By MICHELLE REITER
People can often pinpoint a life experience that changed everything. For Lydia O’Brien, it was the month she spent in the Hancock County jail.
She was at the lowest point in her life. She had lost her kids, along with jobs and homes, all to feed a three-year heroin addiction.
“It’s very uncomfortable to try to detox in jail,” O’Brien said. “But it’s your best bet because you can’t go anywhere.”
O’Brien, 34, was one of the thousands of people who struggle with opiate addiction each year in Ohio, which leads the nation in opiate overdose deaths. The epidemic is so severe that it has spurred drug treatment centers, social services, law enforcement and the courts to find ways to combat an addiction that has no demographic.
Findlay Police Det. Sgt. Justin Hendren, who works with METRICH, a multi-county drug enforcement unit, said the age range for opiate addiction, in his experience, ranges from 18 to the 50-somethings.
Addicts include the very poor, the middle class and the rich.
“There are no barriers based on a socio-economic background,” he said.
But the people who end up in the justice system because of their addiction tend to be the lower middle class and poor, added Lt. Robert Ring, head of the Findlay Police Department’s detective division.
“That’s simply because they don’t have the means to hide it,” he said.
The jail is the only place in Hancock County that offers a controlled setting for drug detoxification. Addicts require a space, preferably with medical assistance, to not only get the drug out of their body physically, but to also kick the mental addiction. And even a chance to detox does not guarantee success.
O’Brien had tried to detox before, also in jail, but that was only a 17-day stay.
It wasn’t enough.
“The first thing I did when I got out of jail (that time) is get ahold of the dope man,” she said.
O’Brien’s heroin addiction began after she separated from her husband. She had been a heavy drinker and was staying home with the kids and feeling restless. After the separation, she began dating someone else, a man who urged her to give up drinking. She did, but then the same boyfriend introduced her to heroin.
She became addicted, fast. As her addiction grew, more of her life became devoted to feeding it. She also began to get into legal trouble. It started with a traffic stop, and culminated in a METRICH raid.
The night the enforcement unit raided O’Brien’s home, she was there with her kids and some neighbor kids. METRICH officers broke the glass in her door, burst in with guns and made everyone, even the children, get on the floor.
The result was she went to jail and lost custody of her kids.
METRICH found just enough heroin to get O’Brien in trouble. She said the heroin wasn’t hers, in that case, but she was the only one home and was the one arrested.
When she wasn’t in jail during her three years of addiction, she spent a lot of time in an outpatient center for addicts. She did her laundry there, and formed a strong bond with a nurse on staff, but regularly failed her drug tests. O’Brien called it giving them “dirty urine.” But the center let her come back, again and again.
She went, but when they demanded she come for inpatient care, she refused.
“I hadn’t admitted to myself I was an addict yet,” she said.
That admission is necessary, and it’s an admission that often doesn’t come until the addict has hit what is referred to as “rock bottom.”
For Bill Fedirka, rock bottom came after years of living as a high-functioning alcoholic with a good job at which he excelled, a wife and kids. He had hit all the external marks of success so perfectly that he was able to remain an alcohol and drug addict for decades before his life began to fray around the edges.
At some point he switched from public alcohol and drug consumption to using in private, and that’s when he began to struggle to keep up the facade.
“I was completely isolated, completely hiding,” Fedirka said. “I had given up all hope. I was trying to drink myself to death.”
He had been raised never to ask anyone for help, and even in desperation, did not. It took his wife throwing him out of the house after 14 years of marriage — and some rocky experiences after that — before he confronted the severity of his problem.
He went to Alcoholics Anonymous. He took a leave of absence from work, where he was in charge of buying alcohol for a hotel, and devoted himself to his own recovery.
Now he is back with his family and has a new calling: as an addiction counselor and head of a local Christian addiction recovery group called Celebrate.
He said his addiction and recovery changed everything for him. He is happy, for one. He didn’t like people when he was an addict, and now he can’t get enough of them. He is spending his life working with people who are battling a demon he understands.
Most of those he works with didn’t hit rock bottom until someone threw them out of the house, he said. That is often where it begins, but it’s hard for addicts’ families to do that. They are afraid their loved ones will die.
Fedirka’s answer is this: “Yeah. But this way they’re not going to kill you, too.”
It’s tough. No one successfully kicks any addiction, including opiates, until they are fully, intensely and for-the-long-haul committed.
“Recovery is about attraction,” Fedirka said. “They say, ‘Oh my gosh, I want what they have.'”
No one does it alone. Not the addicts, nor the families of addicts.
Becky and Mark Stockard founded a local support group for families of addicts called
“You’re Not Alone” that welcomes those who have or are dealing with addiction of loved ones. They started it after their adult son moved in with them while he was battling opiate addiction.
“We’re not professionals, we’re just a mom and dad,” Becky Stockard said. They started the group in part because they weren’t interested in 12-step programs. They wanted to know they weren’t alone in the challenges of caring for their son, and they wanted others to know they weren’t alone either.
In the support group, “When you say, ‘My kid’s stolen $10,000 from me,’ the person across the room doesn’t look at you like, ‘Why did you let that happen?'” Becky said.
That kind of nonjudgmental understanding goes a long way in a world where their loved ones are lying, cheating, stealing and using, and hope seems like a distant dream.
The Stockards’ story is one that turned out OK. Their son finally kicked an addiction that started when he was 12 or 13, with the help of drug court — a program through Hancock County Common Pleas Court that strikes felony convictions if the addict completes a treatment program.
‘It’s somebody’s child’
Many other addicts never make it that far.
Deb McDaniel lost her son, Jaerrod McDaniel, 25, to heroin in December, leaving two young sons behind. She said he had been struggling on and off with the addiction since he was about 18.
“He had been trying so hard to stay clean,” she said.
What she and others who have been affected by opiate addiction want others to remember is that addicts are human beings, someone’s son or daughter or parent, and do not deserve to die.
McDaniel said comments overheard and those posted on her family’s online fundraising page could be painful.
“Someone posted, ‘Oh, there’s another one dead from heroin addiction,'” McDaniel said. “It’s somebody’s child, you know? No matter what their circumstances, somebody still loves that person. We didn’t have a child to grow up to be an addict. It just happened.”
McDaniel belongs to a statewide group called Ohio Moms Against Heroin, and there she finds some understanding. But judgment made a painful battle much harder, for Jaerrod, too.
Jaerrod overheard someone ask if he was really clean at a family event, where someone else remarked, “Once an addict, always an addict.”
“It hurt Jaerrod’s feelings,” McDaniel said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m trying so hard.'”
His criminal history also made it hard to get jobs. McDaniel said prison time and drug convictions make the battle just to achieve a stable life a hundred times harder. Not everyone can do it.
McDaniel hopes the community continues to pull together to help with a problem that continues to grow. Treeline, an inpatient treatment facility, provides 12 local beds for recovery. She hopes to see more.
The deep end
But that is one part of a many-sided problem.
Addiction in Hancock County accounts for the majority of cases funneling though the court system, jail, police station and sheriff’s office. It affects social services, as families are often fractured as a result of addicted parents. More grandparents are raising grandchildren for their addicted children.
And the problem is no longer the slow-moving story of kids trying marijuana and ending up addicted to heroin, said Precia Stuby, the head of the Hancock County board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS).
“The deepest end of addiction is with opiates,” Stuby said. “And now we’re starting at the deep end. The whole state is at capacity with these services.”
She’s referring to recovery programs and detox services. Hancock County used to treat addiction with outpatient care, which she said worked most of the time because the addictions weren’t severe.
But the spike in opiate addiction can be traced, some believe, to the prescription of heavier pain medications in hospitals. People received prescriptions for opiates, which include fentanyl, oxycontin, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and methadone, and many became addicted, either because of their own prescriptions or others’ leftover meds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse in the United States is $78.5 billion a year. This includes health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose.
In Findlay alone, there were 63 drug overdoses between Jan. 1 and mid-May, seven of which were fatal, according to Ring. In 2016, there were 15 fatal overdoses in Findlay; 17 in 2015.
“We’re on pace this year to exceed both years,” Ring said.
Sgt. Hendren added that local overdoses, and overdose deaths, have changed drastically with the introduction of fentanyl to drugs like heroin and cocaine. Fentanyl is a strong painkiller used in hospitals, usually for end-of-life patients. It’s so strong a drug, Ring said, that a person can fatally overdose by absorbing a small amount through their skin.
Part of the drug experience, consequently, has become overdosing. Drugs like Narcan, which can revive people who have overdosed, are available at hospitals and the health department because of the high rate of overdose among users. By the time someone fatally overdoses, it is unlikely to be their first overdose.
Recovery is tough, and odds of making it slim.
“I’m aware of a few who have gotten off the drugs,” Hendren said. “But they are few and far between.”
‘People are hurting’
ADAMHS board members are holding public forums to hear what people would like to see done about the problem. Several years ago, the community asked for an inpatient treatment facility, which is what inspired the construction of Treeline.
People have also asked for a detox center, but the need for medical staff would leave that project up to the health care community.
Another plea is simply for help.
“Families are hurting terribly,” Stuby said. Children are ending up in foster care or with grandparents who often struggle to care for them. They need economic and emotional support, along with understanding.
The addict has his or her own struggle, but thousands of others end up affected by the addiction. Sometimes a family is dealing with multiple addictions.
“The biggest predictor of (drug) use is family history,” Stuby said. Next in line is trauma, and biological predisposition.
Ring said kids whose parents are addicts, or who are neglected, are a greater risk of becoming users.
“But a parent can do everything right and their kids may still get into the wrong crowd,” Ring said.
There is hope, and it starts with bringing it out in the open.
“We need to take care of each other,” Stuby said. “People are hurting everywhere, and it’s OK to talk about it.”
‘We need to help’
For those suffering from addiction, talking about it starts with admitting how bad their addiction is. For O’Brien, it took 30 days in jail to get her there.
“I finally surrendered to that fact: I am an addict, and I need help,” she said. She also went through drug court and went to Treeline after jail, but the wait for entry was hard.
She went to her oldest son’s father’s house and slept on her own son’s bedroom floor.
“At that point I was scared,” she said.
After completing her recovery, most of which she did on foot because she didn’t have a car, she was eventually reunited with her husband — they had never divorced — and her kids. She now lives a drug-free life in Findlay, raising a family she wasn’t sure she would ever see together again.
Before her recovery, in what she calls a “God-bump story,” she happened to be at Goodwill when she saw her kids just by accident. It had been 156 days since she had seen them. She had counted.
“I was crying out my eyeballs in the middle of the store when a stranger puts her hand on my shoulder and she said, ‘I’m going to pray for you.'”
Things got better. Much better. These days, she is on a prescription drug that blocks her cravings, and said she has completely lost her desire to use.
She is now a sponsor for others in recovery, which helps keep her focused.
“I have some people who kind of look up to me now,” O’Brien said.
She lost so much that even small things seem like gifts.
“Thank God I get to fold my laundry, thank God I get to brush my daughter’s hair,” she said.
She is left with great sympathy and empathy for dealers and users alike, she said.
“We need to help those who are sick and suffering,” she said. “Because that’s what it’s all about.”