Ohio mother describes journey into heroin addiction, prostitution, jail: 'Heroin was my best friend'

On Saturday, April 5, Danielle Combs overdosed and died.

The 28-year-old from Hamilton had become just another statistic in a heroin epidemic that has plagued the region.

But then, paramedics brought her back to life.

"When they said to me, my friend was over top of me, giving me CPR and I just… sorry,” Combs said, holding back tears. “That's a lot to deal with. Nobody wakes up and says, 'I want to be a drug addict.'"

Emergency responders were able to revive Combs by injecting her with the drug Narcan , described as an opioid antagonist.

She was told her heart stopped, but she has little memory of the overdose.

But this wasn’t always Combs’ life.

Her journey into drug addiction began six years ago, in the back of a car in Dayton with some friends.

That’s when she snorted heroin for the first time.

Combs described her initial high as “unbelievable.”

"I found my best friend that day,” she said. “Your body is just warm and it just starts at your head and goes all the way to your toes. I don't think there's anything like it."

Combs said she didn’t wait long before trying it again. She injected herself the next day, and the high got even better.

“You don't have to feel emotions,” she said. “For people who have not been properly taught how to cope with problems in their life, it's a very soothing state of mind."

Heroin is a highly-addictive opiate that can be snorted, smoke or injected.  

It has made a vicious and deadly comeback in the past two years in the Tri-State, leading to record-breaking overdose deaths in Ohio and Kentucky. State and local officials are calling it a public health epidemic that knows no economic, social or political bounds.

After her first experience, Combs said she would soon be using the drug almost every day -- living on the street and selling her body.

Prostitution was her way of staying high. She said the more she did it, the more drugs she would get.

“Getting in one car and getting into another car 10 minutes later – no in-between time,” Combs said. “No going to the bathroom. No going to shower up. Not showering for a week."

For Combs, this was her rock bottom. She was lying to her family and avoiding her two children – and she was okay with it.

She said the streets became a nightmare she couldn’t escape.

“I was having to do things that I would never in a million years dreamt I would be doing,” she said. “Things that are really just disgusting. (I was) staying in the most ungodly places. Just nasty places where when you walk in, the cockroaches don't even scatter.”

Combs was arrested in June 2013 for tampering with evidence after an officer caught her with a bag of heroin.

She was sentenced to 12 months in the Mon-Day Community Correctional Institute, a center for rehabilitation and recovery in Dayton.

Then the withdrawal symptoms began.

"Withdrawal is something I would not wish on my worst enemy,” Combs said. “You're cold but you're sweating… vomiting. Going to the bathroom on yourself, coming out both ends. Being so weak you feel as if you can't even get up."

When she was released from the correctional facility on March 31, Combs said she had the best intentions.

She was going to change. She was going to live.

But five days later, that plan crumbled with one decision.

Combs was staying at a women's shelter in downtown Columbus when she said a street dealer caught her in a weak moment.

He sold her $20 worth of heroin.

"I ended up using, and it was that euphoria feeling again," she said. 

And that’s when her heart stopped.

But Combs said she won’t let this setback stop her from getting clean and helping others along the way.

“I don't want to die. And to think I was laying there, so close to death. It's sad,” she said. “But I’m still here and I’m still gonna’ persevere and I want nothing more than to help people."

Combs’ mother Tammie Norris also wants to help. She created the local advocacy group "Heroin Control,” and has organized several anti-heroin events and rallies in the region.

The Ohio Department of Health reports 680 people died of heroin overdoses in 2012, up from 426 deaths in 2011 -- a 37 percent increase.

The heroin increase also drove the overall number of fatal drug overdoses to a new record of 1,272 deaths in 2012, up from 1,154 the previous year.

Despite seeing the staggering effects of heroin, Norris said she initially struggled to understand her daughter’s predicament.

"Even though I knew it, I couldn't admit it," Norris said. "You're in denial. If I could buy a house in ‘Denial World,’ I would just go there and live."

Norris said she hesitated to allow Combs to return to Hamilton for fear she might connect with her "old crowd" and relapse.

But after being homeless and supported by a shelter in Columbus, Combs returned home earlier this month.

Combs said heroin addiction is something she will always struggle with.

But she plans to continue fighting and taking her life back.

"If it was so easy to get off drugs, there wouldn't be drug addicts because nobody wants to live

this life,” Combs said. “Today I'm not where I want to be. I'm not where I ought to be. But thank God, I'm not where I used to be."

For more heroin coverage, including the latest news, statistics and community resources, go to wcpo.com/heroin .

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