Jenna’s Journey Through Addiction

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Authorities are calling it an epidemic: heroin addiction is skyrocketing across the state as well as here in northeastern and central Pennsylvania.

Experts say the drug is more accessible and cheaper than ever.

A young woman from Lackawanna County nearly lost her life to heroin.

Jenna Smith plays basketball with a passion and a purpose. She's a 22-year-old college student, an athlete, and a recovering heroin addict.

"I was a good kid, I got straight A's, I was athletic, I had a lot of friends and I picked up and it just took over my life."

Jenna's journey through addiction began when she was just 12 years old living at Lake Winola.

"I decided one day after basketball practice to just drink. I got alcohol poisoning. I had a .283 alcohol level. I was rushed to the hospital. I don't remember anything, I almost died," Jenna recalled. "That was my first experience with alcohol."

And it wasn't her last. Along with alcohol, Jenna tried marijuana and eventually went to painkillers like Percocet and OxyContin. Finally she turned to the one drug she promised to never try.

"It wasn't until after I graduated high school that I started heroin. I guess I started using it because I ran out of money and it's cheaper."

Jenna says she could buy a bag of heroin for $3. Experts say it's a common theme with heroin users when painkillers become too pricey, they switch to heroin.

"From what we hear from our patients it's less expensive, it's more accessible," said Dominic Vangarelli, the clinical director at Marworth, a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Lackawanna County.

Vangarelli says they've seen a significant increase in heroin patients: twice as many young adults within the past five years.

"It's sad because you have bright, intelligent people from all walks of life because it doesn't discriminate."

Here's a breakdown from the Pennsylvania State Coroner's Association showing heroin-related overdose deaths between 2009 and 2013.

heroin map

The highest in our area is Luzerne County with 119 deaths and Lackawanna County comes in second with 65.

That's one reason Marworth donated Narcan kits to police departments throughout Lackawanna County.  First responders may only have minutes to administer Narcan and save someone overdosing on heroin.

"This is a medicine that's sort of like epinephrine for an allergy. It reverses the overdose and it can be lifesaving," said Dr. Joseph Valdez.

Jenna came close to being a statistic. At her lowest point, she was injecting 25 bags of heroin a day.

"I wasn't even getting high. It's just so I wasn't sick. That's what happens; you just use to be able to get out of bed and to function."

Jenna knew she had to get help. She checked into Marworth and started a 12-step program.

"So I got on my knees and I started praying, asking my higher power or just anybody, that's what really made the difference. I just got on my knees every day."

"We help them to start forgive themselves to look at where there's hope because if you stay in the hopelessness which happens early on, recovery is tough," Vangarelli said.

Jenna knows that firsthand. Now her goal is giving back. She'll be done with a psychology degree soon and eventually help others conquer their addictions.

"That's what my purpose is in life. I found that through sobriety because there's only one reason I'm still here is to help other people."

Jenna has been sober for more than three and a half years and says she cherishes every day of sobriety.

Counselors stress that heroin addiction is a disease and if you know someone who is having a problem, here's a number to get help: 1 (800) 442-7722.

22 comments

  • anon

    Jenna I am so unbelievably proud of you and the courage you have displayed by doing this interview. It IS a disease that people can not understand unless they have it. It’s something you are born with that takes you to the scariest most lonely pits of hell. It literally takes everything from you and once you have nothing left it takes your life. Jenna managed to not allow that to happen and she is prevailing. .so I really think everyone that isn’t supporting her should gtfo

  • Jo schmoo

    It is a choice to start and stop just as any other drug out there….therefore it is not a disease so counselors stop lying to people !!!!! Any addiction can be overcome with the strength and encouragement to want to stop using…when counselors learn this themselves they may tend to see less addicts….it is choice….

  • SwampMonkey

    Step – 1 – Alcohol
    Step – 2 – *pot*
    Step – 3 – pills
    Step – 4 – heroin.

      • BZ22

        It’s not a disease in the same vein as my family members having cancer. They didn’t decide it might be fun to try, purchase it from a dealer or choose which one they got. An addict had that choice to not drink, smoke, inhale or inject. Once they made that poor choice, then that drug took over and they have to choose minute by minute, day by day whether to reject it or not. I’ve had too many tell me it’s in their genes, etc., and the ones I know tend to rely on that rather than owning up to and accepting their own responsibility for the problem they created.

  • Jennifer Ludwig

    This gives me, as a parent of a beautiful daughter just like Jenna, hope I have lost my daughter to this disease. She has gone to salvation army rehabilitation center in Syracuse. Walked out 5 day’s later n checked herself back in 6 days after that, the FridAy before this last mother’s day. I hope n pray she can get the help needed like Jenna has. God speed to you Jenna and please keep helping our young n impressionable children that get talked into trying this by someone they care for.

  • Bill

    This girl has a lot of courage. I hope she stays strong and doesn’t ever relapse. It’s a unusual success story from the torture of a horrible drug. Maybe just one person will see this and get off heroin.

  • Gary

    They mention the life saving medication Narcan and the push to have it carried by police officers… WNEP should investigate why PA emergency medical technicians are barred by the PA Department of Health from ever carrying that treatment on a volunteer ambulance which is more likely to be the “first responder” in rural areas that do not have local or full-time police officers.

    • Allen

      Good point Gary! Few people know this… The way the rules are, PA Ambulance EMTs technically have to call 911 to have police dispatched to bring their life saving treatment to the patient… Either that or wait for a paid advanced life support service which can sometimes be quite a distance away. Doesn’t make any sense!

  • Anonymous

    She is a brave young woman, congrats to her! I wish her well on her continued path of sobriety! Hopefully this story will help others get help for their addictions.

  • Bren

    It seems like she might be one of the smart and lucky ones. So many do not recover except when they achieve their final release through death. Prayers for her continued sobriety!

  • BZ22

    Good for her and continuing sobriety. The forgiving part is fine but accepting responsibility and being accountable for her problem seems to make a big difference between success and failure as well. This is a poison that’s everywhere and it’s encouraging to see a story of someone winning their battle.

    • Yeah...

      Do you really think recovering addicts don’t concern themselves with responsibility? It’s part of what they torture themselves with everyday. It’s THEIR lives that got messed up. I don’t think they need your two cents.

      • BZ22

        Stats tell you 40% relapse and 20% die. Ones I know personally continue giving the “reasons” of family issues, genes, no one understanding them and this “disease” and then fall off the wagon after a year or so. Until they can look someone in the eye, admit they’re an addict and the impact of that behavior on others, not just them personally, forgiving themselves isn’t enough.

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