GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A man’s determination to show a drug-addicted friend just how far she had fallen offers a rare and raw glimpse into the world of opioid addiction.
“I just wanted to record this video to show her some other time in the future what I see,” said the man from behind the camera. “She doesn’t realize how (bad) she is.”
The woman in front of the camera, Kelly Galbraith, was mumbling incoherently, moving in slow motion as she wandered around her trash-strewn room.
Galbraith, now 31, sober and living in Grand Rapids, shared the videos with Target 8 to help shed light on the opioid epidemic that’s stalking West Michigan.
HEROIN, METH, ALCOHOL, PRESCRIPTION DRUGS
“That’s how I lived,” said Galbraith, referring to the video of her, disheveled and disoriented, sprawled out amid her chaotic bedroom. “I’d have needles and paraphernalia all over my floor, everywhere.”
But at the time, she was in denial.
“I didn’t think I was that bad, first off. In my mind, I was not nearly that messed up,” she recalled.
The video was shot in 2011 when Galbraith and her roommate, a close friend named Tom, lived in Dallas.
“I was cleaning my room,” she said of the video. “In my mind, I was cleaning my room.”
Galbraith, 26 at the time, was using heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, booze, Xanax and Adderall.
“You’re just against everything that has to do with any kind of pot or alcohol,” Galbraith cried out angrily in the video.
“Well, if you’re going to do pot and alcohol, don’t do Adderall or whatever. Just do that, then,” Tom said from behind the camera.
“I don’t want to do anything,” Galbraith shouted, her slurred speech nearly incomprehensible.
“I don’t want to do anything… You don’t know how f***ed I feel. You don’t f***ing know,” she cried before slamming the bedroom door.
‘WHY THE HELL AM I STILL ALIVE?’
Less than two months later, Galbraith’s heart stopped, paralyzed by a toxic mix of heroin and meth. For two weeks, she lay in the hospital on life support, in a coma.
“When I woke up from that hospital, I thought, ‘Oh my God, why the hell am I still alive?’” Galbraith recalled. “I was like, ‘God, this is just ridiculous. Why? I was so close to being just done with this frustrating bulls****. I was just done with this dark hole.’”
Galbraith’s journey through hell started in her late teens when she tried OxyContin, a prescription opioid painkiller, with her first real boyfriend.
“I still to this day think back, what was I thinking?” said Galbraith, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. “Obviously I was blinded by love. But why would I do that? That was the single worst mistake I ever made in my life.”
Within a year, she was homeless, roaming Philly’s drug-ravaged Kensington neighborhood, prostituting and stealing to pay for her heroin habit.
Galbraith had been terrified of drugs growing up, knowing they were to blame for her own trauma-filled childhood.
“I mean, I would never do drugs or touch drugs because I’ve seen so many people in my family get so torn up with addiction,” she said.
“Both my parents were addicts,” she told an audience at a recent meeting of a Grand Rapids group called Clean and Sober Support, or CASS. “I was born into addiction. I come from a very poor family. Sometimes clothes, food, shelter weren’t always available to us.”
Today, Galbraith shares her story because doing so gives her strength. She hopes, too, that her experience might stop someone else from trying prescription painkillers, even just once.
“You have like a 50/50 chance, really, of letting one drug progress to the next to the next to the next,” she said. “Before you know it, your barrier for what you won’t do gets lower and lower until you’re just like, ‘Well, I’ve already done all these drugs, I might as well do this.'”
GETTING HELP TO FIGHT THE ADDICTION
“We want to say these are bad people who made bad decisions,” Galbraith’s addiction doctor, Dr. Sandy Dettman of Grand Rapids, said. “We’re talking about good people with bad diseases… The brain gets hijacked by these chemicals… It starts out as voluntary and it becomes involuntary in a very primitive part of the brain.”
Dettman said her patient’s breathtaking recovery has changed the way she practices medicine.
“If I was honest, I have to say I was very, very skeptical with (Galbraith’s history),” Dettman said regarding her initial assessment of Galbraith’s chances for recovery. “I take the most devastated lives, and I am there for them, and I frequently say to my practice manager, ‘I don’t know who’s going to be a Kelly.’ Everyone deserves another chance in life. We are a society that believes in second chances.”
Galbraith spent 15 years in active addiction. Early on, while living on the streets of North Philadelphia, she met the man who would ultimately document her days and years in active addiction.
“I met (Tom) after I was brutally beaten and dragged up and down a street and robbed for $20,” Galbraith recalled. “That’s how he initially stopped to see me because he thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s this young girl,’ and he said, ‘You need some help?’”
What followed was an improbable friendship that Galbraith says ultimately saved her life.
“He’s my best friend,” Galbraith said. “He’s an angel sent from God.”
Tom let Galbraith stay with him, tried to help her get clean and stuck with her through dozens of mug shots and failed rehab stints.
Then, two and a half years ago, Galbraith came to a crossroads:
“I just like cried out to God, I said, ‘Please, God, let something happen. I can’t do this anymore.’ I was either going to kill myself… or this lifestyle is going to kill me, and I can’t deal with it anymore.”
That’s when Galbraith discovered a treatment program in northern Michigan. It was the first time she had visited the state and the first time she successfully completed a program.
“I’ll have 18 months clean next month,” Galbraith told the audience at the CASS meeting.
She now works at a private drug treatment center and attends Grand Rapids Community College.
“It’s a choice at this point,” Galbraith said. “If I’m going to choose drugs again, I’m choosing to give up happiness, my freedom, my life, my friends… I have so much more today, I could never give it up for any drug.”
The Red Project, a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, is a leader in the fight against the opioid epidemic in West Michigan. The Red Project offers free training in the administration of life-saving Narcan, a drug that reverses potentially fatal overdoses.
Families Against Narcotics opened a Grand Rapids chapter in October 2016. FAN meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Division Avenue with rotating speakers. Note: The July meeting will be held July 11 due to the holiday.
The Kent County Health Department is partnering with the Red Project to offer a Naloxone Training (also known as Narcan) for free to individuals, families and friends who want to be prepared to help a person who may be at risk. A brief training and the medication is provided by knowledgeable Red Project staff and a nurse from the Health Department. The training will take place June 1, 2017 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the MCC Room of the Kent County Health Department at 700 Fuller Ave. NE in Grand Rapids. Seats are limited. Please register online.