Most people would move mountains for their loved ones.
Heather Starbuck is that type of person. In fact, she is literally moving across those mountains.
The 27-year-old Colorado resident is currently on the Appalachian Trail in the midst of a nearly 2,200-mile, 14-state mission to raise awareness of opioid addiction.
Starbuck is making this incredible journey in memory of her late fiancé, Matt Adams, who lost his battle with opioid addiction seven months ago.
Around her neck and close to heart, Starbuck wears a silver pendant containing Matt’s ashes. It is a constant reminder of him and the illness that has taken not only his life, but thousands of others.
In the last 16 years, more than 183,000 Americans have died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s more, in recent years, the percentage of fatal overdoses involving heroin has tripled.
In most states — including Tennessee — opiate-related deaths kill more people annually than automobile accidents, statistics show.
Experts say that heroin and opioid painkillers, including prescription ones, have a particularly problematic relationship. Research shows that, since they act in similar ways on the brain, taking one — even as directed — can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted to the other.
That is what happened to Matt Adams and is why his bereaved soulmate is now walking across mountains to raise awareness.
Starbuck began her trek on the Appalachian Trail March 24 at Amicalola Falls State Park in Springer Mountain, Georgia.
Thirty-two days — and nearly 300 miles — later, Starbuck found herself sitting at the Iron Horse Station in Hot Springs, North Carolina, eating lunch with a reporter, remembering “the beautiful man” who stole her heart and detailing how she plans to keep his memory alive.
ABOUT THE AT
The Appalachian Trail stretches approximately 2,180 miles, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ending at Katahdin in Maine. The footpath runs through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Virginia contains the most miles of the trail, encompassing roughly 550 miles, while West Virginia only has around 4 miles. The most accessible portions to hikers are in Maryland and West Virginia, while the most difficult parts for trekkers are in Maine and New Hampshire.
“My goal is to reach Mount Katadhin and peak it on the one-year anniversary of Matt’s passing, which will be Sept. 12,” she said, as she poked lightly at the salad sitting in front of her.
Starbuck said she first met Matt four years ago in Boulder, Colorado, when she moved into a home shared by eight roommates. Like many young people beginning their careers, most were in transition and needed help with living expenses.
A native of Massachusetts, Starbuck moved to Boulder, where she had a budding career in the music industry.
Matt had moved to Colorado about a year earlier from Arkansas. His aim was to build a new life for himself in the Rocky Mountains state as a microbrewer.
After becoming roommates, Starbuck said she and Matt quickly became friends. He openly shared his past struggles with opiate addiction.
“I just got to know him really well, learning about his recovery and what he was battling, and I really respected it,” she said. “He was a kid who came from nothing and was turning his life around.”
She said Matt came to Colorado with a backpack and $20 in his pocket after completing a six-month drug addiction program in Arkansas.
“He was good for years. He was clean,” Starbuck said.
“Matt was a very inspiring person, who was actually a resource for other people in recovery,” she continued. “He was a beautiful man — inside and out.
“He got me out of some dark places myself, and I think that our relationship also helped him to stay sober … even though he later relapsed,” she said with tears welling up in her eyes.
As the couple’s friendship deepened, a romantic love also developed.
“We fell in love and shared a couple of really beautiful years together,” Starbuck said. “Our lives became one.”
The couple moved in to a place of their own and began planning a life together. They even adopted a dog, whom they named Theodore.
In fact, the couple were days away from taking a planned trip to Iceland when Matt died, Starbuck said. It would have been Matt’s first trip outside of the U.S., she added.
“I got tickets to Iceland for him for his 30th birthday … and he didn’t get to go,” she said. “Two days before he overdosed, he was sitting there circling in the Iceland book of the places he wanted to go and see.”
April 25 was an extremely emotional day for Starbuck as she marked her 27th birthday without Matt.
“I got really angry,” she later recanted on her blog. “Angry that I am turning 27, a year older; yet Matt will always remain 30.”
Starbuck said many of her fellow hikers knew of her situation on her birthday and tried to show support.
“They have been really trying to help me get through the day,” she said on Wednesday. “Last night they brought me a bunch of cupcakes.”
Starbuck said she and Matt frequently hiked together in Colorado. However, backpacking is new to her. She put her tent up backwards and didn’t know how to operate a camp stove when she began the trek. However, with the help of fellow hikers, she is quickly becoming an expert.
“The outdoors were Matt’s refuge,” Starbuck continued. “He said being in nature helped him to stay clean and focused.”
It was Matt’s love of nature that eventually gave her the idea for the memorial hike she’s now doing.
“I want to walk in his honor and show that his legacy doesn’t stop here. His light can continue shining well beyond his life.”
A SHINING EXAMPLE OF RECOVERY
His death was shocking, she said, because “he was a shining example of what recovery should look like.”
Since his passing, Starbuck said she had heard from others who told her that Matt had saved their lives. “He would reach out even to strangers to help them,” she said.
Starbuck said she decided to walk the Appalachian Trail because “at least 22 percent of the opiate deaths” in the U.S. occur in the Appalachian region.
“We’ve got the prescription pills going this way,” she said motioning with her hands. “And you’ve the black-tar heroin integrating right here” as well.
‘FEEL LESS ALONE’
Her hope, she said, is to share Matt’s story along the trail and hopefully make others “feel less alone” in their struggles with opiate addiction both in themselves and in their families.
In turn, Starbuck said, she hopes to hear from others and “feel less alone” herself as she grieves and tries to rebuild her life without Matt.
Like many people who have lost loved ones to addiction, Starbuck said she often feels isolated in her grief.
“Even within my own family, there’s a split among people who don’t want to talk about how Matt died. They don’t want to talk about the [overdose] death at all. They just pretend it didn’t happen.”
On the other side, Starbuck said, there are people who “are very supportive, who loved Matt and understand that this was an illness — and he was fighting it.”
Starbuck said Matt had told her that he had addictive tendencies in high school.
“It definitely ran in his blood,” she said. “He had the alcohol, the marijuana and that stuff going on. But his dark stuff didn’t start happening until he was about 19 and got prescribed [opioid] painkillers for an injury,” she said.
“He was a kid and they prescribed him a bunch of Oxycontin. A legitimate doctor,” she continued, “would have cut him off” with just a few pills, but after Matt finished his large prescription, he was hooked.
When he ran out of the opioid prescriptions, Matt had “a friend who called him up and said he had a solution — and that was black-tar heroin,” Starbuck said.
Matt’s hard drug use increased in his early twenties, she said. Finally, he reach out to his mother and said, “I need help.”
It was then Matt got into a rehab facility in Oklahoma, where he stayed six months.
While that sounds like a long time, Starbuck said Matt told her it wasn’t enough for adequate opiate drug rehabilitation.
“But, at the time, six months was considered a long program,” she said. “Most people at the time were only getting a month [of rehab].”
After completing the program, Matt decided to go to Colorado to “get away from all of it,” she said.
‘IT FOLLOWS YOU’
“The issue I found, however, is that it follows you,” Starbuck said.
The person who first introduced Matt to heroin was the last person to give him heroin.
The person, whom she did not name, had arrest warrants in Arkansas and other states, and eventually traveled to Colorado, where he found Matt and kept encouraging him to use just one more time.
“I had literally been chasing this person out of my house for years,” Starbuck said.
“Matt had even changed his phone number and told this kid to stay away … But he would still show up. He wanted his ‘user buddy’ back,” she said.
The day that Matt finally caved, Starbuck was not at home because she had taken a trip to visit her parents.
On Sept. 10, 2017, Matt was found unresponsive in the shower.
“He did [heroin] one more time — and that was his last time,” she said with tears streaming down her face.
Matt was immediately rushed to Boulder Community Hospital, where he was placed in the intensive care unit. However, despite their efforts, physicians had to tell his grief-stricken family that Matt would likely never regain consciousness. He didn’t. He passed away two days later.
“At the time of his death, I didn’t understand it the way I do now, after doing a lot of research,” Starbuck said. “You want to understand it. You want to know why it happened. Matt was so happy. How did this happen to him?”
For many relapsing addicts, overdose is a frequent occurrence, experts say.
With time off from using, the addict’s tolerance to drugs and alcohol decreases — yet their cravings remain the same. The same amount of drug once used to get high without overdosing is often the same amount that later kills the person after relapse.
This is what happened to Matt.
His autopsy showed that he did not have a large amount of heroin in his system at the time of his death, Starbuck said.
OPIATES SHUT DOWN BREATHING
Opiates shut down the body’s respiratory center, experts say. The drugs enter the brain stem area, depressing the respiratory center and stopping breathing. That’s how people die — unless they can be revived with the opiate-antidote naloxone in time.
With frequent use, the process gets delayed.
“When you’re actively using opiates, that center can adapt to the exposure, allowing addicts to use more or in greater concentration without the respiratory system failing,” said Dr. James C. Garbutt, professor of psychiatry and an addiction specialist at the University of North Carolina. “But when people get sober, the receptors in their brain and the chemical mechanisms which process the drug become more sensitive, and the reaction to the opiate becomes more pronounced. The longer you’re sober, the more the brain will attempt to adapt back to its normal state.”
Unfortunately, for addicts who have experienced some sober time, this adaptation increases their chances of overdose. In addition, they are not mentally in the place to be aware or cautious of their behaviors.
Through sharing Matt’s story, Starbuck said she hopes to increase awareness about the dangers of opioid use — especially among young people.
She said she feels citizens should be enraged by this epidemic and the illness it creates — just as angry as they are when they hear of mass shootings.
Starbuck said she would like to see more schools teaching students not just about alcohol and marijuana, but also about prescription opioids.
During her walk on the Appalachian Trail, Starbuck is stopping in communities along the way to meet with people at hospitals and rehabilitation and transitional programs. She wants to gain knowledge and stories from those in recovery and others working to end the epidemic.
HOW TO HELP
As part of the trek, Starbuck created a grassroots nonprofit, the Matt Adams Foundation, that funds grants for those seeking recovery from narcotics through rehabs and/or transitional programs.
In each town that she visits, Starbuck is also distributing his signature purple bandana as a symbol of solidarity for those on the road to recovery and those who have yet to find it.
In a blog, Starbuck is writing her thoughts and what she learns as she travels on the trail. It can be found at mattspurplebandana.org.