OTISFIELD — Patrick Valeri didn’t mean to become an advocate for himself and others struggling with heroin and opiate addiction — it happened through a mother’s love.
His mother, Barbara, woke him up in the late afternoon of Aug. 6 and dragged his groggy butt out of bed, telling him they had to go. His mother wanted to take the 20-year-old Otisfield resident — and self-admitted heroin addict — to a forum on the growing problem of heroin use in Oxford Hills.
He didn’t plan on speaking and got high before the Paris meeting so he could make it through without getting the shakes and sweats and feeling like death — all withdrawal symptoms from opiate-based drugs. But when he heard comments he felt misrepresented addicts, he decided to stand up and speak his mind. He talked about the rash of drug dealers in the area and offered suggestions on how to combat the problem. He shared raw words, which came from someone living in the trenches, battling addiction every day. Since making the nightly news, Valeri’s inbox is full of words of praise and encouragement, but also lots of negativity.
“I’ve been getting threats, hate mail and apologies from my drug dealers. I think they’re scared,” Valeri said, noting he won’t ever “rat” anyone out. “They make a living off other people’s misery. I’ve put so much money in these people’s (pockets).”
And since he spoke up, he’s noticed there’s no more heroin in Paris right now. And he’s happy about that. He hasn’t used the illegal drug since the forum exactly two weeks ago, but he’s gotten high on other opiates — including emergency room-prescribed Percocet for his fractured ribs — to prevent himself from going through withdrawal. He says he’d be an idiot to use heroin again.
“I’m even scared to get heroin right now. Someone’s going to give me a hot dose and try to kill me,” Valeri said, referring to a tainted dose of the drug, as there’s been a growing number of fentanyl-laced heroin deaths across the state. “I’m sure (the drug dealers are) thinking about it. There’s a lot of money to be made.”
So how did this well-mannered kid with a relatively level head and a large heart get hooked on one of the most highly addictive substances known to man?
The road to heroin
It all started in Everett, Mass., just south of Boston, when Valeri was 16. He was hanging out with his best friend’s cousin, who was busting up lines of 30 mg Oxycontin pills and offered him one.
“He gave me the tiniest little sliver of a line. I was on cloud nine,” he said, adding it was probably the best feeling he’s ever had.
In 2011, his grandmother and his great-aunt died. It was the first time Valeri had anyone in his family pass away. Then two of his close friends died in a car crash. All that death rocked his young world and that’s when his drug use started getting heavy. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year because he would have had to repeat ninth grade and got his general education diploma a week later.
“I was writing college essays in sixth grade. I’m not stupid by any means. I read a lot, too. I believe in self-education,” Valeri said.
By the next year, when he was 17 — not even old enough to vote or buy smokes — he was doing three 30 mg Oxy pills a day. His parents noticed a change and decided to move him away from the big city up to Otisfield, where his grandma had a camp and the family’s summered since Valeri was a baby.
Up in the hills of western Maine, he kicked his addiction to opiates.
“I detoxed right on that couch. It look three months,” Valeri said pointing inside from the front porch of his parents’ home overlooking the White Mountains and the New Hampshire border. “I didn’t decide I needed to stop. I was forced to. I’m glad I did.”
He was clean for a year-and-a-half. Then Valeri started running with the wrong crowd and tried heroin. He thanks God he never started using needles.
“Shooting up heroin, it’s a fate worse than death,” he said.
The downward spiral
Valeri was aware that his cousins and uncles used heroin, but didn’t think much about it.
“I knew the struggles and I didn’t listen. I wish I had,” he said.
While many of Valeri’s friends shoot or snort the drug, his method of choice is smoking it — spreading the black tar on tin foil, heating it up and sucking in the smoke with a straw.
“It’s more of a physical rush. When it hits your lungs, it tastes addicting,” Valeri said. “I never smoked anything until I tried heroin. I remember the kid saying, ‘If you smoke it, it’s not addicting, bro.’”
His belief in that falsehood quickly led to life spiraling out of control. For some time, the first thing he would do is get up, pee and head out to pick up the drug. At the height of his addiction, Valeri would smoke a gram of heroin a day, which costs $200 in cash.
“Or a lot of rides back and forth for dealers. That’s why the police don’t like me. I would drive people just to get my fix,” he said.
He was often pulled over by the same officer in Oxford Police Department, who wanted him to give up names of drug dealers, but Valeri always refused. He eventually lost his license to a number of speeding tickets.
“There’s no friends in the dope game,” he said. “Everyone’s best friends with the dealer until he runs out.”
Valeri refuses to sell drugs so he can get high, believing drug dealers are terrible people. He doesn’t ever want to capitalize on anyone else’s addiction to get high or make money. But he did need a way to feed his addiction if he wasn’t chauffeuring drug dealers around, which included stealing from his mom. It’s something he feels terrible about — it’s visible in his blue-green eyes.
“It’s hard for my mom to see how I turned out,” he said, noting he comes from a good family, with hard-working parents who’ve never done drugs. “It’s time to quit, it’s time to get my life together. I haven’t had a job in two years because of dope.”
He said his mom would pay for his rehab on her credit card but he doesn’t want that.
On top of his speeding tickets, Valeri has had other run-ins with the law. He’s thankful he’s only spent one night in jail — because of a missed court date — and doesn’t plan on returning.
“I’m not a criminal even though I’ve been treated like one,” he said.
But he’s aware of how much heartache his addiction has caused his family.
“I am a burden on their lives right now, but they’re still sticking by my side and I love them for that,” he said.
Valeri knows he has a problem, which took him a long time to admit because, as he puts it, no one wants to fess up to being an addict. The next step is not using heroin, which he has been off of for the past two weeks.
“I have a certain amount of time under my belt. I haven’t used. I don’t want to go back,” he said, as he pets his new dog, Brandy, a Pomeranian-chihuahua mix, who’s a former service dog, while his Shepard-bulldog mix, Rosie, romps around the family’s lawn.
He just got insurance under MaineCare, but will be kicked off by the time he turns 21 in November. He’s under a time-crunch to get himself help. He’s already called all the rehabs in the state and couldn’t get in. So now he’s visiting different doctors, trying to explore his options. On Tuesday, he was headed down to Westbrook to look into getting on Suboxone, though he doesn’t want to.
“It’s almost as addictive as heroin,” he said.
Instead, Valeri has his eyes on the once-a-month Vivitrol shot, which helps people kick opiates and alcohol.
“If you do drugs while you’re on it, it makes you instantly sick. It makes it not fun,” he said.
The problem with the shot is it costs roughly $1,500 a month and he has to be completely opiate-free for 10 days before he gets it. He knows he can get clean — he’s done it before — he’s just not looking forward to withdrawal.
Valeri worked in restaurants growing up and considers himself a decent chef. He knows the importance of eating healthy and has began eating good food again, instead of nearly starving himself through drug use. And he’s been drinking a lot of water. He can already feel a difference.
“It’s not like I can’t get out of bed in the morning,” he said.
He’s also been meditating in front of a candle to help clear his mind and have an out-of-body experience.
“(There’s) that voice in my head telling me, ‘I gotta get drugs. I got to do it.’ It’s nice to get the voice to stop,” he said.
Combating the problem
Even though Valeri is struggling with his own addiction problems, he has an innate desire to help others overcome the same struggle.
“I do want to make a change. I don’t just want to help myself; I want to help others,” he said, noting maybe somewhere down the line he could open his own in-the-woods rehabilitation place.
He has launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for local police officers to carry Narcan, which can immediately reverse the effects of opiate overdose, and to have Narcotics Anonymous meetings locally in Oxford Hills. He’s afraid more people will continue to die and that, with all of the heroin flooding the area, dealers are dropping their prices. He doesn’t want to see an open-air drug market in Paris or anywhere else in Oxford Hills.
“I just don’t want this beautiful piece of America to go to hell,” Valeri said.
To donate to his campaign, visit www.gofundme.com/m5mx8xb5.