The first time Amanda McKiernan took drugs intravenously, she was sitting on the edge of her then-boyfriend’s bed. At 21, she was nervous but ready for a stronger high.
She had used opioids in the past but had stuck to swallowing the pale blue, 30mg Roxicodone pills whole or snorting them crushed. This was different.
“It was an overwhelming, foreign feeling,” McKeirnan, now 30, told The Penny Hoarder. “This really strong drug just hits you all of a sudden. You just feel it throughout your whole body. I remember panicking for a minute.
“It passes, but then that feeling is what it becomes about,” she added. “That’s the feeling you’re trying to get to. It’s terrifying at first, but then that’s all you’re after.”
It’s impossible to quantify everything McKiernan lost each time she got high in her 10 years of misusing drugs — a relationship with her younger sister, lifelong friendships, the career in photography she dreamed of as a high schooler. It’s easier to measure those years, and her three years of sobriety since, in cash.
That high cost her $15.
Cough Syrup, Then Cocaine, Then Opioids
Her addiction didn’t start with opioids.
When McKiernan was a 14-year-old cheerleader, a friend told her if she took enough cough medicine, she’d feel a buzz. After that, it was marijuana.
By 16, she was using cocaine.
For her first six months on the drug, she and a friend would spend $60 on 1 gram of cocaine every Friday. That would be enough to last them the weekend.
By the end of her junior year of high school, that went up to 2 grams. Her senior year, it was 3 1/2 grams, or an “eight ball.” That would last them the week.
She and the friend she used with had their daily ritual: They both caught the bus to school, and whoever got there first would wait for the other in the bathroom near the art classrooms. They could usually count on that hallway being deserted.
The walls and floors in the small two-stall bathroom were covered in white tiles. The first stall was larger — big enough for both girls to fit inside.
“We definitely tried to make sure — if at all possible — that no one was in there. But if someone was, we would either flush the toilet or turn the sink on, so if we were snorting a line, they couldn’t hear it.”
They wouldn’t talk much in there. They had to be quick if they were going to make it to class. At lunchtime, they met up again — this time in the concrete outdoor bathroom near the cafeteria.
Estimating conservatively, McKiernan and her friend used more than $9,300 worth of cocaine during their final two years of high school.
That doesn’t include the money she spent on Parrot Bay rum nearly every weekend or the times she was short on cash and someone else would cover the cost. It doesn’t even include her summertime drug use, which was often more frequent but varied too widely to calculate.
To fund the drug abuse, McKiernan worked part time at a grocery store, and then at a pizza shop. Her friend worked as well, and the two split the cost of the drugs.
After high school, McKiernan’s drug use rose and fell depending on how much money she was making, and which friends she saw most often.
First, she stuck to cocaine. Then she tried meth and crack, but neither became a habit. Later, she tried muscle relaxers. By 21, her drug use grew to include heroin and powerful prescription painkillers.
Prescription opioids and illegal opioids like heroin caused more than 42,000 overdose deaths nationwide in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Last year, President Donald Trump said the ubiquitous cases of opioid addiction and deaths had become a national health emergency.
The first time McKiernan tried the Roxicodone pills, she balked at the $15-per-pill price tag.
But then, “I did it and it was so strong, and I thought, ‘This is why this costs so much money,’” McKiernan said.
Within a year, she was shooting up Roxicodone with the help of her boyfriend, who would eventually father her daughter Calie, now 8.
At Least $300 a Day on Drugs
By 22, McKiernan was a single mom to a 6-month-old daughter. She took a job as a dancer at a South Florida strip club.
There, she could make more than $1,000 in a single night. Suddenly flush with cash, McKiernan and her friends had more access to drugs.
She went from one pill at a time to buying 30 pills at once. At the time, that was only enough to last three days. Then she moved on to the Dilaudid pills, an even stronger opioid that cost her up to $30 each.
She spent two years taking between six and 10 Dilaudid pills a day.
While working at the strip club, McKiernan said she got close to one of her regulars, a wealthy South Florida businessman. Soon, she stopped going to the club, because he covered her expenses.
He rented her an apartment in a building near the beach. He bought her a series of high-end cars that she either wrecked or failed to maintain. And every time she saw him, he’d give her money that she would spend on drugs.
One weekend, he gave her $14,000 and she spent every penny of it on a hotel suite, drugs and alcohol for a party she had with a few friends.
On an average day, she spent about $300 on Roxicodone, Dilaudid or other drugs.
A conservative estimate of the cost of her regular drug abuse over the span of a decade is nearly $385,000.
That number does not include the amount she spent on alcohol or the periods she spent using less expensive street drugs. During those times, the cost of each drug and the length of time she used it varied too widely to come up with an accurate estimate.
Still, those costs were only slightly lower. When she was tight on cash and couldn’t afford the painkillers, she’d get heroin instead. That could cost between $80 and $120 a day.
Except for a few brief stints in rehab — one lasting 24 hours and the other 48 — that were each thwarted when the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, McKiernan didn’t give quitting a serious try until she was arrested in Martin County, Florida, with pills, marijuana and a crack pipe in her car in 2015.
She was 27 and faced a felony drug possession charge.
The Cost of Getting Sober
To avoid a felony conviction, McKiernan agreed to enroll in drug court, a substance abuse treatment program for first-time offenders. The agreement was that if she made it through the program successfully, her charges would be dismissed.
But as she soon learned, sobriety comes with costs, too.
McKiernan went through two rounds of drug court. The first lasted about four months. Each week, she had to pay $30 to cover the cost of mandatory drug testing and another $30 for counseling. If she missed or failed a drug test, she was off to jail.
That happened twice. The first time, she spent three nights in jail, and the second time it was two weeks.
“I used to pray for her to get arrested,” McKiernan’s mother, Pam, said. “If she’s in jail, she can’t do drugs. She won’t die.”
After being jailed the second time, McKiernan had two options left: Spend a court-ordered 10 months in a Pembroke Pines, Florida, rehabilitation facility for mothers fighting addiction or spend that time in jail.
She chose rehab, where she could be with her daughter.
For the next 10 months, McKiernan’s parents bore the brunt of the cost of their daughter’s addiction.
Every Friday, they drove the 90 miles south from their home in Hobe Sound, Florida, to Pembroke Pines to see McKiernan and pick up Calie. Then every Sunday, they would drive down again to bring Calie back to her mother. It cost about $45 in gas for the two round trips each weekend.
Over the span of 10 months, that’s $1,800 in gas alone.
On average, her parents spent another $100 a week paying for food and clothing for McKiernan and her daughter, while also making sure Calie had toys. That’s another $4,000.
But the thousands of dollars they spent in the 10 months McKiernan was in rehab was just the most recent of the expenses her parents took on from her addiction.
“The emotional part you can imagine,” Pam McKiernan said. “Lots of sleepless nights, lots of crying, lots of begging… But there’s the financial part, of course. We took care of Calie most of the time. So we had the extra expense of that.”
Before Amanda McKiernan went to rehab, most of the responsibility and the expense of child care for Calie fell on her parents’ shoulders. Day care alone cost between $85 and $120 each week for four years — more than $17,000 total.
Pam McKiernan estimates she and her husband spent at least an additional $10,000 helping to care for Calie and buying groceries for Amanda over the years.
And the expenses didn’t stop once McKiernan left rehab. She immediately had to begin her second round of drug court. That meant another six months of drugs tests and counseling sessions for $60 each week.
Her parents covered the cost for the first three months before McKiernan got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Her minimum wage pay was nothing compared to what she had pulled in as a dancer.
If she made that kind of money now, she probably wouldn’t be sleeping in a bottom bunk bed in her parents’ two-bedroom house. Her daughter sleeps on the top and her sister sleeps in a separate twin bed in the same room.
McKiernan said she visited her old strip club a couple times after she completed rehab and drug court.
“I would have to be high to work there, and I didn’t want to get high,” she said, making it clear that even if sobriety meant a financial setback, it was worth it.
The Lasting Costs Are Financial, Emotional
This summer, McKiernan was invited to speak to a group of people in drug court. Some were graduating, while others were just starting.
Among them was a graduate who managed to stay sober even after her sister’s overdose death and another just starting out who wasn’t sure if she’d be able to go without using for the next two weeks before her drug court officially began.
“I’m scared for them and their families,” McKiernan said after she spoke to the graduates who would no longer be required to take weekly court-ordered drug tests. “Tonight is going to be a hard night.”
For McKiernan, the past three years of sobriety have been about slowly forgiving herself, regaining the trust of her parents, rebuilding the relationship with her sister and making up for all the years she lost.
Weeks before her drug court speech, she quit her job at Dunkin’ Donuts. She graduated from a medical assisting program and got a new job that pays a bit better. She still can’t move out of her parents’ home yet, but that’s OK. She doesn’t want to rush things and get in over her head.
Her father is proud. He said he never thought he’d get to see her graduate from the medical assisting program. He couldn’t be happier about the change he’s seen in his oldest daughter.
The costs her parents bear now are minor in comparison to the years prior — their electric bill is a bit high because of the extra people at home.
But they don’t focus on that. Instead, they revel in having their daughter back. They work quickly to build up their retirement funds now that they have the money to do so.
“You don’t see the pain and the hurt that you’re causing while you’re in it,” McKiernan said. “Now, I have a kid. I would never want to go through what my parents went through — just not having any control and just wanting and wanting and wanting your kid back, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Occasionally, McKiernan will drive past where she was arrested or a place she used to use drugs. She has even crossed paths with her old dealer. He was happy to see her sober and didn’t try to offer her drugs.
These run-ins with her old life were tough at first. Now, they simply remind her of how far she has come.
If you or a loved one is in need of addiction treatment, click here to learn about affordable options.
Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.
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