MUSKEGO - Megan Murphy is a pretty, talkative 23-year-old from Muskego with long permed hair and a sobriety tattoo.
She counts those she knows who died from heroin or opiate overdoses. She comes up with 22 names. She met many in various rehab stints.
“Emily, Jay, David, Nick ...,” says Megan, whose arm is stamped with a long tattoo reading, “I will never falter. I will stand my ground. There is danger in starting a fire. You never know how many bridges you will burn.”
“Emily, she was absolutely beautiful. So good-looking. Her mom works with my best friend. She overdosed. Her mom found her in her room. Nick, he was sober two years then all of a sudden a friend said he overdosed. This girl Nicole, she had three little boys.”
Megan has been sober for a year.
“This is a success story,” says Debbie Murphy, of her daughter.
“The addiction is so much more powerful than the fear of death. People are wrecked.” - District Attorney Brad Schimel
It’s that success story that Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel is hoping to replicate with a drug court that’s existed for about 2 1/2 years. The heroin addicts the county sees fit Megan’s profile. They are not the “back-alley addicts” that people used to imagine when they thought of heroin, he says.
Locking people up the traditional way wasn’t working because it was a “period of forced sobriety” that lowered people’s tolerance and they would sometimes die of overdoses once released as a result, he said. If they complete the program, they can avoid the ruinous nature of a felony. There are drug screens and support groups, regular visits before the judge. “We get into everything in their lives,” Schimel says.
“By the time people get here, they have exploded. It’s destroyed everything,” he says. “The addiction is so much more powerful than the fear of death. People are wrecked.”
The drug court doesn’t take people who are drug dealers or have violent records. The dealers who cause overdoses, though, are a completely different story. The DA has led the state in the number of reckless homicide prosecutions of heroin dealers under the Len Bias law. He says the number is more than 26; before heroin, the tactic was extremely rare. Now a prosecutor in Schimel’s office does only that.
He would like to see other measures implemented, such as making it mandatory for doctors to check a new prescription monitoring database that will alert them to a patient who is doctor shopping. Now, they have seven days to put prescriptions in the database, and he’d like a requirement that they go in sooner. The rest is educational.
“We need parents and physicians to be our partners in this,” said Schimel. “We will only win this if we reduce the supply.”
Winning this would mean fewer Megans with stories to tell about the horrors of heroin. And the supply refers to pills, not just heroin.
To the depths of addiction
Megan agreed to tell her story to also help educate the community about how heroin addiction works. In less than a decade, heroin and opioid pill use have skyrocketed in Waukesha County, alarming addiction experts and law enforcement officials.
Within human stories, other experts also say, lies a community lesson: Take pills seriously.
“Opioids should go in a lockbox,” Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Herrington Recovery Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, says. Overflow pills should be turned in to law enforcement for disposal.
Megan attributes her initial draw toward pills to low self-esteem. In high school, she weighed 205 pounds and was teased, desperate to fit in, an artistically inclined student.
“She was self-medicating,” says her mother.
Megan concurs. “I was trying to fill that insecurity but then I would become empty again.”
Marijuana made her hungry, and she wanted to lose weight. Guys on the football team wouldn’t “glance at me” but did drugs. Pills made her insecurities vanish and seem insignificant. At first.
A friend told her pills were a hangover cure. Her father had a slipped disc and a legitimate prescription for Vicodin. At first, he didn’t notice some were missing. She hung out at a George Webb’s and a guy there gave her more. She met a Waukesha girl who was in a beauty school circle.
“She said, ‘I can get Percocet, Oxy.’ The whole circle was full of pill addicts.”
This is how law enforcement officials say pill and heroin use works. It’s organized around user networks who are loosely connected, almost like a social network.
Megan went to beauty school but dropped out. She worked at a local BP and figured out who the addicts were. At the worst of it, she was couch surfing, dating another addict, driving to Chicago malls to steal power tools and mixers for money (she was caught once and ended up with a charge), and driving to Milwaukee drug houses to get heroin. She wasn’t worried about being shot because the dealers would protect their customers.
“You feel protected,” she said. “They make you feel like family.”
How much pill use was in high school?
“A lot. I was snorting OxyContin on my desk after school one day. The teacher went to make copies. When she came back, she said, ‘You’re in a good mood.’”
A boyfriend got her to switch to heroin. One day, she told him she was “pill sick” because she was withdrawing from not having pills, and he suggested they drive to Milwaukee to get heroin instead.
“I didn’t care because it got me unsick,” she said. Sometimes, they drove to Chicago because the heroin was cheaper, buying from dealers who would use five throwaway phones to stay ahead of law enforcement. At one drug house in Milwaukee, the dealer let them use in his bathroom. The house was raided, but police let them go with a stern lecture because they were after the dealers (after putting a gun to her head).
She went to Rogers’ treatment program multiple times.
Her senior year at Muskego High School, Megan graduated - barely. Her GPA had plummeted to 1.8. During the ceremony, she was “high as a kite,” her mother said.
Debbie Murphy discovered her daughter’s heroin addiction when she noticed jewelry was missing - including her husband’s wedding ring. Charge cards had unexplained expenses. She confronted Megan and called police.
“I wanted them to come to our house and scare her. I wasn’t going to lose my kid,” she says.
A toll on the family
Heroin addiction takes a toll on parents; Debbie gained 40 pounds. She almost lost her job because of time spent away from work. She ended up caring for her daughter’s baby in her 50s.
“It stresses the whole family,” she says. She and her husband (who works in IT) have four other children, including triplets.
What she didn’t realize was her daughter had a vial of heroin, which police found, and Megan ended up convicted of a felony. This was a few years before the drug court started.
“She started out with pills, recreational use, from her dad’s cabinet. Then she started robbing people. It broke my heart,” Debbie says.
However, the months that Megan spent in jail helped her break the addiction.
“She’s a different person. I have my daughter back,” Debbie Murphy said.
This was a mother with more knowledge than most. Debbie works in a pain management clinic.
“We had blinders on,” she admits. “Now there’s more awareness. I have my eyes open now.”
Megan explained the drug trade in detail. People go to Florida because crooked doctors will give prescriptions to anyone. The pharmaceutical companies made it harder to snort the pills, so people use a complex process that involves freezing and microwaving them.
She finally quit because “it takes everything. You have no money. No place to live. No family. They all hate you,” she said. “You don’t have friends - you just think you do.”
People were dying around her. The epiphany came when she was hanging out with a local heroin addict who lived in his parents’ garage.
“There were people all over. And I thought, ‘This is how life is going to be. I don’t want a life like that.’ I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, her? That was Megan. She had two kids. She was a nice person. She was addicted to heroin, and she died.’”
Waukesha County Drug Treatment Court
By the numbers:
111 - Applications reviewed by staffing team.
Accepted: 92 (83%), denied: 19 (17%)
15 - People currently on waiting list
75 - Total enrollment since start of program
12 - Successful graduations (34% of all discharges)
23 - Unsuccessfully discharged from program (20 for noncompliance, 1 reoffended, 1 voluntary, 1 death)
40 - Current caseload
* Sex: 50 men, 25 women
18-25: 46 (61%)
26-32: 23 (31%)
33-40: 4 (5%)
41-50: 2 (3%)
Caucasian: 69 (92%)
Hispanic: 2 (3%)
Other (biracial): 4 (5%)
(All figures from March 2012 inception through June 2014)
- Source: District Attorney Brad Schimel