Stephanie Hague has been substance-free for four months, but had used meth to avoid heroin withdrawals. (Katie O'Connor/Virginia Mercury)

The drugs helped Stephanie Hague stay numb to the pain.

If she left her brain alone for too long without any substances to distract it, she’d start to remember the abuse and trauma in her past. All she wanted to do was forget.

“I just did not want to feel,” she said.

Hague’s story is common among those swept away in the opioid epidemic gripping the country. A Richmond resident, her addiction began when she was 19 through a prescription painkiller her doctor gave her after a car accident. Then she turned to cheaper heroin.

She wanted to stop using heroin but dreaded the painful withdrawal symptoms. So she did what others battling addiction have increasingly started to do: She turned to methamphetamine.

Virginia has seen a sharp increase in fatal methamphetamine overdoses over the past five years. In 2013, there were only 10 fatalities, but that jumped to 52 in 2016 and 88 in 2017, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

As of July, there have already been 92 meth-related fatal overdoses this year.

“We started seeing an uptick in the last couple of years, and it’s something that’s been seen nationally, as well,” said Rosie Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Methamphetamine. Image via U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Other communities across the country are seeing similar trends.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving psychostimulants like meth increased from 5 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which the data is available. However, in that year, Virginia’s fatal drug overdose rate was lower than the national rate, the CDC found.

Hobron noted that, in the past, meth was frequently made in homemade batches. But increasingly, federal reports show that drug traffickers are bringing it in from Mexico. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, officials have seized 60,000 pounds of methamphetamine so far this year, a big surge from the 14,131 pounds intercepted in 2012.

The opioid epidemic continues to dwarf any rise in the use of methamphetamines. All opioids – including both the illicit forms of heroin and fentanyl along with prescription opioids – killed 1,229 people last year in Virginia. As of July, 1,167 people died this year.

Meth is a stimulant, often referred to as an “upper.” Hague said she would feel especially focused when she took the drug. By contrast, opioids are depressants, or “downers.”

The rise in meth speaks to the overarching disease of addiction, which will drive people to find any kind of high, regardless of the drug, said Marjorie Yates, manager of recovery supports and training with SAARA of Virginia, or the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance.

That’s what happened to Hague, who is now 31. She wasn’t looking for meth, she was seeking a way to avoid the heroin withdrawal so she could continue functioning and get through her days. And meth was cheap and easy to find.

But for the past four months, she’s been in regular treatment, not using. She said she hasn’t had any cravings, either, though she does find herself stressed out sometimes, particularly because she struggles with depression as well. She now volunteers with SAARA in Richmond.

Yates said Hague’s story is all too common, especially as treatment remains far too expensive for many.

Virginia’s Medicaid program launched the Addiction and Recovery Treatment Services benefit last year to cover substance use treatment, but until the state expands its Medicaid program in January, treatment will remain out of reach for many. Childless adults aren’t currently eligible for Medicaid at all in the state, and parents of children cannot make more than $6,900 a year to qualify.

“It’s not a coincidence that people want to take a drug that takes away their pain,” Yates said. “People are in emotional and spiritual pain.”

Hague experienced a near-fatal overdose in 2015. She thought she was using heroin, but it turned out to be the far more potent fentanyl.

But that didn’t stop her from using drugs. Even after several days in a coma, she went on using.

“You have no regard for your own life,” she said.

Then, she said, one day she finally stopped and realized that the next time she used, it might be her last. And she didn’t want to do that to herself or her parents.

“I thought, ‘I know that I can do better,’” she said. “I know that I deserve better.”