Hitting the pavement to explore the opioid crisis

For my fifth story for The New York Times, I was hoping to write about the opioid crisis in America in a way that weaved the staggering death tolls, causes and possible paths forward with the story of a running team at a drug rehab center called Odyssey House.

I first wrote about Odyssey House’s ‘Run for your Life’ team in 2011 when I was a graduate student living in New York City. My neighborhood to write and report about that fall, after trading our randomly assigned beats with a classmate, was East Harlem.

East Harlem was on the way from Astoria, Queens, where I lived, to Morningside Heights, where I went for classes most weekdays.

I inquired with Odyssey House then and found out about its running team which runs the New York City marathon each November. Over the course of several phone calls and visits to Odyssey House in East Harlem, I decided to focus the story on Laura Thompson, who lived at Odyssey House with her little son.

During the 2011 New York City Marathon, from the Mile 19 watering station in East Harlem, I ran with Laura and her running partner as they chugged through the last seven miles of the race. I was only sighted and booted out of the race just before the finish line when a worker saw I had no number.

My story in 2011 ran on Crosstown Chronicle, a now-defunct student journalism blog that our class started. A few dozen people may have read it.

I had been meaning, for the past few years, to try and reconnect with Laura Thompson and write a follow-up story about her, while also republishing my earlier profile of her 2011 efforts.

In researching last month for my pitch to The New York Times about Odyssey House’s running team, I found out Laura Thompson died earlier this year. State Police said it was an apparent overdose.

The Times ran my story online last night and it may be in tomorrow’s print edition. I mention Laura in that story. But, in the redrafting and editing process, my story, in which originally I’d wanted to explore the wider crisis a lot more, became focused almost entirely on the runners, with the opioid crisis as the obvious undercurrent.

I plan on publishing some of my notes here from interviews with a couple experts on opioid addiction in the days to come.

And my current article can be found here: https://nyti.ms/2JDxmkQ

But below, you can read the 2011 profile of Laura Thompson, as she was trying to overcome her addictions.

Dec. 9, 2011

Recovering addict uses running to become better mother for her 2-year-old son


Sitting in an East Harlem drug rehab center, Laura Thompson watched her energetic 2-year-old dart around a small, plain room. As her son, Carter, climbed on to a chair next to his mother, Thompson said things are finally falling into place on her long and rocky road to recovery.

Thompson, a former heroin and Oxycontin addict, has used running to help get over her dependencies. She set high goals for her life in the past year, checking off one last month when she completed the New York City Marathon.

Little more than a year ago—on Carter’s first birthday—police in Montgomery, N.Y. arrested Thompson, now 29, as she left a general store with her son and a six-pack of Corona in her arms. She had spent the day drinking and taking Percocet and Xanax, and was charged with endangering the welfare of a child.

State Child Protective Services got involved, but Thompson never lost custody of her son.

In October 2010, she went with Carter to Odyssey House, a substance abuse treatment center in Manhattan. Together they live in an East Harlem family center operated by the nonprofit, even though an Orange County judge lifted Thompson’s mandate for treatment in July.

Thompson says she last abused pills the day she entered Odyssey House, popping a few non-prescribed Suboxone—a painkiller also used to treat opioid addiction.

In March, Thompson, who was never a runner before, joined “Run For Your Life,” a club the center organized 10 years ago. The running group aims to push recovering addicts to face their demons through exercise.

John Tavolacci, chief operating officer at Odyssey House, started the running program. He draws clear parallels between fitness and overcoming addiction.

“With running, you have all of the same elements that go into living a drug-free life – discipline, sacrifice, hard work,” said Tavolacci, who runs the marathon with club members each year. “Just like marathon running, it’s not a short-term thing. It’s slow and steady. When you get to the end, you start all over again.”

According to Jon Morgenstern, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and a specialist in treatment of substance abuse, exercise as a means to battle addiction, while not very common, is quite effective.

“There’s a growing body of research suggesting exercise can develop willpower and a greater sense of self confidence,” he said. “Willpower is kind of like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.”

On the afternoon before the marathon, Tavolacci spoke to a few dozen runners in an Odyssey House mess hall. He covered the logistics for the next day, but built to a deeper point.

“Most people have given up on you,” he said, as some in the group nodded, their eyes stern and locked in. “Most people think you’re useless. This is your opportunity to prove them wrong.”

Thompson entered Odyssey House just as the club was about to run the 26-mile trek last year. She realized she needed to get better at challenging herself to reach goals, so, when training began a few months later, she joined the club.

“It has been for myself,” she said of the marathon challenge, “but more so I can set a positive example for my son.”

Thompson was in eighth-grade when she started drinking alcohol and smoking pot. The first time she got drunk was at an older cousin’s house where they played a drinking game and guzzled Molson Ice.

She grew up in a saltbox home her father built, the middle child of three sisters raised in Hamptonburgh, N.Y., a town of roughly 5,000 people 90 minutes north of New York City. Growing up in a normal, happy family, Thompson spent spring weekends on the Hudson River, fishing for striped bass with her father, an electrician.

Her parents made sure everyone was home for family dinner each night, even as their daughters reached their teenage years.

Throughout high school, Thompson played second base for the Valley Central Lady Vikings softball team. At 17, she began dropping acid and taking Ecstasy.

A few years later, after what she called an Ecstasy phase, Thompson started using opiates.

When she was 22, after her dealer ran out of Oxycontin and offered a cheaper high, Thompson began using heroin. Right from the start, she used it every day, and within months snorting and smoking gave way to injecting the drug.

Even so, she was taking courses at Orange County Community College and working various waitressing jobs.

Since she seemed to be doing all the things a parent expects from a young woman in her twenties, and since they no longer lived under the same roof, her parents were in the dark.

So, in her own way, was Thompson.

“In my head I was a functioning drug addict,” she said after the pre-marathon pasta lunch. “I got straight A’s in college doing dope. I had a brand new car, an apartment. On the outside everything looked good. But on the inside, everything was all messed up.”

In February 2007, 24-year-old Thompson was rushed to the hospital after accidentally overdosing on heroin at her then-boyfriend’s house.

In August 2008, she woke up in another friend’s parked car. Her friend was desperately crying, thinking Thompson was dying. She had overdosed again.

Two weeks later, it happened again. She came to while lying on her bathroom floor, her dog licking her face.

“I never was suicidal,” she said. “But I couldn’t help having the feeling of just not caring anymore. I was putting a needle in my arm and I just didn’t care what happened to me.”

In September 2008, Thompson checked herself into a 21-day rehabilitation program in Middletown, N.Y., where she kicked her heroin habit and thought she had regained control of her life.

Shortly after leaving the program, she became pregnant.

She said she stayed clean throughout the pregnancy. But once Carter was born in July 2009, she started taking prescription drugs, including Percocet for back problems and Xanax for anxiety. Soon, she was purposefully taking too much and going to dealers to get more when her prescriptions ran out. Within months, she and Carter’s father were spending roughly $1,000 a week on pills.

A month before her son’s first birthday, she had fallen asleep in a parked car while her son napped in a car seat. A concerned citizen called police and Thompson was arrested and charged with Driving While Ability Impaired and endangering the welfare of a child.

At the time, Thompson was engaged to Carter’s father, despite an on-and-off relationship through the pregnancy. She doesn’t wear the ring he gave her, but still considers him her fiancé. He is also recovering from addictions, attending outpatient treatment upstate, and she said they want to get their lives in order before setting a wedding date.

For Carter’s first birthday, Thompson had spent days organizing a Hawaii-themed “baby luau” at the home of the boy’s paternal grandparents.

All afternoon, Thompson had been drinking Corona and was taking pills to deal with the stress of the day. At the party, in front of about 40 people, she and her fiancé argued about money.

After the fight, feeling emotionally depleted, Thompson took Carter in the fiancé’s Chevy dump truck to pick up more beer. She believes it was someone at the party who called the authorities, since she was visibly drunk as she left. Leaving the store shortly thereafter, she was arrested.

An Orange County judge mandated Thompson enter rehab. It was her insistence that she not be separated from her son that landed them all the way down in East Harlem.

Thompson said being immersed in Odyssey House—and discovering the liberation she feels in meeting her goals, however small—changed her.

“I’m such a different person than I was a year ago,” she said. “I was just a mess. I was a lost soul. I didn’t know what I wanted out of anything. And today I can tell you what I want from life. I want to come out of this a better mother, a better daughter, a better sister, a better friend.”

On the day of the marathon, as Thompson ran to an Odyssey House watering station at Mile 19 in East Harlem, Carter kicked around discarded cups dropped to the street by runners. His mother had been running for more than four hours.

She spotted Carter and veered to the sidewalk, scooping him in her arms. The talkative two-year-old was surprised to see her appear so suddenly. In one motion, she hugged her fiancé and gave both a big kiss.

Handing his mother a cup of water, Carter said, “You gonna finish running, Mama?”

Thompson gave her son another big hug, and, smiling, told him she would. Knowing her family would hustle to the Central Park finish line, she hit the street for the final seven-mile stretch.

Thompson and her running partner Erica Ruiz, another Odyssey House resident, chatted as they crossed into the Bronx. Sometimes it was small talk. Sometimes it was motivation.

“Who’s at the finish line Laura?” Ruiz yelled with a large grin.

“Carter!” Thompson fired back. “I’m coming, baby!”

As the last few miles went by, the sun began to dip through the trees, behind skyscrapers.

After struggling to continue and stopping frequently to stretch, Thompson quickened her pace slightly.

With more than five hours behind her and less than a mile to go, Thompson trudged through Central Park, as dense bunches of people huddled along the barricades. Strangers shouted “Go Laura!” and “You can do it, Laura!” Her name, along with Odyssey House’s green and orange square logo, was printed on her shirt.

At six hours, 35 minutes and 17 seconds, Thompson slowly crossed the finish line of her first-ever marathon. Again, she found her family.

Her mother, who had come down to surprise her, hugged Thompson and told her, “Words cannot explain how proud I am of you.”

Later, Thompson said, “My mom and me haven’t always seen eye to eye. My actions played a big part in that. But we’re starting to build a relationship back and it really meant a lot, her being there to support me.”

Thompson’s life since the marathon has been hectic for all the right reasons. She got a part-time job as a barista at a Manhattan hotel for which she wakes up before dawn to squeeze in shifts before her morning college classes start.

Her main goal now, aside from taking good care of Carter, is to finish up a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Berkley College. She expects to graduate in April, eight years after she first began college.

Thompson knows the road ahead will be continue to be tough, but she is confident her time at Odyssey House has instilled a tenacity that will not abandon her.

While she nestled next to Carter recently as the two watched ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ on TV, she said she wanted nothing more than to prove to her son that nothing in life is insurmountable.