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00000171-95d3-d2cb-a5f3-9fff6d250000Like many areas in the country, southern Oregon is experiencing what public health officials describe as an epidemic of addiction to heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin and OxyContin. One symptom of this epidemic has been a sharp rise in deaths by overdose.In this four-part series, JPR reporter Liam Moriarty looks at this problem through the eyes of people on the front lines.

Finding A Path Back: "I Realized I Didn't Have To Want To Use"

Liam Moriarty/JPR

In this final part of the series, we meet 27-year-old Diana Cooper. She’s a mother of four from Medford -- and a recovering heroin addict.

Cooper says probably the scariest moment in her addiction was the night she was driving with her four kids along the Oregon coast, headed toward Gold Beach.

Diana Cooper: "And I had a lot of cocaine but I didn’t have any heroin. And so I was nodding out while I was driving. I kept doing more cocaine, thinking that would keep me awake and I just kept nodding out and I woke up hitting the guardrail on the other side where the cliff is to the ocean."

Cooper says her 8-year-old daughter Ada still talks about the time “Mommy wrecked the green van.”

Cooper started taking prescription opioid pain-killers after getting meningitis when she was 18. She had ongoing migraines and was kept on opioid drugs such as Vicodin and Percocet for the next seven years.

Diana Cooper: "After a while, I realized that I did not like to function without taking my medication."

Cooper says she eventually needed the pills just to feel normal.

Diana Cooper: "And you don’t even realize that’s what keeps you normal, that’s what keeps you functioning."

When she was pregnant with her fourth child, her doctors kept her on the painkillers, but on lower doses.  So she supplemented her prescriptions with pills from the street.

Her son was born prematurely, with a low birth weight. But Cooper says her doctors didn’t seem concerned. At the time, she wasn’t either.

Diana Cooper: "Now, I can’t even look at his baby pictures, when he was first born. They’re really … He didn’t look normal. He was very gray, he had dark eyes, he was very skinny. And I could tell. Now, I can tell."

Cooper’s life spiraled downward. For a while she was homeless. She, her husband – also an addict – and the kids lived for several months in their van in a WalMart parking lot.

Then, shortly after her youngest was born, Cooper tried heroin. She liked it .. a lot.

Diana Cooper: "Your heart is racing. You get a rush. You get a lot of endorphins. You feel invincible to the point where, “I can do everything I need to do. Nothing’s going to hold me back, no little pain, no illness, no nothing."

From then on, heroin was her drug of choice. Soon, though, Diana’s husband Matt had had enough. He insisted they both get treatment and reluctantly she agreed. Cooper and her family got into a residential treatment facility where they could all stay together.

She says at first, all she could think about was getting a fix. But she knew if she left, she’d lose custody of her children.

Diana Cooper: "That really says something to the pull of addiction, when you’re considering, “Do I stay here and get clean, or do I leave them all here and I go use … Y’know, when you’re even contemplating that … I love my kids, and I would die for my kids. But at the time I wouldn’t give up heroin for my kids."

On her third day in treatment, Cooper met a recovering addict who told how her newborn baby had been taken from her for several days when she entered treatment.

Diana Cooper: "And she said the day they gave her her baby back, the want to use immediately was lifted. And as soon as she said that, mine was lifted. I realized I didn’t have to want to use."

Cooper and her husband have been clean for about two years now. Both are working and she’s going to school to study early childhood education. She wants to be a clinical social worker. She still struggles with her addiction. And she says it’s her day by day discipline to keep her dealings honest and aboveboard.

Diana Cooper: "I have to keep myself in check about everything. I can’t lie for people. I have to be totally upfront and honest about everything in my life. Or else, yes, I will go back out."

Cooper is grateful for the help and support she and her family have been given to get their lives back on track. She urges people to get educated about the addiction problem and get involved in solutions, because, she says, addiction isn’t something that happens just to other people’s families. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.