Marianne Warnes thinks her daughter shot bad drugs that September day in 2009 only because she wanted to please her boyfriend.
Her elder daughter, 29-year-old Carrie John, a University of Maryland post-doctorate research fellow in the science of substance abuse, banged a fake drug that she thought was buprenorphine—actually an unknown contaminant—which her fiancé had ordered from an East Asian online pharmacy. She died of anaphylactic shock before his eyes in her Baltimore rowhouse.
Warnes never suspected that her daughter was using drugs; Carrie didn’t fit the stereotypical image of an IV drug-user.
The story went national and 54-year-old Warnes was bombarded with emails and phone calls from news outlets; her grief prevented her from answering most of them. She only recently decided that she wanted to talk publicly about her daughter—and she approached The Fix.
Warnes never suspected that her daughter was using drugs; Carrie didn’t fit any of the stereotypical images of IV drug-users. She made her home in Baltimore’s historic Ridgely’s Delight district, adjacent to the University of Maryland campus. And Carrie was making a name for herself in the university’s medical school through her research on the neurological effects of opioids, cocaine and marijuana.
How could a highly-educated woman who knew so much about addictive drugs get caught up in such a lethal activity? “I thought she was the only one,” says Warnes.
But many high-fliers are caught up in addiction—either their own or others’. Since her daughter’s death, Warnes has received dozens of emails from drug-users whose resumés resemble her daughter’s. “They’re attorneys, bankers, Wall Street-types,” she says. “They have master’s degrees and PhDs. They say, ‘I just want you to know she’s not the only one.’”
In her lab “Carrie used cocaine all the time,” Warnes says. “She gave it to her mice and rats.” And in her off-hours, increasingly in the three months before she died, she used drugs at home.
What Carrie’s family and friends didn’t know is that her fiancé, Clinton McCracken—a brilliant researcher who worked alongside Carrie in her lab—didn’t just like to study drugs of addiction at work. He also liked to smoke and shoot them at home. And he was convinced, as he himself wrote in an essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that his scientific knowledge about drugs would protect him from harm. But neither his essay—nor any of the national news reports that ran after Carrie died—indicated how close to death he and Carrie repeatedly and intentionally brought themselves, all in search of a greater high.
“He told me a couple of times that they decided to buy [opioid] drugs from overseas and inject them until they got higher and higher, to the point where they were ready to die,” Warnes. “And then the other would inject Narcan to reverse the effects.” The primary effect of opioid overdose is respiratory depression.
“We talk about the ‘insanity’ of addiction,” says Marvin D. Seppala, MD, chief medical officer of Hazelden treatment center, which is headquartered in Center City, Minnesota. “To me, this is a great example of it—to think that we can cheat death in the midst of an attempt to get as high as possible. It reminds me of that old saying about heroin—‘chasing the dragon.’ People try to get back to the feeling of that first high. Of course, it never works.”
“We see a lot of professional people who struggle with drug addiction and in particular IV drug abuse,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., an addictions therapist at the Caron Treatment Center’s New York City offices, and a contributor to the Dr. Oz Show and The Fix. “Typically these men and women begin using prescription drugs and then find themselves addicted and out of control.”
Carrie and her fiancé had managed to keep their drug use entirely hidden from friends and family. McCracken’s lawyer has denied his client was an addict; nevertheless, McCracken had been ordering morphine, OxyContin and buprenorphine from overseas online pharmacies for three years. And he had established a virtual marijuana farm at Carrie’s house.
When he moved in, three months before she died, he brought along his considerable gear, which police found at Carrie’s house after her death. The police report states that they found “an overpowering odor of hydro-marijuana,” caused by “huge gardens” of pot plants growing on every floor of the house—basement included—along with intricate lighting and air-circulation systems, and more than 20 bongs “in all shapes and sizes.” The house reportedly had garbage “thrown about everywhere,” and the police found pills stashed in the fridge, in kitchen cupboards and in Carrie’s purses.
“The guy with the drugs moves in and just takes over,” Warnes says of the way Carrie’s home was rapidly transformed into a drug factory. “It was like, ‘Here’s [the marijuana plants], and here’s how we’re going to water them, and here’s how we’re going to control the smell.’ So suddenly her little place is no longer her little place.”
Carrie was so much in love with her super-intelligent fiancé, Warnes says, that she didn’t allow herself to admit how deeply involved with drugs he was. So in that way, her daughter fell afoul of a common myth: that if you have a PhD and a job at a university, your intelligence will protect you from addiction—both your own and other people’s.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate across academic or socio-economic lines,” says Hokemeyer. “In fact, people who are well-educated and affluent often are able to deny and rationalize away their addictions much more than others.”
Warnes believes that rather than threaten Carrie, McCracken employed intellectual persuasion to get her to do drugs with him.
“It’s a sophisticated means of denial used by those with great intelligence. They convince themselves they’re not taking a risk while they’re actually taking a risk,” agrees Seppala. He says that Hazelden, which has locations all over the country, treats many professionals with advanced degrees, especially physicians.
Anesthesiologists—who, like Carrie and her fiancé, work with heavy drugs—are particularly susceptible to using the drugs of their trade. “They convince themselves it’s fine, they know enough to prevent overdose, nothing’s going to happen because of their knowledge base,” says Seppala.
After pleading guilty to the felony of growing pot, McCracken was deported back to his native Canada in lieu of serving US prison time. He wasn’t charged with Carrie’s death; police said after his arrest that they didn’t believe he killed her—and Warnes agrees.
But she’s long pondered what might have made her prodigiously intelligent daughter—Carrie learned to read at age three, and taught herself how to multiply using apples and oranges at the kitchen table a couple of years later—vulnerable to such mistakes in her emotional life. Many people see addiction as an individual aberration, but most treatment centers and specialists understand that addiction is a “family disease”—a problem that affects not just the addict but also others in the addict’s circle. Warnes suspects that a long history of abuse in her family contributed to Carrie’s emotional vulnerability. “I was emotionally, sexually and physically abused” in previous marriages, says Warnes. After divorcing twice, she raised Carrie and her younger daughter on her own.
“My family is not known for its strong women,” Warnes says. “I was hoping—you [raise your daughter] in a normal house with normal people and normal things—I was hoping that she was the strong woman that I was not, that her grandmother was not. I was hoping that we had beat the cycle.”
The long-running Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that family trauma—even witnessing trauma occurring to others—increases the chances of the witness turning to substance abuse. “It’s certainly one of the factors associated with increased risk of addiction,” says Seppala. It often goes either one way or the other, he continues: a daughter decides never to put herself in that position—or, on the other hand, she may be drawn to such a relationship.
Warnes doesn’t believe her daughter really wanted to become an IV drug user. And she believes that rather than threaten Carrie, McCracken instead employed intellectual persuasion to get her to do drugs with him: “I think it was like he said, ‘We can do this—we know how this works, we know the antidote, we can get high, we can have fun, let’s do it.’”
Is that some kind of master’s-degree level of peer pressure? “We see this regularly among women who have addiction,” says Seppala. “They’ve gone along with this type of addictive behavior.” Sometimes they become addicted themselves, he says, and sometimes not.
It’s difficult to tell whether Carrie was addicted, he says. “There are a lot of steps along the way into addiction that one may not want to do, and maybe it’s the addiction driving it, and maybe the relationship.” In any case, he says family members commonly are reluctant to believe that their relative could engage in addictive behavior: “The denial associated with addiction is not limited to the individual with the problem. It affects the whole family. No one can really admit it: ‘It couldn’t happen to my daughter.’”
Warnes holds to the belief that Carrie’s opioid-free postmortem toxicology report proves she wasn’t really an addict. Certainly, it’s hard for parents to give up on their ideal hopes for their children. Hokemeyer says mothers are particularly resistant to the idea that their daughters could suffer from the disease of addiction—a resistance that goes back to the old myth “that alcoholics and drug addicts are dirty old men, shuffling around clutching a paper-bag-covered bottle or living under a bridge,” he says. “Parents cling desperately to notions that their children can live problem-free lives. When a child—especially a daughter—has a reality that is inconsistent with this fantasy, parents have a hard time accepting the reality to be true.”
Warnes also thinks that her daughter’s sensitive and private nature meant that she would have buckled under the consequences if the victim had been McCracken instead of her. “If Clint had been the one to die,” she says. “Carrie would have killed herself, because she wouldn’t have been able to take the embarrassment.” She didn’t have the strength, her mother believes, to endure the arrest, the jail-time, the scrutiny. “I think she loved him, and she either didn’t feel good enough about herself to draw the line, or she was just talked into this. She did it because she was in love with this guy and [said to herself], ‘This is how I’m going to keep him.’”
“But,” she admits, “that’s the mother of the perfect child speaking.”