it's hard to know how Jeff Allison is doing. Athletes addicted to OxyContin, like addicts everywhere, are skilled liars. They will routinely and dishonestly blame their use on a doctor who prescribed the drug for chronic pain just to keep them suited up. Brad Nizwantowski had no chronic pain. The same is true for Allison. Brad, 24, says he tried the drug in high school and liked how it made him feel. Allison, who tells SI that he did not start using OxyContin regularly until after he finished high school--an assertion that one of his friends challenges--says the drug made him feel "just warm inside, that you could do whatever you want, say whatever you want." (Warmth is a common theme; many users say the high from OxyContin, heroin, methadone and other opiates is like "being back in the womb.") The hubris associated with gifted athletes makes them particularly susceptible to addiction; they brazenly think they're stronger than the drug's addictive pull. Some come to believe that OC actually improves their performance. For a variety of reasons, OxyContin (page 80) is particularly popular in and around Boston, although it is also found across the country, often in rural areas, which is why it is sometimes called "hillbilly heroin."
It's work, getting stoned on OxyContin. A single 80milligram pill, enough for one person to get high for several hours, costs about $80 at Peabody street prices. To take the drug, the abuser crushes the aspirin-shaped tablet into a fine powder and sniffs it. (It can also be injected.) A full-blown addict will need at least three 80milligram tablets a day, at a cost of $240.
An addict is likely to commit crimes on a routine basis to support his habit. Most pharmacies in Peabody have signs posted saying that the store has no stock of OxyContin; when prescribed, the drug is typically delivered to the pharmacy by a private courier. (Still, theft is a regular problem.) Brad Nizwantowski regularly stole cash from his parents and jewelry from his mother, selling the necklaces and watches and rings to pawnshop managers near Peabody. According to former Peabody High baseball teammate Joel Levine (the son of the Salem school superintendent), who says that he often got stoned with Jeff Allison and who is now in recovery, the chase for the money to get high was the most social part of doing OxyContin. That, and giggling at all the witty things they said at parties when they were high. Jeff Allison was never so funny as he was when the OC was working its magic. But inevitably, things get ugly. An OC addict with no supply gets dope sick: headaches, nausea, diarrhea, itchiness, insomnia, chills. Jeff and Brad experienced all of that.
Even in recovery there are dark days for Brad when he does nothing but sleep. He knows he'll never have his old life back. He's a convicted felon, and his dream of playing professional hockey is dead. All the Nizwantowskis are affected. There are happy moments--the family celebrating the October birthday of the youngest child, Amy, with Chinese food in her University of New Hampshire dorm room--but even those moments are frail. No one knows what will happen next.
The Nizwantowskis and the Allisons have known each other for decades. Brad and Jeff, who's four years younger, have known each other all their lives; they played pond hockey together and pickup games of basketball and football. Jeff had an astonishingly strong arm, and Coach Niz wanted him to be his quarterback at Peabody, but the pitcher was too concerned about a possible football injury. Playing basketball, for some reason, didn't worry him. He was fierce on defense and an excellent rebounder. One of his basketball teammates was Jimmy Leon, the kid he was shooting heroin with on the night last July when he nearly died.
OxyContin and heroin are chemically similar. When an OC addict cannot score his drug of choice, he or she will often turn to heroin, which, if you're near a big city, is easier to find and far cheaper. (Unable to obtain heroin, the drug user might try to get methadone.)
Allison tells SI that he takes responsibility for that July night with Leontakianakos. "He came by the house, but I made the decision to go with him," Allison says. They went to a drug house in the nearby town of Lynn. "I was doing OC every day," Allison says. But on that night, unable to get OxyContin, they bought a bag of heroin. "I didn't care about anything," he says. "You just want to get away from your problems."
They shot up in the car and went into a heroin nod. When Leontakianakos noticed that Allison was barely breathing, he rushed him to Union Hospital in Lynn. Allison's mother and sister, Tracy, were called in immediately. Tracy took pictures of medics placing a defibrillator on her brother's chest, to return life to his heart. "If I made it, she wanted me to have pictures of myself like that," Jeff says. "I was basically dead." He spent three days in the hospital. "That was rock bottom for me. There's no more digging after that."
Allison says that was the first time he had used heroin and the last time he used any narcotic drug. He acknowledged that he sometimes smokes pot, but did not want to go into detail with SI about his history of using OxyContin. Brad Nizwantowski and Joel Levine, and many other recovering addicts, say that when you are really in recovery, you want to own up to everything related to your drug use. Of course, not many recovering addicts are in a position to make tens of millions of dollars playing a game.
Some of the things Jeff Allison tells SI do not jibe with Levine's recollections. Allison says he didn't smoke anything in high school and drank only at his senior prom, but Levine says Allison smoked cigarettes and pot regularly and saw him drink often at parties. Though Allison says he never used OxyContin in high school, Levine cites many times and places when he says they got high together on OC during their senior year. Levine regards Allison as a friend and says he's not trying to rat him out. He's trying to fulfill step 12 of his Narcotics Anonymous rehab program: help others. He wants word out about the extreme addictiveness of OxyContin. He knows that the more unlikely the example--why would Jeff Allison, with all his talent and promise, ever risk becoming a drug addict?--the more useful it is as a wake-up call, a public alarm.