Nikia Noisette has stood at the top of the Ravenel Bridge and peered across her hometown. "I am so afraid of heights, but I told myself once I was released, that I would walk the bridge by myself," she says. For someone who has spent 13 years of her life taking OxyContin and heroin, it's ironic that Noisette, who lived to get high, would be afraid of being so close to the clouds. But at 573 feet in the air, no one can see her heroin and opioid problem. Nor Charleston's for that matter. But they're here and they're very real.
Noisette doesn't look like a former addict. Her arms don't show tracks from injecting herself with needles. She's not missing any of her teeth and, in fact, they're clean and white when she smiles, which she does quite often. Her clothes aren't tattered and she doesn't scratch at her arms asking for money.
Noisette's hazel green eyes dance in the sunlight and she laughs freely, as if she doesn't have a care in the world, even though she struggles to find employment because of her troubled past. This grateful mother of three credits her spirituality and internal peace for her optimistic outlook. "I don't have anything but I'm happy. I've been to hell, and I'm here," she says.
Hell for Noisette began in the latter part of 1999. Born with sickle cell anemia, a debilitating, hereditary disease which causes excruciating pain from deformed red blood cells failing to clot, Noisette had been in pain for most of her life. As a child, she was constantly in and out of the hospital, often missing days or weeks of school at a time.
"I had been given Percocet my whole life and I had never had a problem. Eventually, I developed a high tolerance to it. It stopped having an effect on my pain. Then I had a really bad crisis and I told my doctor I needed something stronger," says Noisette. "She prescribed me 40 milligrams of OxyContin. I fell in love with it."
Noisette started out taking one or two 40 milligram pills a day, but by the end, she had worked her way up to 24, 80 milligram pills a day. "I couldn't go to sleep without knowing that I had my pills or drugs for the next day," she says. And to get her fix, Noisette became a key player in a network of other people like her; seemingly functional addicts who needed a cheaper option. "I had two doctors. I knew every pharmacy in town. But I could only get a certain amount at a time. OxyContin was too expensive to buy on the street."
43 (as of press)
Charleston County OD deaths (heroin only)
15 percent higher than the national average (2015)
Dorchester County OD deaths (opioid only)
182 percent higher than the national average (2015)
Berkeley County OD deaths (opioid only)
139 percent higher than national average (2014)
In February 2009, home without any pills, her body began to go through withdrawal, and Noisette decided she couldn't wait on her next prescription. By this time, Noisette had become involved in an expansive drug ring that saw her transporting heroin, cocaine, and other drugs into Charleston. "They didn't know that I was an addict," she admits. In addition to transporting drugs, Noisette's residence also became a safe house for the dealers she worked for. "It was nothing for me to have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs in my house at any given time," she confesses. With free access to so many drugs, it was inevitable that she would turn to heroin to curb her withdrawal symptoms. "I tried heroin for the first time," she says frankly. "But heroin is not nearly as strong as OxyContin, so to get that same feeling, you have to take more."
Noisette says she didn't become addicted to heroin that first time, but she now knew that she had a backup whenever her pill supply was low. This meant buying heroin from her drug dealer friends who assumed that she was buying it to sell and make a profit. They didn't ask questions and she didn't reveal her secret.
"Heroin was much cheaper and much easier to get. My friends would sell me a bundle of heroin for $70. It cost $150 on the streets," she explains. And it was more convenient. "I didn't need to go into a drug store and have to deal with pharmacists," Noisette says. Thankfully, she never injected heroin, which would have led to a quicker, more powerful high. Instead she chose to snort it. "I would do a whole bundle, 10 bags, at once," she remembers.
Noisette recalls her last drug-fueled days in 2011. "For six months, I truly became a heroin addict. I cut off all of my friends. I didn't talk to anyone. I hated to hear the birds chirping because I knew that meant that it was another morning and I had spent the whole night getting high. I hated my life. My family knew something was going on, but they weren't sure if it was because of my sickle cell," she says. One night, Noisette says, during one of her heroin binges, she took a look in the mirror and she knew she had hit rock bottom. "I just broke down crying. I had become the thing that I said I would never be, a junkie. I watched my mother who has now been in recovery for 10 years, struggle with a crack addiction when I was a teenager. I swore I would never be like that," she says. "I called my father and he came and sat with me until the next day. I checked myself into a rehab center here. Two weeks later, I left and have never done heroin or taken prescription pills again."
A month to the date of her release, Noisette was indicted on federal charges for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
"I was the runner. My job was to go and pick the drugs up to New York, Atlanta, wherever. I didn't sell drugs on a corner or make big deals. I dealt with people I knew. When the federal government wants you, they will get you," Noisette says solemnly. Noisette was arrested and indicted along with eight other conspirators following the seizure of 10,000 bags of heroin from a secret compartment in an SUV. The arrests were made with the combined efforts of a multi-agency task force that was created to address violent street gang, drug related crimes. Ultimately, she would spend a year and three months in prison and receive probation.
Headed to rehab in Georgia tomorrow. It's a good place with good people who want to put me back on track to be myself again. To be a part of my family again. To return to MHU and put in the grind with the guys on the team I became so close with last year. No electronics or phone calls allowed, so if y'all want to write me and send some love:
311 Jones Mill Road
Statesboro, GA 30458
I appreciate any support from friends and family. I would love to write you guys. Until I'm back out, peace.
On June 7, 2016, Mt. Pleasant's Creighton Shipman posted this message on his Facebook page, following a long conversation with Sam Wells, the Regional Recovery Representative for Willingway Hospital in Statesboro, Ga.
"He said he was fine with everyone knowing. He said he needed all of the support he could get," his mom, Nanci Steadman-Shipman, quietly states as she fights back tears. "He was ready to go."
"No one wakes up and decides I'm going to be an addict for the rest of my life," Sam Wells points out. "Addiction is a disease that some people are pre-disposed to." Wells should know. In her role with Willingway Hospital, which serves as an Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, she's tasked with helping drug addicts and their families find the proper care and treatment that is best for them. "It has to be their choice. They have to be willing in order for treatment of any sort to work," she says.
On Sun., July 17, 2016, just days after opting to leave Willingway Hospital, and not go to a transitional Sober House, Creighton Shipman died from a heroin overdose.
He was 19 years old.
"The night before the policeman came, my heart hurt," Steadman-Shipman reveals. "I just couldn't sleep." She recalls that horrible morning with the strength of someone whose inner resolve far exceeds the norm. "When I saw the policeman standing at the door, I was happy. I thought that he was okay and had been taken into custody. At least, I knew he was okay." Creighton wasn't okay and he wasn't in police custody. Instead, he was in an ICU in Columbia, fighting for his life. His major organs had shut down and doctors told Steadman-Shipman to prepare for the worst. "He looked so healthy. So normal." Steadman-Shipman adds. "I just couldn't believe it. Why, Creighton?"
Like Nikia Noisette, Creighton had come from a good Lowcountry family. He was taught the importance of having good moral character and being a good person. Creighton had been a star athlete on Wando High School's nationally-ranked and state championship lacrosse team. He was a popular and charismatic teenager by all accounts and was excited to play lacrosse at Mars Hill University. "He loved lacrosse," Steadman-Shipman says.
As a mom, Steadman-Shipman had seemingly done everything right. She loved Mt. Pleasant and raised her four children there, where they could all attend the same school where she had once been homecoming queen. Creighton's brothers and sister all followed in his footsteps and took up the sport he loved. The family developed a strong bond with open and honest communication. "I talked to my kids about drugs. I talked to them about sex. We had very real conversations. I thought I had done everything," she says.
The number of people in the U.S. who try heroin for the first time every day
Increase in reported heroin users in the U.S. from 2007 to 2014
Increase in deaths involving heroin from 2010 to 2014
Increase in deaths due to synthetic opioids, namely fentanyl and its analogues, in the U.S. from 2013 to 2014
The percentage of new heroin users who began their addiction by abusing prescription opioids
Creighton's troubles began when he was a freshman at Wando. "He took a cleat to his leg. He didn't even want to come out of the game," his mother says. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Creighton had a Brodie Abscess, a rare, painful, bacterial condition that required a surgical procedure. Following surgery, Creighton was prescribed pain medication. The medication triggered something in Creighton says Steadman-Shipman.
"Everything was normal. Creighton worked out constantly and took care of himself," says Steadman-Shipman. Over the next three years, Creighton blossomed into an outstanding athlete, but when his senior year began, Steadman-Shipman began to see a change in her son. "He was more defiant. Didn't want to follow rules. A lot of it, you just chalk up to your children becoming an adult. Learning to figure out the boundaries for themselves," she says. When his mother observed drastic changes in Creighton's behavior and attitude though, she questioned her son. "I asked if he was taking Xanax. That's what I had heard from other parents that these kids were taking. He always said no," she says.
Creighton left for college and when Steadman-Shipman saw him again, she says she knew something was wrong. "He didn't look healthy. His grades had dropped. I knew in my gut that something was wrong," she says. But Creighton bounced back. In the spring of 2016 he began training with Mars Hill's lacrosse team's practice squad. His grades improved. He seemed to be the old Creighton.
It didn't last though. Creighton eventually quit the team and informed his mother that he wasn't going back to college. "I couldn't enable him," Steadman-Shipman recalls sadly. "I could not let my child have a problem and just stand by and watch him do it. He either had to get help or leave." Creighton decided he wasn't ready for rehab until that Facebook post on June 7.
"Creighton wrote me two weeks before family week that he was addicted to heroin. He wrote in the letter that I raised him to be honest and he wanted to be completely honest and open with me, and to give me as much time as I could to prepare. He wrote that he had been doing heroin since November 2015 — six months — and just started injecting it for the last three months and he said he was clean for 70 days and that might not seem a lot but it was a fabulous start," Steadman-Shipman says.
As troubling as it may be, Nanci Steadman-Shipman is not alone. Charleston exceeds the national average of heroin and opioid deaths. "The national average is 8.7 deaths per 100,000 people," Jason Sandoval says. "Charleston exceeds the heroin overdose rate by 34 percent, and once we receive the opioid data it will be even higher."
"People tend to think that because they receive a prescription from the doctor it won't kill them. That's simply not true. Some people think that if I do heroin once, I'll be okay. It can kill you — whether you smoke it, snort it, or inject it," he adds. That's one of the most difficult parts about discovering a loved one is addicted to opioids or heroin Sandoval adds, "It's not easy to detect, especially in teens."
Teens are emotional as a function of their bodies changing. With alcohol and marijuana there are tell-tale signs — bloodshot eyes, they might smell like it, or they might be away from the house a lot," Sandoval says. "With opioids, teens can just get the drugs from the bathroom cabinet and they may just seem lethargic." And the switch to heroin is just as hard to spot. The molecular structures of heroin and OxyContin are almost identical.
Because of this, Sandoval knows that the battle against heroin and opioid related deaths is not an easy one to win. Recently, as part of a nationally mandated initiative from the DEA, he launched Wake Up: Charleston, a program designed to utilize community leaders and people like Nanci Steadman-Shipman, Nikia Noisette, and Sam Wells to help combat the problem on a grass roots level.
"The support has been tremendous," Sandoval says. "We're not here to keep people from having fun. We're here to save lives."
Wells is thrilled to be a part of this plan and believes education is the key. "We need to focus on mental education in our schools. We have physical education, but we don't spend enough time teaching students and people about good mental health and understanding addiction," she notes.
Recently at a Wake Up breakfast, Noisette and Steadman-Shipman had an opportunity to meet for the first time. Noisette listened as Steadman-Shipman shared the story of her son. Creighton's death had only happened a few weeks prior but Steadman-Shipman was determined to share her story to help others. Noisette heard her speak about the Creighton Shipman 22 Forever Foundation founded in Creighton's honor, geared towards providing resources and erasing the stigmas associated with addiction and was moved by her talk.
"I'm lucky," Nosiette says. "I have to help at least one person from having to go through this hell."
Nanci Steadman-Shipman feels the same way. As she slips her sunglasses on and wipes away tears, she says, "Creighton's death will not be in vain. His spirit will help others."
For more information:
College of Charleston Recovery Program Contact: Steve Sullivan at (843) 345-5121
Creighton Shipman Forever 22 Foundation Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wake Up: Charleston: facebook.com/Wake-Up-Charleston