Tina Phillips knows too well the pain and toll of addiction.
When she was 20, shortly after having her son, her husband’s life was tragically cut short, and she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. She began treatment the same year. Now, at 55, she has been sober for 33 years.
Despite her own sobriety, addiction would haunt her for years to come.
Tina met Jimmy Phillips, a charismatic truck driver, at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in San Jose in 1999. Over the years, they kept up a steady correspondence through letters, and they slowly fell in love. They reconnected in 2014 and married in 2015. In 2017, they moved to Vancouver from Florida.
Tina and Jimmy supported each other through their recovery. When Jimmy learned that Tina hadn’t kept up with collecting her annual recovery coins, he went and gathered them for her. He built her a beautiful wooden plaque adorned with silver butterflies to display them. It read “Just for Today” and “2-12-89,” Tina’s first day of sobriety.
“He was such a gentleman,” Tina said. “People would look at him and say, ‘Wow, he’s the perfect husband.’ ”
While he supported her, Jimmy continued to struggle with his own addiction to methamphetamine.
“I was clean and sober for a long time,” Tina said. “With his struggles, Jimmy had been in and out of recovery for years. For some of us, it takes a little longer than others.”
In September, tragedy struck once again when she flew to California to visit her ailing son, whose organs were failing due to alcohol addiction.
Jimmy drove her to the airport on Sept. 24. It was the last time she would see him.
While at her son’s bedside, Tina stopped hearing from Jimmy. On Oct. 2, her son passed away just shy of his 38th birthday. On Oct. 3, Tina called the Vancouver Police Department for a welfare check on Jimmy.
Jimmy had died from an opioid overdose. Somewhere between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2, he went to Portland and bought methamphetamine cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. He died shortly after ingesting it. He was 54.
Jimmy likely did not intend to ingest fentanyl, Tina said.
“I don’t believe he made the decision to die,” she said. “This crisis is stealing our loved ones.”
Overdoses increasing in Washington
New data released this month by the Washington Department of Health showed that drug-related overdose deaths topped 2,000 in 2021, a more than 66 percent increase compared to 2019.
More than half of the overdose deaths are because of fentanyl, and fentanyl overdose deaths have increased about 10-fold since 2016, according to the data.
The crisis is impacting Clark County. According to Clark County Public Health, fentanyl overdose deaths increased from 17 in 2019 to 37 in 2020. Preliminary data shows 47 deaths for 2021.
Columbia River Mental Health Services and its outpatient clinic NorthStar in Vancouver are witnessing the crisis firsthand. A few years ago, the clinic rarely encountered fentanyl. Last year, the clinic began treating patients addicted to fentanyl at unprecedented rates. Now, patients addicted to fentanyl outnumber patients addicted to heroin two to one.
Between January and March, the clinic saw a record number of new patients seeking treatment.
“This fall, we shifted to fentanyl becoming the opiate of choice in Clark County in terms of what we see for clients with severe substance use disorders,” said Dr. Kevin Fischer, NorthStar’s chief medical officer. “Between January and March, we saw well over 100 people seeking treatment.”
Addiction specialists have long predicted a wave of fentanyl hitting the West Coast. The drug has plagued northeastern cities like Philadelphia for years, but it was late to the Pacific Northwest, Fischer said.
Fentanyl is cheaper to produce and easier to smuggle than heroin. Plus, it’s even more addictive, making it a lucrative product for sellers.
“There’s huge financial incentives for somebody that’s wanting to sell drugs for profit to choose and push fentanyl over heroin,” Fischer said. “Those incentives aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.”
Due to its potency, fentanyl is often laced in small amounts in other drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. Because of that, people struggling with other addictions are simultaneously — and sometimes unknowingly — building up an addiction to fentanyl.
Overdoses are extremely common since many people are unaware that they’re even ingesting the drug. One pill that looks like Oxycodone could be a lethal dose of fentanyl.
The clinic is having success treating patients using a treatment-first model, meaning patients are treated the day they come in seeking treatment, and with using methadone to help weenwean patients off fentanyl. The clinic also recently expanded its hours for walk-in appointments, meaning more people can seek treatment.
“It’s a part of meeting people where they are,” Fischer said.
Due to the severity of the crisis, Clark County organizations have banded together in their response, and Fischer sees promise in Clark County’s model. Plus, local addiction specialists have been able to collaborate with specialists from the East Coast who have been dealing with the crisis for years.
“The local response to this is building. From a state and local leadership position, we’re definitely not caught flat-footed,” he said. “I am heartened that Washington state is making unprecedented investments in both community mental health and addiction treatment.”
On top of fentanyl, Fischer and other specialists at NorthStar are also seeing two sedatives, xylazine and benzodiazepines, being laced with fentanyl and other drugs that cause fugue states and soft-tissue infections.
“I never thought we’d kind of come to a circumstance where something was harder to work with than heroin,” Fischer said “Yet here we are.”
Helping others seek treatment
On April 23, Tina Phillips will honor what would have been Jimmy’s 55th birthday. On April 29, she’s flying to Hawaii to scatter her son’s ashes.
Tina wants to tell her story to inspire others to seek treatment.
“I am a recovering drug addict and alcoholic,” she said. “Those were the two choices that took my son and my husband. Now, I’m still here, clean and sober, and I hope that I have something to share to help another family, another person, anyone.”
Tina remembers how Jimmy loved to cook. He always had a big plate of food ready for her when she got home from her job as a sales rep for a large beverage company.
“He had a gentle and caring heart,” she said. “He loved me unconditionally.”
She remembers how he cared for his three rescue cats — Stormee, Lil Bet and Tanner — like they were his kids, Tina said.
“I used to call him the crazy cat lady,” she said. “He didn’t mind.”
Now, Tina cares for the three cats. This month, she had to go pick up her recovery coin herself and put it into the plaque Jimmy built for her.
Tina wants to raise awareness about the reality of addiction. She wants to see more resources in Clark County for people struggling with PTSD and for people coming out of incarceration who might struggle reacclimating to society.
“Resources are crucial, and knowledge of what is happening,” she said. “I wish there were more programs geared toward people who need direction.”
Above all, she encourages people struggling with addiction to seek treatment sooner rather than later, especially as deadly drugs like fentanyl, which can be ingested unknowingly, are circulating through the community.
“Don’t stop asking for that help that you need, even though it’s the hardest thing to do,” she said. “You have to keep asking until you get it.”