Dark side of addiction: Local man offers personal window into heroin addiction in hopes of bringing awareness
Many people may realize there is a huge problem with opiate addiction in America, and this includes Aiken County as the Aiken County Coroner’s Office continues to see a high number of overdose deaths in the area.
However, hearing about a problem from the local news and learning about it from someone who has lived the horrors first-hand are two entirely different things.
Cody Sanders, 26, is an Aiken resident, father of three and a recovering heroin addict who has witnessed the disturbing, dark side of addiction. It’s a miracle Sanders is still alive today after he admits to overdosing over 10 times in the past seven years.
As of August, there have been 19 accidental overdose deaths recorded in Aiken County in 2018, said Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton.
At the end of 2017, there was 43 overdose deaths recorded, compared to 17 recorded overdose deaths in 2016, Carlton said.
“Everything I’ve seen this year, when it comes to accidental overdoses, shows people are dying at about the same pace as last year (2017),” Carlton said. “This isn’t a good thing; we definitely need to see these numbers drop considerably.”
Sanders spoke to Aiken Standard about the problem he has experienced first-hand as he walked through the Graniteville Cemetery, offering up a somber reminder of where he likely should’ve ended up after being reported clinically dead after an overdose.
“I don’t think people realize how much of a monster these drugs are,” Sanders said. “It takes everything from you, and you’re willing to give it up for just one more hit.”
Sanders moved to Aiken from Guntersville, Alabama, in his early teens with his family. He was an athlete and had, what appeared to be, a bright future ahead of him.
“I was probably around 13 when I drank my first beer and smoked some marijuana,” Sanders said. “I really only did that because of the people I was hanging out with.”
About a year later, Sanders got his first taste of the drug that would come to rule over his life.
“I got my wisdom teeth removed when I was 14, and the doctor prescribed me Hydrocodone for the pain - it was instant love,” he said. “That was the first time I got that opiate feeling, and I really liked the way it felt.”
However, Sanders was too busy with school and sports to let drugs take hold of him just yet.
“At first, it was just occasional use here and there,” Sanders said. “Plus, I didn’t really know how to get it. It was just one of those things where someone would have some and offer me a pill.”
This recreational use went on for a couple more years until something happened that would change Sanders’ life. At age 16, he injured his knee playing football and was prescribed a fairly large amount of opiates to numb his pain.
“I took them things every day,” he said. “I had to start taking more and more than was prescribed to me in a day to get that high I was looking for; plus the pills made me more sociable. I was going out and making friends, all while feeling great.”
Around this time in his young life, Sanders met his first love - a girl who would go on to be the mother of his first child.
“I loved that girl, man,” Sanders laughed. “And life was good for about a year or two. I was happy and clean at the time, because I started doing martial arts. Then, she got pregnant and my daughter was on the way – but then I hurt my other knee.”
Sanders was prescribed even more pills for the pain.
“So, here I was again back to my old ways – popping pills. More and more, I couldn’t get enough,” he said. “Then, I got introduced to the hard stuff. The good stuff. It was around Christmas time, when a guy I knew asked me if I had ever tried heroin before. Of course, I told him no, and he said I was missing out because it was like 10 times better than the pills. He ended up laying out a line of it for me, just a little bit. I snorted it, and within 10 minutes I felt the highest I had ever felt in all my life.”
Instant love affair
Not long after trying heroin for the first time, Sanders tried using the drug intravenously or with a needle.
“My friend shot me up the first time and that was it – instant love affair,” Sanders said. “I was 18, about to be 19, when my daughter was born. And even while my baby’s mother was still in the hospital, I was getting high. It took over and was consuming my life. I did it behind my girl’s back for so long.”
Sanders’ daughter was only a month old when he overdosed for the first time.
“I overdosed at work,” he said. “I fell over and blacked out. They ended up giving me a drug test and I, of course, failed.”
His life started to go downhill, quickly.
“My girl told me to get help, or I would lose my family,” Sanders said. “So, I ended up deciding to go to rehab in Florida for 45 days, but I was mad at the world in Florida. Then, after I got out I was clean, but my girl basically told me she was done and it was over. At that point, in my mind at least, I had lost everything that meant anything to me and I had nothing to live for.”
Sanders continued his slide to rock bottom as he injected heroin day in and day out – all day long.
“I started dating this new girl and we were using together, very heavy,” he said. “Then one day I walked into the living room and there she was dead on the couch, with the needle still in her arm.”
His girlfriend had overdosed and died right in front of him, leaving him with an overwhelming sense of pain, loneliness, emptiness and shame. The disturbing reality of addiction everyone hears about in the news had become all too real for Sanders.
“That was rough,” Sanders said. “I didn’t really care one way or another if I died, but having someone you love die in front of you – that’s some heavy (expletive). But even with that, I couldn’t take the pain and felt somewhat responsible, so I went out and got high.”
The disturbing reality
From his personal experience as coroner in Aiken County, Carlton said this sobering scene Sanders describes about finding his girlfriend dead is a common sight at the scene of many overdose deaths.
“We would find people dead in their house, or bathroom, with the needle and spoon still sitting nearby; some of the victims even still had the needle sticking out of their arms,” Carlton said. “We call it – one step – because most of these people didn’t even make it one step before they fell over dead.”
Struggling with addiction
The drugs had completely consumed Sander’s life when he was only around 21 years old. While most of the people he grew up with were graduating from college or getting their first big job, he was burying his girlfriend and doing whatever he had to do to get high.
“I would rob, cheat, steal and lie to get those drugs,” Sanders said. “I lived for that next hit, that’s all I was doing. I was living to die.”
Through the next few years, Sanders was arrested multiple times for different petty reasons, but all extending, one way or another, from his drug problem.
Since he was 18 years old, Sanders has been struggling with addiction, and he will continue to struggle for, most likely, the rest of the his life.
“About a year ago, I just finally had enough and hit a point where either I stopped or I was going to die and not come back this time,” he said. “I’ve accepted the fact that I will forever be an addict. Now, I just have to take it one day at a time and pray I make it through to the next day. It’s the only way I’m going to make it; but I’ve got to try – not for me, but for my kids.”
Sanders is trying his best to stay clean by taking it a day at a time. He now lives with a family member, who offers him support during these troubling times.
“I just hope people will hear my story and realize there is a way out – you just have to want it,” he said. “I also really just hope my story will bring some more awareness to this massive problem. I think there are a lot of people out there who just want to sweep it under the rug and pretend people aren’t out here dying everyday. They are (dying), and I’ve seen it for myself.”
Help for addicts
Aiken County residents struggling with addiction can find help at The Aiken Center for Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 1105 Gregg Highway, or they can call 803-649-1900 for more information. The Aiken Center’s website is aikencenter.org.
There is also help for opiate addicts at the Behavioral Health Group, 410 University Parkway, Suite 1560. They can be reached for more information by calling 803-641-6911 or by visiting the website at aiken.bhgrecovery.com.