When Naomi Sear found herself in jail outside Denver, Colorado on a fall afternoon in 2015, no one could have predicted it would have been the last time the decade-long opioid addict would see the light of day.
And I don’t mean figuratively, I mean literally. She told the screening nurse that she was a daily heroin user who had a prescription for Oxy and Xanax.
A friendly, everyday 25-year-old with a daughter in kindergarten, *Sear started using opioids after she injured her back in a car accident. When she was arrested on two misdemeanor warrants, her parents decided not to pay her $300 bail —under the assumption, she would be safer in jail and away from heroin for a few days.
72 hours later, Sear died of dehydration at the county jail, according to a coroner’s report.
The Alleged Cause
You guessed it —drug withdrawal. A lawsuit filed by Sear’s family against the county and the jail’s healthcare provider describes in chilling detail the three days of missed opportunities and seemingly callous medical care. By the end of her first day in jail, Sear was in the throes of severe withdrawal: vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure.
She was too dehydrated to provide a urine sample. A day later, she could no longer walk or unclench her fingers. When a nurse came by to give her the usual withdrawal medications —a cocktail of things like Gatorade and Pepto Bismol —she fell to the ground, trembling.
“A simple IV would have almost certainly saved her life,” reads the complaint.
County officials declined to comment on the case. A spokesperson from the jail’s insurance provider, says the allegations in the complaint were “inconsistent with the known facts. It certainly is not our policy to deny a patient appropriate treatment.”
Now it’s Personal
The thing is, no organization tracks how many people have died from drug withdrawal in jail, but after some research, I found 20 lawsuits filed between 2014 and 2016 alleging that an inmate died from opiate withdrawal complications. That number likely represents just a fraction of all jail withdrawal deaths.
Yet as the nationwide opioid epidemic continues to spiral, more and more inmates who use heroin, painkillers, or methadone are showing up in jails across the country, where withdrawal treatment is extremely unrefined. “So many more people are coming in hooked on opioids,” remarks Doug Feathers, the attorney representing the Sear family. “If jails are not trained and they’re not ready for it, you get another Naomi.”
Outside of jails, dying from opiate withdrawal is exceedingly rare because, with few exceptions, it’s preventable. Dehydration, the withdrawal symptom that usually kills people, can be treated with intravenous fluids.
That said, it’s nearly unheard of to withdraw from opioids (alone) without slowly weening yourself off or having emergency medical care. When an addict quits opioids cold turkey, the body quickly starts to experience the opposite effects of the drug. This usually results in a rarely fatal but often tortuous withdrawal process that can persist for days, weeks, months or even years (referred to as subacute withdrawal).
Where opioids reduce pain, withdrawal makes the body hypersensitive to it. Opioids including heroin provoke euphoria and well, withdrawal feels like the world is going to end and I’m not even exaggerating. As someone who has experienced this awful feeling, I know too well how I wished I was dead —because at least, I wouldn’t be in so much pain.
Picture the world’s worst flu on steroids, multiply that by 10 and even then, it doesn’t compare.
Opioids cause constipation and withdrawal induces severe stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. If a person going through withdrawal can’t keep fluids down and is not given an IV, he or she can succumb to dehydration just like Sear.
What You Can Learn From All of This
Unfortunately, this isn’t just happening in jails. It’s everywhere, which is why you shouldn’t feel shame for getting sucked into this opioid merry-go-round. I get it. Being on the other side of things (finally), I see how this could have been me and it can definitely be you (or someone you love).
Therefore, I want to encourage anyone suffering from addiction or withdrawal to speak out. Call your doctor. Tell those close to you. Simply be honest and don’t be embarrassed. There are millions of us out there going through the same thing yet most are too afraid to share this info out loud. I know I was.
I thought no one would get me and I’d be in trouble.
That’s the thing though, addiction is a disease. Yes, you’re the one picking up and using but these drugs literally change the matrix of your brain. And we need to take withdrawal seriously.
I tried to do it alone at home but my addiction proved too powerful. So, I needed some help. After my intervention, I went to this county ran detox in Del Ray Beach, Florida that literally saved my life.
Sear’s family, meanwhile, is still reeling from their loss. Naomi’s daughter, Nicole, an energetic six-year-old who loves barbies and playing house, still regularly asks when her mom will come home. Naomi’s husband, Ray, a manager at the local Safeway, tells Nicole that she went to heaven. “It’s one thing to lose a child,” Ray says. “But it’s another thing knowing that she died in a jail cell alone on the floor, asking for help.”
So I want you to demand it. If you’re struggling, say so. It’s not an easy road, but with proper support and medical care, recovery is possible. With the right people in your corner, you really can do anything. Because sometimes, you can only find heaven by slowly backing away from hell.
*names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.