Editor’s Note: This is the final of a three-part series of stories about how the opioid epidemic took shape in Clovis Unified School District.
Buchanan High School graduate Jack Karraker is in his sixth month of sobriety in a years-long addiction to opioids that led to heroin use last year, but at first glance, the casual observer wouldn’t likely have noticed a problem.
In fact, while the bottom was falling out, he appeared to be on top of the world.
“I had everything I thought I could want in the middle of my addiction,” Karraker said. “I was playing baseball. After baseball was done, I had a career path that I could be there for the next 25 years, retire and be good to go.”
Karraker further explained that despite his success, he lost it twice — first to pills, then to heroin. He’s one of possibly thousands of students and alumni from the Clovis Unified School District to be affected by the opioid epidemic of the past two decades. It started with Vicodin in high school and followed him through college and into his professional life.
In January, he got clean in part with help from Parents & Addicts in Need (PAIN). Founded by Flindt Andersen, himself a recovering opioid addict, PAIN is a Fresno-based organization devoted to rehabilitation services and support to users and their families.
Karraker has been clean for half a year, and Andersen for 18, but that’s not the case for many in Clovis, the Valley or the state. In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows a 6.6% increase in the number of fatal overdoses between 2017 and 2018 that just now may be subsiding nationally.
Those who do survive are likely to carry a stigma with them their entire lives.
The addiction asterisk
Athlete and motivational speaker Tony Hoffman is all-too-familiar with this black spot. With an Olympic coaching gig under his belt and professional BMX races finished and won, Hoffman could be considered a successful man by almost anyone’s measurements. But at his lowest point, Hoffman was homeless and addicted to heroin — which he cooked with gutter water on Shaw Avenue. In 2007, he went to prison for armed robbery. It was here that he got clean, and began to condition himself to return to his bike.
Hoffman managed to pull himself back up from the bottom, but according to him, none of that matters. Even today, he says he couldn’t get a simple retail job. As soon as he checks the box confirming a felony conviction, he said he’s as good as rejected. There’s a stigma that will follow him for as long as he lives. As he puts it, it will always be an “asterisk.”
The stigma has followed Hoffman through all 12 years of his sobriety, and he says it’s no easier for others with addiction.
“And if I make a small mistake in my life it’s, ‘ah, see? We knew it,’” Hoffman said. “’He’s fake. He’s the same old person — he’s in it for the money,’ or ‘you can’t trust him.’”
At its worst, he said it could hinder the road to recovery by discouraging addicts from continuing treatment.
‘We are out of beds’
Further complicating matters, Andersen said that one of the biggest obstacles to getting clean is the lack of resources and options. When someone seeks or is referred to treatment, this means typically being sent to a county-run program. While he acknowledged that there have been plenty of success stories to come out of such program, patients often are there due to a court mandate. This means there’s a good chance that many of them don’t have any keen interest in getting clean, and may be making new connections. As he put it, addiction is as much behavioral as it is physical.
A lack of effective choices has contributed to a mounting problem in Fresno County that expands well beyond Clovis.
“We are 20 steps behind the rest of the country in recovery and after-care,” Andersen said. “We are out of beds in Fresno. We are out of beds for sober living. We’re out of beds for inpatient.”
False starts and finally sticking
The recovery process can be just as difficult for the families as they are for the addiction sufferers themselves. Speaking from her own experience as a parent, Dana Garrison, a former secretary for Clovis East High School, said failure on the first attempt is to be expected. Her daughter, who attended Clovis High, struggled to get clean from methamphetamine and OxyContin use. Her daughter’s clean now, but there were false starts along the way.
“I hate to say this, but probably, it’s going to take a couple of times — two or three,” she said.
She further explained that moral and emotional support from family is an important part of the recovery process. However, one of the most crucial components to staying sober is for the person in recovery to be independent over their own lives, finances and personal responsibilities.
Rusty Karraker, Jack’s father, said that while he and his wife Cindy have been there for his son every step of the way, the outcome of his road to recovery will ultimately be on his shoulders. It’s one of the main lessons that Andersen tries to impart on families in the support groups he runs.
“I want his success to be his, and I want his failure to be his,” Rusty said. “I don’t want him blaming me for his failures, or giving me credit for his success. Either way, I don’t want it.”
It also took his son more than one try to get clean, but he’s determined to make it work. His main assets are not only his family and network of support, but everything he’s learned from the past.
“Each time that I’ve had treatment and different life experiences that I’ve gone through — I’ve relapsed numerous times… and each time, there’s been a lesson learned,” Karraker said. “I’ve learned valuable lessons about myself, what drives me to use, different warning signs to look out for and mainly that support system.”