This story is part of a series on opioid and methamphetamine addiction in Door County.
This story contains descriptions of a suicidal situation. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To contact Door County Health and Human Services about mental health or substance abuse services, call 920-746-7155 during business hours.
In 2004, Jennifer Singer was living in Florida with her husband, her young son from a previous relationship, and her mother, who was actively using opioids. A botched tonsillectomy led to Singer trying opioids for the first time, she said.
Doctors withheld prescription painkillers after her surgery, according to Singer. She had acknowledged having a problem with alcohol, and her husband warned doctors she was the daughter of heroin addicts.
“I was in pain, so I went to my mom and said, ‘Hey, get me something, I know you’re using,’“ recalled Singer. Her mother gave her fentanyl.
“It was kind of over, after that,” she said.
Singer’s subsequent experience with addiction reflects what was happening throughout the country, in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls an opioid epidemic.
Pill mills and expressways
At first, Singer said, she was using prescription drugs, and obtaining them more or less legally.
The streets in Florida were flooded with pharmaceutical opioids like OxyContin, according to Singer. She described obtaining drugs from “pill mills,” essentially pain clinics in strip malls where, as long as you had an MRI on file and cash in hand, doctors would legally prescribe you anything you wanted.
“Doctors would write you the max prescription … and you’d go back every month. They were like legal drug dealers,” she said.
If you were not able to access a pill mill, you could easily buy prescription drugs from the people who were. Many would fill their prescriptions at pharmacies and stand outside selling the pills immediately afterward, according to Singer, who also described it as an “OxyContin expressway”.
“In the parking lots of strip malls, there were all these license plates from Kentucky, West Virginia … that’s how they were running all the drugs up north,” she said, distributing them in small communities in Appalachia and other rural places.
From script to street
Nationally, in the ‘90s and ‘00s, “doctors were our biggest peddlers,” said Timmie Sinclair, United Way of Door County’s community impact coordinator.
Then came the lawsuits. In the beginning of the ‘00s, more than 3,000 civil lawsuits were initiated by states, counties, and individuals throughout the U.S. Many of the defendants in these cases are commonly known pharmacy businesses: Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, and others.
Lawsuits alleged pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors were responsible for the opioid epidemic. Purdue Pharma and other companies were accused of deceptively marketing pharmaceutical opioids such as OxyContin as having a low risk of addiction, and encouraging doctors to prescribe them freely to pain patients.
In Wisconsin alone, 1,283,958,368 prescription pain pills were doled out between 2006 and 2012, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ARCOS database which tracks pharmaceutical distribution. That was ten milligrams of prescription opioids per day for every man, woman and child in the state.
Despite being an admitted opioid addict who was in recovery, Singer said, when she was pregnant with her second child in 2010, her midwife prescribed OxyContin for headaches.
Then, somewhere between 2010 and 2015, “there was a reckoning,” Sinclair said. “The prescription use plunged in (those years).”
FDA and CDC policies changed in response to lawsuits and curtailed doctors’ abilities to prescribe opioid painkillers. Pill mills were raided by law enforcement. The combination of policy change and crackdowns led to thousands of pain patients and addicts with no treatment options or resources from the medical community, according to Sinclair.
“You’re cut off and that’s it. Good luck kids, buh-bye,” she added. Many pharmaceutical opioid users like Singer turned to illegal drugs to fill the void.
Heroin deaths began to rise in the 2010s, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl brought another spike in overdoses and deaths.
Pharmaceutical opioids were much easier to obtain than heroin when Singer started using, she said. And then, after 2010 or so, “it stopped. It felt like overnight but it probably wasn’t. And you had all these people addicted. And that’s when heroin started flooding the whole country,” she said.
“That’s when I started seeing everyone dying,” she added.
Pharmaceutical opioids are less likely to cause an unintentional overdose because they are regulated. 80 milligrams of OxyContin is only going to be as potent as it is made to be, Singer said, but with street drugs, potency, dosage, and drug makeup are often wild cards.
Recreational users of pharmaceutical opioids, like Singer, have a much greater likelihood of using heroin, according to a study conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. According to the study, heroin use increased between 2002-2004 and 2008-2010, with most respondents reporting nonmedical use of pharmaceutical opioids before trying heroin.
Long road to sobriety
After becoming addicted to pharmaceutical opioids, Singer left her first marriage. She saw herself going down the same path as her parents, and a relationship where only one person is an addict doesn’t work, she said.
Singer was in treatment for her opioid addiction in 2006 and 2008, where she met the man she would spend the next decade or so with, who was also an opioid addict.
“I would never at that point have considered dating someone who wasn’t an addict. It’s too painful,” she said. She moved in with the man she met in treatment, and the next seven years passed in what Singer described as “functional addiction”.
Until it wasn’t.
In October 2015, her home in North Carolina was raided by the police. “SWAT-style, like you see in the movies,” she said. Her three children with her second husband were taken by her in-laws, her husband went to jail and then rehab, and she was evicted from their home.
After more than a decade of addiction and multiple attempts to get sober, Singer was homeless in North Carolina. She had a friend in Door County, which she had visited on vacation as a teenager. He invited her to stay with him until she got back on her feet, and she agreed.
“I know this sounds kind of crazy, but I felt some magic here,” she said.
Singer got on a Greyhound bus to Green Bay, with her mother and $1.25 in her pocket. She couch-surfed for awhile, she said, and eventually found a place to live, got a good job, fought for custody of her kids, got involved with the Door County recovery community, and maintained her sobriety for five years.
The stress of fighting for her kids led to a relapse, according to Singer. Up until this point she had no criminal history, she said, but local authorities in Door County had a warrant for her arrest from a domestic dispute with her mother around this time. She was arrested after being a passenger in a car chase in Green Bay, and transferred back to jail in Sturgeon Bay. A pregnancy test in jail revealed she was pregnant with her fifth child, from an affair during her relapse.
Singer stayed off illegal drugs while she was pregnant, and was treated with Subutex or buprenorphine, by court order. Buprenorphine is a Schedule II opioid treatment medication similar to methadone. She had her daughter, Isla, in May 2020 and continued to maintain her sobriety.
Of course, in May 2020, the world was dealing with the full brunt of COVID-19. During that time, Singer’s oldest son was living with her, as well as her mother, and she had a newborn.
“It was the worst, just the worst,” said Singer, when asked about her mental state at the time. “I didn’t think I could be a mother to (my newborn), or to anybody. I was just heartbroken over my other children, I couldn’t get over it.” She had a nervous breakdown, she said, which led to a relapse, and an incident where she had to be talked off of a roof by a hostage negotiator.
Singer expressed her angst over the incident. “How could I leave? My mom’s never taken care of herself, I had Ayden (her oldest son) and I had this baby. As much as I didn’t want to love her, I do, and I did,” she said.
“I think what’s killing addicts is the stigma, and the shame, and the lack of understanding about what we’re really up against,” Singer said. Addicts are everywhere and from all walks of life, she said. “What does an addict look like? It looks like your mother, your brother, your neighbor.”
“Nobody wakes up wanting to put a needle in their arm,” she said.
Six months into her current sobriety, Singer is enrolled in Treatment Court, a relatively new, cooperative program through the district attorney’s office, the court system, law enforcement and Health and Human Services. She recently regained custody of her youngest child. She is active in Sturgeon Bay’s recovery community, and as part of her recovery, would like to get further involved in advocacy for people struggling with addiction in Door County.
“Addicts are some of the most vulnerable people. They are my people,” she said. “They are my tribe.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Jennifer Singer lived in South Carolina before moving to Door County; she in fact lived in North Carolina. The story also has been updated to clarify the nature of Singer’s relationship with a previous partner (they were not legally married) and to correct the spelling of her son’s name (Ayden, not Aidan).
‘We are now there’: Door County catches up with national opioid, meth trends
Opioid and meth use has become an increasing concern in Door County over the past several years, as the county has caught up to addiction trends in other parts of the state and country. Local officials in law enforcement and health and human services, as well as those involved in recovery programs, say they’re alarmed by trends in opioid use and polysubstance use locally. Read more.