Kent State student Sabrina Scott falls into a downward spiral after losing her stepfather to heroin and learns to rise from the darkness.
Words by Samantha Ickes
Photos by Eslah Attar
Snowflakes drift through the air, landing gently on the windowsill outside of her room. She shivers, even though she’s warm inside her home. The gray, bitter-cold day reminds her of the numbness she feels, and thoughts of her stepfather leave an ache deep in her chest. She stands up and heads for the fridge, hoping the extra bottles of Redd’s Apple Ale will ease the feeling.
Sabrina Scott grabs the drink and retreats back to her room, sitting on the floor of her tiny bedroom in her house in Kent. She lies on her green floral floor pillow, watching the snowfall outside her window.
Unsatisfied with the alcohol, she sits up to reach for the antidepressants she keeps in a storage bin below her vanity. She shakes out a pale yellow pill and watches it roll back and forth in her cupped palm before swallowing.
Scott knows she isn’t drunk or high, but she can feel the warmth of a buzz as she lies down on her bedroom floor and falls asleep.
The room is dark and quiet, save for the ringing of a telephone. Though Scott can’t even see her hands in front of her face, she reaches out into the darkness, gripping onto a telephone. She slowly picks it up and presses it against her ear.
“Hello?” she answers. Scott can hear her stepfather’s voice on the other end. “Hi, honey! It’s me, Phil!”
Scott looks wildly around the dark room as though her stepfather might appear before her eyes. Scott’s mother suddenly appears a few feet in front of her. Nothing but blackness surrounding them. Scott tries to hand the phone to her mother, excited to hear from her stepfather after the months apart, but her mother only shakes her head sadly.
When Scott wakes, the sound of her father’s voice still echoes in her head. She feels as though this was her stepfather’s way of communicating with her—she knows even though he can’t be there physically, he is still trying to protect her spiritually.
Things changed with a single phone call late on a cold, snowy night in February. Scott could hear her mom sobbing on the other end, telling her Phil was using again. As her mother told Scott what happened, she could picture Phil lying on the ground outside of McDonald’s. She could picture the needle stuck in his arm, filling him with poison.
Tears filled her eyes, blurring her vision, but anger wouldn’t let them fall. Her stomach dropped in fear that Phil would not be OK, but she felt angry he would even turn back to heroin.
The anger she felt deep in her chest faltered when she saw how frail and small her stepfather looked in the hospital bed, but she couldn’t let it go. She felt her stepfather betrayed her family, choosing drugs over everything else.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Scott yells at her stepfather. “I don’t want you to die.” She hits him with her fists repeatedly, crying out of anger.
Her stepfather tries to hold her back, weak from the poison he injected into his body hours before. His face looks sunken, and dark circles hide his eyes.
When Phil returns home, Scott allows herself to feel a new sense of hope he will overcome his addiction. After all, he’s beat heroin before and had been clean for more than seven years.
As time passed, Scott began to notice Phil’s behavioral changes the deeper he gets into his heroin addiction. Scott notices small things missing or changing around the house, like the beautiful copper gutters along their house that disappeared one day. Though she didn’t want to assume the worst, deep down she knew Phil had taken them and sold them for drug money.
Scott talks of college applications and the upcoming prom at dinner. She notices her stepfather has fallen asleep from exhaustion. She pushes her food to one side of the plate. It’s obvious the drugs are taking a toll on his body, making him look years older than 55.
Scott’s mother, Heather O’Connor, tries to comfort Scott by telling her Phil just had a long day at work. She continues to make excuses for Phil, knowing in her heart they’re lies. She didn’t want to leave Phil on his own, knowing if he died alone in their house, she would blame herself.
O’Connor drew the line when she found prescription pills in her bedroom drawer. She had looked past his addiction with hope he would recover again, but at some point, she knew she had to let go. She would tell herself Phil’s behavior was just because of work or because he was tired, but as she pulls the pills for her dresser drawer, she feels it is time to take action.
“When you love somebody and you care about somebody, you’ll try to make up any excuse possible,” O’Connor says.
O’Connor was a recovering addict, sober for 15 years. The longer she stayed in the house, the more she put herself in danger of using again.
“It was getting harder and harder for me to flush those pills down the toilet, and I knew that I was getting close to using again myself because I was so down and depressed,” O’Connor says.
Though Scott’s life changed quickly in a matter of two months, O’Connor says it was the best decision for her and her daughter to move. The deeper Phil burrowed himself into his addiction, the more O’Connor thought to herself: I can’t go down with him. The toughest change for Scott was learning to cope without the close relationship she once had with her stepfather.
Scott’s biological father was in federal prison for taking cocaine across state borders, but Phil was present in her life through all the big moments: homecoming, prom, softball games and boyfriends. For every dance he was there for pictures and for every game he was there on the sidelines cheering her on.
“We just started connecting, and overtime, I just started realizing that he actually was like my dad,” Scott says. “I felt really grateful that he was my dad.”
Scott remembers the date vividly: Nov. 18, 2014. She can still picture her mother standing in the doorway of the bathroom of their home in North Ridgeville—the room where her stepfather died.
She remembers Phil’s love for ties, and the hundreds of ties he had collected from birthday gifts and Christmas presents over the years, but his tie rack is empty. A tie is knotted up on the floor, which Phil had used to compress his arm. Syringes are scattered here and there. A bloodied T-shirt is crumpled in the corner.
The once white walls are now tinted yellow from cigarette smoke. The mirror is coated so thickly with dust and dirt that Scott only sees a blurred reflection of herself. She breathes in deeply as she takes in the scene before leaving her childhood home forever.
“We knew it was coming,” Scott says. “It didn’t even feel real because I was so angry. Heroin had already claimed him, and there was no going back.”
Scott didn’t cry when her stepfather died. She felt angry
and hurt at the broken promise her stepfather made her. You’re not going to lose me, he said, and now she plans his funeral arrangements in between finding time to study for her finals.
Scott and O’Connor decided to have Phil cremated, and she cries for the first time since he died as she visits his body before the cremation. The image of his face, sunken in and dark, is still ingrained in her memory today.
“I just lost it,” she says. “It just hit me. This is it. He’s gone.”
Even a year after his death, Scott continues to feel the effects of the loss. Scott says she hit an all time low around Homecoming weekend. She began making awful decisions: skipping classes, drinking to numb the aching feeling in her chest, even dropping a class because she was failing.
She knew it was a mechanism for coping with the pain of her stepfather being gone, but that didn’t stop her from cracking open a Redd’s or asking an older student to buy her liquor to feel something other than pain and guilt.
Scott feels her need to drink increase the more she thinks about how much time was lost with her stepfather before his death. She can’t sleep. She can’t feel.
As she stands in front of her mirror in her Kent house, she searches her face as if looking for an answer, asking herself who she is as a person. The only response she got was a question: Is this how my stepfather felt before he died?
Scott blinks away tears of anger and turns away from the mirror. She hates feeling this way. She hates that Phil chose heroin over her and her mother. She hates who she’s become, and so she pours herself another drink. Scotts feels the familiar ache of depression that has consumed her life. She pulls her sleeping pills out of her purse and looks over the label, wondering how many it would take to put her to sleep forever.
That’s when Scott’s friend, Nathaniel McCarthy, knew it was time to intervene. McCarthy remembers the warm, fall night when Scott got into his car, already drunk from the drinks she had before he arrived.
She lifts up her sleeves to expose her bare forearms, scarred and cut from self-abuse. She cries and tells him she doesn’t feel alive anymore. She doesn’t see the point in moving on when her life feels as though it’s taken a 180-degree turn for the worst. McCarthy drives in silence, listening to Scott as she speaks about the nightmare she’s been living since her stepfather passed. Unsure of what to do, he asks if she would mind visiting the emergency room. He feared Scott might try to end her life.
“I was in shock,” McCarthy says. “I’ve known Sabrina since I was a freshman in high school. I always saw her as bubbly and happy. She would always have this mindset of ‘this sucks, but I’ll find a way through it.’ ”
The nurse put an IV in Scott’s arm, asking McCarthy questions as she worked. Is she still feeling self harm? Is she under the influence of any drugs or alcohol?
After the nurse finished questioning Scott and McCarthy, Scott was referred to a psych ward in Akron, where she spent the next five days. The walls were beige and blank, and the room smelled of household cleansers and disinfectant.
As Scott sits in her room at the psych ward, a million thoughts run through her head: What the hell ever happened to me? The world would be better off without me. Where do I go from here? And the one question that is in the back of her mind every second of the day: How did I get here?
She looks out the barred window at the autumn trees—the beautiful collage of yellows, oranges and browns. October is near an end, and she feels it is autumn’s last breath before winter takes over.
Scott’s mind wanders to her feelings of last night. In those moments, she truly wanted to die. Her life is now a cycle of finding what makes her feel the most numb. Drinking in excess makes her feel alive and almost invincible at times. Cutting herself makes her forget the pain caused by depression, and when none of that works, sleeping takes away her thoughts as she slips into unconscious darkness.
She turns her attention back to the beautiful scenery outside her window. A yellow leaf falls from a tree and lands softly on the ground.
Scott sits at her laptop in her apartment mulling over an idea she’s been toying with. She takes a deep breath and types out a message to her stepsister about wanting to advocate for heroin awareness. Though it’s only been an idea for a little over a month, being in the psych ward reinforced Scott’s desire to stand up and tell others her story about how heroin affected her life, even though she never touched the drug.
“I believe that my higher power brought me these obstacles in my life for a reason,” Scott says. “So why not share my knowledge and experiences of being affected by this drug to others so they may understand and see this addiction with a different perspective.”
Scott is one of many individuals affected by the drug. Heroin use has no boundaries. It affects the poor and the rich, men and women, old and young.
Scott wishes to educate others, starting with students at her alma mater, Elyria Catholic High School, about how drugs not only affect the user but the family as well, and how to prepare for the hardships that may come with it.
“It affects the entire family,” says Carri Hall, an alcohol and other drug prevention specialist from Townhall II in downtown Kent. “Addiction is considered a chronic brain illness, and so it impacts the people’s behavior, which would then impact the people around them.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use has quadrupled since 2002.
A record number of Ohioans died from drug-related deaths in 2014, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Nearly half of these deaths involved heroin, resulting in 1,177 overdoses—including Scott’s stepfather.
“Never in a million years would I think the life I once had would be gone in a split second, and that’s what heroin does to you,” Scott says. “It’s scary how fast it happens.”
Though her plans are still in the dream phase, she hopes to get her advocacy program underway as soon as she returns from studying abroad in Geneva, Switzerland.
Scott began by contacting an ABC News Drug Enforcement Administration task officer in St. Louis to begin her own outreach program. She also reached out to some former high school teachers to help with her first motivational speech.
“Unfortunately with the D.A.R.E. program, all they ever taught you was to say no,” Scott says. “They never actually advocate the reality of drugs—what actually happens to the addict and to the people they love and care about.”
Scott plans to start with outreach in Lorain and Cuyahoga counties by speaking in local high schools. Once she establishes a foundation, Scott wants to raise money for halfway houses where men and women go to recover from addictions.
The effects of heroin branch out from the user and marks everyone surrounding them. Heroin not only claimed the life of Scott’s stepfather long before his death, it also tested her mother’s sobriety and sent Scott down a dark path toward self-harm.
“[The user’s] thoughts and behaviors become more focused on the next time they’re going to use and getting the euphoric feeling of the drug,” Hall says. “That has a greater impact of the family.”
Scott feels as though she could have handled the situation differently if she had known about the effects of heroin use and how it changes the user.
She treated her stepfather like a disease because of the anger and hurt she felt. Though she feels in her heart Phil has forgiven her, she doesn’t want other individuals to go through the same situation.
“I came a long way from that, and it blows my mind,” Scott says. “I would like to inform high school students about how alcoholism and drug addiction has affected my life negatively but has made me a stronger person because of it.