from her grandparent’s medicine cabinet. Initially, Rodrigues did not take the drugs to get high. It was just a way to stay sharp, more aware — less anxious and ready to tackle all that a busy college student has to contend with.

“With one of those pills, I felt I could do anything,” she said.

But that supply ran out and Rodrigues, by now fully aware she was addicted but powerless to stop herself, would visit emergency rooms, where she would put Meryl Streep to shame with Oscar-worthy impression of being in pain from kidney stones. She kept it up until the supply of New England ERs proved to be not nearly as infinite as she had hoped.

She dropped out of college in her junior year, stole her mother’s jewelry and hocked it to pay for drugs, even sold the car she was living in after getting kicked out of the house when her grief-stricken parents, once Biblically patient and supportive, had finally resorted to tough love.

Within a few years, she found herself shooting up with a needle, something she could never have imagined remotely possible, then taking cocaine to counteract the effects, while spreading out paper towels on the floor of a White Castle bathroom and curling herself behind a toilet for whatever protection it might afford while she slept.

MacKenzie, having learned of Rodrigues story, and, he says, hardly able to believe it himself to look at her today, asked her to speak at various school and Rotary functions as part of his ongoing awareness campaign. Maine Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill in 2016 that would allow pharmacists to dispense an anti-overdose drug without a prescription. In his statement to lawamkers, LePage wrote, “Naloxone does not truly save lives — it merely extends them until the next overdose.”

MacKenzie disagrees, and says Rodrigues is Exhibit A for why one should never give up on a drug addict. Each one, he says, is more than just a junkie. His hope, he says, is that by sharing her story, Rodrigues can help prevent some young people from ever going down the path of pain and regret she followed.

About 80 percent of everything the Kennebunk police department does ties in some way to drugs, MacKenzie said. Who knows, if that can be resolved, maybe he’ll be able to go to selectmen one day and report he actually needs fewer officers, not more.

For Rodrigues, accepting MacKenzie’s offer was a daunting decision. She and Ramos have led hard lives. The savvy customer at their shop can spot the drug signs among Ramos’ tattoos, a permanent testament to her past. Rodrigues, too, must live every day with the memory of the things she’s done. Starting a successful business is hard enough without getting a branded as the druggie barbers.

Rodrigues says she ultimately decided it was what she had to do. Looking at her body in the mirror, and the scars that will never heal, she’ll call it worthwhile if she can connect with even one person and prevent her from going what she experienced. And, also, it’s true enough that living with that pain is a way to keep in from recurring.

“As a recovering addict, the greatest chance of relapse is when things are going too well and you either self destruct because you don’t believe it can last, or else you forget what can happen if you are not constantly on guard,” she says. “I’ll be an addict for the rest of my life. Never forgetting that is the best way to keep from falling back into it.”

And finally, there is that fact that the Kennebunks remind Rodrigues so much of her Connecticut hometown.

“Nobody wants to talk about drug addicts. It’s ugly. But they don’t look like junkies on the side of the street,” Rodrigues said. “They’re not all homeless, dirty, smelly people. I wasn’t for a long time. Not until it was way too late. People think that kind of thing can’t happen to them, that it can’t happen here. But I can tell you for certain it absolutely can. I promise you, it’s here and happening right now.”

“This is not a back-alley problem,” MacKenzie agrees. “This is in our schools, our neighborhoods, these are people’s loved ones, people we all know, dying every day.”

But ultimately, Rodrigues says, she is speaking out to help unsuspecting parents as much as troubled teens. It is her way, she says, of honoring her own parents.

“More than once they asked me what they did wrong for me to end up where I did,” she said. “But that’s just it. The answer is nothing. They did not do one single thing wrong. And still it happened. And that is what’s so truly evil about opioids.”

Fighting back

Kennebunk Rotary Club is sponsoring a two-night workshop titled Recognizing the Opiate/ Heroin Crisis, to be held Tuesday, April 10 and Thursday, April 12, at Kennebunk Elementary School.

The first night will feature a panel discussion on the opioid epidemic, substance abuse disorder, and their impact on local communities. Led by Kennebunk Police Chief Robert MacKenzie, the event will feature medical professionals and former addicts discussing their experiences. The second night will include training in first aid and instruction on how to administer life-saving naloxone to an overdose victim. Both sessions begin at 6 p.m. and are open to the public.

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