Area families work to bring awareness of heroin addiction
The agony of heroin addiction continues even after the death of a loved one. Several local families battle the drug and its effects by reaching out to other families of addicts and to educate those unaware of the villain in their midst.
Janee´ Germond Cox, of Adrian, and Mike Hirst, of Grass Lake, each have a son named Andy who overdosed and died on heroin. Cox’s stepson overdosed approximately one month ago, but was revived and continues to battle his addiction at the age of 22. Hirst’s son was not so lucky when overdosing in 2010 at the age of 24. Hirst started the organization Andy’s Angels to educate about the horror of heroin abuse, and regularly makes presentations to groups. Cox recently started a support group in Adrian for families of heroin addicts, providing a forum for education, support and discussion.
Tecumseh Township resident Roland von Kaler’s granddaughter, Raven Elizabeth Galloway Lamoreaux, suffered a fatal overdose of heroin in 2011 when she was 20. Since Raven’s death, her family has started a website, and von Kaler has created a prototype for a special lockbox to keep prescription opiates away from children.
All three families were blindsided by drug addiction in their children, unaware heroin was so prevalent and easily available. Their children were not troubled youth, and all were part of loving and caring families.
“Parents have no idea what’s going on,” Hirst said. He knows bringing the topic out into the open is vital to stop the surge of addiction in teenagers and young adults.
For Cox the lack of information and conversation about heroin is like domestic violence in the 1950s. Silence is the result of family shame.
“It’s not a stigma,” said Hirst, and he is determined to get people talking.
“It just doesn’t affect the families that aren’t close,” said Detective Lieutenant Robert Sinclair, Commander of the Region of Irish Hills Narcotics Office (RHINO) formerly Office of Monroe Narcotics Investigation (OMNI) Task Force. “It affects everybody.”
All three parents agree that ignorance is only making opiate addiction worse for young people. This addiction is prevalent in middle and upper middle class families, and starts not with heroin but with the opiate painkillers found in family medicine cabinets. In most families drugs are used for medication not recreation, so abuse isn’t immediately recognized.
Parents and grandparents are unaware of the addictive properties in the OxyContin, Percocet, Demerol, Vicodin. Young people believe recreational use of opiates is safe because doctors prescribe them as medication.
Often addicts were children with happy lives, beloved by their parents and who lived in comfort. Hirst has four daughters in addition to Andy, and all five children were good students. Cox’s stepson was a good student with lots of friends. Raven traveled and was encouraged in a variety of interests and activities.
They believe some of the blame belongs on the medical community and a society that is obsessed with eliminating pain. “I don’t think doctors know enough about pain management,” von Kaler said.
“We’ve over-prescribed,” Hirst said. He believes doctors are not properly educated in opiate addiction, and too many opiate painkillers are prescribed instead of targeting what is causing pain.
During a recent trip to the emergency room (ER) for gall bladder pain, the ER doctor wanted to give Hirst an opiate painkiller. Hirst refused, and told the doctor how his son Andy’s opiate addiction started with painkillers. After success with a strong anti-inflammatory medication, Hirst left the ER only to find a prescription for an opiate painkiller in his exit paperwork.
“Most heroin users start with prescription medications and turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative,” said April Demers, member of Tecumseh Coalition for Youth and Community Development Director for the Monroe County Substance Abuse Coalition. “Heroin is an opiate drug, binding to the same receptor in the brain as opiate painkillers.”
The number one new heroin user in the U.S. is a 20 year old female,” Demers said. “Opiates are highly addictive, and more and more people are finding themselves struggling with this growing dangerous addiction.”
Once hooked on heroin, a person needs a fix every 12 to 24 hours, according to Hirst. This need leads to a single-minded focus on the drug. Although his son Andy, stole from him and other people, Hirst does not believe Andy was a thief because the behavior only occurred to feed his habit and haunted Andy.
“You’re not dealing with rational thinking,” said Hirst.
“Prescription medication disappeared from our shelves,” von Kaler said of Raven. “Then money disappeared. Then she was a full-blown addict and everything went helter skelter.”
“Do you want to get better?” Cox has asked her stepson Andy.
She watches and asks Andy if he is using again, fueled by a departure from rehab after his recent overdose. His response is to look her in the eye and say he died. But his explanation is not a full denial nor does it ease Cox’s fear.
“Death is not a deterrent,” Hirst said. Because of the demoralization that comes with heroin abuse, addicts are very likely to seek death as a release from the bonds of heroin. Even with support of family and friends, counseling and rehab, the odds in beating heroin addiction are small.
“Heroin is so highly addictive and one of the most rapidly acting opiate drugs. It is a tough addiction to break,” said Demers. “I have been hearing more and more success from addicts who have used suboxone in their recovery as well as those individuals who are faced with pain management and addiction.”
It is almost a sure thing that there will be more than one trip to rehab for heroin addicts. Even though most want to be clean and out from the shadow of heroin, staying away from the drug is very difficult.
Cox was shocked when Andy was given free heroin as he came out of his mandatory drug testing in Adrian. The person was waiting just outside the front door and handed Andy heroin as he left the building.
Heroin has strong triggers – often just seeing a familiar location or something on TV can cause a person to relapse. Dealers are aware when a person leaves rehab and target a recovering addict.
“Relapse is part of recovery,” Hirst said, and reassures families that each relapse can be a learning experience for the addict.
Surviving the rollercoaster of addiction is much easier when talking with others in the same position. “It’s important to find parents to talk to that are going through it,” Cox said.
She hopes her monthly support group will provide a forum for education, information and interaction for families struggling. There is not one path to healing from heroin addiction that works for every addict. By working together families can learn what not to do, find needed perception and understand different situations.
“There is no one magic bullet,” said Hirst. “Tough love is not enough. Everybody’s afraid.”
One of the worst ways to handle a heroin addict is to be aggressive and threatening, rubbing in past mistakes. Hirst believes this only leads to more depression and contributes to the high suicide rate among heroin addicts. Talking, reassurance, support and patience are necessary for successful interaction between family and the heroin addict.
Hirst wants to see communities get to the root of heroin addiction by making it impossible for dealers to operate. Calling in suspected drug houses, sometimes over and over, is one way Hirst battled heroin dealers in Jackson.
“To look the other way is to give permission,” he said.
“Most of the supply in Lenawee County originates from Ypsilanti area or Detroit,” said Sinclair. “A lot of the younger folks were going every day or every couple of days to Ypsilanti.”
“We get 200 or 300 tips a year, just in Lenawee County,” Sinclair said. “If you can get license plates, if you can get locations, if you can collect that stuff without putting yourself in harm’s way, that will really help us.”
The best thing for most people dealing with heroin addiction in their families is knowledge. Hirst, Cox and von Kaler have spent an enormous amount of time educating themselves on heroin and the heroin problem in the United States, especially southern Michigan.
Hirst set up a website, www.andysangels.net which offers information and assistance. Cox hopes more families in the area will come together once a month at the Andy’s Angels support group at Adrian High School. Raven’s family has also created a website, www.raisinghellforraven.org to keep Raven’s memory alive as well as to recognize anyone who has died from a heroin overdose.
None of the work done by Hirst, and von Kaler will bring back their loved ones, but Hirst believes it means Andy did not die in vain. Along with Cox, the three are battling a fierce opponent in heroin, but hope and love give them strength to continue their fight.