By Joe Beck
MOUNT JACKSON -- Hannah Besecker remembers the night a heroin overdose almost killed her.
An ambulance crew rushed Besecker to Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal on May 24, a needle in her leg left there by paramedics who had injected her with another drug for reversing the effects of the heroin.
Only a few minutes earlier, she had left her apartment on Cherrydale Drive, gone across the street and met a dealer who offered her a dose of heroin for considerably less than the $20 she thought she would have to pay.
She said she had already taken a dose of heroin in the morning, "just to get me started for the day." Now it was time to get high again, time to see the man across the street.
Besecker said she started taking a "tiny, tiny little bit" of the drug given to her before she took a larger amount that was to bring her addiction crashing down around her.
"I felt it right away," Besecker said of the heroin. "I did the whole thing, literally. After I did all that, I only remember 15 minutes after. I remember leaving his house and walked home.
"I sat down on the couch and went upstairs and that's all I remember. They heard a thump downstairs. They say my friend shouted my name, and I didn't answer. One of my friends, Katie, went upstairs. I was lying on the floor. I had stopped breathing, no heartbeat or anything."
She remembers crying with Katie bending over her. Then Besecker was on a gurney and blacked out.
The anti-heroin drug naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan, worked. She revived during the ambulance ride, but then her heart stopped one more time, she said.
She went through the harrowing ordeal of heroin withdrawal during her three-day hospital stay.
"I was really sick the whole time," Besecker said. "Really, it was one of the scariest things I had ever went through, and thank God I won't have to go through it again."
But the drama wasn't over. Besecker tried to leave the hospital early but her family members stopped her and insisted she check herself into a treatment center.
She entered the Shenandoah Valley Teen Challenge Women's Center in Mount Jackson a few days later and began a one-year rehabilitation program. She is clean and sober now. Graduation is scheduled for May 27.
Besecker, 25, sat on a sofa in the center a few days ago speaking with a mixture of wonderment and ruefulness over the road she has traveled since her overdose. She hasn't used an illegal drug since the overdose, she said.
"When I got here, I was a punk kid," Besecker recalled. "Nervous, scared, no clue about what happened. Short, spiked hair. I had a Mohawk. I was going through a phase, one of many phases in my addiction."
Besecker's experience with heroin addiction has grown increasingly common throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley in recent years. The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force counted 13 heroin-related deaths as of Friday and has been concentrating much of its efforts on stopping the drug trade.
She said the drug education effort at Rappahannock High School that she attended during the majority of her teen years didn't leave much of an impression. She said she knew "absolutely nothing" about illegal prescription drugs when she tried her first one.
She was 19, and had "met a guy" who was using pills.
"He offered, and I wanted to be accepted," Besecker said. "I was easily influenced. I wanted to be cool, part of the crowd."
The drug she tried was Vicodin and, she said, its effects led her to think, "I could get high on anything."
She was soon into other drugs and has since tried almost all of them, "everything except crystal meth," she said.
Besecker said people she knew were using heroin, and she didn't notice any ill effects on them at first, although one later died of an overdose and others went to jail.
"I just went with it because people around me that were doing it, they seemed to be fine," she said. "I thought they're fine. I'll be fine. I would always be doing the same amount, mixing the same amount they had been mixing."
She became the girlfriend of the man who introduced her to Vicodin, and they formed a bond out of using drugs together.
At first, she said, she thought she could handle all the heroin and other drugs she was taking without succumbing to addiction. But a day came two months after she began using heroin when she woke up sick.
"During that two-month span, I didn't give myself time to get sick, so I didn't know what sickness felt like," she said. "I was working at McDonald's. At the time, I was 21 years old, I thought maybe I was just sick with flu.
"I went to work, and I started throwing up. My body ached. I was having hot and cold sweats.
She left work early, went home and asked her boyfriend what was wrong. His answer brought with it the stark realization she had become addicted to heroin.
"He said, 'you're sick because you haven't had any,'" Besecker recalled.
Her life during the five years she was hooked on drugs lurched from one self-destructive misery to another. There were long periods of unemployment, firings during those stretches when she held a job and brief spells of sobriety, followed by relapses.
"I started losing jobs," Besecker said. "I was getting sick because I wasn't able to get high, so I didn't go to work. And my ex (boyfriend) eventually started supporting me.
"For about two and a half years, I didn't work, but I used the whole time."
There were also criminal charges, all of them products of her addiction: petty larceny, check forgeries, breaking and entering.
She said she stole jewelry, currency and checks from her family. Checks stolen from her father led to her first arrest.
"I was terrified, so terrified" she said of her first arrest. "I cried the whole time. I didn't understand why I was being arrested."
She spent a total of nine months in jail, six months during one stint and three months during another.
Her heroin addiction reached a point where it required daily doses costing about $40 a day, much more than she could afford working at fast food restaurants and similar jobs.
Law enforcement officials say there is a link between heroin and prostitution among women addicts desperate to raise money. Besecker said she was one of them.
"I was actually selling my body to support my habit," she said. "I'm embarrassed by it now. I had two regulars, and that's all I needed because they paid fairly well."
She said he is recovering now, clean and sober since the overdose and determined to stay that way. But her stay at Shenandoah Valley Teen Challenge Women's Center has had some rough patches, especially during the first few months.
"I was here for a week, and I wanted to go home and use," Besecker said, adding that she wrote in her journal: "A month, I can do a month and stay clean and still get my life together."
The program at the Women's Center runs for a year, although the staff and managers cannot require anyone to stay that long. Most do not. Besecker, days away from graduation, will be the first woman from the area to complete the entire program.
She credits a religious conversion and support from the staff and her family for pulling her through the four or five times when despair, stress and frustration drove her to pack her bags and almost make an early exit.
Religious guidance is a big part of the treatment program at the Women's Center.
"I was baptized and saved July 7, so I've really been able to put my trust in God," Besecker said.
Peggy Hauff, the Women's Center manager, said Besecker's drive and determination have been the keys to bringing her to the verge of successful completion of the program.
Only one other woman, who transferred in from Brooklyn, N.Y., has graduated since the Women's Center opened two years ago.
The center, which had six women enrolled as of Friday, has a bed capacity of 20.
Hauff described Besecker as "a pretty tough kid" when she entered the program.
"I think she's succeeded because she didn't give up," Hauff said. "There were times when she wanted to leave, but she didn't. She knew this was better than what was out there."
Sgt. Kevin Coffman, a member of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, encountered Besecker during the course of some of his investigations. Besecker said her attitude toward him changed as she got to know him.
"I used to despise that man because I was a criminal, and I was a drug addict and now, oh my gosh, I love him," Besecker said. "I understand why he is doing what he is doing."
Coffman said he is glad Besecker got help for her addiction and said he believes "that is probably why she is alive today."
"My main objective for her is that I hope she gets well," Coffman said. "I don't want to have to deal with her on a professional level."
Besecker said she is planning to stay as an intern at the Women's Center for six months after her graduation.
Staying off heroin and other drugs means steering clear of the wrong people and places, she said. Anyone exposed to regular drug users can relapse, and she does not consider herself an exception.
"If I would put myself around it so many times, I feel it could happen again," she said.
She said she believes she has options -- the internship and job offers waiting for her afterward -- that she didn't have before. But she knows she still has work to do.
"I'm preparing myself for when I leave here," she said. "I want to make sure I have all the tools to go up against anything."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org