Mark Green opens his eyes to the blinding fluorescent lights of his Brainerd hospital bed. Stuffed down his throat, a plastic tube pumps oxygen into his lungs, giving him an unbearable feeling of constantly inhaling without a second breath.
Thick sweat glazes his forehead and soaks through layers of sheets covering his body, all tamped down by an electrical heated blanket.
Breaking an arm free from the bed’s restraints, Green tears the tube from his mouth and sighs in relief, just as a crew of nurses flock to the room to hold him back down.
He begins to lose consciousness again and a brief glimpse of his last memory flashes across his mind—taking his daily methadone dose as his friend grabbed a soda from inside the gas station.
When Green regains consciousness, his mother and 10-year-old daughter are standing beside him. He tries to sit up, but he’s too weak. He remembers closing his eyes with shame and turning away from his family, only to catch imaginary sight of his other daughter—the one he hasn’t met yet.
“My own father left me to fend for myself,” he recalls thinking. “I can’t do that to my daughters.”
It’s now been six months since Green’s overdose on methadone, a prescribed opioid meant to help addicts ease off heroin and prescription painkillers. For the last two years, he’s been using it to help kick his heroin addiction.
Green, 32, isn’t the only one from the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation affected by the country’s opioid epidemic. The small, western-Minnesota Indian reservation of about 900 members has seen a huge spike in overdoses.
Green knows roughly 20 people who have died from overdoses or opioid-related complications. “I was starting to get numb to it there for a while. It was happening so fast, so frequent. In our community... you could probably ask anybody and they’ve been touched by it somehow.”
A family reunion
Lower Sioux isn’t what you’d expect if you’ve ever visited Minnesota’s larger, better-known reservations up north.
Green is technically registered as a member of Red Lake, but he lived in the Lower Sioux to be with his family and raise his daughter.
Red Lake is poorer, more remote, littered with structures in various states of disrepair. Lower Sioux is different, he says, nodding toward a cherry BMW as it pulls up to the community center. An attractive young woman steps out, wearing designer shorts and tank top. She strides confidently as the summer wind catches her hair, exposing hints of professional highlighting. “People got money here,” Green says.
Lower Sioux feels like a suburb. Its winding streets meander past large, nearly identical houses with expansive lawns, driveways stocked with late-model cars.
The community center sits next to the police station, which is next to the gas station, the church, and the school. They surround the village hub, the Jackpot Junction Casino, the fountain of the tribe’s prosperity.
It’s July 1, and Lower Sioux members are showing up to collect their share of the casino’s profits, $1,400 per member per month. Though Green isn’t a member, his ex-girlfriend is, and Green collects child support from the tribal government ever since he gained full custody of their daughter back in 2011.
Wearing a polo and faded jorts, he carries himself like a ghost of his former life. Once a child basketball star, he now moves with the slow, methodical hesitation of someone who’s faced serious regret and is determined not to make the same mistakes twice.
His clothes are slightly baggier since he’s quit methadone. But today, he walks with a light step, anticipating seeing some of his closest friends—a family reunion of sorts.
At Joey O’Brien’s house, two dogs sprint past a backyard swimming pool and clamber up the deck before stretching out across the stained wood. The home is a product of his monthly casino payments, with enough lawn to host a small carnival.
Light pours through large bay windows, illuminating plush furniture. Candles, vases, and family photos line bookshelves. An inspirational quote hangs from the kitchen wall: “What I love most about my home is who I share it with.”
Just a year ago, this three-level structure was overrun with fellow users looking to buy, or those simply needing a roof to sleep under. “It was like drug central,” Green says. “But it’s nice, so that’s kind of why it felt comfortable. The nice houses down here made it feel different.”
In a village so small—only about half of Lower Sioux’s members live on the reservation—it seemed like everyone was using heroin or knew someone who was, says Toni O’Neil, O’Brien’s former roommate. “It’s a small community, so every overdose affected everybody. We all know each other personally and grew up together.”
Tribal Chairman Robert Larsen says that when heroin hit the reservation eight years ago, it spread quickly and without warning. “It came on like a storm. No one could predict it. Nobody thinks, ‘Oh, that’s going to happen here.’”
‘The high life’
O’Brien, 34, stands just over six feet tall with a lean but muscular build. A small eyebrow piercing gleams against his fair complexion. A backward baseball cap covers hair cropped short and trendy. But what’s most noticeable are the two large dimples that span the length of each cheek when he smiles—something he’s being doing a lot more of recently.
O’Brien has always been a people magnet, and it’s not hard to imagine why. He’s both laid-back and silver-tongued. Add a penchant for hedonism, and Lower Sioux had found its unofficial party host.
For a while, life seemed an endless celebration to O’Brien. “I don’t have no kids and I owned my house. I had my own money. So mine was like the party house,” he says. “Everybody always hung out here. Every room people were sitting around doing shit.”
Former roommate O’Neil says that when the first of the month rolled around and people had money, the place was packed. “On paydays, this place was like Grand Central station,” she says.
The home was so popular that young parents were even bringing their kids. Green did so on several occasions, he says. His daughter played with the other children while he and other parents used in the back rooms.
At first, the constant parties were fun, O’Brien says. He could maintain a relatively normal life: paying his bills on time, taking care of his house, and maintaining good relations with his family. Heroin would eventually change all that.
Around 2009, when a crackdown on OxyContin made it harder to come by, dealers from outside the reservation started showing up with heroin as a cheaper substitute. You could get the same amount of heroin for a fourth of the cost of OxyContin, O’Brien says.
Larsen thinks dealers targeted the rez because members had money. When one would be booted from town, another would show up later and take their place.
“We were still young, so we’d party and then take it for the hangover to get to class,” says Green. “That’s how it started, innocently enough.”
But within a year, it was no longer an innocent home remedy. Daily maintenance was required just to avoid the withdrawals.
O’Brien found himself constantly asking friends and family for money. When they cut him off, he stole from stores and sold his belongings. “I didn’t give a shit. I sold all my living room. My house was empty. I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it so I wouldn’t feel sick.”
When stealing and begging didn’t work, he’d travel to neighboring cities and buy expensive furniture or TVs and put them on a monthly payment plan, then hawk them for quick cash. “You’d pay like $1,800 for the TV at the store, but you’d sell it for like a gram or two, so like $300 worth of shit.”
Sara Bidinger, O’Brien’s cousin, says she and Joey used to be attached at the hip. But when O’Brien became addicted, she cut him out of her life. “He was just so annoying. Borrowing money and stealing. He was like the biggest manipulator ever.”
Last year, police busted O’Brien for petty larceny. His family took the opportunity to get him ordered into treatment. “Everyone wanted me to get sober and I didn’t care,” he says. “And then they caught me on camera at the [gas station] down here and they thought that was their one little chance to get me.”
It was Bidinger who turned him in. “He stole a hot dog,” she laughs. “I called the cops and told them where he was.”
Police got a search warrant to enter his house, finding enough to charge him with heroin possession. He now attends a Redwood County program that forces him to both work and seek daily treatment, or risk jail time.
It’s working. He’s been clean for eight months and wants to stay that way. “It wasn’t life,” O’Brien says about his years on heroin. “It was just the high life.”
‘Beep, beep, beeeee...’
With 20 seconds left on the clock, Mark Green had a choice. Take the winning shot, which he knew he could make, or pass the ball to an open teammate who rarely touched the ball.
“He passed it,” recalls Carmen Green, his mother. “He passed it... even though he was right there.”
His teammate scored and their seventh-grade traveling team placed second in the state championships that year.
“I was just so proud of him because he thought of somebody besides himself,” Carmen says. “He was always that way.”
Today, Green can’t think about those days without encroaching melancholy. It wasn’t long after that when things started going south. These days, there are a lot of things he wishes would have gone differently.
Green’s father died from illness when he was 3. At least that’s what he grew up believing. At 14, a neighborhood kid broke the truth: Dad had committed suicide. A few years later, Green witnessed two people being gunned down in Minneapolis. Last year, he learned he had another daughter from a past relationship.
Her son’s southward trajectory breaks Carmen’s heart. “Those friends he had took him down a wild ride,” she says. “I couldn’t believe my son was dealing with all of these awful things.”
Green didn’t realize it at the time, he says, but opioids helped him deal with the painful memories. Now, whenever he gets the urge to use again, he asks his family to remind him of that day he overdosed to scare him straight.
It was Valentine’s Day. Green had just picked up his weekly methadone from the Brainerd clinic before stopping at a Super America. The week before, his dosage was stolen, forcing him to go without. By the time he took his dose that Tuesday—about 80 milligrams—his tolerance had plummeted.
Green’s friend went inside the Super America. When he returned to the car, Green was nowhere to be found. They found him 20 minutes later after kicking in the bathroom door. “I was unconscious, starting to turn pale with blue lips,” Green says.
One detail that night still haunts him anytime he thinks about using.
“You know that thing that goes, ‘Beep, beep?’” his daughter asked him when he finally regained consciousness. “Well in the movies, it always goes, ‘Beeeee’ at the end. That’s what her fears were.”
Carmen remembers the night well. “He was pale. His lips looked blue. His mouth was open. He was thin. He just looked so sick. He tried to behave normally, but he couldn’t do it, and he would just go back to sleep in the middle of a sentence.”
Green promised to never hurt his daughter again. “Every time I wish I would’ve took a different route, I just think of my daughter and it makes me happy.”
The same goes for Adam Coulson, who says he quit heroin out of love for his boyfriend. At 15, a slew of charges from drug possession to assault landed him behind bars for nearly a year and a half.
Coulson’s mother was also an addict, and his father beat both him and his sister, he says. Drug abuse seemed like a natural byproduct. “We just kind of fended for ourselves and did whatever the fuck we wanted because our home life wasn’t that great. We just didn’t care.”
Even after three overdoses, Coulson didn’t care what happened to him or who he affected. But that changed after the county threatened to send Joey O’Brien to prison. The two have been dating for four years, Coulson says. O’Brien is one of the only people in his life who has stuck around through thick and thin.
So when the court ordered O’Brien to clean up or go to prison, Coulson quit heroin too. “My time in prison was the loneliest. I didn’t get one visit in the two years I was there,” he says. “[Joey] didn’t have to go through that. I wouldn’t put my worst enemy through that.”
Mariah Wabasha was all set to leave Lower Sioux, where she’s lived all her life, to attend Minnesota State University in Mankato. But that was before the tribe’s child protection services asked if she’d look after Adrian, her sister’s 2-year-old child.
“My sister was in a treatment center with him,” Wabasha says. “Then she got caught using there. So she got kicked out right away and went to jail and he went into foster care.”
Today, Wabasha has legal custody of Adrian after the courts ruled her sister incapable of taking care of him and no one else stepped up to claim him. But the move came at a price. Wabasha, who was just 19, had to give up a normal college life to play single mother.
“I had to sacrifice the end of my teens and into my twenties,” she says. “I was going to go to the school there, but then I got him, and I didn’t want to take him from his grandma and grandpa, and his siblings.”
Now 22, clear-eyed and soft-spoken, she carries herself with unusual determination and confidence for her age. She’s the last person you’d think would have been affected by addiction.
“I just seen what it did to everybody, like Joey. He always had a clean house, he always had a clean car, and then I seen him do this drug, and he had nothing,” she says. “I just never, ever wanted my life to be like that.”
In August, Adrian turned six. He’s at the top of his class in math and reading. Wabasha divides her time between caring for him, working as a shift manager at the casino, and attending Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall—some 20 miles west of the reservation.
O’Neil, Wabasha’s mother, is proud of what her daughter has accomplished, especially considering how many friends and family members were abusing heroin around her. “She does a lot for our family,” O’Neil says. “She goes to college, she has a job, she takes care of her nephew, and she still helps us all out when we need it.”
But while Wabasha says she’s never regretted the decision to adopt Adrian, she still gets angry thinking about how much she’s sacrificed for her sister, who is still in treatment and faces up to eight years in prison if she’s caught using again.
“Sometimes I can be so mad at my sister. Like, I sacrificed so much and I don’t think she gets it,” she says. “I stayed home and I stayed here, when I could have gone to this party college and lived my life and traveled. But I stayed home and made sure he was good and had a stable environment.”
Turning the corner
These days, Coulson and O’Brien spend most of their time working and making up for lost time. Last month, O’Brien was appointed to the tribe’s election committee.
Green is trying to give back to the community too. He lives with his daughter and grandmother in Cohasset, where he’s learning how to build sweat lodges and volunteering for Natives Against Heroin, which provides resources and counseling.
His mother is just glad to have her son back. “I feel so grateful that I can see my son sitting there, wide awake and having coffee,” she says. “It makes me happy and grateful that my son is where he’s at. That he’s not just another statistic.”
Mat Pendleton, Lower Sioux’s recreation director, feels the whole reservation has turned the corner. “We have a lot of people who have dealt with addiction and are sober now. I feel that there’s a strong foundation of people here working with our youth to beat that addiction.”
Larsen agrees that things are better. About two years ago, the tribe ramped up police efforts, bringing on two new officers and rearranging shifts to have officers patrolling during peak drug-trafficking hours. “We’ve got 24-hour coverage now,” he says. “From 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., traffic was huge.”
Lower Sioux also received a $100,000 grant to boost youth sports and cultural programs. But Wanda Blue says there’s still much to do. Her daughter died of an overdose just last summer, and only recently has the community started talking openly about heroin, she says. So Blue organized the tribe’s first Overdose Awareness Day.
“I think we got hit quick and we’re just scrambling to try to get on our feet. Until we come back together as a whole group, like we used to be, we’re not going to fix it. And it has to be us to fix it, every one of us.”