The heroin epidemic is destroying families by the thousands, and no one, it seems, is immune.
In 2003, 87 Ohioans lost their lives to heroin overdoses, a drug many believed at the time was used by only the fringe members of society. It was a careless assumption.
Over the course of the next decade, heroin use spread like a virus, from the streets and the back alleys into the suburbs, and suddenly no one, it seemed, was immune from its ravages. By 2014, according to the Ohio Department of Health, nearly 2,500 Ohioans died from unintentional overdoses attributed to heroin or other opioid use-the No. 1 cause of accidental death, eclipsing car crashes. In recent years, drug seizures have shown that a new super-charged heroin-mixed with fentanyl, a Schedule II synthetic narcotic estimated to be 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin-is suspected to be the primary cause for the sharp rise in overdoses.
But the overdose statistics tell only part of heroin's story. Every day, thousands of Ohio families struggle with the crippling sadness of heroin addiction, an epidemic that is indiscriminately ruining lives, slipping quietly into homes and quickly overtaking any sense of family that once existed there, erasing the ties that once bound them and replacing them with overwhelming fear and loss. The new "typical" heroin user, according to a 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association study, is a 23-year-old suburban female, and parents and loved ones watch, often helplessly, as their children lose the love, the light, the spark that they once emanated, turning instead into hollow, lying, stealing strangers who care about only one thing – the one thing that's ruining them.
How did this happen?
A rise in prescription opiate use is partly to blame-approximately half of all heroin users' initial drug of choice was for chronic pain or some other ailment, written for them or for someone else by a doctor. A recent clampdown on pharmaceutical pill mills has made acquiring illegal medicine a tough task, which leads many addicts to seek an alternative. Most turn to heroin. Not only is it readily accessible, but it's much cheaper than prescription opiods, often selling for about $10 per use.
To look beyond the physical effects of addiction, beyond the stats, we talked to members of the Central Ohio community who deal with this issue every day. Here are their stories, in their own words:"He had an appointment at a detox clinic, but he never made it."
Cathy Corcoran's son Ben died of a heroin overdose in October 2010. She shares the struggle of watching a child fight and, ultimately, lose the battle of addiction.
Benny was a really great kid, a really nice, thoughtful kid. He played sports up until the eighth grade. But, when he started high school at Worthington Kilbourne, he sort of lost interest in sports and he quit. And, because of that, his circle of friends changed. He started hanging around the wrong crowd and started smoking pot.
Then, his junior year, we caught him stealing prescription pills from my mother; she had a bad back. His father and I got him into a program locally, but he failed a drug test twice and got kicked out. We thought he was only using pills, but he later came clean that he was using heroin, too. I'd heard some really good things about this wilderness therapy program out in Utah called Second Nature. So we sent him there. He went without a fight and he admitted to his counselors that he'd felt he was spiraling out of control. He spent three months in the wilderness and got sober. Then, we sent him to a step-down house in Illinois. He was doing so well there they let him come home for graduation in June 2010. He moved home for good in July, and he immediately got a job. He got a girlfriend, a really sweet girl who didn't use.
Then, in late September, he ran into the kid who introduced him to heroin and they started hanging out again. He told me when he relapsed. We said, "OK, we'll get help." We were prepared for that. We know heroin addiction is a lifetime struggle. He had an appointment at a detox clinic, but he never made it. He died on October 19, 2010.
He'd be 23 next April. He'd really wanted to be clean. I knew from the conversations we had when he got home from rehab. But that heroin is like a black cloud. He had a nice life, a nice family; he didn't want for anything. There's something about that heroin, it changes your DNA. It completely takes away your moral compass. You totally lose it.
Parents have to be accountable. You have to pay attention. If you think something's wrong, you have to ask your kid about it. If you suspect your kid is on drugs, you're probably right. You can't think, "Oh, they're just smoking pot." That's what I thought, but what I didn't realize is what pot could lead to. It's easy just to keep making up excuses; we've all been there. There's still a stigma. There are a lot of parents in denial, thinking "My kid wouldn't do that." It doesn't discriminate. It's everywhere. If you can address it, be accountable for it and get help, that's all you can do. You just can't be in denial. -As told to Michelle Sullivan"Children of addicts are incredibly resilient."
Tia Moretti, alcohol and drug prevention programs manager at Columbus Public Health, works with Columbus youth affected by addiction; she's seen a marked increase in the number of heroin users in Columbus in the last two years.
I've been a licensed social worker since 2007; I grew up really poor to a single, drug-addicted mother who was also mentally ill. My drive and desire to become a social worker came from how I saw she was being treated in the system. I grew up in Whitehall, which tells you everything. Now, I manage 10 prevention programs for people 5 years old to 105 years old.
Primarily, we work with children and teens. One of these programs is Y.E.S., which stands for "You're extra special." We're invited to schools in low-income areas and we'll do classroom recruitment; Y.E.S. is an educational prevention program for children whose lives have been affected by alcohol and drug use, adverse events and serious trauma. It was founded in the 1980s in response to the boom in research on drug effects on kids.
It's a 12-week program that focuses on resiliency, coping, biological factors, and we meet in small groups every week for at least an hour-or as much time as a school will give us. Ultimately, the goal is to make a connection in elementary school and follow these kids on to high school and through college.
I believe children of addicts are incredibly resilient-and often more creative and able to use humor to deal with issues. But, unfortunately, those tools are the things that get us in trouble in school. These kids are more successful when they have a relationship with a third-party adult or support person. Think about that teacher that really believed in you. We go to games and school dances; we try to have a presence in the community and normalize things for these kids, and we try to show them there's a world out there made of people who aren't doing drugs. But, of course, we have to do this in a way that won't vilify the parent. You know, I loved my mom. If you would have said to me, "Your mom smokes weed, she's bad," I wouldn't have responded well. Even some of the worst-addicted parents are supportive. Because ultimately, they don't want their kids to take the paths they have. We get surprisingly very little pushback from parents. –As told to Jenny Rogers"You might not have woken up one day and said, 'OK I'm going to become a drug addict.' But I don't know anyone who has."
Suprina Simon, a chemical dependency counseling assistant (CDCA) at Crossroads Care in Dublin, is an advocate for medically assisted therapy and the controversial drug Vivitrol, which blocks the brain's receptors that induce the cravings as well as the effects of opioids. That, however, leads to concerns that users who relapse after a Vivitrol shot may have a greater potential to overdose.
We do medically assisted therapy here, and it's very common for patients to say, "My family doesn't understand," or "They say I'm trading one drug for another." And the reality is, I've seen both sides of it. I did an internship with a program that was abstinence-only: no sugar, no caffeine, no nothing. And I saw so many of those patients relapse and come back and come back and come back and continue to find themselves in the same situation. I think medically assisted therapy is very controversial right now because there's such a stigma attached to methadone. But I have the pleasure of seeing how far people can come when they're not focused on the dope sickness or trying to figure out where they're going to get their next fix. When they've got their medication, they're able to get back out into society. And when they're no longer a liability, they're able to become an asset.
Opiate addiction affects everyone, from Powell to Cleveland Avenue. Opiates come in all different forms, and you'd be surprised by how divided a group can become at times. You'll have a patient saying, "Well, I was doing Perc 30s, but I never put a needle in my arm." You're still doing the same thing. We have attorneys, we have principals, we have professionals … and then we have people who have never worked a day in their life. I had a patient say, "Well, it's not like I was out on the streets buying this, and it's not like I was just some drug addict looking to get high. I was prescribed these for a back injury, and I became addicted that way." And I said, "But, at the end of the day, you're still struggling, psychologically, like someone out on the street buying it. There is no difference. You might not have woken up one day and said, 'OK I'm going to become a drug addict.' But I don't know anyone who has."
We offer Suboxone, which is an oral medication; it's a two-year program. Typically, it takes someone suffering from addiction a good six or eight months to become, for lack of a better word, stabilized. That first six months, their body's coming alive, and they're feeling things they haven't felt in years. And that's scary.
Vivitrol is another option; a lot of drug courts are actually pushing for patients to be set up with Vivitrol upon release from jail. And I think it's a great idea. It gives them an opportunity. Vivitrol is very different from Suboxone in that there's no synthetic opiate in it. It's a monthly injection-there's an oral version, but most people don't opt for that-and it's a safety net. It allows people to work on the psychological factors, it still allows them to take the steps to become healthy, but it's that safety net if they slip and fall. We have a lot of patients who will do the Suboxone first, just to get themselves on track, and then switch over to the Vivitrol. In my opinion, that's the best option.
With Vivitrol, there's no weaning involved or step-down involved, so there's not going to be a withdrawal when they're finished with their program. It caps the receptors in the brain, so even if they were to try to use, they're not going to get that euphoric feeling. And they're not going to get high. And, if they use enough of it, it's going to kill them. Sometimes, just that mindset alone is enough for someone to say, "You know what, no."
One of the best ways I describe medically assisted therapy to patients and their family is this: When someone is diagnosed with diabetes, the physician's going to say to them, "We've got a couple options." They might get on an exercise regimen and not have to use insulin. But how many people are successful with that? You're probably going to have to use insulin, even if it's just a short period of time. A lot of these people feel shame when they go to the 12-step meetings, because there it's, "Oh, well you're not sober, because you're on something." That's unfair. Medically assisted therapy is all about allowing these people the freedom to get the help they need while living a productive life. – As told to J.R."In the '90s, it was about putting everyone in prison."
Judge Stephen McIntosh, who oversees the Franklin County Common Pleas drug court, believes treatment is our best shot at a solution.
Drug court, we call it T.I.E.S.-treatment is essential for success-is an intensive supervision.
Generally speaking, a person that's placed on community control or probation, they're going to see their probation officer once a week or maybe twice a month. If it's basic supervision, they'll see their probation officer once a month. If we accept someone into the T.I.E.S. program, they're going to see me, their judge, weekly, at least in phase one. With them seeing me each week, I get an update each week-how well they're doing, how poorly they're doing. And the studies have shown with someone not doing so well, particularly individuals with addiction, immediate sanctions get their attention. And usually, the sentence we impose would be two, three or four days. They'll do that time in jail. And persons in phase one will be dropping (drug-tested), typically, two times a week. In phase two, they need to report to court twice a month and then, in phases three and four, once a month. So, ideally, if someone does everything they're supposed to do without any sanctions, they can get through the T.I.E.S program in 18 to 24 months.
There are no threads that tie these people together; it is a cross-section of our community. The youngest person we have in T.I.E.S. is in their early 20s; the oldest person we have is in their 60s. And from all walks of life.
You have some individuals whose situation and circumstance you look at-supportive parents that have been there for them, parents that have worked, parents with no criminal history-and you're trying to figure out, "How did this happen?" And then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have the person who's had absolutely no family support, and you kind of understand how they ended up in the system. But there's no predictor whatsoever.
One of the things we're trying to figure out is are there any threads? Are there any similarities? Are some persons getting services and others are not? And why? Unfortunately, with me, everyone has to get into the criminal justice system before we begin to intervene. So something we're trying to figure out is how to get to folks without them being arrested first.
I've been on the bench about nine years and, when I first got here, most of my drug cases were cocaine. I would have to say most of my drug cases now are opiates and heroin. The pills are so accessible and heroin is so cheap-and so addictive. And I think that's why it's hit all sections of our community. It's not an impossible situation, though. You mention Vivitrol; I think that's a positive. The individuals we have in the drug court who are using it, by and large, do very well. It's helping us. But Vivitrol doesn't cure addiction; it's just another tool everyone can use. They will still need to get into counseling.
But now, we all understand that treatment is what needs to take place. In the '90s, it was about putting everyone in prison. Today, treatment is the first option. We understand now that if we can treat them so they're no longer using, the chance of committing crimes decreases. The system is really working hard now to get more money into the communities.- As told to J.R."We almost ran out of Narcan. The state had to send us more."
Marion firefighter and paramedic Brody Dille almost daily tries to keep overdose victims from dying.
We average about three or four heroin overdoses a week. When we get there, the patients are usually on the ground, passed out, with a pretty rapid pulse, breathing probably four times a minute, sweating profusely. A lot of times they're soaking wet because people think they can pour water on them to wake them.
We insert an oropharyngeal airway, which looks like a little plastic hook, to open the airway. Then we use a drug called Narcan. If they're breathing pretty good, we shoot the medicine up their noses. But we usually use another method. If we can find a vein, we'll give them the drug through an IV. If their veins are used up or if a lot of tattoos make it hard to find a vein, then we'll use an IO. An IO is a drill with a needle. We find a certain spot on the tibia, and we drill the needle into the bone. They don't feel it because they're gone at this point. It's a fast process. They can go from not breathing to talking within 30 seconds.
Blue-drop heroin rocked Marion pretty hard. It's a new form of heroin mixed with another opiate called fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller. We actually keep it in our truck for people with broken extremities. People say, "I've done heroin for years. I've never overdosed." Well, this is different. It's not your normal heroin. Usually, two milligrams of Narcan would get someone up. I had to use four to six milligrams to revive people on blue-drop. I'd never seen anything like it.
When blue drop hit Marion in May, we had about 20 overdoses over two days. During the first day, we had eight overdoses over a 12-hour period. For a town of about 40,000, that is just unbelievable. We almost ran out of Narcan. The state had to send us more. -As told to Dave Ghose"What we're doing isnot right."
Cassie Neff, program coordinator at the Delaware County jail, is one of many now trying to cope with the deluge of addicts who find themselves behind bars.
I'm not a clinician, so my goal is to identify and link [inmates to care]. Addiction is a disease. It's chronic. Relapse is part of the disease. You can't throw them in jail and expect them to come out and be all better. It's a societal problem and it's going to take society to solve it. And it's going to take time and change, but I feel we are moving in the right direction. The first step is acknowledging that what we're doing is not right.
I think from the Federal Second Chance Act that first funded my position as a case manager, now there's another federal initiative called the Stepping Up Initiative; it's addressing the problem. Historically, there's a high prevalence rate of persons with mental illness in our prisons and jails, and there's a very high prevalence rate of addiction, so let's do something different. And Delaware County is part of that initiative, as well as a couple of other surrounding counties.
From my perspective, the challenge of a person having contact with law enforcement and being incarcerated and struggling with mental health or addiction, is the disease itself. The average length of stay is 20 days, so there's a lot of pressure to identify their needs, and then to be able to create a treatment plan and ensure that continuum of care is supported through the community. That's a challenge because we just don't have them very long. And it depends on what stage they're in with their disease if they're receptive to help. It's an individual, case-by-case thing. A lot of people we're seeing are just trying to avoid the physical withdrawal.-As told to Ivy LambRed Flags
Tyler's Light founder Wayne Campbell, whose son Tyler died of a heroin overdose in 2011, shares three telltale signs that a friend or family member might be struggling with an opiate addiction. tylerslight.com
1. Physical changes
Look for changes in speech, frequent sweating, fatigue, itching, weight loss, track marks and poor hygiene. "It's easiest for close friends and family members to notice these things," Campbell says. "If you're living with them or close to them, you know them well. You'll see those kinds of changes immediately."
2. Shift in friendsor activities
If your friend or child starts hanging around a new group of friends or shows a sudden lack of interest in his or her hobbies, this might indicate drug use. Eventually, users become anti-social or have mood swings. "Once the addiction itself takes hold, they become very isolated," Campbell says. "Friendships don't matter anymore. They have a very defined focus on getting that next fix."
3. Stealing orborrowing money
"You'll see signs of a lack of funds," Campbell says. "All of a sudden, there's a money situation." Prescription pills are expensive-and that's usually how heroin addiction starts. "I've met one person in these four years who made a crazy leap from drinking and using marijuana to heroin," Campbell adds. "You don't (typically) make that jump. It's the opiates, like pain pills, that lead them to heroin." Heroin is much cheaper and more easily available than prescription drugs.
Local treatment facilities and support groups for teens and adults:
The Woods at Parkside
American Addiction Centers
(meet Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.)
Indianola Presbyterian Church
1970 Waldeck Ave.
Grant Us the Laughter
(meet Fridays at 7:30 p.m.)
Indianola Church of Christ
2141 Indianola Ave.
(meet Wednesdaysat 6:30 p.m.)
Church of God
2425 Bethel Road
The Addict's Mom and TAM Ohio online support groups