BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It was Feb. 19, 2020. Katie Coughenour walked into a restroom a few steps down the hall from the front door of Aspire Behavioral Health, her counseling program, and locked the door.
She did not walk out.
Locked inside, she pulled out a small square sheet of aluminum foil, laid a crushed blue pill on top, heated it from the bottom with a cigarette lighter, brought a cut-off plastic straw to her lips and leaned in — slowly inhaling the swirling smoky vapor.
Yes, a pill. Counterfeit oxycodone — active ingredient, fentanyl, a lethal substance manufactured, in this case, not under sterile, pharmacologically rigorous conditions, but most likely in the kitchen or a garage of an illicit drug operation in L.A. or Mexico.
And, as happened with 124 other people in Kern County last year, most of them under 30 and white, it killed her.
Katie Coughenour — just 18 years old — was no hardened crackhead, no addled drug addict.
“Oh, she was really pretty,” said her friend, Corynne Engstrand. “I loved her freckles and she had the brightest eyes. She had pale skin, but it looked like porcelain, so super cute with the freckles. I loved it. And a cute little button nose.”
Engstrand said Katie was her “twin flame” — close friends sometimes too much alike.
Katie was, “very, very loud, would want to make friends with everybody, super funny,” Engstrand said. “She could make me laugh so hard I would get the hiccups.”
On Feb. 19, 2021, the anniversary of that fateful day she locked herself in the bathroom, some of Katie’s friends and relatives gathered in Emerald Cove Park in northwest Bakersfield, to send her their personal messages — scribbled on helium balloons. Purple balloons, her favorite color.
Katie’s mother Casey Jackson still can’t quite let her daughter go. She spoke to her in a special way on Katie’s birthday last year — the first since her passing — delivering 1,800 ladybugs to friends and family members, who simultaneously at dusk sent them flying into the San Joaquin Valley sky. Then again at Christmas with two dozen Chinese lanterns that ascended into the black sky with slow, steady determination.
Then, on this awful, heartbreaking anniversary, balloons.
A group of 20 gathered in the park that afternoon to release their messages to Katie into the pale winter sky.
“Where are they going?” one woman asked the boy standing beside her as, together, they watched the balloons ascend.
“They’re going to heaven to Katie,” he answered.
Magda Broekere was there to write a balloon message to Katie and send it aloft. Katie lived for a time at Broekere’s sober living home, Amethyst. On this day, Broekere wanted not only to honor Katie’s memory, she wanted to make an impression on two of her current charges at Amethyst who had accompanied her.
“I like having them come to something like this,” Broekere said, “so they can see how it affects the families and see how absolutely real it is, too, because that’s something somebody with addiction, they’re not thinking about that. Seeing the mom, seeing the grandma, still completely so brokenhearted — and I don’t think that ever goes away.”
Broekere is full of harsh, blunt lessons like this. At Amethyst, headquartered in a cute but nondescript 1970s-vintage house in south Bakersfield, Broekere has an antique oak bureau. The framed photographs of four women rest on top of it, Katie among them. They are the four former Amethyst residents who lost their lives to drugs.
Broekere periodically gives prospective residents of Amethyst — invariably, people trying to beat serious addictions — a tour of the facility. Broekere often pauses at the modest display and mentions the names of the four young women. She pulls no punches — even if family members have accompanied them on the tour. “There’s room for your picture up here too,” she says, or variations on that theme. Baby the addict, bury the addict, she says.
Jackson, Katie’s mother, copes with her loss as best she can. With balloons and ladybugs, yes. But also with this: She is trying to be there for other parents who’ve lost children to fentanyl.
“I’m trying to bring awareness so other families don’t have to go through what I have,” she said. “I’ve already met seven or eight families just this year. They’re going through the same thing. It’s awful. I’m just — I just want it to stop.”
Making that happen will be a challenge — a significant challenge. Katie immersed herself in a culture that, according to her friend Engstrand, is expanding.
“People aren’t learning,” she said. “I think it’s starting to be introduced more to high school kids.
“It’s only been within the past few years. I’ve only been graduated for a year and a half — but looking at girls that are freshmen now and talking about it (it’s a concern). Even (from) five years ago, it’s different how much drugs have changed.”
Jackson’s pain is exacerbated by the fact that she saw a lot of herself in Katie.
“Katie was like me,” she said. “Katie was misunderstood, but she had a big personality. Everybody loved her. She was outgoing, fearless, smart. But she had struggled with mental health issues. Katie was just — she was my Mini Me, of my four kids. I miss her.”
Katie, like many other casualties of fentanyl, had mixed results with rehab.
“Katie was a good kid but she tried to self-medicate for her mental health issues,” her mother said. “And she went to rehab for four months, she completed it, she was back here and doing great. We don’t know why, why she made that call (to buy drugs), why she felt like she needed to escape.”
Sometimes Jackson just has to get away from it. The remembrances, her informal support group — they have helped her manage her grief. But a newfound passion, acrylic pour painting, has as well. She took it up last spring. It’s become her other therapy.
The pandemic made in-person group therapy all but impossible — and video therapy, Jackson said, just wasn’t working for her.
“Group therapy wasn’t even an option,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on. I lost her Feb. 19, four weeks later I lost my job — that was fun — and one day I thought, ‘I’m just gonna go buy paint ‘cause I’m gonna try this.’”
Her art studio is the garage of her parents’ home in northwest Bakersfield.
She lays a framed canvas flat on two sawhorses and arranges a half-dozen red Solo cups on a small table nearby, each half-filled with bright acrylic paint. Then, one after another, she pours each color into a small plastic pitcher — pouring straight down so that previously added colors push outward in concentric circles.
Then she slowly pours the mix onto the canvas, tipping the surface slightly — first one way, then another — until gravity has pulled the paint across the entire canvas in colorful, mingled swirls. When that step is complete, she pulls out a butane torch and points the flame at the canvas from an inch away, exposing specks of contrasting color that emerge below the surface layer.
And throughout the entire, 20-minute process, if she is lucky, perhaps Jackson will have been fortunate enough to get Katie out of her mind for a moment or two.
But the nagging questions never completely go away. For starters, how does an 18-year-old get her hands on counterfeit oxycodone — fentanyl pills?
Answer: Directly or, as in Katie’s case, indirectly, with that handy little ubiquitous device most of us carry around like extra appendages — the cell phone.
Many of those fentanyl deaths — 125 last year, according to the county coroner’s office — were facilitated through social media, primarily Snapchat, and cheery little advertisements with cartoon-like images.
How do you fight social media postings like those? Answer: With more social media — platforms like Facebook and Instagram that provide avenues for families to share their stories with others who have suffered the profound loss of a child, a sibling, a friend. Families that sometimes don’t, until it’s too late, grasp the cruel tenacity of fentanyl.
That synthetic cousin of heroin and opium has already ravaged other areas of the country and is now in Kern County, where it is a common and deadly additive in a wide range of street drugs.
Katie Coughenour thought she was getting oxycodone. She never learned the truth about those pills. But her mother did.
If you have concerns that someone you know might be using drugs that could contain fentanyl — and that deadly ingredient is turning up more and more in virtually all street drugs, even non-opioids — you can call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or the Kern County Behavioral Health Hotline at 1-800-991-5272. You can also visit the webpages of local organizations Steps of Change, One Door Recovery and Bakersfield Recovery Services. National recovery sites include the Department of Health and Human Services Opioids crisis page and the Partnership to End Addiction webpage. Click here to purchase or learn more about Narcan nasal spray (Naloxone).