The first thing you notice at a support group for recovering addicts is the knees. They never stop bouncing, ready to take off, while the mind knows there’s nowhere else to go.
Necks twist and stretch, eyes look around— many met with comforting smiles, congratulating announcements of sobriety— some met with thousand-yard stares. Parents express the pain from seeing their daughter overdosed, lying on the bedroom floor. Grandparents seek advice, scared for their grandson’s future. Newly sober adults find comfort, solidarity.
I’m sitting in the back. I think my knees are bouncing the worst. I’m just a journalist trying to find the missing pieces of what is continually referred to as “The Opiate Epidemic.”
But I’m also 25, born and raised in Ohio. Like most people in my demographic, I’ve been to enough of my friends’ funerals. I’m no different than the 100 people in this meeting. We all know the tornado that blows through our town day in and day out: heroin.
In Toledo, it’s easier for an addict to find heroin than to begin a path to recovery.
For the 10,000 opiate addicts in Lucas County (as reported by the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office), there are currently 16 federally funded beds, a number that was established in the ’60s. For addicts ready to get clean, their best hope is to be placed on the waitlist— with an
undetermined timeframe— and pray that the next time they pick up a batch of heroin it won’t be the one that kills them.
Fentanyl, an opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is often introduced with heroin by drug dealers to boost sales and potency. When drug users buy tainted heroin, not knowing it is more potent, and use the same amount, overdoses skyrocket.
In 2014, 13 out of 145 overdose deaths were Fentanyl-related. In 2015, the number jumped from 66 to 215. This year, a large-animal tranquilizer called Carfentanil, 10,000 times more potent than morphine, began being attributed to heroin-related overdose deaths. Unlike fentanyl, Carfentanil does not respond to naloxone, or Narcan— the emergency treatment for opioid overdose. Toledo saw its first Carfentanil-related overdose on September 9. A week earlier, Carfentanil was responsible for nearly 200 overdoses in Cincinnati.
The time between accessing recovery treatment and another day surviving while using heroin leaves an addict extremely vulnerable.
“We use the word epidemic very loosely right now— it’s everywhere, we all say it, we put it in headlines, we all react to it— but we don’t actually treat it like an epidemic,” says Common Pleas Court Judge Stacy Cook.
“If we had a true health epidemic, [like] an influenza outbreak, we’d be working en masse, there’d be triages. There would be a way we’d get to people. We wouldn’t be working with 16 detox beds.”
For people on the sidelines, it’s hard to hear. We’ve seen the tragic TV reports with local and national statistics. We’ve read the updates on the success of Narcan, and the Sunday paper’s op-eds theorizing the psychological impact of stigma on an addict. We’ve read the online comments, and our stomachs churn from the messages, some suggesting: “Just let them all die.”
But our opiate problem is a lot more than statistics. It’s a lot more than signaling the virtue of your own good choices, gawking at personal tragedies, whispering about the family down the street, sentiments of pity, and it’s a hell of a lot more than fear mongering tactics— like the recent photo shared on social media by local government in East Liverpool, Ohio of a couple overdosed on heroin, with a fearful 4-year-old child in the back of their car. These images keep us aware, but they don’t save lives. Money for detox and treatment might help.
Federal Money: Where is it?
“The last influx of federal money came in [a year ago], and to hear that there is [funding] and a big push to use suboxone (a narcotic, addictive opioid used to help wean addicts off of heroin), it feels like we’re trying to empty a sinking ship with a Dixie Cup, and they just moved us under a waterfall,”says Judge Cook.
“We don’t have the money, and because we don’t have the money that used to go to local government, it makes it tougher for our city council and county commissions to make decisions,” says Ohio State Representative Mike Ashford.
“We need money for the cost of tests. . . for actual use, not just good meetings about [how to refrain from] use,” insisted Judge Cook. “We need options, for people without insurance, for people who want treatment without having their jobs and lives exposed. We need more bed space, more detox days, more help for boots-on-the-ground treatment providers, who are overburdened and need to be paid better.”
Without the appropriate resources, opiate overdoses have skyrocketed. In Ohio, overdoses have increased more than 20 percent from 2015 to 2016. Lucas County alone, sees at least 2,000 per year.
Why, and how, are so many people turning to heroin and other opiates? If we really want to stop this epidemic, we can’t confuse understanding with condoning. Empathy doesn’t require endorsement— but help can’t come without comprehension. We have to listen.
“I was very stubborn, I didn’t want to do heroin. I had already seen 17 people die.”
That was in 2011, when Vasco Tchakarov was a patient of a Monroe, MI physician who ran a “pain management” facility. The center was later shut down by the DEA after the doctor was charged with fraud and the unlawful distribution of controlled substances, including Oxycontin (alleged to have written 250 prescriptions a day). From 2008-2011, Tchakarov was treated by the doctor for scoliosis, a suspect diagnosis, not verified by his current doctors.
Tchakarov describes the routine, “You went, pulled a number, like at the deli, and wrote down what you wanted. [The doctor] never examined me.”
For $120 a month, Tchakarov received 120 80mg Oxycotin, 80 Dilaudid, 120 4mg Xanax and 80 30mg Adderall, which would last him about two weeks.
“I’d sell the majority of it,” explains Tchakarov. “With substance use everything goes out the window. I couldn’t keep a job. My only source of income was the drug trade. Through that time frame, I buried 22 people. The majority progressed from prescription opiates to heroin.”
After first trying heroin in 2011, he continued to use for five years.
“Heroin addiction is [like being] hijacked by evil. Everything your grandparents, parents and loved ones have ever taught you is gone. Once that drug is in your system, all bets are out the window. You will rob from your mom. Once you start using, if you don’t take the proper steps for recovery, you’ll find a casket.”
Fortunately, Tchakarov avoided the casket. Fourteen months ago, he got clean and began attempting to repair the relationships he damaged.
“I’ve put a lot of people through a lot of pain. I never in a million years thought I’d get sober. I truly thought I was going to die getting high, and so did the rest of my family. To this day, I still don’t communicate with my father. I don’t blame him. I’ve cost him so much.”
Aside from the emotional costs, Tchakarov’s father exhausted considerable resources on his addiction. Tchakarov estimates his father spent over $150,000 on attorneys, courts, rehabs and hospitals.
Tchakarov spent a year-and-a-half on a “vicious cycle of tours of rehabs,” at high-cost treatment centers and serving jail time for felony drug sentences.
“All the fancy-shmancy rehabs I went to would give me suboxone, trazodone, seroquel, and [other narcotics] for a week. My wife would come see me. She said I was higher in there than on the streets. I’d be hugging walls for seven days, then they’d take me off everything for five days, then I’d leave. It was a recipe for disaster. Nobody can stay sober going through that method.”
Eventually, Tchakarov found help in an unlikely way.
“I violated probation, my wife called the police on me, I was on the run and within two days I was homeless. I had sold my eighth iPhone for drugs, my family was done with me. I went to the hospital to try to manipulate the emergency room staff into giving me a dilaudid injection so I could show my probation officer why I was dirty. But in the midst of all that, I said, “Look at my arms, they’re covered in black track marks.’ They put me in jail, the judge ordered me into a 90-day treatment center.
I’d never been there before. I thought it was a joke— I was either going to walk out or bring drugs in. It was the bottom of the barrel. But they don’t baby you, no suboxone, no sleeping pills. If you don’t follow the program, you go back to jail. But I had depleted everything around me. Nobody had faith in me anymore. Nobody would take me in after treatment. In one word, it was desperation.”
Now sober, Tchakarov spends his time trying to help those trapped in the chaos that he knows too well. In July 2015, Tchakarov founded Hope for Recovery, a non-profit organization addressing individual battles of addiction, often working with individuals without resources or the financial privilege that allowed Tchakarov multiple stays at treatment facilities.
“With Hope for Recovery, my phone goes off constantly with people who only have state funded insurance, or don’t have any insurance at all— then their options go from 5-10 state facilities, to maybe one.
I’m a certified intervention specialist, and I’ve had to look so many parents dead in the eyes and say ‘There’s nothing I can do for you. We don’t have any resources.’ Even if you have the best insurance, the great facilities have a few week waiting period.”
Hope for Recovery currently provides assitance with
housing, treatment, detox and meetings.
In addiction, 24/7 live phone and Facebook messenger hotline assistance.
The group is now attempting to raise $25k
to open a free detox center,
transitional homes and a safe zone for people in recovery.
“When I decided to get clean, I went to the [treatment facility] to be accepted [based on my insurance]. Sleeping in my car, I hadn’t eaten for a few days and I had been kicked out of a couple places. They told me there was no detox bed available. They put me on the wait list”
Defeated, with no idea how long the wait would be, Toledo-native Katie Heltman left the treatment facility crying. She immediately called her mom, who encouraged her to keep trying to get into detox treatment. A few days later, Heltman finally heard back.
“I was on the way to meet up with my drug dealer and I got a call back that said someone didn’t show up for treatment and a spot was available. I took it. However, I still used after detox.”
That was one of Heltman’s many failed attempts at sobriety. Now, ten months clean, she cites her previous inability to address underlying mental and emotional issues— not just a physical addiction— as one of her most significant recovery hurdles, “My dad died right before I turned 19-years-old. That’s when I started numbing all those feelings [with alcohol].”
Prior to her father’s passing, Heltman had more typical teenage priorities. Active in sports and academics, she says she only smoked marijuana twice and drank a few times in high school.
After the loss of her father, Heltman began drinking heavily while studying at Bowling Green State University. Soon after, she got involved in an abusive relationship with an older man, Matt (name has been changed) who was sober. While she stopped drinking, she says the relationship consumed her, “I was still really into school and wanting to excel, but eventually I stopped going to classes and doing anything besides spending time with Matt, it was mentally and emotionally abusive.
“My biggest downfalls come from lack of self-esteem and self-worth. Any relationship I’ve been in since I was 14-years-old has been abusive. Men have always been a downfall. I think it came from not having the relationship with my dad that I wanted. And then after he died, just wanting a man to love me.”
Once the relationship with Matt ended, Heltman “jumped into another relationship a few weeks later” with a coworker, named Adam (name has been changed). The relationship with Adam was also abusive, and he loved to smoke marijuana and experiment with drugs, including non-prescribed opiate pills, such as Percocet.
“The first time I took one it was January 1, 2009. I’ll never forget it. I was so naive at that point in my life. He handed me part of a pill and said ‘Take this.’ Afterwards I asked what it was. And after he told me, I still had no idea what it was.”
As Adam’s addiction grew, Heltman “wanted to be included. He needed more pills and more money, and I was willing to be a part of it. Then we went from Percocet to Oxycontin.”
After a year-and-a-half of buying and snorting pills, the young couple began snorting heroin; less than a year later needles were introduced.
“I was so consumed with Adam at the time, I don’t even remember the first time I shot up, but I remember the first time he did. I was so mad at him for even being willing. I just took my dope into the living room and got high by myself. But I saw how little it took and how high he got. It didn’t take very long for me to do the same thing.”
Soon after she began using needles, Heltman’s situation became worse: she used for nearly seven years, overdosed once, sold heroin with Adam under the direction of drug dealers who limited the couple to specific territory, saw people overdose next to her on at least ten different occasions, attempted treatment multiple times— “faked my way through, using the whole time” by saving clean urine, planning to use heroin immediately after drug tests— and stole “anything of value” from her mother.
Heltman’s addiction even led her to assume the risk of a scam, providing her with a small $400 profit, getting her high four times. A few days later, she was charged with multiple felony counts.
Ten months ago, Heltman moved into a recovery house. While she relapsed at the beginning of her stay, she has been clean since. During detox, Heltman met and became close with the people who would later help her co-found the support group Team Recovery.
“We just wanted to hold each other accountable. When I moved into the house and relapsed, I saw the pain and hurt on their faces when they saw me high. Then it clicked in my mind— that’s what I was doing to my family.
Now when I see somebody high, it breaks my heart. Especially when it is someone who knows the joys of recovery. It’s like, ‘you know how good it can be, why are you still choosing this path?’ I’m grateful for the recovery house, the people I have in my support group. I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of them. I hate to cry, to be emotional, but today I am willing. I just haven’t dealt with feelings in years.”
Team Recovery offers FAAD (Family After Addiction or Death)
meetings for anyone affected in any way by addiction
every Tuesday from 7-8:30pm
at Toledo Hospital at the Kellermeyer Education Center
and on on Thursday from 7-8:30pm at
Epworth United Methodist Church (4855 W. Central Ave.)
“When something is working for us [in recovery], you don’t stop doing it. You do more of it.”
I’m still sitting in the back of the support group, but Todd Crandell’s words echo throughout the room. The lively discussion pauses, and everyone marinates in his advice: “do more of it.”
Doing more has been the 49-year-old’s philosophy since he founded Racing for Recovery in 2001. The 501©(3) non-profit organization was the first of its kind to offer support for
families and substance abusers in a unique environment. Part of Racing for Recovery’s philosophy is based on Crandell’s belief that people who suffer substance use disorder are naturally intense people who should find positive outlets for their energy.
“I’ve taken a negative addiction and turned it into a new focus that encompases a variety of things; family, fitness, faith, education, giving back, nutrition… [People with addictions] are putting so much effort into killing ourselves, if you take that same effort into bettering yourself, you’ll get better.”
For Crandell, recovery meant running marathons. For other members of the group, it means art, music, or other positive outlets. “They have talents that they stop doing because of addiction,” he said.
His organization encourages them to pick those passions back up and build a healthy, happy lifestyle where they can thrive and prosper. “It’s what they deserve.”
“We have an epidemic of people that are hurting, not just with heroin. I don’t want people to forget that it’s a form of self destruction, and heroin is the latest and greatest form of doing that.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Crandell encourages everyone to introduce themselves— who they are, not through a proclamation of their addiction. Knowing who each member is, and why they are there, is the first step to recovery.
“I want people to know that they have to understand how they got to where they currently are before they begin to figure out how to get out and stay out.”
In addition to counseling, intervention, online support and mentoring services,
over 200 people attend Racing for Recovery support groups,
offered seven days a week at their newly-opened building at
6202 Trust Dr. | Holland
410-824-8462 | Racingforrecovery.org
Later in the meeting, a man in his late 20s who seemed to be a regular thanked the group for their help,
“I’ve looked up the word in the dictionary— The definition never really seemed to capture it…. To me, ‘grace’ means living your life the way God meant for it to be lived. I think I’m finally doing that.”
Something about finding God in this room makes sense. While I’ve always slept in on Sundays, it is hard not to feel the hands of divine intervention when you’re surrounded by people who are unified through tragedy.
With or without helping hands, the resilience of everyone fighting for recovery is evidence of the human spirit. This isn’t a new lesson, but support groups show us can that the part of us that takes us so low also elevates us and pushes us to thrive.
Who could possibly sit still when they’re reminded of that?
If you or a loved one are suffering from an opiate addiction, please seek help.
An online, community resource, Help With Heroin, provides a service directory, treatment assistance and additional information for those living in NW Ohio and SE Michigan.
Visit helpwithheroin.com for more information,
or call 419-213-6582 for assistance with treatment.
For additional concerns, Lucas County Sheriff‘s Office Drug Abuse Response Team (D.A.R.T.) program responds to public health and safety concerns by directly engaging victims and their families by supporting treatment.
For questions, they are also avilable at 419-213-6582.
In case of emergency or overdose, please dial 911.