Will Hiles looked at the wall of his friend’s Brownsville home and wondered why his brain wasn’t splattered there.
Gun to his head, Hiles had just pulled the trigger. It was Dec. 27, 2008, and Hiles intended it to be his last day on Earth.
Hiles was living in Chicago six months earlier when his sister, Sabrina Marie Hiles-Fedeli, hanged herself with a sheet. Hiles remembers that Sabrina was in and out of halfway houses and had been embarrassed that she had relapsed again.
“Something died inside of me that day,” Hiles remembers now. “And something else replaced it.”
That something was pills and then heroin within a year.
“I just did not want to feel pain anymore,” Hiles said.
But the pain kept coming anyway.
Hiles’s cousin killed himself the same week as his sister, followed by his best friend shooting his girlfriend and committing suicide a month and a half later. Then Hiles’s mother Cindi died on Nov. 12, 2008, having battled congestive heart failure and lung cancer.
Hiles left Chicago to be with Cindi but wasn’t there for her mentally or emotionally, doing cocaine and consuming pills all day long.
“I was just a body there, sitting in a chair,” Hiles said.
So six weeks after his mother’s death and six months after his sister’s death, Hiles had half a bottle of Windsor Canadian Whiskey, took a handful of Xanax pills, said The Lord’s Prayer, told his mom he was coming to see her and heard the click he thought would release him from his pain.
But instead of shooting himself, Hiles found that the shell never let off despite his gun’s primer being indented. Hiles was found passed out by police and firemen and sent home after a brief stay at Brownsville General Hospital.
Four years later, Hiles tried to hang himself inside the Fayette County Prison, walking away with banged up knees after two shoestrings broke.
“I felt like I couldn’t even kill myself right,” said Hiles, who spent time in prison for drug possession-related charges. “Just haunting me (were) echoes in my head about getting high, constantly. It drove me insane.”
After seven and a half months in jail, Hiles says he could have passed a lie detector test swearing he would never use again.
The day he got out of jail, Hiles had a few beers. There was a needle in his arm within a week.
“How I even got clean was God definitely working in my life without me being able to see it at the time,” said Hiles, who has been clean since August 2014.
But getting clean was just the beginning. Then he had to reintegrate himself into society and his family.
“My oldest daughter let me have it,” Hiles said. “She said, ‘You know what it was like to go to school, read about you in the newspaper, have to lie and say that’s not my dad?’”
It was a wake-up call for Hiles, who realized that buying gift cards for his daughters wasn’t a magic fix for his relationships with them.
Then other addictions that cropped up — scratch-off tickets, energy drinks and supplements. Hiles’s now-wife Lynette found 163 scratch-off tickets in the car.
“I quit cold turkey,” Hiles said. “I was having scratching dreams, same as using dreams. Addiction finds its way back into my life. I am an addict for life.”
And there were three surgeries for Hiles to recover from without a single narcotic.
“Superman still hasn’t sent me a friend request on Facebook,” Hiles joked.
Today, Hiles lives in California, getting up at 4:30 a.m. daily, working out for an hour at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center in Washington before going to work at Greenbriar Treatment Center there, where he does maintenance and treatment technician work in addition to driving clients.
He and Lynette married on May 20, and his daughters and stepchildren are in his life today.
“JUST WAKE UP”
Lynette has only lost one friend to addiction and feels sorry for Will losing so many.
“That’s so sad to me, and they don’t understand it when they’re young,” Lynette said. “Look around, those are your friends. You’re not gonna have a lot of them if you guys don’t wake up and get a handle on this epidemic.”
“How many funerals I’ve went to,” Will said. “How many friends of mine wanted to do it just one more time.”
At 40 years old, he’s been to several dozen funerals of people who died from drugs. Hiles’s best friend from West Brownsville fatally overdosed the same night that Hiles told him he was totally sober. Soon, Hiles found himself talking with his friend’s mother at his funeral for 90 minutes.
“She said, ‘You know, I’ll never get another call again that my son’s in jail,’” Hiles recalled. “’I’ll never get another call that he just went to rehab or he’s in a detox ward or a mental facility. But for the rest of my life, I’m going to stare at that phone waiting for that call to come.’”
Hiles remembered the funeral of a Monongahela woman in her 20s whose family told him how her daughter had begged her to “just wake up.”
“’I’ll be good, please just wake up, please,’” Hiles repeated. “That’s the pain they leave behind. That little girl’s gonna go the rest of her life thinking she did something wrong that her mom wouldn’t love her enough. That’s a pain I have with my own daughters, because it should have been me in that casket so many times.”
As evidenced by Gov. Tom Wolf declaring the state’s opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency Wednesday, statistics suggest that formerly active addicts are having to endure burying fellow addicts at a record pace while making the most of their own survival.
Westmoreland County reported 158 confirmed deaths by drug and alcohol overdose in 2017 through Dec. 15 according to the county coroner’s office, in addition to another 25 suspected overdose deaths awaiting to be confirmed by toxicology, autopsy and further investigation. That would put Westmoreland County past its high of 174 fatal overdoses in 2016. Washington County was the site of 75 deaths by drug overdose in 2017 just through August, putting the county on pace to surpass the 109 deaths by drug overdose reported by the county coroner’s office for 2016.
In 2017, 61 overdose deaths were reported in Fayette County according to Overdose Free PA, a website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh.
Not surviving 2017 was Jessica Ritz of Uniontown, who died at age 27 on Jan. 18.
Ritz’s high school friend, Elizabeth Paulo, was going to make Ritz the house manager at a recovery house for women that she was planning to start in Uniontown. Ritz died before the recovery house opened in March, and Paulo named it JRitz Women’s House in her memory, adding that the site currently houses seven women and is a way for her to carry on Ritz’s legacy.
“It was the least I could do,” said Paulo, who has been sober for nearly six years herself and is an active board member at the Tradition One recovery club in Uniontown.
In Joey Pagano’s phone are photos of 220 people who have suffered fatal overdoses, including 30 since just April. They’re still alive to Pagano if he puts a little note or emoji next to their picture, adding a “RIP” signifier with a heart symbol next to their contact info. He adds their previous clean dates where possible too.
“When I see the picture of people that died, if I went to sadness, I wouldn’t go outside,” Pagano said. “I’d just lay in bed. They send (pictures) out all the time. I have gratitude (for) every minute I spent with that person.”
Pagano has put his gratitude into action by serving as president of the Club Serenity recovery club in Charleroi since 2013.
“If I had to give a percentage, I’d say 30 percent of people come in and stay clean,” Pagano said. “Of the other 70 percent, either they OD and die, or we never hear about them … Probably even less than that stay clean on the first try.”
A lot of Pagano’s best friends are dead. Pagano, 42, has only one friend from high school that is still alive, and he knows how challenging it is to see fellow addicts get buried.
“Some people, it crushes them,” Pagano said.
Westmoreland County had 61 suicides in 2016, the same year the county suffered a high of 174 fatal drug overdoses. Those 61 suicides were more than county Coroner Ken Bacha has seen in any one year since first being elected coroner in 2001, and he thinks the high suicide count ties back to drugs.
“A lot of people addicted to drugs have a dual diagnosis … addiction and mental health,” Bacha said, adding that feelings of hopelessness and financial stress caused by addiction can fuel a desire for suicide.
Additionally, suicides increased 23.3 percent from 2011 to 2016 in Washington County, from 30 to 37. There were 25 suicides in Washington County in the first eight months of 2017, putting the county on pace to at least match that total for a third straight year.
“THERE’S ANOTHER WAY”
“For some people, that’s a barrier,” Pagano said of some individuals in recovery being affected by others dying before – or after – they get clean. “For some people, it’s motivation for them to do even better.”
Pagano himself is in the latter category, helping along with several other board members to lead Club Serenity to a new home in Charleroi last year and greater financial stability in recent months. He is also a care navigator for Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services (SPHS), essentially serving as a case worker helping clients work towards recovery.
Knowing how difficult recovery can be, Hiles offers encouragement to Greenbriar clients whose roads to recovery are just beginning.
“We’ve all been through that same situation at one time or another where it seems like the world’s overwhelming because we haven’t dealt with any problems of life. We’ve walked through them numb, you know?” Hiles said. “ … They say, ‘You don’t what it’s like.’ ‘Really?’ I love that opening, because then I can tell them my story.’”
Nine years after he pulled the trigger on committing suicide, Hiles loves the life he lives today, helping one kid with homework, getting another to baseball practice — everything he had once dreamed about. But while he’s living proof that addiction isn’t a death sentence, it keeps claiming lives all around him.
“I don’t want to go to another funeral,” Hiles said, sitting at his kitchen table, proud that constables and sheriffs aren’t knocking on his door anymore. “I wish I could just give to people what I have inside today, so they could get a piece of this, feel the way I feel today versus the way I once did.
“Look, there’s another way.”