Alec Bates’ struggle to beat heroin addiction ends in death

By David Stabler, The Oregonian, Nov. 3, 2012

Alec Bates (center, in white shirt) celebrates graduation from a diversion program. His mother, Connie Miller, is at right.

Editor’s note:  The Oregonian first wrote about Alec Bates in a Nov. 20, 2011, story, “Homeless, but not helpless.” At that point, Bates was three months clean after years of heroin addiction, and eager to turn his life around. “I want people to know that there is hope,” he said. “If you’re willing, you can get out of active addiction.” The Oregonian’s David Stabler and Motoya Nakamura followed Alec for the next 11 months as he attended recovery meetings, found a job, went back to school and graduated from a Multnomah County drug rehabilitation program. On Aug. 22, he passed his one-year clean date and celebrated with his smiling family outside the courthouse. His mother, Connie Miller, wants readers to think of her son as more than a drug addict.

Alec Bates had wriggled free from heroin’s hold. He was 23, out of jail. He had a job and a plan and 14 months clean.

His mother, Connie Miller, was just getting used to having him back. For 18 months, she’d lost him. Longer than that, really — ever since she found him in the basement shooting heroin and kicked him out. He lived on Portland’s streets, in and out of jail, in and out of treatment, in and out of his family’s grasp.

And then he came back. He got clean, sweating and puking and shaking. For real, this time. One day, one hour at a time. Those clean months were a gift. Connie stopped being afraid of him. He stopped calling for money. They talked every day.

And so when he dropped from sight last month and she got a call from his panicked girlfriend, Connie phoned police and asked them to check on her son.

She drove downtown looking for him, the way she used to do when he lived on the streets. She texted him over and over.

“Call me. No matter what’s happening.”

She arrived home to a message from a stranger on her answering machine.

“Please call this number.”

The Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s office said they found a spoon and a belt. They also found a note in pencil, single-spaced, in Alec’s spiral notebook.

“I’m so so so sorry.”

The lowest point

Alec Bates in his room at a clean residential hotel in Old Town, where he lived for five months.

Alec Bates in his room at a clean residential hotel in Old Town, where he lived for five months.

Miller first realized her son was living on the streets when his sister’s friends saw him digging in the trash for food. She didn’t know he broke into cars, slept in doorways, stole from stores. Every few weeks, he’d call asking for money. Will Miller, Alec’s stepdad, would meet him at McDonald’s and buy him something to eat. Connie couldn’t make herself go. Every week, she called the morgue and Will searched police websites to see if Alec had been arrested.

One day — she calls it the lowest point — she went to Voodoo Doughnut and found him panhandling. Their eyes locked but he was so strung out he didn’t recognize her. She ran across the street so she didn’t have to look at him. She couldn’t stop sobbing.

Home had been relatively normal. Alec’s dad worked at Nike and Connie ran a daycare center out of their house. They divorced when Alec was 5 and Connie raised Alec and his younger sister, McKenzee, on her own. One Christmas, they gave handmade scarves to the homeless on Burnside Street.

At 13, Alec tried pot. At 16, cocaine and ecstasy. At 18, heroin. He remembers that first hit, how it radiated like a heat wave through his body, starting at the back of his neck, spreading to his feet. It calmed him, made him feel all right in his own skin. It was so simple, and just like that he was gone.

Heroin Facts
  • Heroin is an opiate drug that comes from morphine, extracted from the seedpod of the Asian opium poppy plant. It can be white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as “black tar heroin.” It is injected, snorted or smoked.
  • Heroin depresses the central nervous system by entering the brain, where it binds to opioid receptors. These receptors involve the perception of pain and reward.
  • After injecting heroin, users feel a surge of euphoria, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities and clouded mental functioning.
  • About 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on it.
  • Only 7 to 8 percent of heroin addicts seek professional treatment.
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse
Heroin addiction is hard to beat but not as hard as other drugs, said Dr. Melissa Weimer, an addiction medicine provider at Oregon Health & Science University. “If you engage in therapy and some of the good medications we have, it could be easier to treat than cocaine or meth dependence. The main reason that prevents people from quitting are the negative symptoms they experience. Because of that fear, they will continue to use.”

When Connie kicked him out, she never thought her heart would harden out of fear, but she could no longer help him or love him the way he was — stealing money, jewelry, maybe even hurting her or his sister. She comforted herself with memories — his first Christmas, how he walked around the house in her shoes, how hard he tried to ride a skateboard.

He was a solemn and melancholy child. He loved Legos and dinosaurs and going to the museum, but stress undid him. He was the kind of kid you had to tell, we’re leaving in 10 minutes, we’re leaving in five minutes. He was black and white, no ambiguity. He needed to know what was going to happen. Connie understood because she was so much like him.

“Divine intervention”

Alec Bates

“I don’t wish addiction on my worst enemy,” Alec Bates said. “It’s taken me to places I never thought I’d go.”

That first week on the streets, Alec was terrified, but he learned which abandoned buildings were safe to sleep in, where to eat, where to dry his socks. He had one change of clothes, deodorant and a toothbrush in a backpack that was always with him.

He learned that the combination of his baby face and a sign that read “Trying to get home” brought pity and a few bucks. He broke into hundreds of cars, 15 in one night. He stole iPods, laptops, valuables. He couldn’t steal from stores anymore — he stunk so bad, they knew he was homeless. He was on benzodiazepine and heroin, so any crazy idea seemed good. “Oh, there’s a computer. I’ll take it.”

He got a job stocking women’s shoes but lost it after he got caught shooting up in the bathroom. He found a gun and thought about killing himself by the freeway, but the police stopped him. He called it divine intervention.

He ended up with three felonies and 15 misdemeanors and spent a total of five months in jail. It got worse. On July 14 of last year, he and a friend got high. His friend overdosed and died right there, next to him. They had been close in a culture where close barely existed.

“I don’t ever feel like I have this in the bag”

Drug addicts can’t imagine anything better than dope. It quieted the chaos in Alec’s head. It felt so great, he did it over and over. He lied, he hustled, he became a criminal.

Addicts say they have to hit bottom before they’ll get help, and when his friend died, Alec did. He went to Hooper Detox. The date was Aug. 22, 2011.

Portland’s social services took over. The first three weeks of rehab typically see the highest failure rate, so Central City Concern found him a room in a clean building in Old Town, gave him a mentor, sent him to multiple recovery meetings every day, put him in therapy and tested his urine once a week.

He’d tried recovery before, but this time he faced 26 months in jail if he didn’t complete the diversion program.

Heroin deaths in Oregon

In 2011 heroin was the leading cause of drug-related deaths in Oregon, according to the Oregon State Medical Examiner:
  • Multnomah County, 2011: 85 deaths, up 63 percent over 2010
  • Oregon, 2011: 143, up 59 percent over 2010
“The sharp rise in illicit drug deaths in just one year is alarming,” said Dr. Karen Gunson, state medical examiner. “The numbers are driven by the availability of heroin and how cheap it is. More than ever it’s just a flood — especially of heroin. It’s like a tidal wave.”

Heroin addiction is a relentless craving, but recovery can feel worse. It’s like the worst flu — vomiting, diarrhea, runny nose, gooseflesh, dread. You want to die, your skin can abscess where you shot up, you may develop infections of the heart valve, your kidneys may fail.

By December, four months clean, days for Alec were still up and down. If someone asked how he was, he’d say, “Fine, for the next 15 minutes.”

His addict voice said “You’re not going to make it through this. It’s all fake.” His recovery voice said “Stop that” and he’d try to distract himself with a book or TV.

One day he had $20 in his pocket, enough to get high. He bought a hoodie instead. Nothing’s permanent when you’re an addict. Stuff comes and goes. He kept the hoodie instead of trading it for drugs.

“I don’t ever feel like I have this in the bag,” he said.

His mentor, Dave Fitzgerald, talked to him every day. Little stuff: What’s your plan? You going to meetings today? A recovering addict himself, Fitzgerald saw something in Alec.

“There ain’t nothin’ he can’t do. He sees the possibility of meaning in his life. I can tell he can feel it, but he’s still scared.”

By January, Alec felt stagnant, ready to get a part-time job, maybe take a class at Portland Community College. Outside In, an agency that assists homeless kids, helped him prepare a résumé.

In March, he graduated to the Madrona Studios near the Rose Quarter. The building was less supervised than downtown, but he requested a clean floor anyway. He had his own bathroom, a whole fridge and he didn’t have to wear shower shoes.

He took math and a college survival class at PCC. It felt weird going to class and not be stoned. A kid offered him weed but he said, I’m all right, man. He mentored homeless kids. His urine tests were down to once every two weeks.

He was less defiant.

“A lot has to do with surrender,” he said. “I was pretty stubborn, running around on my will.”

Later that spring, he and a friend started attending a church off Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. His buddy had a tattoo based on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters,” a book about Christian faith, temptation and failings. A few days later, Alec stood on a Max platform and there on the ground was “Mere Christianity,” another book by Lewis.

He started reading it. He couldn’t dismiss the coincidence.

“Whatever my higher power is, it put that there,” he said. “Surrender. I’m turning my will over to my higher power, whatever that is. I have to figure that out.”

July 19 was a big day, the day he graduated from Multnomah County’s drug rehabilitation program that kept him out of jail. Alec’s mom and stepdad, aunt, uncle, nieces and friends joined a packed courtroom for the ceremony.

“I’m here because I believe in miracles,” Judge Angel Lopez told Alec and one other graduate.

You will have to say no the rest of your life, court staff told him. But it’s easier today than a year ago.

Connie reached for a Kleenex before Alec stood up to read from his spiral notebook. He took a deep breath, then thanked the judge, his mentor, Outside In, his family and friends.

“So Mom, I love you. I’m proud I get to make you cry in a good way today. … My one piece of advice to you all today is to surrender. It makes this process easier.”

When the judge asked if Connie wanted to say something, she replied “I don’t think I can say anything without crying.”

Outside on the sidewalk, Alec lit a cigarette and posed for photographs with his smiling family.

“He seemed like he was doing it”

Alec’s room at Madrona looked west to the city skyline and the Rose Garden. He thought it was fitting because he loved the Blazers and could tell you all the stats on the players and coaches. His room was spare, like a hotel room, but Connie helped him fix it up to be modern. Modern was simple, uncluttered.

A memorial service for Alec was held Oct. 13.

A memorial service for Alec was held Oct. 13.

They talked nearly every day, about school, work, whatever was on his mind. She told him she was proud of him, she’d do anything to help him succeed.

August 22 came, one year clean. Addicts remember their clean date and Alec celebrated at Connie and Will’s house, where he requested homemade mac and cheese and chocolate chip cookies. Later that month, Connie and Will went to Hawaii for two weeks and needed someone to watch their dog. Before, they never would have asked Alec but he was doing so well, they trusted him. He teared up when they asked.

Before they left, he asked them to lock up their medications and alcohol. He called every day to say everything was fine, he’d borrowed change for the bus, he’d met the neighbors, how good it felt to walk to work.

“It seemed like he was doing it,” Connie said. “Doing it for himself, not to make me happy. He said, ‘It feels good to get up in the morning like a normal human being.'”

Connie stopped calling the morgue. Will no longer looked for him on police websites.

“I have hope, and hope, I decided, is the best thing ever,” she said. “Maybe, just maybe, my son will function in society the way I had hoped he would.”

“I can feel him looking at me”

Friday, Oct. 5, was a normal day. Connie called Alec and thought she woke him up.

“He wasn’t coherent — he said he just woke up, no school today.”

But something struck her as odd.

“I had paid a court fine for him, part of his birthday present. He didn’t seem to care I’d done it.”

She didn’t hear from him Saturday.

On Sunday, Connie and Will were getting ready for church when his girlfriend called in a panic. She and Alec always met at a coffee shop on Saturday mornings and he hadn’t shown up. He wasn’t texting or answering his phone.

Connie checked their shared phone account and found his last text was at 12:06 p.m. Saturday. She kept texting him. She called numbers he had called.

After driving around looking for him, they came home to a voicemail from Multnomah County. The medical examiner asked if Alec had given them any indication of suicide.

Alec’s note began: “Mom, I’m sorry it has to end this way but being a drug addict is just too hard.”

Connie never saw it coming. When she searched his computer, she found his last Google search was how to shoot up and die. An autopsy is still weeks away and the police continue to investigate his death.

The note ends: “Know that I will be watching you from above and that I’m happier and in a better place.”

Connie will never know why Alec came to believe there was only one way out.

“He knew I would be OK. He didn’t say that, but reading between the lines. Every morning now, I wake up and say, ‘Thank God I had 14 months with a child who was happy and proud of himself.’ Only Alec could write a note like that. I just got used to having him in my life daily, his corny texts. I can feel him looking at me — it’s not your fault.

“I know I will never be free of the millions of questions that rattle in my head but I am thankful for the deep talks Alec and I had. All of them ended with, ‘You can never blame yourself, Mom. I made the choices and you are the best madre ever.'”