A key word in mental health services this month is one that carries a lot of weight, but not more so than the weight carried by recovering addicts as they work to improve themselves and overcome one of the most difficult challenges of their lives.

National Recovery Month is celebrated in September across the U.S., and while news stories covering punishment are common, the opportunity to shed light on another side of addiction — recovery — does not present itself so often.

This article takes an in-depth look at two families closely impacted by heroin use.

The names of sources have been changed to protect their identities and those of their families.

Both have connections to Wyandot County.

‘Judge me not for what I’ve done, but for who I’ve become’

Like many recovering addicts, Brian can rattle off the exact date he last used illegal drugs seemingly without thinking.

He has been clean since May 10, 2014.

But his journey to find treatment is much more complicated than a date.

Today, Brian is an advocate for providing more treatment options for addicts who want to get clean in Ohio.

His advocacy goes back to his own struggles to quit using heroin and other hard drugs.

In fact, Brian said he wanted to get help long before he was charged with possession of heroin and crack cocaine.

He tried to get treatment before he overdosed on heroin, nearly dying and sending him to the hospital.

But it took those two life-changing situations — and some “tough love” from his mother — to find Brian the treatment he needed.

Arrested for domestic violence first, Brian went to municipal court and “begged” for treatment.
“But here in Wyandot County, we don’t have any treatment facilities,” he said.
Spending 10 days in jail was not enough, says Brian, who grew up in Columbus and has lost several good jobs
because of his addiction.
Working in the emergency room at a Columbus hospital, Brian knew the repercussions of using heroin.
“I thought I didn’t have a problem,” he said.
“I would go out drinking and miss work. After four and a half years, I lost my job.”
Brian sought outpatient treatment for alcohol addiction, which involved rehabilitation three hours per day for
three days a week over 12 weeks.
He found another good-paying job, but the partying lifestyle continued.
When his employer found out about his substance abuse, Brian says he was offered an opportunity to go to
rehabilitation or be fired.
He chose a 12-day inpatient treatment program.
“I knew I had a problem, but I was not ready to quit,” he said.
He went into the rehab in November 2008, and his first son was born in March 2009.
Brian says he experienced problems at home and at work related to his substance abuse.
He was calling off work and he began lying about those reasons. In 2012, Brian lost another good job.
In 2003, Brian’s father found his own brother dead of a drug overdose on Brian’s grandmother’s birthday.
Then in August 2012, Brian’s mother found his father dead of an apparent heart attack.

Both of those experiences led Brian to self-medicate with illegal drugs, he says.

“I thought I would never do that. I was better than that,” he says.

The lying and manipulation of his own family escalated after his father’s death, Brian said.

He began asking family members for money because prescription pills had become too expensive.

He began snorting heroin, a practice called “mud puddles,” because he vowed to never use a needle to get high.

But Brian says he was sick of the method making him “feel like crap,” and he observed other people in his social circle using needles to shoot up heroin.

“It got me the first time,” he says.

“Every single day, I would wake up thinking about heroin and went to sleep thinking about it.”

Brian says he lost sight of his priorities, including himself and his family.

In fact, he had just set a goal to step up and help his family more before that fateful night when he first used heroin.

“That was the plan until I got into heroin,” he said.

“… I stole from my grandma who had cancer. She took me in off the streets; I was never homeless. … I chose to live that lifestyle when my grandma needed me.

“I even took her to get drugs. … Then one day, I came home and found an eviction notice on the door. That’s when I came up here.”

Being unemployed and on drugs, Brian had no health insurance.

That was a major obstacle to getting treatment when he finally decided it was time to quit — for good.

He spent another 14 days clean in March 2014 but overdosed when he tried to use heroin again in April of that year.

His mother, who found him passed out in the family’s bathroom, did not even know he was using.

When he collapsed, Brian’s body blocked the bathroom door.

His mother called 911, firefighters broke down the door and a needle was located in the trash can.

Brian says he can only remember hearing sirens after he was revived.

He woke up in the emergency room with police in front of him.

He was agitated and irritable and, at last, charged with a crime.

The case was transferred to Wyandot County Common Pleas Court and Brian entered rehabilitation.

“Had my mama not done that, I know I would not be here today,” Brian said.

“I’d probably be dead or in prison. She called it ‘tough love.’ … I was sentenced on the two-year anniversary of my dad’s death.

If my mom hadn’t heard me hit the floor — I manipulated her. But she’s the reason I’m here today.

She saved my life. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

Brian is estranged from his biological son, but he has found love again and is a stepfather to his girlfriend’s two children.

He has a completely new social circle — something that was paramount in his recovery, Brian says.

He has a new group of friends and has changed his cellphone number so his old acquaintances cannot call him.

In all, Brian used heroin a little more than a year.

But looking back, “It felt like a lifetime,” he says.

While he was using heroin, Brian admits he was not considering anyone but himself.

“I thought I was invisible, above the law,” he said.

“My family didn’t see me hurting. … My grandma died while I was in jail, and I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral.”

Now, those emotions are coming back after feeling numb for quite some time, Brian says.

But “it’s like a brick wall.”

Today, Brian is an advocate for expanding treatment options for people in this area.

“I wanted help; I asked for treatment,” he said.

“(Without having health insurance) there is no help, no intervention even if you’re desperately wanting that help. If you go to a hospital, they will call the police, who will charge you with internal possession.

We have Firelands, but there’s no (detoxification) center. I’m not a believer in suboxone, methadone (or other drugs) if you want to quit. I didn’t believe I could do it with other drugs … and they’re just substitutions.”

A proponent of Narcan in overdose situations, Brian says it is the only drug he believes could truly help addicts.

Emergency medical technicians now can administer Narcan in Ohio when people overdose in an effort to revive them.

Suboxone and methadone are drugs that sometimes are given to heroin addicts to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

“I didn’t want to rely on any drugs, even the legal ones,” he said.

After living in urban and rural Ohio, Brian has seen two sides of addiction treatment. Meetings are offered here, but rehabilitation facilities are located in the more populated areas and those without insurance may wait two or more weeks for a bed.

“You have to be dirty,” Brian said, referring to testing positive for illegal drugs.

“It took me two felonies and an overdose to get treatment. … You have to want to do it yourself.

“I want counties to come together because it’s just getting worse. … I had a career. I threw it all away. I want to be able to prevent others from being where I’m at. Families in small towns are not used to it.

Parents, siblings and friends should know the signs. I was doing anything to get money, but I was neglecting my family and my true friends.”

Today, Brian is working to mend his relationship with his mother, who stuck by him throughout his court proceedings. He stills has days when he thinks about heroin, but those occur less frequently.

“It’s the little things that I cherish,” Brian said, with tears filling his eyes.

“I had my firefighters license before I even graduated high school. But now, I take it one day at a time.

I keep clean and out of trouble, and I try my best. I’m thankful when I wake up, and unlike when I was using, I’m excited to get out of bed. I used to sleep all day. I’m thankful I can give my girlfriend a kiss and tell my family how much I love them.”

Brian’s message is simple but transcendental: “Judge me not for what I’ve done, but for who I’ve become.”
For those ready to step away from their addictions, Brian has some advice.

“It can happen, but you have to want to do it yourself. The first step is to admit you have a problem and that you want to stop. If you’re not willing to stop, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “You can’t do it for your girlfriend or your child or your mom. Addiction is a disease.

“Your family needs to be involved. A lot of them have been hurt. But when your loved one really wants to quit, they need to have support.”

Since getting tattoos, Brian no longer is afraid to show his arms.

The tattoos have covered many of the permanent physical scars of addiction.

When he was using, Brian never wore short sleeves. But now, he’s proud to show his arms again.

Finding faith

An intern at Teen Challenge in Texas, Mitch spent years living the “party life” before entering rehabilitation and seeking treatment for addiction.

But ultimately, it was his introduction to faith in God that brought him success.

First introduced to opiates at the age of 18, Mitch said he used drugs to fit in with his friends.

Smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol became pastimes in his late teens.

“It was a way I felt I could open up and gain acceptance from friends I felt I never received before,” Mitch said.

“Getting high and drinking gave me an identity and I felt like I belonged for the first time in my life.”
When he moved to Columbus to attend college, Mitch again had to find where he belonged, resorting to what he knew — using drugs to fit in. He met a girl who frequently used pain pills to get high.

“Getting high with her erased every thought of loneliness and despair I had, so there started my downhill spiral,” Mitch said.

“The prescription drugs eventually ran out and became way too expensive for a college student. But where one drug is, others are sure to be close. I was introduced to a cheaper, more potent alternative — heroin. One use and I was in love.”

Before using heroin, Mitch thought of a “drug addict” as a person who lived on the streets, begging for change. That seemed far from the life he was living, “and there was no way in my mind that would ever be me.”

Less than a year later, he was using every day and finding new ways to get heroin.

“I became so mentally and physically dependent on it that if I didn’t have it, I would get horribly sick and stop at nothing to find my next fix,” Mitch said.

“Moving away never helped. It helped me get sober for a short time, but it didn’t take long before those same feelings of loneliness and hopelessness returned. I started to search for the drug that could numb those emotions that made life bearable. I soon started stealing to feed my habit. (It was) another thing that seemed I knew was absolutely wrong and thought I would never do.”

So began Mitch’s experience with detoxification, rehabilitation, institutions and jail.

But Mitch kept returning to the same way of life.

“It always began with drinking first and then drugs shortly after,” he said.

“Rehab after rehab and I became certain there was no hope. Nothing could make me feel like I had purpose and belonging. I became an expert at getting sober, but always found myself returning to the same lifestyle that numbed all those feelings that always seemed to return in my sobriety.”

After another desperate attempt to get high, Mitch stole money from his mother.

“I started out as a young teen chasing a dream in college (and became) a lost heroin addict living in the back seat of my car and on his way to jail, facing three felony charges for the second time in my life because of heroin,” he said. “Just like they all say, I never imagined it would be me.”

While in jail, his mother gave him information about Teen Challenge in Michigan.

Mitch didn’t know about the program and was doubtful it would work.

“It was either Teen Challenge for a year or 70 days in jail,” he said. “I knew that after those 70 days, I would walk out and be the same person that went in, so I elected to go into this unknown program.”

Mitch doesn’t remember his exact date of sobriety, but it has been just less than two years.

He doesn’t keep track because the date kept changing as he used again and again.

“I know I came into … Teen Challenge on Feb. 18, 2014. Shortly after, I dedicated my life to the Lord,” he said.

“I stopped talking about how drugs affected the body and how to avoid them, like they do in most rehabilitation centers, and I started learning how to actually change my life. I found to get off drugs was only one problem in my life. My entire life was plagued with sin.

“Sobriety isn’t just stopping the use of mind-altering chemicals; it is changing your whole life and way of thinking — something I found could only be done by faith in God. I started to study His word and apply it to my life. … I prayed daily for God to change my heart and mind and wash me clean.”

Mitch said he learned he had been living every day for himself. He was angry, confused, prideful and trying to do everything on his own.

“It can’t be done alone,” he said.

“You need to have accountability, someone to talk to and someone to check up on you, someone to let you know when you’re veering off the path. You need to remove your pride and realize apart from God, you can do nothing.”

Now, Mitch works with Teen Challenge to help other addicts.

He finished three years of a degree in psychology and hopes to earn his bachelor’s degree in the future.

“I encourage loved ones to never lose hope,” he said.

“Pray for their loved ones and encourage them to seek help. It is the only way. They can’t do it on their own. Talk to professionals about what it means to be an enabler and learn what it means to be codependent. Seek your own help for these issues. Addiction becomes a family disease and must be treated as such.

“It’s not easy. In fact, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it is also the most rewarding and joyful thing I have done. I have a purpose now. I have a mission. Never give up. God will never give up on you.”

Originally published in the Daily Chief-Union