EDITOR’S NOTE: This powerful story from the south side of the Columbia River mirrors the addiction struggles of too many here in Pacific County. Whittney Ferguson, the subject of the story, was known to some in her age group here.
By Erick Bengel
EO Media Group
Whittney Ferguson begged God to take away her addiction.
Before the 25-year-old Knappa native died Dec. 11 while undergoing detox in West Hollywood for heroin and methamphetamine use, she prayed for the strength to overcome the drug dependency that had derailed her life. She attended recovery meetings, found solace in Scripture, turned to her family for support and tried, with increasing desperation, to quit using for good.
“She was always trying, it seemed like, to stop,” Whittney’s mother, Linda Geisler, said. “As a parent, you keep believing, you keep praying, and you don’t give up on them.”
But, on the night of Dec. 10, Whittney relapsed once more. She was transported from a sober living facility to a detox center around midnight and died that morning while under supervision.
The family is awaiting the autopsy report and toxicology results, which won’t be ready for several months. Whittney had a history of congestive heart failure; whether this ailment contributed to her death is unclear.
“We can’t make assumptions,” Geisler said.
What is perfectly clear, however, is that Whittney’s death ended a three-year battle that transformed a likable, educated, upwardly mobile young woman with a promising career as a dental assistant into another substance-abuse statistic.
“It destroyed her life,” Geisler said.
Rather than hide or downplay Whittney’s addiction, her family has chosen to speak publicly about it, to turn Whittney’s story into a cautionary tale. They hope to cast some light on the malignant drug problem in Astoria, Knappa and surrounding communities that can’t be fixed by pretending it away.
“Nobody wants to go public; that’s the problem,” Geisler said.
In Whittney’s obituary and at her memorial service — held Jan. 1 at Knappa High School, where Whittney graduated in 2008 — Geisler opened up about her daughter’s struggle. Though deep in mourning, Geisler spoke with clarity and conviction to the nearly 300 people gathered to pay their respects.
“I need to talk about it,” she said in an interview with The Daily Astorian. “I don’t ever want another family to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Geisler, in fact, warned Whittney that, if she should die from an overdose, Geisler would tell her daughter’s story as a lesson to all who may learn from it.
“I said, ‘I’m not hiding it; I’m not sweeping it under the rug,’” she recalled. “She knew that I was going to speak about it and talk about it and make a difference, because it has to start somewhere.”
The tragedy serves as a reminder of how pervasive heroin and meth usage has become in Clatsop County — as it is nationwide — and how easily the drugs can abridge people’s futures and the happiness of their families.
Sgt. Mike Smith, of the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office, said that when he joined the county’s drug task force he couldn’t believe the amount of heroin available.
“At that time, I had 13 or 14 years in law enforcement,” he said. “I was shocked.”
The old stereotypes of the bums and junkies on Skid Row didn’t apply. A good percentage of today’s heroin users hail from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, and many of them — like Whittney — began by abusing prescription painkillers.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t discriminate,” Geisler said.
The details of Whittney’s final years aren’t pretty.
Around the time she began missing work because of her drug use, Whittney’s family noticed that some of their possessions had disappeared: money, coins, silver, a wedding ring that had belonged to Geisler’s grandmother and other treasures.
“I never thought in a million years my kids would steal anything from me, ever, especially my grandmother’s wedding ring,” Geisler said. “By the time I even realized it was gone, it’d been gone for months.”
From clothing to laptops, Whittney sold anything of value.
“That’s the reality of being an addict,” said Brittany Ferguson, Whittney’s older sister, herself a heroin and meth addict approaching eight months of sobriety. “You lie, cheat and steal.”
Whittney lost her job and her residence. Her car was repossessed. She lived with her family on and off, until Geisler and her husband, Ronnie, realized that letting Whittney live with them merely enabled her.
“You try that drug one time, maybe twice, and everything gets taken away slowly,” Geisler said.
Whittney entered rehab more than half a dozen times in Oregon, Washington and California. She repeatedly overdosed on heroin, landing her in and out hospitals.
High on meth, Whittney would slip into psychosis during which she hid under beds or in closets, talked to herself, talked to plants, talked to people who weren’t there. One time, she turned on the gas stove and left it on.
“It just all went downhill real fast,” Geisler said.
Whenever Whittney tried to stay clean, she became impatient with her progress. Accustomed to the instant gratification that comes with using, she grew frustrated that she couldn’t put her old self back together fast enough.
“You want everything in your life back. You want your job, your car, your house — you want it all back right now,” said Brittany, reflecting on her own experience as an addict. “Well, your life didn’t get this way in three months or six months. It’s taken years for your life to get here, so you need to give yourself a couple years to get it back.”
More importantly, she added, “You have to want it more than you want the drug.”
Near the end, Whittney, who had lost a lot of weight, started selling sexually explicit photos of herself to feed her habit.
“She was soliciting her body,” Geisler said. “She would take pictures and do things, and then these men would send her money.”
This behavior may not have escalated into straight-up prostitution, but “she was definitely using her body to get money,” Casey Wray, Whittney’s cousin, said.
In Whittney’s last stretch of sobriety, the light had left her eyes.
“She wasn’t the same person. She wasn’t there. You could tell,” Brittany said. “She just looked unhealthy and not happy.”
While Whittney sought treatment in California, her mother called her every day after getting home from work, and every night before going to bed.
“‘You can either,’ I said, ‘beat this thing and make a stand and educate other people on it, or you can become a statistic,’” Geisler told her. “I thought, ‘Maybe she’ll get it this time. Maybe this will be it.’ But you think that every time they go in.”
Whittney passed away shortly thereafter.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought it was a possibility, because she was an addict,” Geisler said. “You have to prepare yourself mentally for it, although you can never prepare yourself when it really happens.”
What remained of Whittney’s belongings could fit into two suitcases, two boxes and a tote bag: clothes, jewelry, makeup, fingernail polish, a journal and the Holy Bible.
“‘I love you more than anything in this whole entire world. My love can’t save you,’” Geisler had told her daughters. “And that’s so hard for a parent to say.”
Upon discovering Whittney’s addiction, Geisler felt ashamed and embarrassed — and tremendously guilty.
“A mother is supposed to protect (her) children from everything that comes around,” she said. “I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t raise them to be this way. We had dinner every night together.”
For many years, Geisler, a longtime employee at Safeway in Astoria, automatically judged the heroin users hanging around the store as losers and dopers too lazy to get their acts together.
“That’s the attitude I had towards them because I wasn’t educated; I didn’t know anything about that,” she said. “And then, after you live it, and you see it, you almost feel sorry for them because it’s such a horrible, ugly drug.”
Geisler’s views gradually softened when she came to accept that Whittney had almost no control over her habit.
“You’re raised with all these great morals,” she said, “but that drug just ...”
“... Changes you into a completely different person,” Brittany said.
The stigma attached to addiction is so powerful and persistent that many families won’t acknowledge the addiction even after it kills a relative, Wray said.
“They all know what they died from, but nobody’s saying it,” Wray said. “It’s just kind of behind the back in the community.”
For addicts to feel comfortable seeking help, this stigma must go away, said Kerry Strickland, of Knappa, whose son, Jordan Strickland, died of a heroin overdose last summer, 13 days before his 25th birthday.
“This is a disease, and these kids didn’t choose to be addicts. They were fighting. They were fighting for their lives,” Strickland said. “I believe these two kids would have kept fighting for sobriety, to be clean. I believe they had that in them.”
Geisler and Strickland are working to open a local chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
“Our goal is to bring it here to Clatsop County, where we can provide resources,” Strickland said.
Brittany said that anti-drug education needs to begin in middle schools, led not just by law enforcement officials and people who have never tried narcotics but by former users willing to share their stories.
For Geisler and Strickland, the project is bittersweet: Though a place that offers tools for drug education, prevention and treatment is badly needed, it’s not going to help Whittney and Jordan. But it is a way to honor them, and possibly to prevent more lost lives.
“My daughter was an addict,” Geisler said, “but, yes she was my daughter, and I loved her regardless.”
Now the ashes of Whittney Ferguson — the carefree girl who loved her horses and sheep and took part in 4-H for nine years, and whose family called her “Toad” because, as a baby, “she was a fat little thing that would lay there on her arms and legs like a big toad,” Geisler said — reside in the house where she grew up.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get up every single day and go on without her, because I live my life for my kids, and I’m never going to see her walk through my front door again and give me a hug,” Geisler said at Whittney’s memorial. “She knew that I loved her, and I’ll miss her so much. It’s going to be really unbearable.”