Scars from needle injections remain on Douglas Darby's arms after years of heroin use. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
Douglas Darby looks outside the window at his home in Suamico on May 29. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
Heroin overdose deaths rose 50 percent in Wisconsin last year, a deadly consequence of a drug that has steadily spread from the inner city to the suburbs and rural areas. This two-part investigation from the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team details the growth of heroin use, the reasons behind it and what can be done about it.
Douglas Darby's high school portraits on the fridge at his home in Suamico. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
Douglas Darby has seen the worst version of himself.
The deceiver who covered needle marks on his arms with long sleeves.
The manipulator who said whatever it took to keep the family money flowing.
The desperate addict who robbed two drugstores when his supply dried up.
A five-year descent into heroin addiction bottomed out in 2010 in a jailhouse shower, where the Brown County man wrapped his pants around the showerhead and then his neck.
“I thought my life was over,” said Darby, now 27. “All I wanted was to go to sleep and have the pain stop.”
Heroin casts a growing shadow in Wisconsin, moving from the inner city to small towns like Suamico, where Darby grew up. A Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team analysis showed heroin overdose deaths statewide rose 50 percent since 2011 to at least 199 last year, and state data shows thousands more were near death but saved by anti-overdose injections from emergency responders or fellow drug users.
The low cost, lengthy high and increasing availability of heroin make it hard to resist. But as Darby and others learn, serious consequences can quickly mount.
“The concern with heroin is how quickly it can compromise the brain, create that addiction, and how quickly the enormous consequences roll up, the felony possession, the overdoses, the theft,” said Hugh Holly, executive director of Nova Counseling Services in Oshkosh. “It takes consequences, sometimes serious ones, to create the willingness within the addict to get help, so (as a parent) you understand that you have to let your child hit bottom, but will they survive the bottom? Are they going to stay out of prison? Are they going to live through that without long-term, irreversible damage?”
'The envy of the high school'
Darby’s first consistent drug use began at 15, around the time his father — a relapsed drug addict — died “with a rope around his neck and a needle in his arm.”
The death haunted Darby in a vivid recurring nightmare, and marijuana allowed him to sleep in peace. But he doesn’t point to that as justification.
“Everyone’s got problems, and I used those excuses when I was getting high,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is I got high for one reason — because I liked it.”
Darby quickly embraced the pothead lifestyle. He grew out dreadlocks. He added a pot leaf tattoo. An outgoing, good-looking kid with money flowing from a well-to-do family, he fostered a persona that resonated with his peers.
“He was the envy of the high school,” said Tim Campbell, 25, of Green Bay, one of Darby’s closest friends since his early teen years. “He had the nicest car … the coolest clothes. It was easy to look up to him.”
Darby still looks back with a tinge of envy on the days when he “tried to embrace everything about carefree living.”
“That’s never something I want to forget is those fun times, but it’s just remembering where it brings you,” Darby said in a recent interview at the three-bedroom Suamico duplex where he lives with his mom and three teenage siblings. “Marijuana led to cocaine led to meth led to acid. There was never a drug I didn’t like.”
'Heroin took over everything'
Darby described himself as a casual drug user through his time at Bay Port High School, using marijuana regularly while experimenting with harder drugs. But within a year of leaving school in 2004, he had moved to prescription opiates and then heroin.
He said curiosity drove the progression to heroin, where he was hooked by the low cost and more intense high. Within a couple years, Douglas moved from snorting and smoking to injecting heroin. The casual, social drug user was no more.
Darby pushed his friends away, including Campbell, and withdrew to a daily cycle of leaving bed around 2 p.m. to head to the bathroom. He cooked between six and 10 doses of heroin, enough to last the day in case he “nodded out” — a kind of waking sleep — or went someplace he couldn’t cook.
He broke down the heroin into powder, put it in a spoon with water and heated it to dissolve the drug. Through the rest of the day he shot up wherever necessary, including his car and public bathrooms. The track marks ran from his armpits to his wrists, and when the arms didn’t work he injected his hands, feet, between his toes, “anywhere you can find a vein.”
As his addiction worsened, Darby began using 12-gauge veterinary needles from home vaccination kits intended for puppies. His dosage required multiple injections with a typical 20-gauge hypodermic needle, which cut into his high.
“Heroin took over everything as far as a social life, a family life, basic hygiene needs. Nothing mattered when you’re on that stuff,” Darby said. “I could know my life was crumbling around me, but as long as I had a needle in my arm, for that six to eight hours, life didn’t matter.”
The drug use continued despite two arrests in 2007. He was charged with felony marijuana possession when a drug task force found 2 pounds of marijuana in his home, and a felony bail jumping charge was added six months later when another search revealed traces of marijuana in the fireplace.
Darby avoided jail time and was placed on probation, where he used synthetic urine to cheat drug tests.
'This is really bad'
To pay for his habit Darby sold drugs: marijuana, cocaine, prescription pills — anything but heroin. He kept that for himself.
Buying primarily in Chicago and selling around Green Bay, he said he brought in $12,000 to $30,000 a month in profit. But he still struggled to pay the rent, using $500 to $800 of heroin daily.
Darby’s mom, Tami, said she was devastated years later to learn the depth of his addiction. The smooth-talking young man maintained a façade through his darkest times, and she had convinced herself he was just a casual drug user. She now sees the withdrawal from family and friends was a sign her extroverted son was slipping away.
“A lot of it I turned a blind eye to, and looking back at it I should have seen more, I should have paid more attention,” she said.
Darby said he always convinced himself he was in control of his drug use, a priority for him because his father’s suicide was never far from his mind. That death was the result of losing control, he thought.
“That was half the power of heroin, to know you play with your life every time you use. That’s a high in its own.”
But any semblance of control disappeared on Aug. 21, 2010. Desperate for a high after a falling out with his heroin supplier, Darby put on sunglasses, pulled up his hood and walked into a Walgreens in Howard.
He implied he had a gun and walked out with 300 OxyContin pills. Five days later he robbed an Aurora Pharmacy in Green Bay, taking another 700 OxyContin pills. The drugs had a street value of nearly $80,000.
“I robbed a pharmacy, watched myself on the news for five days, going, ‘Wow, this is really bad. I’m going to prison,’ and went out and robbed another one,” Darby said.
He stayed home alone between and after the robberies, watching the news for the next mention of his crime. He injected five to 10 pills at a time until the SWAT team kicked in his door Sept. 9, 2010, sent there by an anonymous tip.
By that point Darby had ground up and injected all but 70 of the pills.
'It hurts to hang'
Detox began immediately in the Brown County Jail, where he was held on a $100,000 cash bond.
Overwhelmed by the early stages of withdrawal and the prospect of decades in prison, Darby headed to the shower on Sept. 10, 2010, intent on ending his life.
He looped his pants around the low showerhead, then forced himself into a near-seated position trying to tighten the cloth around his neck. The effort dragged on for 20 minutes, with one quick pause to wave his hand outside the shower when a guard demanded the inmates acknowledge they were present and OK.
“It hurts to hang,” he said. “Everyone says it’s the easy way out. It’s not. It’s hard.”
Unable to finish the job, Darby finally stood up and threw up. The detox would last 19 days and be as horrific as he feared.
Detox was “your worst flu times 1,000,” he said. Constant runs to the toilet as his body purged itself at both ends. Cold sweats. Leg twitches. Horrific smells as the poison oozed from his pores.
By day five Darby was hallucinating due to lack of sleep. When sleep came for even a few minutes, he had nightmares — recurring dreams of people’s faces melting off or squid being cut up. Like marijuana, heroin had suppressed his dreams, so he hadn’t dreamed in 10 years.
But Darby said he never thought of suicide again, and “every day got a little bit brighter.”
Three months later, with his mother pleading for leniency, he was sentenced to four years in prison after his probation was revoked on the 2007 offenses. He received no additional time for the robbery charges, as the judge ordered a three-year sentence be served simultaneous with the revocation sentences.
After stretches at prisons in Waupun and Oshkosh, Darby was accepted into an intensive treatment program at St. Croix Correctional Center in western Wisconsin. The voluntary six-month program included 16-hour days with boot-camp-style physical training and seminars on drug abuse, anger management and criminal thinking.
Completing the program allowed Darby to get out on Dec. 19, 2012, more than two years earlier than scheduled, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
His mother — who had visited him weekly in prison and as often as allowed in St. Croix — cued up “I’m Free” by The Who for the drive back to Suamico. Tami said she will be there to support Douglas every step of the way.
But she will be the first to call the police if he falters, being the mother she “should have been 10 years ago.”
“Anything to keep him with us, because the next time he uses will be the last time,” Tami said. “I would rather visit him in prison than bury him.”
'I found myself in prison'
Now three years sober and six months out of prison, Darby is fighting to redefine himself.
He wakes up around 8 a.m., often going for a run, then it’s off to a 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift as a sales associate at his stepfather’s furniture store.
He speaks of his past without hesitation or sadness, matter-of-factly detailing one mistake after another. He says he regrets the pain he caused others, but not the actions themselves.
“Prison was a blessing. Those weren’t wasted years of my life. I found myself in prison again,” Darby said. “Everything I did in my past made me who I am today.”
Needle marks are still visible on his arms, and he leaves two pot leaf tattoos untouched to remind himself of his past. But his forearms are now an array of images, perspective gained while in prison that is now inked from wrist to elbow.
“Always remember. Endless mistakes, zero regrets,” is tattooed across the top of his arms.
The inside of Darby’s forearms combine to say, “Like father, like son,” with the dates of his father’s death and his first day sober.
A pair of sugar skulls on his left arm “signify that I can be two different people.” A half-skull and wings on his right arm stand for his half a chance, “because I don’t believe I get a second chance.”
'He wants to make amends'
A month and a half after his release, Darby sat down with Bay Port High School Principal Mike Frieder to detail his journey and ask for a chance to share it.
Frieder agreed, and Darby has since shared his story in Bay Port classes and other venues. He has also met individually with at-risk students.
“It’s great that he wants to now come back and make a difference,” Frieder said. “I think he wants to make amends for what he did wrong earlier in his life. … I think his story is one students need to hear.”
Heroin overdose deaths in Brown County soared from one in 2011 to 12 in 2012, by far the largest increase in the state. Douglas said he fears for kids who don’t understand how drugs can affect their future, particularly novice drug users.
“In the eyes of the courts my debt to society is paid. I don’t feel like it is. (Heroin) is a problem now, and I feel responsible for where it’s led,” said the former drug dealer. “It’s these kids that are going in the ground that don’t get the second chances, that’s the biggest thing.”
Darby — who is on probation until 2019 — tells students casual drug use can quickly spiral, sharing the same knowledge that helps keep him on the straight and narrow.
“I’m always going to be an addict, I’m always going to have these triggers.
“From the amount of time that I have over my head of going to prison, to truly now fearing that if I put a needle in my arm it could be my last time, it scares the hell out of me.”
— Eric Litke: 920-453-5119, or email@example.com; on Twitter: @ericlitke.